20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40’s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90’s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90’s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

The Mark Driscoll Apology Saga

mark_driscollI’d like to take a break from my Biblical Slavery series and try to piece together my thoughts on the Mark Driscoll Apology Saga. Like a lot of these whirlwind controversies that spread through the blogosphere, the hype usually dies down by the time I’m ready to write something coherent about it, but in this case I haven’t quite seen the Driscoll debate tackled from my perspective yet.

So I’m going to take off the “liberal” hat that I’ve been wearing for most of my recent posts and put my “evangelical” hat back on.

I served as a Deacon at my evangelical church for about 6 years. (As an aside to newcomers: unlike many bloggers who’ve left evangelical churches, my theology and politics didn’t change over time. The liberal evangelical I am now was the same person my conservative church appointed as Deacon way back in 2005, and my views weren’t a secret to the congregation.)

During the course of the time while I served as Deacon, I served on a number of candidate searches for Elders and Deacons. For the uninitiated, here’s how this works: your Elders and Deacons didn’t appear magically out of the ether filled with certainty that God dropped them on this earth to serve their role. In most evangelical churches, a committee is appointed that’s a mix of current leaders in the church and a few laypersons to provide a voice from the congregation. Together they come up with a list of candidates for each office.

(What does this have to do with Mark Driscoll? Stay with me. I’ll explain soon…)

There are a few rules to this process: given our church’s complementarion views, only men were considered (although our Pastor did unsuccessfully push for many years to appoint deaconesses). You also couldn’t call guys up and ask them if they wanted to serve in either role. In other words, the guy who turned down serving as an Elder wouldn’t ask if he could become Deacon instead. Our goal was to always have at least one more candidate than the number of open slots that year. So if we have two “retiring” Elders, we wanted 3 candidates so the congregation would have a true vote.

Our list of candidates usually came down to about 4-6 Elder candidates and 4-8 Deacon candidates. Most of them said no. Sometimes it was because they didn’t feel led to serve, sometimes it was PTSD fro the last time they served (anyone who’s been part of church leadership during a rough patch or crisis knows that it can get very stressful.). Except for one year when morale was especially high and we had a bunch of candidates, we always barely got enough candidates to have a true election.

You learn a lot about your congregation when you serve on the election committee. Guys that you just assumed were easy choices are more complicated than they appeared to be. Some had theological disagreements or personality quirks that disqualified them. One man refused to officially join even though he’d been attending our church every Sunday for 20 years. Even though he loved our church and had no intentions of worshipping anywhere else, his refusal to sign on the dotted line as a member prevented him from being elected as a leader. Another guy was an annihilationist (i.e. he didn’t believe in hell), and another was a member of the Masons. Our leadership didn’t have a problem with that, but enough members were suspicious of the Masons, so we decided he wasn’t worth the trouble.

On the more humorous side, there was one prominent man in our church whom many people looked up to. This guy’s name was always raised when church members approached us. They’d say “Why don’t you ever nominate him?He’s a great teacher and an upstanding man!”

The truth was that every year for more than ten years he made the short list of people we’d ask, and he’s always say no. The funny part was that he had this unofficial understanding with our leadership that every year he wanted to be asked because it was reassuring for him to know that he was still highly respected. And every year we knew that he would say no. The one year we didn’t ask him, he was very upset and hurt, even though he had no intention of saying yes.

And, of course, sometimes you found out that men who seemed to be in very happy marriages were actually pretty awful to their wives. Our church was very judicious about not gossiping about those situations; I rarely heard what the issue was. But if my Pastor said that there were serious concerns about their family life or their ability to model Christlike behavior to their wives, everyone knew that was a euphemism for domestic abuse or substance abuse.

Which brings me to Mark Driscoll. One of the lessons I learned from my Elders was that it was a mistake to view church leadership as a ladder to climb. Serving as a Deacon didn’t mean you were on your way to becoming an Elder down the road; they were different roles with different gifts and qualifications. It’s possible that one might follow that track, but we strove hard to discourage that mentality. I also learned that people shouldn’t take it as an insult if they’re not asked to serve in leadership. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses, and if you have a great vision for missions or evangelism, becoming Elder may not be the best use of your abilities. My pastor was a big advocate of considering younger candidates if they fit the criteria.

And that’s the key: if they fit the criteria. I remember one year there was an incident where one of our most respected members just lost it on the ministry team he was serving with. He was frustrated with the fact that his committee wasn’t showing the same zeal and passion for his ideas that he felt, plus there were a number of difficult trials he was privately going through. And it all came out as a vicious rant against his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That was the only time anyone ever saw him lose his temper, but it was such a volcanic display that it shut down any possibility that he would be considered a viable leadership candidate unless he showed significant emotional and spiritual growth over time. And part of the growth we were looking for was a willingness to face up to that incident and apologize directly to the people he wronged.

As the years passed and it became apparent the he was going to remain the dedicated guy who served in various ministries but never owned up to his mistakes or apologized for them. He always wanted to run things his way, which is a red flag if you’re looking for Christlike leaders. But we didn’t need his pattern of stubbornness to know he would be a bad fit as a leader. That one incident was enough for us to make sure he never got in the position of being the head of any ministry.

As I see it, Mark Driscoll is that guy times a thousand. I can (and have) spent a lot of time venting about Driscoll’s various controversies, but oddly enough his apology made me realize that it’s best to just think of him as the guy who got to be pastor but wasn’t fit for the job.

It’s not just that he’s controversial or he’s guilty of a number of sins, missteps, and poorly chosen words. It’s that Driscoll gets tangled up in controversies that most Christians (including most evangelicals) wouldn’t even consider doing, let alone be tempted by.

I don’t know of any Christians, no matter how passionate they are about traditional gender roles, who would even think about venting publicly about “effeminate worship leaders.” I can’t think of any other pastor who’s ever made disrespectful public remarks about his Elders. I can’t think of any pastor, no matter how much fame and celebrity status tempted them, who’d go so far as to hire a service to game the NY Times bestseller list. I can’t think of any pastor who would insist that wives perform vulgar sex acts, and insult them if they refuse to. I can’t think of any pastor who would end a letter to his church -especially a otter intended to betaken as an apology – by threatening them with legal action if they distributed the letter to people outside the church.

In my view, that’s the reason why Driscoll gets so much justifiable criticism: he does stuff that would disqualify him from being considered as head of any church ministries, and it’s oddball stuff that anyone over 17 would have outgrown.

If a guy like Driscoll strolled into the average evangelical church, I can tell you exactly what would happen to him. He’d approach the pastor on fire for a more aggressive and zealous vision of church, and he’d volunteer to help spearhead the church towards that new direction. The pastor would patiently praise him for his enthusiasm and gently suggest that Mark needed more experience and spiritual maturity before he could take on such a role. And then the pastor would consult with an Elder, and that Elder would offer to take Mark under his wing and disciple him. The Elder would try to get Mark to see that all of his anger isn’t pure or righteous, and there are ways to communicate his ideas with more humility. (I’m setting aside for a moment that I disagree with many of Mark’s ideas, since my point here is about Mark’s demeanor). And at that point Mark would either agree to submit to the teachings of someone older and wiser than him and learn to set aside his craving for getting what he wants, or he’d walk away in a huff mumbling curses and go hunt for church willing to give him some power.

I’m willing to wait and see if Mark’s apology expand in scope to include offenses beyond the NY Times controversy and people whom he’s wronged over the years, but for now at least the tone seems to reflect a desire to offer the smallest apology possible and still have it be called an apology.

Loving Church Even When It’s Boring

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.51.35 PMI’m only vaguely familiar with Donald Miller, so it feels awkward to dive into the recent controversy surrounding him. Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, which was a mini-sensation in evangelical circles a few years ago. All II knew about the book was that Christian teens loved it and youth pastors spent a lot of time condemning or praising it.

The firestorm began when Miller confessed that he had no interest in attending church. Initially I was shocked that a bestselling evangelical author would risk his writing career with such a scandalous confession, but Miller’s appeal resides in his willingness to dance on the edge of acceptable evangelical beliefs a la Rob Bell. But both of his posts dovetail nicely with my last post.

Last week I stated that my comfort level with a church is largely based on its ability to answer the question “Why are we here?” in a universal sense and an immediate “why are we here on thhs particular Sunday morning?” sense.

Miller approaches this from a more immediate angle: he doesn’t get much out of church, and for him it’s a design flaw rather than a problem with one particular style of worship.

I’ll confess that I share some of his frustrations. Personally I’d rather suffer through a Two and a Half Men marathon than listen to contemporary worship music. For me it’s not about the song choice or the quality of the performance; I just find  CCM mind-numbingly vapid, no matter how sincere or reverent its lyrics. I used to tell my Campus Crusader friends that I felt CCM never stops trying to sell its listeners on its sincerity (i.e. We’re really really joyful, and we can prove it if you listen to us sing the word joy forty seven times!)

So for me worship music was thirty minutes of service that I tuned out. I figured that this is the part of the service that other people loved, and I had no business pissing on their joy or tapping into my inner hipster and looking down on their musical tastes. As I see it, there is no worship music that truly moves me, so quibbling over the music seemed like wasted energy.

The irony was that, due to my lack of interest in CCM, I rarely heard the original versions of the songs my church sang. Inevitably I discovered that the rag-tag sing alongs evangelical churches sang every Sunday turned out to be horrifically overproduced dreck, and if anything, the congregations’ lo-fi versions were better than the originals.

All of this is a roundabout way to say that I share many of Miller’s frustrations, and i’m not sure how church – particularly the contemporary worship format-  can be done differently. However, I also don’t expect my needs to take center stage when I worship.

I love going to church (even though I don’t currently have one I’m attending), even when I’ve hit a dry spot where the sermons or Sunday School classes leave me wanting. I look at church the way people look at school: the more you invest in it, offer your services, and connect with people, the more rewarding it will be. Except church has the added bonus of serving and worshipping God, and no matter how rewarding work is, it can’t compare to worshipping with fellow believes. As Jonathan Leeman so adeptly puts it:

“I don’t know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won’t listen to God’s Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it’s like claiming we’re righteous in Christ, but not bothering to “put on” that righteousness with how we live.”

Rape On Campus

Stop-RapeI wasn’t going to wade into the debate over Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate post about rape. Written from the perspective of a mother advising her daughter on her way to college (with plenty of data to back up her arguments), Yoffe outlines some common sense tips women can take to avoid placing themselves in dangerous situations.

The internet predictably blew up because her article focused on getting drunk (especially binge drinking), and it was interpreted as a blame-the-victim piece. Lots of good counterpoints to Yoffe’s article were made.

Then came Amanda Hess’s response to Yoffe (also found on Slate). Hess chose to return the focus to how campuses can help prevent rape. Given that I’ve lived in the shadow of Penn State (which consistently ranks among the biggest party schools in the nation due to its size and large fraternity population) for 27 years, I figured I’d offer my perspective.

First of all, in the big picture I think Yoffe and Hess’s arguments can be boiled down to two valid perspectives: the academic view (Hess) and the maternal view (Yoffe). Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between the longterm social challenge of dismantling rape culture and the short-term advice for how women should exercise caution during their next semester.

I get Hess’s perspective. I think she makes a lot of good points and presents some good strategic ideas. But even if the university Yoffe’s daughter attends chooses to wholeheartedly embraces a public strategy that puts the onus on punishing rapists and emphasizes that the rapist alone is to blame for their crimes, it won’t impact the cultural environment Yoffe’s daughter encounters next week or next month.

I’ll try illustrate my point with an analogy. I’m not going to pretend that it’s as grave in scale as rape or that it’s a fair comparison. But I hope it helps illustrate the psychological tension I see between their views.

I’m an epileptic. Epilepsy is a disease that can afflict anyone at any stage of life. There are a myriad number of reasons once can get epilepsy: you can be born with it; it can occur in the wake of an accident or a blow to the head; it can be a consequence of a tumor, illness or drug use; it can also be a biochemical problem. In most cases there is no clear “answer” as to why a person has epilepsy. You can’t blame the epileptic for their seizures, although many people do.

I get two types of seizures: simple focal (which looks like I’m spacing out or clumsy) and tonic-clonic (aka falling down, convulsing, biting your tongue or worse). My epilepsy is what doctors call “uncontrolled,” meaning that in spite of trying dozens of medications over the years, they’ve never found a combination that completely controls my seizures. Meaning that I can have a seizure at any given moment even if I take my medication.

On the other hand, there are practical steps I can take to greatly reduce the risk of a seizure: avoid prolonged vigorous exercise, high altitudes, and too much alcohol. But more than anything, I can take my medicine on time. Yeah, it’s boring, it reminds me of my limitations, and it provides no guarantee that I won’t get seizures during the next 12 hours anyway. But it drastically reduces the risk I face. My mother knows this, and she never passes up the chance to remind me to take my medicine. Her reminders are as annoying as they are eminently practical.

Over the years I’ve gone through just about every stage of dealing with my problem that one can imagine: keeping a rigid pill schedule for fear of my next seizure; refusing to take them when I’m told because damn it, I wanted some independence; skipping doses outright to see if I even needed them; being late on doses due to forgetfulness, laziness, or just plain not having them handy when I need them; and, now that I’m older, taking them on time because it’s the smart thing to do.

Now there’s two ways of viewing my situation. One is the Yoffe version: minimize risk, make sensible decisions, and have a friend around in case I get a bad seizure. It adds up to a safe and unadventurous life, so sometimes I feel the need to just get away from it and live a little.

The other approach is the Hess version: focusing on curing the disease rather than my day-to-day risk level; striving not to put too much onus on my behavior because, after all, no seizure is ever “my fault;” bemoaning the fact that society looks down on epileptics, and advocating drastic changes that would make society more conducive for epileptics to live normal lives.

I’m all for the Hess approach.  There are definitive steps society can take that can make life easier for me, like restructuring communities so they are more pedestrian-friendly; increasing bus and mass transit service; engaging in public campaigns that reduce the stigma of having epilepsy, and curing the disease.

But these are long term projects. They’re costly, and while society has grown more sympathetic to people with disabilities over time, the deck is still stacked against them. And, of course, there are still plenty of people who resent the positive steps that have been made and pass down hateful and ignorant attitudes towards epileptics via their children and community. Most people still need to be sold on the idea that these changes are even necessary.

Over time victories on these fronts will yield bigger improvements in the lives of epileptics than just making sure I don’t drink too much or that I take my pills. But odds are I won’t live long enough to see these kinds of changes to their completion, and the problems epileptics face pales compared to the breadth and scale of the bigotry towards women. Especially female victims of rape.

So like epileptics, college-aged women are faced with short-term decisions: odds are going to a frat party will be a fun time, even if they get drunk. Odds are that if they want sex, it’ll be a consensual experience. But a frat party is a riskier environment for a woman’s safety than a sober party is, and it’s riskier still if a woman is drunk. The feminist goals of dismantling patriarchy and rape culture is a decades-long (and probably centuries-long) challenge. No one alive today will see it to its completion.

Yoffe isn’t advocating that women stop going to frat parties or stop having a good time. And she isn’t saying that we should blame drunk women who get raped for being victims. But there are a percentage of rapes that take place within the college-aged party environment. Women can never completely eliminate the risk of being raped at parties -even if they stay sober. But they can reduce the risk.

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.

Campus Crusaders Pt 9: Methodist Misery

financesAside from Campus Crusade’s operatic dysfunction, I had a few other things going for me that prevented me from fully assimilating into the evangelical subculture. One of them was the Methodist church. In contrast to Campus Crusade, the Methodists were refreshingly apolitical, although they did seem a bit more preoccupied with the culture wars than you might expect.

I had become a regular attendee at the Methodist church a few months before Kaitlyn first invited me to join her Campus Crusade Bible Study.  So early on in my churchgoing adventures, my energy was focused on establishing a home with them. This was not an easy task. I wouldn’t find out until much later, but there ‘s a weird dynamic in town where the closer your church is to the university, the more hostile your congregation is to college students. I was a few years older than the 40,000 kids that swarmed Penn State for nine months each year, but due to my youthful looks, the Methodists had me pegged as One Of Them. And since the church was located right across from campus, the animosity against college students ran long and deep.

My first clue that the Methodist Church might not be the best fit was my brief stint on the church’s  financial committee in the winter of ’93, right before I joined Campus Crusade. I’ve always been the kind of guy who’s eager to volunteer. Whatever your church needs, sign me up. I didn’t mind the church’s skeptical reaction to my desire to offer my time and talents, because I was still getting acclimated to church services. Hell, I still hadn’t learned that drawing funny cartoons on the church bulletins and passing them on to the bored kid in front of me was bad form.

It took a bit of nagging before the pastor finally said that the finance committee needed volunteers. I could by his harrumph that this would not be a pleasant assignment. But I was eager to help, and now I was plugged in!

I went into my first meeting wide-eyed with optimism. My biggest worry was that I sucked at math. Instead I got sucked into a vortex of nihilism and resentment that soured my enthusiasm for my newfound home in a hurry.

The only thing the finance committee hated more than their miserable lot in life was the church itself. Every meeting was full of gossip and pessimism. And it wasn’t even interesting gossip. It was all about who didn’t tithe, who’s marriage was a sham, and how church’s latest project was always doomed to failure. If the project defied their expectations, then it was horrible idea. But they saved most of their ire for the pastor. He struck me as a nice guy: aloof but well-meaning. This was when I learned that Methodist Church has a policy of shuttling pastors in and out of churches every few years to keep things from becoming too hidebound. Even though he had a few years left on his term, the finance committee was counting the days until the guy left.

And the funny thing is, they didn’t really have any reason to hate the guy. There were no lurid backstories or shocking revelations that turned me to their side. They were the problem. They just plain didn’t like anyone, and it was easy to see why they had been annexed off to the finance committee. By the time Kaitlyn asked me to join the Campus Crusade Bible Study, I was dying to make a quick exit from the finance committee without feeling guilty about it.

Campus Crusaders Pt 8: Drop A Bomb

526x297-hyDA few months before I joined Campus Crusade, I started taking a drug called Felbatol for my epilepsy. In an ideal world, I would still be taking Felbatol. For me it was the much-coveted Happy Pill that our society has pined for. Yet if you skim its list of potential side effects, it’s the usual stuff: depression, drowsiness, rashes, etc. It doesn’t sound fun, does it? But there’s a little blurb at the top of the list that mentions “trouble sleeping.”  That’s a gigantic understatement.

I didn’t just have insomnia with Felbatol. I had Energy. And it wasn’t the hyper-caffienated energy you get with Red Bull or a listless “darn it I can’t sleep!” insomnia. It felt like an organic High On Life energy, like you just couldn’t wait to start your day. And it was like that all the time. Every day. No crashes, no nodding off, no lows. I stayed awake with my mind racing and my energy cranked at 10 for 24, 48 hours straight. For days on end. When I did sleep, it was never for more than an hour or two, and then I’d pop out of bed (and I always popped!), get something to eat, and find something to do. When I wasn’t painting a storm, I rearranged furniture, cleaned my house, jogged, shopped – all without a break. And I was Happy. All of the time, like the scene in Ruby Sparks (great movie, by the way) where Paul Dano makes Ruby so relentlessly upbeat that everyone gets annoyed by her.  I knew the drug was dangerous – after all, if you don’t sleep,  you go insane or die – but I was like Tyler Durden crossed with a Teletubby.

I felt like I could accomplish anything, and I got a hell of a lot done. I submitted dozens of applications for gallery exhibits, got in touch with old friends, and I also made a concerted effort to advertise my talents for potential clients who might want to commission me. That was an angle on my art career that I knew I needed to pursue, but for years I couldn’t get up the nerve or the motivation to make anything happen.

So first I made up a bunch of business cards. I got way more printed out than I could ever hope to use, but that was my unrelenting optimism at play. I could do anything! Surely I could find a few hundred people who’s want my business card! One of the other things I did to nudge things along was write to a few people in town I admired. Not only did I offer my wares, but I also heaped gushing praise upon them even though I only knew them by their reputation or their status as a public figure. I wasn’t dishonest with any of them; I only wrote to a handful of people, and I didn’t hold back in my enthusiasm for them.

Even though I knew Felbatol was probably slowly killing me, I didn’t want to quit it. I kept quiet about it as long as I could, hoping that I could stay on it as long as possible. I wasn’t normally the joyful extrovert I had become, so a lot people picked up on the change in me. But I kept the insomnia secret for a few weeks, until my mother noticed that I was not sleeping at all. She pressured me to go back to my doctor, and begrudgingly I did. It was the practical thing to do, but boy I still miss those days of unfettered happiness.

So months passed. Soon after my Felbatol saga, I was back on a crappy drug that left me drowsy, unmotivated, and it sent me back to the depression Felbatol had saved me from. January came and I joined the Campus Crusaders, and aside from getting a few paintings accepted for group exhibits at NYC, most of my career efforts were unsuccessful. No one wanted my business cards or responded to my letters until I received a call in late March of ’94.

I remember the day clearly. I was halfway through the new Pink Floyd cd, working on a painting as I  grabbed the phone. It was a woman. I vaguely recognized her voice, and she sounded a little nervous. Then she announced who she was, and my eyes bugged out. She was one of the people I wrote a letter to. I turned my stereo down to zero. Once we both got over our initial awkwardness, she thanked me for the kind letter and said she would like to meet me to talk more about painting her portrait. Holy Crap, I’m thinking. This is going to happen! We agreed to an April meeting at my studio. I  could barely contain myself. Not only was she was one of the public figures I had reached out to, but she was also the one I was really hoping to meet.

That night I met my Bible Study group at the local Christian coffee shop. It was a nice enough place and the owners were very pleasant people, so I didn’t mind supporting their business with my money. But the owners had an annoying habit of booking amateurish Christian musicians who’d sing well known rock songs with Christianized lyrics (like changing Nirvana’s All Apologies to: “What else can I say/Jesus really saves”). Ugh.

But that night I din’t mind the guy strumming his acoustic guitar in the corner and singing bad praise songs. I was knocked silly by the news I had to share, and I realized that my Felbatol-fueled energy had masked a full-blown crush on my soon-to-be client.

The Campus Crusaders only had one question for me: is she a Christian? I can’t say I was surprised by their reaction. That was the default question whenever anyone expressed interest in someone the Bible Study didn’t know. But I was dumbfounded by their decision to go straight to that question first. Even though I was as happy as I was the day I started Felbatol, I knew that my new client was just that: a client. I had no dreams or expectations of anything more than a brief but professional relationship. But it felt good to wallow in my exuberance, so their question barely fazed me. I answered honestly: I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. She wasn’t a girlfriend or even a prospective girlfriend. Hell, she was probably married.

Jason appreciated my enthusiasm more than the others did. I was amazed that he still willingly hung out with the gang even though he despised Dwight and resented Kaitlyn’s rejection of him. But I admired the fact that he kept his resentment hidden from them. As he put it,  Kaitlyn clearly wasn’t in God’s Plan for him, so he had to get over his grudge.

Kaitlyn, on the other hand, had the most bizarre reaction of all. She insisted that I was wrong when I admitted that I was holding a candle for my new client. I had a crush on her, she insisted, and I was overjoyed because I was excited to see her at the coffehouse. Mind you, Kaitlyn always showed up  at our coffeehouse meetings. Aside from the fact that she was a little bit nicer to me than the other women and we both went to the Methodist church, we had a little in common. What’s amazing is she had this argument with me while Dwight – her new boyfriend- was sitting with us. Dwight never said a word, and Kaitlyn barely acknowledged him.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: duh! Kaitlyn wanted you! That thought ran through my mind, too. But I didn’t want to put her on the spot because of the whole drama about me using the Bible Study as a meat market. So in private Jason confronted her about it. She insisted that not only was she not attracted to me, she looked upon me as her Project. In other words, she had designated herself the person who would lead me to Jesus. Her proof that I liked her consisted of the following: I often talked to her one-on-one at church; I tended to make small talk with her at Bbiel Study when the guys were busy talking to other people; and, of course, the dozen roses I sent to her house the night I gave all of the women flowers.  But I didn’t feel like arguing with her. I found myself more amused by her insistence than anything. Besides, now I had someone to really pine for.