The great challenge, I wrote in my last post, for the church today is to see the people everyone else is staring through.
Vivek Murphy, U.S. Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, says, “For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”
But it’s not just health and work that are affected. Loneliness shrivels the soul. When no one is looking for us, we don’t know who we are. When no one is looking for us, we don’t know we are loved.
It’s Time for the Church to Save Face
But there is Someone looking for us. There is Someone who loves us. The church knows who that Someone is — Christ — and has been commissioned to tell the world who he is while displaying the kind of love he showed that declares we are not alone.
If the church wants to obey the Great Commission to reach the world for Christ and the Great Commandments to love God and neighbor, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.
To combat loneliness, we must recover personhood. We must save face, which is to say we must restore the face, the personhood, of individuals. We must bring a personal gospel — a gospel which sees and affirms the dignity of each human while calling them to repent and turn to Christ — to an impersonal world.
All our talk about restoring culture does nothing if we don’t first restore the people in it. “We have lots of ways of talking about renewing and restoring culture; [but] it comes down to something very simple: in this world, and in the world that’s coming, the restoration of culture is the recognition of persons,” says Andy Crouch.
Impersonal churches cannot recognize persons, though. Impersonal churches cannot reach an impersonal world because impersonal churches have nothing to offer the world it doesn’t already have.
We don’t need another place to find weak social connections, fun activities, or online content; these can be found in abundance elsewhere. We don’t need another place to be a nameless, faceless entity.
We need a place where someone is looking for us. A place where we can first hear about the God who is looking for us and then discover a family that’s looking for us — a family that sees us.
And the good news is, the church can be just that. It already has been.
The Dignity Revolution in the Early Church
In the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world to that point, early Christianity flourished. In the impersonal, imperial Roman empire, Christianity revolutionized the concept of personhood by showing people the true meaning of personhood — of being seen, known, and loved by a personal God by recognizing persons of every possible status.
The revolutionary act of the early church, says Crouch, was “to see them all and know them all by name, and name them all as brothers and sisters. Is it any wonder that the early church grew?”
This high view of personhood was not mere sentiment. One particularly moving example of how this played out in and around the church comes to us from Dionysius, who was an overseer of the church in Alexandria when it was being devastated by a plague. He records how the church responded to the persons being ravaged by the disease:
The most … of our brethren in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending to them in Christ, and so most gladly departed this life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors, and willingly taking over their pains …
In this manner the best at any rate of our brethren departed this life, certain presbyters and deacons and some of the laity. … So, too, the bodies of the saints they would take up in their open hands to their bosom, closing their eyes and shutting their mouths, carrying them on their shoulders and laying them out; they would cling to them, embrace them, bathe and adorn them with their burial clothes, and after a little while receive the same services themselves, for those that were left behind were ever following those that went before.
But the conduct of [those outside the church] was the exact opposite. Even those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads half-dead, and treat the unburied corpses as vile refuse.
In a world marked that treated sick people as garbage to be discarded, the church saw each person as a person worthy of dignity, respect, and decency.
When their community was overrun by a mass of infected, faceless people, the Christians rushed in while everyone else rushed out.
This church was not content to refer people to a third-party nonprofit or a para-church ministry — they did the ministry themselves.
And how could they not? When Christians see each person as a person, how can they not have the same kind of compassion for them that they first saw in their Master?
The best response to such love is one offered by the church father Tertullian: “See how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other!”
Seeing People for Who They Are
If the church of the 21st century wants to be faithful to Christ’s call to reach and love the world, she has to save face, to recover personhood.
She has to learn to recognize persons of every possible status.
She has to learn to see them all and know them all by name, and name them all as brothers and sisters.