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.