I've spent a fair amount of time sitting alone at church recently. I'm part of a new congregation my church just launched, a smaller gathering of a little more than 100 people. Several of my close friends, my usual Sunday morning companions, are back at the main campus. And I'm still in the process of establishing regular sit–bys at the new location.
I've been in this place before. When I first moved to this area, I meandered into several churches, sitting alone amidst the happy chatter, looking around and trying to recognize if this was my new Sunday morning home. It took a certain amount of energy to walk into these places of worship by myself. I usually took a seat toward the back so I could take it all in, and so I wouldn't feel like a little deserted island in the middle of a sea of warm community.
During friend shifts, when several close friends have moved or switched to their boyfriend's or new husband's church, I've found myself alone in the pew again. It's a weird sensation to feel lonely in a church you've attended for years, but that's where I've found myself on occasion—feeling like I'm at a junior high dance with my awkward "Is this seat taken?" and "Mind if I sit by you and your family next Sunday?" questions. I'm renegotiating my seat in God's living room.
We all know the odd ache of feeling alone in a crowd. And the last place we want to feel this is in the body of Christ. This is as close as we get to home this side of our eternal home, with all the saints gathered to praise and learn and struggle and grow together.
But much as I'm loath to admit it, I'm learning I need these occasional Sunday morning alone times. They form and shape me in ways I need.
How many times have I driven to church, mind filled with thoughts of friends I hoped to connect with, certain guys I hoped to run into? Thoughts of duties to perform as a greeter or nursery worker. Brainstorms of where to eat lunch with friends after the service. And not one notion that I was on my way to meet with God. That I was making this trip, yes, to connect with other members of his family, but also to give him glory, seek his forgiveness, hear his words, and hopefully be shaped closer to the image of Christ.
Surrounded by empty seats on a Sunday morning, I'm more free to focus on the point. The Cross. My sin. Amazing grace. When I allow it, these truths and realities fill the empty spaces around me, and I'm reminded of Psalm 139:5, "You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me."
On some solo Sundays, that hand laid upon me is so present. On others, when I simply feel the void, I'm reminded of how much I need that touch. As a longtime Christian who sometimes can take grace and mercy for granted, I need to feel that need at times. In that manner, the lonely ache is a gift.
I've also found that sitting–alone seasons have opened my eyes to others alone on Sunday morning. At a recent church service, I slipped in at the last minute near another woman sitting alone. During our mix–and–mingle moments of the service, I made a beeline for her and discovered I'd caught her on her first Sunday at our church. It was a treat to welcome Gayle and get her connected with someone who could answer her questions about small groups. We even wound up having a mutual friend in the area.
One Sunday a couple months ago, I introduced myself to another woman sitting alone. It turned out this woman, Valerie, and her husband, who was out of town that weekend, were new to our church and new to the area. I introduced her to my friend Margaret, who'd arrived late and was sitting a few rows behind us, and we all chatted at length after the service about ministries at our church and great local coffee shops. The following week the woman made a point of introducing me to her husband, Kevin, and he made a point of mentioning how excited Valerie had been to meet potential new friends. A few weeks later, we all went to lunch, Valerie, Kevin, Margaret, and me—enjoying new friendship connections I'm not sure we would have made if I hadn't been keyed in on people sitting alone on Sunday mornings.
I love the way God takes these little pieces of lonely and brokenness and weaves something beautiful. That's why whenever I find myself facing one of the tough parts of the single existence, I often pray for God to meet me there. Not only to meet the need or alleviate the pain however he sees fit, but also to teach me and form me in the process. I love that he doesn't waste a thing. That nothing is too big or small for his redeeming grace.
This past Sunday I sat next to Gayle and my friend Michelle, a newly single mom whose kids were with her ex for the weekend. I enjoyed that warm togetherness feeling—the fun of rolling eyes together when the pastor made a joke and intertwining voices to praise our Father. Our Father.
I think I'm on my way to a new Sunday morning rhythm. I'm grateful, but I also take the lessons of this season with me—as I keep my eyes open for God's rich presence, and for others I can invite to sit next to me in it.