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.

Campus Crusaders Pt 10: Methodist Madness

Islamic Madrassa Students Burn DVDs And Music CDs In CapitolIf you read my last post, then you’re probably wondering why I went off on a tangent about the Methodist church in the middle of series that’s supposed to be about my Campus Crusade Bible Study. I did that for a couple of reasons:

1. I wanted to establish that I was living in two very different Christian circles at this time. Even though I hung out with the Campus Crusaders, I didn’t even attend an evangelical church service until I soured on the Methodists (more on that later).

2. I wanted to contrast how Methodists viewed me versus how my Campus Crusade friends viewed me. Because there were good reasons why I didn’t just ditch the Campus Crusaders and embrace the Methodists.

Both groups diagnosed me with the same illness: pop culture had corrupted my worldview, and my fondness for secular TV, movies, and music was getting in the way of my relationship with God.

Believe it or not, the Campus Crusaders were much more reasonable about this than the Methodists were. The Bible Study gang tried to get me to like Christian rock. They’d play the latest CCM hits with the hope that I’d enjoy it enough to throw out all of my Nirvana cd’s. They showed me brightly colored charts geared towards young people looking to make the jump away from secular rock  (i.e. “If you like Pearl Jam, try DC Talk…”). It was a Christianized version of Amazon’s recommendation list.

In spite of their obvious distaste for secular music, I often exchanged mix tapes with them, and they’d listen to them with me or give me feedback about the music itself. While they found the songs I gave them “too depressing”, I give them credit for taking the time to listen to them frequently enough to form opinions on specific tracks.

Things got more awkward when it came to movies and TV, though. I’d always end up suggesting movies that had ended up on Focus On The Family’s blacklist of stuff to avoid, and they’d always get whispery and nervous when I made an inappropriate suggestion. Sometimes, they’d come out and tell me why a movie was dangerous (usually it was because of a sex scene). Other times, I’d go back home and rewatch the movie in question and try to figure out which scenes had flipped their red alert switches.

The Methodists, on the other hand, wanted to do an intervention. I remember one particularly haughty couple who kept advertising their desire to go into my house and scour it for inappropriate media that they would then throw out or burn. They couldn’t fathom why I declined their offer.

So the difference between the Methodists and the Campus Crusaders was twofold: the evangelicals assumed that my taste in media was evidence that I wasn’t a Christian. They wanted me to choose to toss out my secular stuff. Tossing it out would be evidence of my desire to cast aside worldly influences and devote myself to Christ. The Methodists, on the other hand, didn’t really think in terms of getting me born-again or saving my soul. They approached me as if I had a psychological affliction – some invasive pop culture surgery was necessary to heal me and help improve my spiritual outlook. Even though the Bible Study’s assumption about my spiritual state was more extreme, their approach was much more diplomatic.

And for what it’s worth, the Methodist church’s library had all of James Dobson’s books in its library.

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.

Campus Crusaders Part 7: Love In The Air

HellblazerIt took me a few months for people to figure out my role in the Campus Crusade Bible Study.  Aside from Jason (who still defended my character and my faith to the other Campus Crusaders), I had been pegged as a Seeker.

In Christian lingo, a Seeker is someone who is genuinely trying to figure out who God is or if God even exists, and they’re open to hearing the Gospel. Many evangelicals like the idea of Seekers more than they like Seekers themselves. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of evangelical Christians who truly care about and respect Seekers wherever they’re at, but there’s also a very lopsided dynamic in the Believer-Seeker relationship. It’s assumed that anything a Seeker has to say indicates the status of their journey towards accepting Christ. As a result, no one really takes a Seeker’s opinions seriously. You get a nod and a figurative pat on the head for your contributions, but Believers are convinced that you have no spiritual insights to offer. The irony is that Believers listen very closely to what you have to say. This creates the illusion that they respect you. But Believers listen to you because after you’re gone they’re going to dissect your comments and determine their next move.

I actually enjoyed my role as a Seeker. It gave me room to play contrarian and offer unpopular opinions and thorny theological questions. Intellectually it was invigorating, because I found myself reading and studying books about the Bible to bone up on my theology. It also motivated me to read more scripture.

I found that I really didn’t care whether they thought I was saved. I gave up trying to defend my faith because I realized that their understanding of God was a lot more dysfunctional than mine was. So I’d show up at Bible Study wearing a John Constantine t-shirt, knowing that it would mess with their heads. When they’d point to my shirt and ask why I was wearing a shirt with a blonde guy standing in front of demons and skeletons, I’d proudly and politely explain the Hellblazer comic book to them.

But as the semester neared its end, I began to hear more and more about Laura and Fred, the couple who normally ran the Bible Study. Even though the members of the Bible Study still didn’t seem to like or trust each other, I was wary of Laura and Fred’s imminent return. I learned that a lot of the decisions made by the Bible Study were actually made by Laura and Fred from afar. On one hand it was nice to see how quickly they squashed the animosity over my knee incident with Marcy. In fact, at this stage any lingering suspicions regarding my supposed sexual motives had virtually disappeared. But on the other hand I got the strong sense that Laura and Fred wouldn’t tolerate Hellblazer t-shirts at their Bible Study.

But spring also brought love. Not for me, of course. (I was about to get walloped by cupid’s arrow in a few short weeks by a woman traveling well outside of evangelical circles.) But the Bible Study members were developing crushes on one another, and like the song Love Stinks, everybody was pining for someone who didn’t give a rip about them.  Oddly enough, Kaitlyn – the mousey, nervous woman who first invited me to the Bible Study -was at the center of most of the drama. Two guys- Jason and Dwight-  had approached her in secret. She rebuffed Jason immediately and strung Dwight along for weeks. Kaitlyn wasn’t anywhere near the most attractive, confident, or friendly woman in the Bible Study, so it was strange to see her become the center of attention. But she was desired because she fit the model of a Strong Christian Woman. And in spite of my insistence otherwise, she was still convinced that I longed for her.

I will give Kaitlyn credit: even though Bible Study had become one big, tangled mess of unrequited love and growing animosity between Jason and Dwight, she handled herself well. Anyone who was out of the loop would have no idea what she was dealing with.

Things came to a head when Kaitlyn finally agreed to go out on a date with Dwight.  Now in normal social circles, the two of them would just go out on a date.  But for the Campus Crusaders this was a major problem. Dwight, Jason, and Kaitlyn were the leaders of the Bible Study. Someone had to rise to the occasion to make unbiased decisions for the group, so a sweet but boisterous woman named Monica became our default leader in the absence of objectivity among the other three.

So one night Monica announces that she consulted with Laura and Fred to find out whether she should give Dwight and Kaitlyn permission to date. Keep in mind that this took place before I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the courting craze. So while the evangelical neurosis about sexual relationships wasn’t as rigid and legalistic as it is now. Laura and Fred gave Monica permission to green-light Dwight and Kaitlyn’s  budding relationship.

The amazing twist to all of this is that no one minded Monica’s presumptive decision to contact Laura and Fred except for Jason – the guy who was about to be left out in the cold! Everyone else thought that Monica’s proactive intervention was a sign of maturity and responsibility, and Dwight in particular was thrilled to receive an official blessing from Laura and Fred. But Jason and I stood alone in our protests that nobody had the right to decide who dated whom.  And unbeknownst to us, Dwight and Kaitlyn had sown the seeds of destruction for the Campus Crusaders.

Campus Crusaders Pt 5: It’s Just A Flesh Wound

tumblr_mj5r97sDch1s2b58zo1_500In my last installment about my adventures with Campus Crusade for Christ,  I tried to describe my Bible Study’s dysfunction. I think it’s only fair that I also share my own eccentricities.

I’ve always struggled with depression, and in the 90’s it was so pervasive that I got used to it. I know that sounds strange, but at a certain point it becomes the norm and the incentive to try to overcome depression diminishes. I don’t wear my depression on my sleeve the way a lot of people do. I can play social butterfly and engage people and enjoy life and friendship, and in 90’s I got very good at it.  So in a strange way, Campus Crusade was a big help. Granted, it added to my misery, but it gave me a chance to connect with people, and it also gave me great anecdotes to share.

In hindsight, my willingness to endure the unpleasantries of people who clearly wanted me to vanish amazes me even more than their dysfunction. Even at my lowest I’ve always maintained a perverse optimism about connecting with new people, so back then I ignored signals that I wasn’t really welcome. Although I almost always came away from a Bible Study meeting feeling aggravated or baffled, I kept going back. And when I commit to something, I go in all the way.

As a way to make up for my past transgressions with the women in the group, I offered to help prep for meetings. The leaders wanted to keep me far, far away from any lesson planning, so I was appointed the cookies-and-chips guy. And I was a shopping zealot; I always kept track of who liked diet soda, who wanted caffeine-free coke, and so on. And I always bought more than we needed.

How dedicated was I to my newfound role? Well, one night before Bible Study, I clipped my scalp while I was walking downstairs. I grabbed my head and doubled over, cursing myself for being so clumsy. When I removed my hand, it was covered in blood. I tried putting a wet washcloth on it, but more blood lapped up each time.

A sane person would have gone to the hospital. But I didn’t want to miss a night of spirited debate, so I headed off to the meeting with my bags of chips and soda and hoped for the best. I spent the whole meeting periodically touching my head and checking my hand. I could feel the blood tickling my scalp, and I had to wipe my fingers very carefully so people didn’t see the blood on them. I didn’t want to cause alarm, plus I figured I’d find out fast if any blood dribbled down my forehead. At the end of the  night, I politely said goodnight and got four stitches at the emergency room.

Small Group Nightmares Pt 2

pride_prejudice_2005_1024x768_527565In the first part of my series on church small groups, I described some of the problems all small groups face. In case you don’t have time to read it, I want to emphasize that I think that small groups are a positive model for creating church community. I’m also not sure how a new model of fellowship could resolve the problems I’ve dealt with.

Both of my posts began as a response Todd Engstrom’s post at The Gospel Coalition. He envisions a model of small groups that cultivates a more family-like social atmosphere, leaving Bible Study to take place in small groups  of two or three people within the larger group. I  think he makes a lot of good points, and a majority of Christians will probably gain a lot from his model.

But when I think about small group dinners, I cringe.  Nothing brings out the bad side of people like a small group dinner. I used to dread them whenever they came up, and even though I attended every single small dinner I was invited to, I can’t think of a single one that ended well. Small group dinners are where you find out how little you have in common with people, or worse yet, how little you matter. Small group dinners are when people rant about how evil liberals are without realizing that they’re talking to a liberal. Small group dinners are where your Bible Study leader asks you how you can tolerate the n*****s in your class, or how n*****s are predisposed to animalistic behavior.

In my last post, I discussed how the biggest problem plaguing small groups is that longtime friends use them to catch up with each other, while ignoring newer members. Extroverts -especially if they’re a married couple – can adapt to this problem more easily than introverts, and they stand a better chance of getting included in the core group’s reindeer games. But if you’re shy or if the novelty of your presence has worn off, forget it. You might get extra attention at first because you’re new, but once you’re a regular attender, you’ll find yourself in this weird zone where everyone knows you, likes to talk to you, but couldn’t give a rip about you. You might be pleasant conversation, but you’re not their best friends, so you find yourself jostling for openings.

Over the years I learned to overcome this by training myself to become a extrovert. I also learned that if I was going to connect with the people in my small groups, I had to talk about the things they were interested in. And given my gender, I had to be carful who I spoke to.

Small groups have a way of sorting themselves out by gender. There’s an unspoken rule that women are expected to hang out in one room and socialize, while men go to the other room. When it’s time for Bible Study or dinner, everyone gets back together. A few years ago, I found myself with a dilemma: the women were talking about Jane Austen, while the men were talking about car repair. I love Jane Austen, and talking about cars bores me to tears. It’s assumed that, since I’m a guy, I’ll go hang out with the menfolk. This time, I decided to hang out with the women. Besides, I had endured a hundred conversations about car repair, and I was tired of hearing the guys rehash the same stories.

At first I was content to just listen to the women. I wanted to figure out which book they were talking about (it turned out to be Pride and Prejudice) and get a feel for the rhythm of their conversation. I didn’t want to be the guy who came in and hijacked the conversation.

Then the guys gave me funny looks. Why wasn’t I in the kitchen talking about cars? Then one of the women pointed towards the men and directed me over to them. That’s when I announced that I love British literature, and I thought Pride and Prejudice was a great read. Stone cold silence. I had broken not one but two taboos: I was fraternizing with the wrong gender, and I expressed interest in an author I wasn’t supposed to like. Five cold shoulders sent me to go listen to the guys talk about cars.

As awkward as these conversations could be, sitting down for dinner could be worse. Dinner time was when you found out how you really stood with the group. If you were doing well, someone voluntarily sat down next to you even if there were plenty of seats available. If you weren’t, you got pushed off to the far end of the table by people who politely asked you to get out of the way because they wanted to sit across from their friends. I got pushed to the end a lot.

Small Group Nightmares Pt 1

downloadTodd Engstrom has a post today about church-based small groups that brought back a lot of nightmares. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing in his post outlining his vision for church community that is inherently problematic. If you asked me to design a model for fostering church community, I’d probably use many of his ideas.

But that’s because it’s a model that works for the vast majority of people. It’s so effective and popular that it’s hard to think of an alternative approach. But what works for 90% of the congregation can be hell for the remaining 10%. I’m part of that 10%.

Before I get into my experiences, let’s start with the basics. Small groups are the means by which churches -especially bigger churches- develop a sense of connection and community. They usually consist of 6-12 adults who meet on a weekly basis for Bible Study, dinners, and the occasional social outing. Our church had a bulletin board that advertised all of the small groups, so people could check out the meeting times and addresses and join a group of their choice.

The problem is that most small group are started by a core group of 2-3 couples who have known each other since forever. Given their busy lives, the small group becomes their best chance to catch up with each other. It’s the one night when they’ve all got baby sitters, and it’s the one night when they have no volunteer or work commitments. It’s extremely hard for new people to become part of that core group, particularly if they’re at a different life stage. When new couples do manage to become part of that core, a critical mass takes place. Everyone still gets along great and enjoys each other’s company, but the core can’t take in new friends, and more importantly, they don’t want to. They’re happy to host these new members and invite them on all of the small group activities, but they’re not really interested in them.

My former pastor recognized this dynamic and tried to counter it. He approached the leaders of each small group and asked them to consider splitting up into new groups. He got mixed results. Some groups recognized the problem and split up, while others stood defiant. For him, the problem then became how to handle the defiant groups. They were the oldest groups with the closest friends.  Taking these groups off of the bulletin board would have angered them, because it would imply that they weren’t welcoming or that they didn’t really want new members. In truth, they did not really want new members – they just couldn’t admit it out loud. So he decided to keep the peace. He left these groups alone and kept their photos up on the board.

And to be fair, I could empathize with the groups that refused to split up. The reality is that in a large church, leaving a small group is like moving to another town. All of the activities you used to do with your old friends are now spent with new people, so you have less time to spend with your closest friends. Over time these couples end up either miserable or happy enough with their new group to let their old friendships whither.

I’ll share my personal experiences in Part 2.