Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why Are We All So Lonely?

Last week Laura Droege asked on her blog why so many people feel invisible at church. It's not uncommon for someone to get heavily involved in church life and yet have few deep friendships. Which leads to a lot of lonely churchgoers.

Why does this happen? How can we fix it?

Nic and I host the young adult group at our current church. We deliberately chose not to do a biblestudy (to the disappointment of some older folks). People come over on Fridays and we play card games, chat, and eat cookies.

The idea was to foster real friendships. In our experience, the word "biblestudy" scares some people away and causes the rest to put on their intellectual, good-Christian hats for an hour without actually building solid relationships. The 20-30 age bracket is a very lonely group, and we wanted people to feel welcome and wanted, not like they're checking off a box on their to-do list.

We have the welcome and wanted part down. People have fun and feel connected on a surface level. But as I've tried to grow closer or stretch the depth of those relationships, I hit shallow sandbars. We don't seem to get past the who's-your-favorite-superhero phase to the actual knowing-you part.

Perhaps I'm speaking from my own experience as a leader (and the only female one). But I feel like I've formed a mix of mentorships and casual friendships. I've only made a handful of friends who I feel truly know and understand me. (Being a liberal Christian in the Bible Belt doesn't help.)

I'm lonely. I'd warrant a guess that I'm not the only one. Most of the relationships that have sprung up in the group are fun and lightweight, and that's important, but it's not enough. Not at the age when people go out on their own, leave home behind, figure life out, struggle to find a job in this horrible economy, and frequently move around.

We need people who will be there for us no matter what face we're showing. The closest friends of all are the ones with whom you can share the biggest and the smallest stuff: the things that are either too inconsequential or too personal tell just anyone.

I had hoped to see that. I hoped to see people going to one another for comfort and support and understanding and necessary human connection. I don't. I see people chatting about what they do for a living and what shows they watch with people who won't remember their answers a week from now. It isn't nothing, and it can still help us feel like we belong, but it isn't enough.

Pioneering new ways of doing ministry only fixed loneliness on the surface.

This isn't about how we do church: it's a problem of church culture as a whole. Group cohesion and fear of being perceived as a bad Christian has led us into appearance-based territory where certain qualities must be met in order to be "good enough." People aren't allowed to deeply question the status quo without being labeled "one of those"--despite the fact that every breathing human being should have questions and doubts and insights.

We let people know that if they question traditional doctrine about abortion or hell, they are Displeasing To God. Not to us: the church welcomes everyone. But God will be angry with you. And the rest of us will know it.

We have systematized judgmentalism. We took the culpability off of ourselves and put it on God, saying, "This is what God thinks." That way we can blame him when someone feels rejected.

Because we chalk it up to God, the judgement becomes holy. Allowable because it is branded as divine. Apparently God hates abortion, and therefore God should think all women who've had an abortion are sinners, and it's the church's job to let those women know. "You're a sinner. We all are. Come repent with us." Without finding out her story or asking what she thinks about the issue.

We say we love everyone. Yet our firm stances on these issues stamp people as outcasts. We want to love everyone, but we don't.

Our systematic way of branding people is why people feel alone. People cannot be true to who God made us: pro-choice, or egalitarian, or Type A, or queer, or Democrat, or people on any side of any debate ever. We have eradicated diversity in the church and sent everyone into hiding.

Most of the church populace falls into at least one of the categories we've ostracized. We're making our own people feel unwelcome and unloved. We can only find connection if we lie about who we are. We have a culture that discourages and even discriminates against authenticity.

We hate hearing this critique. The church likes to believe it's loving. When we're told we aren't, we say, "You're not paying attention. You're trying to make us the enemy."

But love can't be intentions or attempts. If Nic buys me gifts and I write him poetry, neither of us will feel particularly loved by those actions because they aren't our love languages. Our marriage is strong if we love one another in the ways that the other person will hear it.

Right now, people in the church don't hear it.

Until we change our attitudes within Christian culture, people are going to feel alone. They'll push every part of themselves that's "unacceptable" into a closet and lock the door. When they make friendships, that part of themselves will always be alone, in the dark, unknown and unknowable. And none of our connections will feel truly authentic, deep, or real.

We need to be able to be honest about our doubts, our questions, our beliefs that fall right or left of mainstream post-modern Western Christianity. I think we'll be surprised by the number of people who share our questions and opinions. That's where we'll build solid friendships. That's when we'll stop feeling so alone.

Word count: 1,000.