One the common complaints regarding the safety measures of quarantining and isolation to prevent the spread of Covid has been feelings of loneliness. Churches are social institutions that thrive on the interaction between congregants and those the church serve through its various mission and ministry opportunities. The desire for churches to gather is often in tension with the necessity of reasonable safety measures, creating ongoing conflicts in all levels of the institutional church experience. Gratefully, these tensions seem to be lessening as larger portions of the population have received vaccinations and more knowledge about how to prevent and treat Covid are wisely incorporated into our everyday lives.
Like many people, I have experienced seasons of loneliness. I did experience loneliness during the peak of Covid. Specifically, this past winter was a season of particular challenge, leaving me lethargic and uninspired. My neighborhood and my church are sources of life and energy and community for me. Nebraska is placed geographically in just the wrong spot for winter life. We are far enough north to experience very cold winters with the possibility of heavy snows, that can happen anytime between October and April. Yet we do not have a culture of winter activities. Hockey is not a sport we lean into much, for our preference is football. Skiing and sledding activities are not much of an option for we have no mountains. We also refuse to give into the cold, the classic Midwest trope of people wearing shorts with hooded sweatshirts in negative five-degree windchills is a common occurrence in my hometown. Mostly we just passive aggressively blame the weather for our inability to do much, then we respond by hiding in our homes eating chili and cheesy potatoes until April. During these winter months I deeply miss my neighbors and my fellow congregants, my community, because we are isolated from one another.
These supposed sources of isolation, i.e. winter or Covid, is an inaccurate perspective on my part it turns out. These moments of loneliness are not the problem but rather symptoms of the much larger theological issue of isolation that Myles Werntz helped me unpack in his new book.
Myles Werntz’s new book From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together is an excellent reframing of how isolation is more than loneliness. Isolation is actually a theological condition of the fragmented human condition as a result of sin. This observation is one learned from 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Werntz interacts with Bonhoeffer’s writings and sermons throughout From Isolation to Community as a way of revealing how isolation permeates every aspect of life and how even the church, with all its gatherings, is capable of reflecting isolation instead of community.
By way of definition, Werntz states, Isolation names a condition in which, because of sin, the human exists dived from others and from God. Because of this division, we share a common world sustained by God, but we view one another as competitors in that world, each of us closed off, threatened by all others, and sustained fundamentally by our own efforts…isolation better describes the complex way in which sin divides human beings from God and one another, distancing them from the goodness and benefit of the God who is our source and from others,…it means that, theologically, humans live in ways that are always seeking to overcome a perpetual distance between us, to restore communion where there remains rupture, and that we frequently attempt a restoration which misunderstands the problem(2-3).
In the North American context, isolation gives shape to extreme individualism. Isolation causes us to misunderstand the fullness of Christ’s redemption through the cross, empty tomb, and heavenly ascension because we tend to frame in terms of individual personal salvation. Isolation causes us to confuse crowds with community, because we imagine that if we all gather in the same place (like sanctuary or church building) we are by default a community. Yet it us as easy to be an anonymous face in a crowd as it is to be alone in your own home. Isolation causes us to imagine creation as a collection of resources to be extracted for profit, instead of an environment to be stewarded for the benefit of all. Isolation causes us to view mission and ministry as platforms to serve the other without the messiness of being brought into ongoing relationship with them.
Werntz elaborates more fully on how these and other markers are evidence of how isolation warps our ability to interact well with God, people, creation, and our very selves. To help us lean into the great commandments to love God and love others and participate in the great undoing of isolation begun in the garden, Werntz provides a way forward through a series of practices. He provides ways of renewing the common life together in the church through classic Christian community practices like observing time differently, reading scripture communally, gathering at the communion table, singing and praying together, working and playing with others, and bearing witness and engaging in mission in the world. With each practice he reveals how we can avoid leaning into these practices from a position of isolation and instead engage with intent on developing true Christ centered community. He also goes on to demonstrate how the church is still a community when scattered. How we can practice individual habits of discipleship in ways that demonstrate we continue to be shaped by our gathered practices even when we are scattered into the community and why this is theologically significant.
From Isolation to Community: A Renewed Vision for Christian Life Together is a significant work that we should meditatively read alone and in community with others. More than anything From Isolation to Community helps reframe familiar practices that can help shift the church away from perpetuating isolation and instead foster Christ centered community.