Eleanor Rigby may not be the best song by The Beatles but it has to be the most underrated. Rolling Stone magazine ranked Rigby as their 22nd best song twenty spots behind I Want To Hold Your Hand; this is practically criminal. Eleanor Rigby is memorable, profound, dreamy, and a bit chilling. Unlike some of the other cerebral songs written by Lennon and McCartney, the meaning of this song is fairly straightforward. Rigby tells the story of a lonely woman fantasizing of a beautiful wedding she never had and the lonely pastor who painstakingly prepares to preach Eleanor’s unattended funeral. Amidst this short story The Beatles keep observing all the lonely people and wondering where these lonely people come from or belong. The answers of course are that lonely people are all around us and sadly our society has not allowed them to belong anywhere. The song seeks to provide no real solution to this dark reality, but there has always been a place for the lonely people to belong or at least there should have always been.
Over the past month or so I have written a few articles comparing Next Generation ministry in the broadly evangelical American church to John Piper’s signs of Prosperity Gospel. This article sort of continues that series as a short excurses in hopes to make this a little more personal. In our subtle everyday Evangelical prosperity gospel that I have previously argued exists, where do the lonely people belong?
In my most recent sermon I mentioned a misguided “Christian Counselor” who told me that people with certain types of mental illness shouldn’t go to church because church is not a safe place for them. I STRONGLY disagreed with his suggestion anyone shouldn’t go to church but sadly he could be right that for all the lonely people church is not where they belong.
The Christian church of the 1st century looked very different from the average Sunday morning assembly today. The preacher didn’t make sure he perfectly timed jokes based upon what he learned from communication class. The deacons weren’t wealthy business owners in three-piece suits. The music wasn’t led by a GQ model in skinny jeans. The youth pastor didn’t swallow a goldfish during the Sunday School hour. For the record none of these things (apart from the last one) are inherently bad or in any sense necessarily a compromise but nonetheless this wasn’t the church of the first century. The 1st century church grew largely from the people on the fringes; the tax collectors, women, and even slaves. 1 Corinthians 1:26-30 even shows us God chose the early church to mainly consist of the weak and lowly (though not exclusively of course). These early Christians were sufferers, even those who had some semblance of success suffered for following Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar. Two thousand years ago the Christian church would be right where Eleanor Rigby belonged and where she would find identity and family.
The statistics heavy website FiveThirtyEight a few years ago did a fairly comprehensive study of the themes in modern worship music vs hymns and concluded modern Christianity is “cotton candy” Christianity, it’s exceedingly positive and does not adequately grasp darkness in life. When modern American Christianity does attempt to address pain, sorrow, and loneliness it all to frequently comes across as shallow and lacking in substance. This kind of prosperity singing is fairly new. Generations ago the reformer Martin Luther with a penchant for deep soul consuming depression began a hymn “From the depths of woe I raise to thee the voice of lamentation.” Martin Luther’s Christianity provided a place for all the lonely people to belong, cotton candy Christianity does not.
I know of a former pastor who still intellectually believes in Christianity but has vowed to never darken the door of a church again in his lifetime. This man was chewed up and spit out by the people that call themselves Christians in ways he has never seen pagans behave. This former pastor was day in, and day out surrounded by a community that was created to give life and found it was only killing him. How many church members or church leaders even find the local church to be far more a collection of different homogenous social circles that fight dirty to maintain what makes them homogenous rather than the healing holiness community we claim to be? A friend who drifted away from the faith told me that churches that talk much of sin hurt the broken and weary. I think the opposite might be true. The only way we can really grasp the darkness that hurting people are overcome with and try to be a help is through being far more bothered by sin. Liberal and conservative churches talk about sin but typically we talk mostly about the sin outside our doors. We might rage against the sin of destroying the planet or the sin of abortion but we hardly talk about the sins that make church hard for the hurting or even the ones that cause more hurt to happen at church. If we want to be a place where Eleanor Rigby can belong we have to be a place where we gently call each other out for the respectable sins of gossip, lying, pride, anger, and selfishness. If we don’t become serious about healing ourselves into a healing community we will only have more leave because church people stab open wounds and less hurting people come in because we earn a reputation for judgementalism.
This is far from removed from next generations ministry. According to the widest studies available not only does modern youth ministry in no way decrease teen suicide rates, teens with difficult social and personal lives leave church notably earlier than their peers. This should be anything but true based upon the success of the first century church. Hurting young people frankly don’t feel the church is much of a help to them and often they feel it actually hurts them. I’m not really surprised as nearly every youth ministry I know of struggles with bullying nearly exactly along the lines found in the local high school. Struggle may in some cases unfortunately even be to strong a word as I think many youth ministries through compromise into that soft prosperity gospel actually promote adolescent social hierarchy. When I was a senior at my Christian school a local popular youth leader spoke in our chapel. At the end of the service a friend that was spiritually struggling stormed out hurt and deeply bothered. In a later conversation this friend told me he had left that man’s youth group because the most popular teens were “making my life hell” and the youth leader in his opinion was “pretending to be one of those guys who made my life hell.” In my arrogant prideful teenage angst I confronted the youth pastor and he told me he never really paid attention to this student on the lower end of the hierarchy and he wasn’t aware he had ever left. All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
I wonder if the American church even wants the Eleanor Rigbys at all or if we just don’t want the hassle and baggage all the lonely people will bring. Churchleaders.com acknowledges all the lonely people (not their term) are the people most receptive to the gospel today just like they have always been. I suspect we are all somewhat aware that the best way to reach the lost is to show the Eleanor Rigbys they can belong but when we think church growth we think very differently. If your church grows by sharing the gospel with Eleanor Rigbys not only will this fail to bring in the tithe money of “successful people” you may have to redirect financial resources to help meet the needs of new Christians that may have substantial financial and emotional struggles. A youth ministry that reaches “all the lonely people” will have to be ready to compassionately and intelligently deal with the doubts and darkness that young people frankly feel they are expected to suppress at church. To bring it back around even our music may have to be mindful of their pain and struggles. I was a teen in the early 2000’s where half of the teens were into that mopey emo music (much of which was admittedly awful). It always baffled me that churches thought they would become relevant to my generation by essentially only doing 1990’s soft rock music. Far more important than any of this, reaching the Eleanor Rigbys will often mean opening up our homes to those to whom family is not a happy word. We may not want this but honestly if the Christian church in America wants to do anything other than slowly move to the fringes, we need the Eleanor Rigbys.
I don’t know if this article will persuade any reader and it assuredly makes far less cohesive points than the rest of this series. This said, I write this as something closer to home than much of my ministry. I have been through difficulties in a recent time that left lasting scars, scars that turn me to the Psalms of Lament and the great cries of weary Christians. More importantly, I was a lonely hurting teen years ago. Both before and after coming to know Christ I was plagued by doubts that kept me up most nights and I was usually miserable throughout my teen years. I praise God that a Christian teacher told a lonely person the Gospel and that a church made a lonely person belong. When we come close to Jesus the Christian church even in its failings can embrace the Eleanor Rigbys in ways that shock the world. Let’s be the place where the hurting can find home and by doing so let’s reach this world for the Gospel of the man who was broken for the broken.