Response to Emily’s Post

I began this as a response to Emily’s latest post. It was just supposed to be a comment. I guess it really stirred my heart.

Emily, how many times have I asked some of these same questions?

For over 4 years, I attended a church of 1,500 members. I loved my church, but I was so lonely there. I was involved in several of the ministries. I had many, many friends there. It was a great church. Yet, I was lonely. I felt lonely on Sunday morning when I walked into church and sat in a pew alone. I felt lonely on Sunday afternoon when all of my friends had plans with their families for lunch and I wasn’t invited. I felt lonely when I stood on the praise team, and looked at that enormous sea of faces, and realized that there were very few people there that I could truly count on when things were rough.

Church people don’t usually intend to be mean, I don’t think, but they often are. I watched Sunday after Sunday as the “singles” were excluded from group lunches, Sunday school parties, and weekly Bible studies because we didn’t fit into the mold of the perfect church family. Even the singles group excluded some of the other single members of the church. I tried to join them because I thought we might have something in common and was shunned when I tried to meet them at their usual hangout on Sunday afternoon. I was much younger and not divorced with children so I guess I just didn’t “fit.” It was heartbreaking.

I can’t tell you how many Sundays I went home after church and cried because I was so lonely. Yet, I continued to attend the church because I believed that my faithfulness would be rewarded. I knew that hiding from the loneliness wouldn’t fix it. I’m not a recluse. I was involved in many of the ministries of the church during my time there. I made several good friends that I have kept to this day. I didn’t always feel alone. The problem is that all of us single girls felt like outcasts. We wanted so badly to be part of something, but no one wanted us. The married group looked down us because we didn’t have husbands. The singles group looked down on us because most of them were divorced and we weren’t. The senior adult groups accepted us, but we felt so out of touch there. We finally decided that we’d rather be with people our own age, married or not, than to be forced into a corner with a group of people that we couldn’t relate to. One Sunday morning, I was standing outside of the class that had young marrieds where the couples were my age, a class I was planning to attend. As I was getting a cup of coffee just outside the door, I overheard the teacher say, “Okay, I want every man to sit beside your wife and put your arm around her.” I didn’t have a husband. I didn’t have anyone. I walked away from the class and never returned. I knew at that point that I would probably not be accepted there. It was one of the loneliest moments of my life.

The church has a problem, and that problem is that we have a tendency to create places for those that already have a place. My church in Tulsa had 3 Sunday school classes for marrieds, but only one for singles. The three married classes were (1) Young marrieds, (2) Marrieds with children, and (3) Older marrieds. The one singles group was supposed to be for all singles, no matter their age, place in life, or status of parenthood. It seemed like every time I turned around, the church was creating a new group for the marrieds. Yet we had to beg them to let us create a group for the younger singles, which still isn’t as supported by the leaders of the church as it should be. They needed to realize that just like married people need different types of classes for the differing stages of life, so did the singles. It was a great mistake the church made, and I believe they lost a large number of young adults because of it.

That self imposed isolation you mentioned is, I believe, a product perpetuated by the church. They are blind to the loneliness because we smile and pretend that everything is fine, yet deep inside we are afraid of rejection, because when we’ve tried to include ourselves, we are not accepted.

Like you, I don’t know how we make the shift, but I know it must be made. Stan and I determined when we got married that we would not exclude the singles just because we were married. Perhaps that is where it starts. Perhaps it just takes a few people deciding that they will remember what it felt like to be alone in the middle of a crowd. Perhaps then we can make a difference.

10 thoughts on “Response to Emily’s Post

  1. Krista says:

    I’ve been thinking about writing a book, my working title is “Why Are Singles Second Class Citizens in the Church?” I’d really like to email Pastor to explain to him my feelings about this. Could I direct him to this blog if I get the nerve to write him?

  2. Coley says:

    Of course. Use this post for whatever you need! You know you never need to ask, Friend!You should email him. He will never be able to effectively minister to singles if he doesn’t know the heart of the problem. In a church of that size, it is difficult know the needs of all of his members. That is why someone must tell him. I know that Pastor will hear you. He has a great heart.If you do direct him to this post, use the permanent post link, just in case the post isn’t on the front page. I’ll copy it in this comment:

  3. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if those classes don’t exist because they usually can’t get a big enough group to attend each week? /begin sarcasm/ You know, because singles are so busy with work, travel and social schedules that they can’t be bothered to attend church regularly. /end sarcasm/ It’s no reason not to have them, but I bet that’s the excuse they give.

  4. Coley says:

    Anon.–I’ve actually heard church leaders give that excuse. They say that it is hard to create something for singles in their 20s and 30s because they aren’t “faithful.” It such wrong thinking. My friends and I were faithful. We were there practically every time the doors were open. You couldn’t have found a more faithful group of single ladies.Perhaps the young singles have a hard time being faithful to a church because the church has nothing for them. You know, I’ll bet the church never thought of that.

  5. Sapphira says:

    Hi~ I’m an old friend of Stan’s from Montavilla, and he recently posted on my blog because I finally got my wedding announcements out. That’s how I stumbled across your blog.I think it’s really nice that you decided to stick it out in church because “I believed that my faithfulness would be rewarded.” I’m not that nice.I had a similar experience to you, complicated by the theological/philosophical/Postmodern/whateverquestions I was starting to ask. I got really tired of being thanked for being controversial. It was kindly meant, but it was patronizing, and eventually, tedious. I felt like a token, and began to wish that my community included other people who questioned the status quo, someone I was having the conversation with instead of a meta-conversation about the conversation.And most of my friends got married well before I did and moved up to the Young Marrieds class. When I was thinking about ways to address this, I thought of just showing up to their classes and hanging out. I mean, that’s what I did during the summer after high school with the college/career[/SINGLES] group –oh, and by the way can I just say that being the ‘fresh meat’ in such a group is unnerving? Your post is all about kindness and inclusion, and I know this observation doesn’t contribute to that, but I have to says that being 18 and the immediate object of interest of a number of lonely mid-thirties men with marginal social skills was not the most comfortable thing [I wasn’t the only one, either]. The church certainly can’t exclude the awkward and the lonely, so I don’t have an answer for that, but it certainly complicates things.Anyway. It would have been weird and awkward for me to go to the Young Marrieds class as a single person. I think if I had been able to remain oblivious someone would have eventually pulled me aside and explained kindly that I belonged elsewhere. At the very least, groups of people would have held conversations about Whether or Not To Do Something about me, conversations that I would not have been included in.After I got married I thought I’d check back in with Montavilla and see if I could handle being the Token Questioner for the sake of the community–after all, I’d known a lot of these people since I was 12; they’re great, and I miss them, though I’m sick to death of church and contemporary Christian culture. Then, of course, I found out that they’d almost all had babies, which I’m not planning to do anytime soon, and I just let it go. The idea had been a bit of a stretch anyway, and I realized with all the church category divisions that the people I wanted to see could easily constantly moving to different classes.Nowadays I do a lot of reading and thinking on my own instead. I’ve read some of Anne Lamott’s work, and Brian McLaren–especially his “A New Kind Of Christian” trilogy [I just got the third one for my birthday!]. I read a book by Patton Dodd called, “My Faith So Far” and I intend to read “Blue Like Jazz” and Leonard Sweet’s “SoulTsunami”. And “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, by Bruce Bawer. [That’s the book that’s going to make you question whether I’m a REAL Christian/insider at all, or a wannabe whose salvation is in jeopardy because she’s in dangerous theological waters seeking comfort instead of truth! I highly recommend it anyway.] And I have the occasional long phone conversation with an old friend from my Christian university by phone where we wrangle some of that stuff out.I desperately miss having a Christian community, though what I want isn’t something I can get in any church that I know of. I barely feel that I can be a Christian, [I certainly hate referring to it in public because most of what Christianity seems to stand for in the culture, especially politically, I don’t want to be associated with at all], but when I read the work of Brian McLaren I think yes, that is what I want to be, that is what I’m trying to be. Any I wish I could find a community that’s a bit like what he describes on the boat in the second book of his A New Kind of Christian trilogy.My husband says that if he ever calls himself ‘Christian’ again, he’ll say, ‘Jesusian’ instead [pronounced, “Hey-Zeus-ian”], so that people can’t pigeonhole him.Here in the Pacific Northwest there is an incredibly high population of spiritual people who are not affiliated with any religious institution. [I believe the godawful word “unchurched” is used.] I know those people exist, and that I’m one of them, and that we should find a way to meet up. What we need is a Christian counterculture [the counterculture were my friends at my university]–but once you are out of school there isn’t anything mandatory that you are doing that a counterculture can be formed against.Speaking of being against, that’s my spiritual gift. To challenge. To be the grit in the feed. To say the irritating, difficult things that people often don’t want to deal with. I do this in my friendships too–I’m known as being the person who will call you on something, a trait I am loved for and in spite of. [It makes me the best person in the world to have your back, because I never weary of supporting you when I know you are right and I’m willing to face any controversy for the right cause–and it makes me more vulnerable to hypocrisy, because if I’m going to call other people on their wrong choices, I have to be willing to acknowledge my own pretty damn quick. It also requires humility in order not to be completely insufferable.] It took me a long time to realize this, and it means that well-meaning people can feel like I’m more trouble in a community than I’m worth–or, more accurately, that they try to pony up and deal with me because they are nice and want to do the right thing. I’m a little tired of feeling like the vegetable on the table–the broccoli that everyone chokes down because they know it’s good for them. I want to be where the people would go out and look for broccoli if there wasn’t any on the table because they like it!I believe in the Body of Christ, and I think I am missing out because I have an important part to play, and that other people are missing out too. I have also finally learned to cut myself some slack. I’ve experienced spiritual abuse; it’s taken me years to learn that just because something is uncomfortable, Christian and spiritual doesn’t make it healthy. “Getting out of your comfort zone for Jesus” was a really destructive thing for me. Spiritual abuse is a lot like sexual abuse–if you’ve been sexually abused, regular, healthy sexuality and sexual expression can be terrifying, painful, or violating. There may be some wonderful things you never heal enough to do. Realizing this through therapy has given me the permission I needed to not pressure myself masochistically to be in the spiritual/community space that I–and more frequently, other people, have believed I needed to be in.Sometimes I go to Mass at The Grotto, even though I’m not Catholic, just because it is a spiritual observance that I feel compelled to make. I work on Sundays, and The Grotto has Mass every day at noon, so I can go on my days off. Catholicism is wonderful, with it’s long heritage and magnificent art and ritual, but it is also sickeningly bureaucratic. I don’t believe that belonging to a faith community should require paperwork. If I had the power to create one, I’d cherrypick wise friends who are scattered around the globe [now and forevermore…] and get us all in the same room to talk, and read books about faith and Christian culture. I could probably even read the Bible with these people, and pray. Maybe even sing. Though after spiritual abuse those last three things became incredibly hard to do, especially with other people. I’ve learned to be very, very cautious who I am real and vulnerable with about my theological explorations and my faith experience, because it’s just too destructive for me when someone doesn’t understand or pressures me to be different or starts asking those ‘let me evaluate if you are really saved before I continue being real with you, because I might need to switch over into proselytizing mode’ kinds of questions.Anyway, just like Emily’s post stirred something in you, when I looked up Stan from his post on my blog, your post stirred something in me. When I let myself think about it on this emotional level it feels like thirst and hunger and loneliness all rolled into one. It’s tremendously important. I had no idea all this would come out when I started typing.I’m going to post it on one of my blogs [an infant one, really], too, where I try to talk about these things.Thanks.

  6. Coley says:

    Sapphira, thank you for your comments. I’m sorry that you have had so many negative experiences with the church. Unfortunately, some of the things you said are very true. Your statement, “I certainly hate referring to it in public because most of what Christianity seems to stand for in the culture, especially politically, I don’t want to be associated with at all,” is one that has haunted my thoughts as well. There was a time at the church I mentioned in this post, that I was about two Sunday morning services away from walking away from it and either starting over again at a new place, or just walking away from the church body altogether. There are parts of the contemporary church that are ugly, and I don’t recognize those pieces from the church of my youth. The church of my youth was either jaded by my innocence or unaffected by the “new wave” of Christianity that has overtaken America. Sometimes, I think it is the latter, but most of the time, I believe it is the former. I remember the church being a place that meant family. I remember standing in a circle of 200 people, holding hands and singing “Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together, with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together with love.” I wish I had answers for your doubts and questions, but I have none. What I do have is my faith that we serve a loving and just God, and that is the only thing I have ever known was right and true beyond a shadow of a doubt. When the church failed me, as it has many times over the course of my life as a minister’s daughter, I always knew that I didn’t find myself in the church, I didn’t find myself in my associations, I didn’t find myself in my friendships. I find myself in Christ.I hope that you keep searching. And I hope that you find what you are searching for. I hope that you keep sight of what truly matters as you continue to ask the really hard questions. And Sapphira, don’t stop asking the hard questions. It is the only way to find the truth. I’m glad that you are honest. I believe it is better to be an honest skeptic, than a false worshipper.You are in my prayers.

  7. Jana Swartwood says:

    I don’t think that it’s a new wave of Christianity. I think it’s a new wave of selfishness and a misappropriated idea of what church should be. I, too, identify with your post very much. I, the girl who studies in the seminary. I, the girl who sings on the worship team. I, the girl who sits by herself every Sunday. I, the girl who knows few people in the church other than pastoral staff and worship team members, even after having attended for nearly 8 years. Perhaps some of this is my fault, but some of it does have to do with the issues that both you and Sapphira discuss. I feel out of place. Not just with all the marrieds–though definitely, yes. But I’ve never really felt “my age” and I have a hard time identifying with most people my age. I feel like anything of any depth is geared towards older adults. Stuff for singles is all cheese: “Let’s have a game night!” I feel almost guilty that I get significantly more spiritual edification out of translating Hebrew passages and reading rabbinical teachings than I do from going to church. But it’s true.But back to the subject of groups that isolate singles. I do not understand, fundamentally, why they need to exist in the first place. There is more to a life of faith than “how to be a good Christian husband/wife/parent.” I suppose there is a place for such classes, but to me, Sunday school classes should be about God and faith and learning how to authentically live your faith in the real world. As a single person, I don’t need a class about “how to live as a single Christian.” I want to learn about what the Bible really says, and what God has been doing in the earth, and how I can follow Him and be a part of His will. Why can’t married people and single people, old people and young people, men and women, do this together? What is so impossible about that idea?Why can’t we just study Torah (or the whole Christian Bible) together? I think that if that truly occurred, those of us who “don’t fit in” the regular demographic categories might actually find a niche.

  8. Coley says:

    Jai, what you say is very true:“There is more to a life of faith than ‘how to be a good Christian husband/wife/parent.’ I suppose there is a place for such classes, but to me, Sunday school classes should be about God and faith and learning how to authentically live your faith in the real world. As a single person, I don’t need a class about ‘how to live as a single Christian.'”The church tries too hard to make a place for everyone, and in doing so ends up isolating many. I often found myself wanting to go to the classes with the senior adults because they accepted me without reservation, and because they taught the Bible. The singles class felt tense, like everyone was just there searching for their other half. It felt empty, and I got nothing from the teaching. To be honest, I got more out of the class the church had for new Christians than most of the other Sunday school classes I attended. It was just the Bible, nothing else.I loved my time at that church, but like you, I was the girl who sang on the worship team, the girl who picked up breakfast, the girl who sat alone. I knew so many people, but a lot of those people made me feel like an outsider. And you know that I am not a feminist, by any stretch of the word, but people look further down their noses at single women than single men. Single men are “career driven,” they are trying to get themselves established so that they can provide for their future wife. Single women must have something wrong with them. At least, that is how it looked from our side of the room.Jai, you should never feel guilty that you get more spiritual edification out of the Word when you’re translating than in church. I think that is fantastic. I would love to be able to read the Bible in the original Hebrew. I think I would get much more out of it that way, too.Furthermore, it isn’t your fault that you feel like an outsider in your church. You are involved. I know you. You aren’t slipping in 20 minutes late and leaving 5 minutes early every service. You are committed. And I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but your faithfulness will be rewarded. That much I am sure of. God always rewards those who are faithful.

  9. Emily says:

    jana, your comment and nicole’s reminded me of something i heard at a church Tim & I visited a few weeks ago. he basically said that if his (super popular MEGA) church ceased to exist, it wouldn’t end his spiritual development. the point being, in his context, that people need to be taught to feed themselves, instead of just waiting to be fed and expecting the flawed church to do it. When people are actively learning to grow their own faith, their church is just part of the Christian life, not their entire Christian life. I love my church. I love working for my church, too. but I find God in the raindrops and sunrises more than I find him sitting in a pew on sunday morning……just my thoughts 🙂

  10. Coley says:

    Em, I do agree with you that “people need to be taught to feed themselves, instead of just waiting to be fed and expecting the flawed church to do it.” This comment made me think of what the Bible clearly states in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” The church was established for a reason. We need to learn how to search out the Word ourselves and find truth and revelation in that, but we are also called the “body of Christ.” And as you know, the body cannot exist without all of its parts. A hand cannot exist without an arm, etc. The church is supposed to be the place that we are exhorted, uplifted, encouraged, convicted to repentance, and so many other things. If the church cannot provide that for whatever reason, for example the issue of excluding singles, then that church is not fulfilling its function properly. If the singles are feeling exclusion and rejection in their church, then they are not being exhorted. That is when it becomes a problem within the church.The church should be a part of the Christian life, but not the whole of it, I also agree. The church should a place of fellowship, but not a social hour, which I fear it has become for many. The church should be a source of spiritual food, but not the only source.For me, church has never exclusively been about being fed. There have been times when the church I attended wasn’t feeding me and I was required to feed myself. There have been other times when I couldn’t see what food I needed because I was so blinded by other things and I desperately needed to hear what the church had to tell me so that I could be fed.As another example, a new believer does not know how to feed themselves, and until they learn, they need the church to teach them by feeding them. It is just like a newborn baby. My niece is learning how to feed herself. She wasn’t born with that knowledge. She has just recently learned how to pick up food and put it in her mouth, but she still cannot use a spoon. She can hold her bottle, but she cannot drink from a cup. She must be taught. A believer is in a constant state of learning, from infancy to adulthood. I am still learning. I am a student, and in my English courses I am learning about writers I would have never known existed if someone had not taken the time to teach me. In church, I sometimes hear truths that I might never have discovered on my own had someone not taken the time to open my eyes to a particular passage in the Word.I, too, found God in the rain that fell this morning. I found Him in the sunset a few days ago. I find Him when I hold my niece and when I look at the wonderful gift that is my husband. I also found Him on Sunday morning, when our worship leader sang “Adonai.” I found Him in the communion that we took together. He said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in the midst of them.” When we gather at church in His name, He is there in the midst of us. We should be able to find God in the church. If we cannot, then there is a problem that is much more serious than just excluding singles.

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