Why Political Correctness is back

feminist-tweetsI don’t have much to say about Jonathan Chait’s recent missive against the new wave of political correctness. The debate he sparked has followed predictable lines: most lefties deny the problem or downplay it, adding a healthy dose of ad hominem against Chait to build their case (he’s not a true leftie, he’s said bad things in the past, and he’s a white guy, so case closed.) Debating the merits of these accusations is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. Even if individual examples can be dismissed, the totality of the evidence proves that the problem exists.

I’d like to focus instead on a debate that unfolded between fellow lefties Freddie deBoer and Angus Johnston. Both bloggers are worth your time, but to state briefly, deBoer argues that political correctness is a major problem that is stifling free speech and preventing would-be activists from joining liberal causes, while Johnston is much more optimistic and finds the issues Chait and deBoer raise overblown and easily addressed within an in-group setting. If the dynamics of this exchange sound familiar to you, it’s because this debate is a carbon copy of the ongoing missives between ex-churchgoers listing the reasons the church has failed us, and the Christians chiding them for leaving the fold.

Johnston has adopted a social justice version of The Gospel Coalition position: activist organizations are great, people are welcoming, and you just need to make an effort to be respectful in order to fit in. If there’s a problem or you feel unwelcome, it’s likely your fault.

deBoer is taking the Benjamin Corey position: activist organizations are unwelcoming, cliquish, and thick with their own coded language that separates rather than unites. If there’s a problem and you feel unwelcome, then maybe it’s the organization’s fault after all. (If you’re skeptical of my take, skim over Corey’s first nine bullet points about why people are leaving churches and switch out “leave church” with “quit activism” or “quit being allies.” The similarities are astonishing.)

While it makes sense for churches and activist groups to set behavioral expectations, it’s worth asking why liberal activists sweat the small stuff so much (and invent small stuff to sweat over). I’ve worked with both conservative and liberal activists over the years (sometimes concurrently), and I believe that the answer can be found within the culture of activist groups themselves.

We live in an age when women’s health clinics are being shut down at an unprecedented rate, yet there is little effort to reverse this trend. Activists seem to care more about making sure reporters get quotes from women of color in articles about the closing of health clinics than whether the clinics themselves stay open. Rather than fight for gay housing and employment rights, they focus on making sure activists say “cisgender” instead of “straight.” Instead of fighting to reverse the trend of cutting programs that support the disabled, activists waste time scolding people for using the word “disabled.”

I believe that the cause of all this infighting over political correctness is an underlying pessimism among liberal activists. By and large, activists do not believe that abortion rights are salvageable in the short term (due mainly to the conservative make up of the higher courts, and the rightward swing of state and federal governments.) Most do not believe that global warming will be reversed because oil companies and climate change deniers wield too much power. The battle for racial equality mimics the misfortunes of gun control advocates: a tragic shooting happens, then a big media flare up follows. Protests, grassroots energy, and hope for genuine change surge. Sometimes that energy grows to the point where it looks like the Left might finally be getting its act together. But then the sound and fury fades. The media loses interest, conservatives change the terms of debate, and the Left flitters off to the next controversy or tragedy. With few exceptions, the momentum is on the conservative side.

Some of this pessimism is warranted. By design the modern Left attempts to stand up for the powerless, so the people they’re advocating for lack the resources to sustain their cause. It’s a lot easier to defend billionaires than the poor. The decline of unions and blue collar liberals has led to greater dependance on academia and young people. This adds up to a largely unreliable voting base that lacks resources and the self-discipline to sustain political causes beyond 4-year presidential election cycles. An aging population coupled with rising costs of college may deal another major blow.

So that leaves us with the kind of activism that young people with short attention spans can sustain. Activism that can win small victories with minimal effort. Activism that people suffering the weight of massive debt and time-consuming jobs can participate in. And yes, activism that can often bring positive results.

Language has proven to be the easiest thing to police online. What begins as noble intentions (be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences) and clear cut goals almost everyone can get on board with (racism and misogyny suck) easily morphs into the bullying campaigns deBoer and others describe: someone famous says something ignorant. So you spread the word, call them out for it and get them to recant. With a few days’ work, you’ve helped communicate your message globally, established your reasoning, and discouraged others from using the same language. Often this creates positive change, but it’s usually superficial change, and it creates the illusion of genuine political victories.

As these quick successes multiply, in-group expectations intensify. Some of these are positive (like pointing out that women of color have lacked a voice in feminism) while others are negative (like condemning anti-war veterans for using masculine language to express their frustration with the military-industrial complex.)

Instead of acknowledging that people who travel in different social and economic circles will not be familiar with their in-group language, activists attempt to transfer the environment of their online community into the real world, full of people who don’t tweet or don’t have time for their meetings or learning their lingo. So you end up with the same alienating dynamic evangelicals experience when they try to use Christianese in public, except liberals resent the fact that people aren’t hip to their lingo more than evangelicals do.

As a result, even the best ideas become unwieldy and incapable of being translated to non-academic circles. Does anyone believe that your average fifty-something blue collar Dad with a GED diploma could ever get his mouth around the phrase “reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative stereotypes of women,” even if he’s a lifelong Democrat?) So instead of translating their ideas for the public, the public is expected to learn activist’s language. The whole process is so convoluted that you end up with situations like the ones deBoer describes, where people just give up rather than risk offending people, even when they mean well and want to contribute.

Matthew Paul Turner’s 38 Theses

matthew-paul-turner1Matthew Paul Turner recently posted a nice list of 38 inspirational suggestions for the Church. It’s a nice list of values and actions he would like to see it embrace. While I agree with most of them, there are some suggestions that I see as problematic.

Let me state up front that I get that these are supposed to be inspirational ideas, not specific agenda items. Most of my qualms are in regards to their application rather than the idea itself. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to skip over those that I’m on board with:

2) The Church needs to sober of its addiction to cool and/or its addiction of trying to be cool. We weren’t called to be cool or to pursue cool. Our addiction to that end is sucking us dry of meaning, depth, and future relevance. Besides, the Church isn’t cool, especially when its trying to be.

There are few things more cringe-worthy than seeing a Christian try to be cool. We’ve all endured pastors who try to use a pop culture reference in a sermon that reveals just how out of touch they are. But every element of our worship tradition was new at one time. What has deep meaning now was once a head-scratching change that lots of people probably didn’t get or feel comfortable with. The church constantly fumbles in its attempts to be relevant, but sometimes these attempts stick. Contemporary worship was a deliberate attempt to appeal to people who found liturgical services stuffy and dull. It’s been so successful that many Christians have never experienced any other kind of service.

8) The Church should be known more for celebrating and experiencing the mysteries of God as opposed to learning and reciting humanity’s definitions of God.

I’m not sure what Matthew’s getting at here. It sounds like he’s critiquing the Catholic Catechism, but I need to hear more.

11) The Church should stop fighting a war against religion and embrace the fact that we are a part of religion, that not all religion is bad, and that sometimes religion (in its myriad of forms) can actually be spiritually helpful for some believers.

I assume that he’s referring to evangelical rhetoric that Christianity isn’t really a religion, but a life-changing commitment. To me that line was always nothing more than a marketing strategy. I agree that it’s nonsensical, but I don’t think it amounts to a war against religion.

12) The Church should stop creating enemies out of people with whom it disagrees.

I agree completely, with one minor quibble. There’s a tendency for liberal Christians to criticize evangelicals for their adversarial mentality and miss the fact that they’re doing the same thing. I’m guilty of this, too.

13) The Church should be known for creating/engaging space, time, and practice for helping people connect to the God of the Universe.

As I see it, this idea conflicts with #2. If the church isn’t helping people connect to God, then it needs to try out new approaches, and this will inevitably lead to attempts at coolness.

15) The Church should be defined by the teachings of Christ more so than the theologies of Paul, the Apostle.

This is one of those tricky ideas that sounds good in spirit but becomes difficult to apply. No matter what denomination one subscribes to, most of our theology comes from Paul. Without him Jesus remains a great prophet whose teachings only apply to Jewish people.

22) The Church should evaluate and/or rethink its role among its community, seeking to serve the greater good of all people regardless of their creed, origins, or orientation.

 

27) The Church should seek to bring glory to God through worship, confession, prayer, and pursuit of the common good.

While I find postmodernism problematic, I do believe that there’s some merit to the deconstructionist approach to language. The premise that individuals apply their own meaning to language makes sense to me. (The Wikipedia article gives a good example: “Words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. ‘Red’ means what it does only by contrast with ‘blue’, ‘green’, etc“). If I state that I bought a red car, you might envision a slick sporty red corvette, while your husband might envision a beat up old Volkswagen.  

The problem with the idea of a “greater good” or the “common good” is that everyone interprets the concept differently. Few people attend a church that they believe isn’t already serving the greater good. One church might define the community’s greater good as trying to convert as many people as possible, while other churches may interpret it as respecting all religious beliefs.

29) The Church should seek out ways to engage God’s resurrection story here on Earth.

This is another idea that I think needs further explanation.

Overall, I commend Matthew for coming up with a good list. But it’s deceptively easy to read some of these suggestions and come away with the belief that the church is already doing these things, or that a more conservative theology would accomplish these goals better than a liberal theology. Obviously this isn’t his intention, but that’s why we need to take the next step and work out how these goals would be carried out in real life.

Millennials Need Honesty

willow_performance2Why are Millennials fleeing the church?

For a lot of people that’s a worn out topic, but it’s crucial one that gets haggled over precisely because no one has come up with a satisfying answer.

Drew Dykes (managing editor of the Christian publication Leadership Journal) has a few thoughts on the issue that warrant some reflection. His main thesis is that churches need to foster intergenerational relationships and stop chasing after the latest fads. But it’s within his secondary points that I find more to chew on.

To begin with, I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Dykes’ books, so my response may cover concerns he’s addressed elsewhere. But if we’re going to examine the problem seriously, then we need to make a distinction between people who’ve left the faith and those who’ve simply left the church.

Consciously or not, most of the prescriptions offered by pastors and columnists are concerned with ex-christians. This explains why the majority of analysts from the pastoral persective emphasize suggest a strategy that emphasizes the Gospel and doubling down on traditional theology. The unspoken assumption is the people leaving these churches are leaving congregations that have failed on these fronts.

But for Millennials who’ve left the church but remain faithful, their concerns are explicitly political. The problem isn’t whether the Gospel is preached, it’s the political conclusions the church has derived from it.

Let’s take a person who’s left the church because of its views on homosexuality as an example. Now discussion and listening are fine, but ultimately one side had to budge. To get that person to return, the church needs to either change its views on homosexuality or persuade her to change her beliefs.

Let me emphasize that this isn’t just a theological question. People aren’t just rejecting the church’s Biblical view of homosexuality, they’re also rejecting the political noise that surrounds it, like conversion therapy, negative propaganda about gays (gays make bad parents or are inclined to pedophilia), and campaigns against gays (see Arizona’s recent right to discriminate bill.) They’re rejecting Christians who cheer on Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and favor candidates who promise to fight against gay marriage.

I know plenty of conservatives who believe that homosexuality is immoral, but they still won’t darken a church doorway because they think Christians are obsessed with the issue. You can win the theological argument and still fail to bring people back to church. .

And let’s face it: a big part of the problem is that churches equate loss of political leverage with loss of their rights. It’s fair to ask whether they want Millennials back for their value in the church body, or whether it’s just to have fresh blood to fight the culture wars.

The perception outside of the Evangelical bubble is that Christians have more influence now than they did eight years ago: womens’ health clinics are being shuttered, the Tea Party (which, like it or not, is equated with evangelical Christianity) has shut down the government and exercises greater control over the Republican party than ever, and instead of reaching out to minorities, evangelicals have broadcast loud and clear that they resent them.

Now I’m sure many are saying that I’m conflating Republican politics with the church. That’s because people outside the Christian bubble view them as one and the same. Aside from a few voices in the wilderness like Jim Wallis, it is safe to say that the political positions the Republican party stands for are the political goals the church advocates. A Republican political victory is viewed as an evangelical victory, so no one outside of Christians themselves believes that they’ve lost power. What they do believe is that down the road Christians will lose power by virtue of demographic trends. But not yet

While Dykes deserves kudos for recognizing that Millennials are waiting to get married and hold off having kids, the question then becomes whether the church wants those Millennials as is, or whether they intend to get them married and pregnant asap. Can the twenty-something woman who has no intention of having kids feel comfortable in a women’s Bible study, or will the women try to get them to conform to the nuclear family model? If the latter is true, then the church needs to be up front about it, and realize that most Millennials will recognize the insincerity involved (i.e. “I like you who you will become if you listen to me, not who you are now.)

I’m not going to go the usual route and suggest that churches change their theology in order to bring people back into the fold. That’s not going to happen. What I would suggest is that they be more honest with themselves and concede what everyone else sees: they are fixated on homosexuality, and they do consider it a bigger deal than other sins. If they want to make a theological case to justifying it, then do so. But don’t deny the fixation.

And finally, admit that a major reason why they want to bring Millenials back to the church is the desire to undo the social values and family trends Millennials reflect. It’s a strategic goal to change marital patterns, pregnancy rates, and reverse multicultural acceptance. Again, make a theological case if you like, but don’t pretend that you’re interested in Millennials as they are now. Admit that the fear of being a cultural minority is directly tied to the desire to reacquire the social leverage you used to have, and saving Millennial souls holds more value to you in the present than they will in the afterlife.

What Does Suey Park Want?

stephen-colbert-cancelcolbertBy now, anyone who cares to know about Suey Park‘s twitter crusade to cancel The Colbert Report has probably formed an opinion on it. I’m not that interested in taking a side on the issue, since other people have stated their case more eloquently than I can. Instead, I’d like to take a step back and offer my thoughts on the bigger picture.

1. If you’re not using twitter as your last, desperate means of communication to help overthrow an oppressive regime, then you’re not a Twitter activist.

Aside from its value in organizing high stakes protests in Iran and the Middle East, Twitter functions as a means for corporate promotions, social networking, and Mean Girls-style backbiting. It’s also a pretty good way to acquire 15 minutes of fame.

But activism? If someone pulls off a successful political campaign using Twitter exclusively,(meaning they get the results they want, not just drawing attention to their cause), then I’ll concede that there is such a thing as a Twitter activist.

2. Let’s be honest: the reason people aren’t taking her seriously isn’t her gender, ethnicity, or intellect. It’s her age. And like it or not, age matters.

I’m not saying that young adults don’t have anything of value to say or that they can’t offer important insights and ideas, but there’s a reason why people tend to be dismissive of them.

While I’m not a fan of his politics, columnist Jonah Goldberg summarized this phenomenon perfectly when he stated that:

Alas, the thrill that comes with the novelty of youth tends to delude a lot of young people. Often, they convince themselves that just because they’ve thought of something for their first time they believe they’ve thought of it for the first time, period. This translates into a kind of arrogance where some kids think no one else can really understand something as well as they can.

Young people have a hard time believing that their parents and grandparents looked at the world with the same outrage and passion when they were 23. And no matter how stridently Suey believes in her cause, odds are she’ll follow their same pattern. The real world has a way of resetting priorities by making things like raising a family and getting a job one’s priority. And once that happens, it’s very difficult to rekindle the passions of one’s activist days – if they even feel the same way.

I’ve lived in a college town for 30 years, and I’ve witnessed an endless cycle of young adults like her who think they’ve latched onto a revolutionary movement that will change the world. I was one of them. But while I admire their enthusiasm and even share some of their political aims, most of them are too immature or insecure to use their energy effectively. Suey is a great example of this: she’s managed to draw attention to her cause by piggybacking on another cause, and when given the chance to articulate her concerns, she’s all sound and fury without much to say except complain about the status quo.

3. If you’re going to be an activist, then act like one. Don’t make your cause about yourself. That’s narcissism.

On a strategic level, Suey has erred by using her forum as a confessional as much as a political soap box. And because people are cataloguing her personal struggles, she’s giving them fodder to detract from her message and question her motivations. If she wants to be an actjvist, then she should get out of the proverbial basement and and make things happen. Hashtags have the shelf life of a polonium halo.

4. There’s been some debate whether she should have expected the backlash she’s received. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Colbert putting her photo on TV was a horrible thing to do. That’s a bizarre argument given that the image Colbert used was the profile photo from her twitter feed, and it was the photo used for the dozens of articles written about her. What’s more, Park has done a number of podcast interviews that reach millions more people than Colbert does. If Suey wanted privacy along with her activism, then she would have declined podcast interviews or requested that her image be pixelated. Claiming that she hasn’t explicitly strived to get her name and image into mainstream currency is patently absurd.

That said, it does suck that women are so often subjected to misogynisitic insults and threats when they speak out about causes they care about. But I don’t think the repulsive behavior of anonymous trolls nullifies counterpoints to her arguments.

5. Suey should be able to answer the same question all activists should ask themselves: what do they ultimately want? What is her long term goal? Is it to end discrimination against Asians? Is it to end white privilege forever? Is it simply to get satirists to be more considerate of their targets? This was her answer when Salon asked for her goals:

I wanted to hit the irony and inability of the left to deal with their own racism. I think as a result of the white ally industrial complex, for too long people of color have been asked to censor whiteness, they have been asked to educate their oppressor, they have been asked to use the right tone, and appease their politics in order to be heard. And in an effort to just contribute to the self-improvement of white allies that are often times just racist. So I think it’s kind of like pulling a blanket off the façade of progressivism. It forces people to deal with those conversations about race that go beyond micro-aggression and that go beyond being politically correct, to what it means to uproot racism in its entirety.

To me, this is where a lot of liberal causes fail. Their goal is too vague or too utopian. A pro-lifer has a simple, tangible goal: end abortion. They have definable steps they can take to end it. Same with people protesting the Keystone XL. The success or failure of their goal hinges in whether the XL gets built.

I’m not sure how Sue’s vision would play out in reality, and the more she explained it, the more absurd it became:

The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are … that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure. But any example like that.

So in Suey’s view, what does it success look like? Is it an end to racial humor? An end to white privilege? An end to white people weighing in on racial topics in any manner? What does it mean to uproot racism in its entirety? How does she plan to go about that?

I’m curious as to how she would answer these questions. At this stage though I figure she’s 23 and she still hasn’t formed plausible goals to match her visceral distaste for the status quo.

Rachel Held Evans Says Goodbye

Rachel-Held-EvansRachel Held Evans made a seismic announcement today:

But I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change.

While it’s not as drastic as if she announced a shift to agnosticism, I suspect that Rachel’s going to lose a large faction of her audience and her influence. I’ve always been a big fan of her, but Rachel’s main appeal to the masses has always been that she’s a role model for a different kind of evangelical, an alternative for millennials and Gen X’ers that confirmed that they could remain within the evangelical fold while they seek to transform it.

Now Rachel becomes a cautionary tale, and within the evangelical subculture it will be one that young people will have a very hard time refuting. Whereas before a teenager could point to one of her blog posts and show a youth pastor that not all evangelicals think the way he does, now that youth pastor has two counter arguments: she’s not an evangelical, and she left the faith.

So rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion, those who have, for whatever reason, been “farewelled.”

Now I’m not saying that Rachel is no longer a Christian, or that her credibility has been damaged. But within a culture that only reads books by evangelical authors and never glances at anything written by a mainliner (save for CS Lewis) or Catholics, Rachel has cast herself far out of the universe where she had the most influence. That young evangelical who wants to use Rachel Held Evans as proof that there are liberal evangelicals can’t use her as an example anymore, and odds are she won’t even be on their radar:

For many years, I felt that part of my call as a writer and blogger of faith was to be a different sort of evangelical, to advocate for things like gender equality, respect for LGBT people, and acceptance of science and biblical scholarship within my community.  But I think that perhaps I became more invested in trying to “fix” evangelicalism (to my standards! oh the hubris!) than in growing Kingdom.  And as helpful as I know that work has been for so many of you, I think it’s time to take a slightly different approach.

I respect the fact that Rachel has taken time to reflect n her motives and reassess her goals. It’s Rachel’s life, her choices, and her walk with God. and I’m not trying to tell her how to worship or what to think. But I think shedding the evangelical label, even if it was just a label, will damage the liberal voice within evangelical churches.” You can’t cite Rachel anymore,” conservatives will say, “She’s not one of us. She’s confirmation of their slippery slope arguments. Stay away from that thinking lest you drift away from the faith.” For a culture that views anyone who leaves the evangelical church with leaving the big “C” Church,  Rachel joins Rob Bell and other former evangelicals as evidence that you can’t be liberal and stay in the faith.

6 Good Questions About Singles And The Church Pt 2

014a71524333b2e3da7ccadfa7a9d6ebThis is the second part of my response to Kate Hurley’s post at The Sexy Celibate. I’ll jump right into the rest of her questions:

3. Have you ever felt ashamed for feeling so much grief over being single? 

Here’s where my church experience diverges from most singles. I’ve never gotten grief over being single. I’ve never been asked when I’m going to get married, why I’m not married, or had people in my church play matchmaker for me.

I’m sure my gender has a lot to do with it, but I’ve seen other single men get the typical comments and questions most singles face. The difference was my attitude. When I decided to start attending church again in the early 2000’s, I explicitly decided to not make my singleness part of my identity. I would not let my marital status become part of the conversation people had about me. I made no attempt to join singles ministries (and the church did have a college-oriented singles ministry) or associate with them (due to my hilariously dysfunctional experiences with Christian singles.)

So when I joined a Bible Study, I joined a married couples’ Bible Study. That group had its own share of problems, but the bottom line was that I could relate to them better than I could other singles. I made a point to befriend the married couples and invite them over for dinner. I overcame the stigma of being single by not acting like I was single. The end result was exactly as I had planned: no one thought much about the fact that I wasn’t married because I didn’t seem preoccupied with it. As a former Elder in my church said, people never worried about it because I seemed happy to be where I was in life.

4. Have you had experiences in your church body or with your pastor where you felt seen and validated? 

Absolutely. My strategy of not acting like a single person led me to all kinds of opportunities most singles missed out on. I served as deacon for eight years and chaired three different ministries over the course of six years. And I know that most churches would not have given my those opportunities due to my singleness. But I also knew that the image I projected erased most peoples’ concerns over my singleness.

5. Have you ever struggled with being a leader in your church or in ministry because you are single?

No. For the reasons I listed above, I overcame the stigma by avoiding the singles crowd in church. If I didn’t seem to care about being single, the congregation didn’t seem to care, either.

6. What can we do to give a voice to single people in the church?

Here’s where I’ll loop back to my answer to Hurley’s first question. Unless your  church is founded by young Christians or is largely dependent on singles,  you do not matter. Singles are viewed as people caught in a temporary phase in their lives. The stereotype is that they lack the discipline, maturity, and dedication of married couples, therefore since few people can relate to the needs and experiences of singles, they are easily dismissed.

I think this blanket disregard for singles explains the hostility we’ve seen towards Millennials. For most churches Millennials represent youth, singleness, and staving off marriage. That messes with their expectations of how we’re supposed to live our lives, and they resent that cultural shift. I’ve noticed a number of pastors have tried to promote getting married earlier so they can reverse this trend.

If singles want a voice, then they need to do three things: show up on Sunday mornings in droves, volunteer your time, and tithe regularly. A church’s attitude towards singles won’t shift unless the demographics of the congregation shift significantly. I’ve seen it happen with married couples, too. Back when I first joined the church I served in for eleven years, the ministries were geared towards young couples. Then the young couples got older, their kids grew up, and the ministries shifted to serve middle-aged couples. When there was a big surge of young married couple in our church in the early 2010’s, the church reverted back to young couple focus.

And by the way, tithing doesn’t matter because church leadership is greedy. It matters because the biggest tithers hold the most power. In many churches the most entrenched members of the congregation hold more power than the pastor or Elders. If they don’t like the direction the church is going they can (and sometimes do) threaten to withhold their donations and send the church spiraling into a financial collapse. if singles want more of a say, then they’ll have to donate at level where their contribution equals or exceeds what the married couples give.

6 Good Questions About Singles And The Church

SINGLES++Original+Motion+Picture+SoundtrackKate Hurley at The Sexy Celibate has a good post about singles in the church. This is a topic that I’ve danced around on my blog.  I’ve catalogued my misadventures as a single Christian, and my identification with the Millennials’ grievances against the church is partially rooted in my shared singleness.

While I can certainly identify with a number of Hurley’s frustrations with being a single person in church culture, I’d like to focus on the six questions at the end of her post:

1. Do you think that there is a bias towards married people in the church or am I overstating the problem?

One thing I’ve come to terms with in recent years is the profound degree that for most churches, if you’re single, then you do not matter. That might sound overly pessimistic, but trust me when I say that I am understating my fatalism.  Fair warning, though: in spite of my outlook, I do see a lot of legitimate reasons why singles find themselves ostracized.

By and large churches are geared towards married couples, and philosophically that won’t change. The exception would be youth-oriented congregations and parachurch organizations geared towards singles.

2. Why do you think singles are often unintentionally overlooked in the church?

First of all, I don’t think it’s unintentional. I think some churches just plain don’t know what to do with singles.  There are either too few of them to make an impact on the congregational culture, or they are only superficially involved with the church. This is a chicken-and-egg quandary, of course: are singles less involved because they’re less invested in church, or are they less involved because churches are less invested in them?

I know that there are many singles who are deeply committed to the church. But the truth is that the risk-reward balance for any church committed to singles ministries isn’t good. If you build a VBS ministry, the children will come. If you build a ministry geared towards married women,  the wives will come. But if you build a Singles’ ministry, there’s a lot of uncertainty whether any will come.

I’ve said before that part of the problem is that Singles Ministries are dysfunctional by design. Underlying them is a tension between the desire for singles to meet that Special Someone, and the squeamishness the church has towards facilitating a meat market. And singles share that tension. Some people genuinely want fellowship with people in their life stage, but many want more, and generally these factions don’t trust each other.

Another problem can be the age of singles. If you attend a church full of college students but you’re a thirty-something single, you’re just plain not going to fit in with them. Not only can you not relate to them, but people will try to squash any budding romance between singles of such a wide age disparity.

Finally, another big issue is money. Like it or not, the fact is that even if you’re a dedicated tither, odds are your monthly check to the church pales in comparison to the 4-figure donation the fiftysomething married  couple gives. Married couple earn more, donate more, and they are much more reliable tithers. And the fact is that the more impact you have on your church’s budget, the more likely your church will have ministries catered to your needs.

I’ll address questions 3 to 6 in Part 2.