The Joy of Gathering

These last few years, I have learned the deep joy of gathering with people. Being in other people’s presence, whether they are dear friends or new acquaintances, is vital. Our ability to come together and share in experiences, support one another through life’s transitions, and celebrate our collective journey is an invaluable marker of how we follow Jesus daily. 

In recent years, sociologists, medical professionals, and journalists have chronicled the rise of a “loneliness epidemic” in the United States. According to an NPR All Things Considered report from May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, “about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” Studies show we have fewer close relationships and weaker social bonds than previous generations, which leads researchers to conclude that we are drifting further apart. This impacts our health in many ways. The report added that the “physical consequences of poor connection can be devastating, including 29% increased risk of heart disease; a 32% increased risk of stroke; and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.” 

The consequences of loneliness are immense; therefore, a renewed appreciation for and attention to the “art of gathering” is essential for us as we seek health and wholeness together as God’s people. I notice the benefits of connection and social gathering when I look at my 8-year-old son or my 60-something-year-old parents. In each case, these people I love dearly are more apt to thrive when they connect with peers, friends, and family. Asher thirsts for friend connections during these summer months away from school. Gratefully, he’s established a little group of buddies from his elementary school and participation at St. James that have forged strong bonds early in his life that bring the joy of connection. I see the same in my parents, as they share stories of connecting with other retired friends in their town, share the joy of gathering with us and our dear friends, and maintain lifelong connections with their siblings and extended family. 

When we combine these studies with the statistical decline the church in America is experiencing, we see how important it is for us to maintain and strengthen the social bonds in communities like ours at St. James. Friends, we are incredibly fortunate to have a connected church body. I see it on Sunday mornings, when longtime members welcome fresh visitors to our community with open arms, helping them integrate and begin to participate. I see the joy of gathering at the Bellingham Bell’s game (see the photo above), where young and old meet to enjoy the summer pastime. (I can attest that many St. James attendees did NOT watch the game this month but rather enjoyed playing and laughing together in the bleachers…as it should be). 

Have you felt this sense of connection, or are you feeling disconnected? One of the many struggles the church in America faces is helping forge new relationships that create solid bonds of connection. We face an uphill fight — as social connections weaken, people start to distrust institutions and believe they do not belong anywhere. I find this example most poignant every year when we attend the Bellingham LGBTQIA+ Pride events — people are repeatedly (and pleasantly) surprised to see churches participating…which is great, but also tells the story that we have so long isolated ourselves from such gatherings that it is now remarkable when we do show up. 

Historically, the church has been a force for strengthening and upholding social bonds, all facilitated by our practice of gathering. This August, during our 3-church Pulpit Swap, we will study Hebrews 10:23-25, which reminds us to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” The search for connection is an age-old issue for humanity. The people of Jesus celebrate our ability to gather and encourage it. 

This month, I encourage you to (re)connect with a friend. Find a way to spend time together. Go for a walk, host a meal, go to a baseball game, sit together at church. Renew and forge new social bonds, for it is in these bonds of friendship that we are able to be the face of Jesus Christ to one another, which is, of course, part of our mission in the world. 

Grace and peace,

Pastor Seth 

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