Walking out of church and other dramas

I've just read a great interview with Julie Neidlinger, which relates to a blog post on her website. The original post was called "Why I Walked Out of Church" and I suggest you read it before reading the interview. There's a link to it in the interview so start there.

I have to say I am simultaneously baffled yet completely unsurprised by the response to Julie's original post. I read it. I liked it. I liked it even though I didn't necessarily agree with every single word... although I think it was more that I couldn't relate entirely to her experience rather than that I disagreed. The church scene is Australia is quite different - life in general in Australia is quite different - so there were some things that were simply irrelevant to me. But here's the thing - it is actually possible to like an article/blog post even when it's not 100% relevant to me. I'm continually puzzled as to why people feel the need to attack things simply because they've suddenly discovered that the world is not, after all, populated by clones of themselves. I'm even more puzzled - and frankly, a little frightened - by the fact that people think it's a-okay to attack someone personally when you disagree with them. Well, it's okay on the internet. "Bravery" seems to increase as anonymity increases and it apparently hasn't occurred to these people that this kind of bravery is in fact most cowardly. But that's a rant for another day.

What struck a chord with me in the article were her comments about age segregation, which I think extends to "lifestyle" segregation. I am a 37-year-old unmarried Christian woman - in two months I'll be a 38-year-old unmarried Christian woman. Sadly, many churches and well-meaning, genuinely kind-hearted Christians don't seem to realise that it's not ALL I am. When I moved interstate nearly 5 years ago I rang many local churches to find out their service times and to get an idea of the makeup of the congregations. After talking a bit about myself I found I was constantly hearing this:

"Well, we have a traditional service at 8am, but that's mostly retired people so you wouldn't want to go to that. Then we have a family service at 11am but it's really for married people with kids so that's probably not for you either. And the evening service is youth oriented..." (Generally, they were too polite to add "... and you're too old" but believe me the implication was there.)

I'm realising more and more that churches simply don't know what to do with single people once they're over 30. It's not that they don't want to be welcoming; it's that they truly don't know. They fear that hanging around married people all the time will make me feel left out and sad. They do want me to feel comfortable and welcomed but they can't see how that's possible when there is no one else there in my life situation. And to some extent that's fair enough - I have friends of all ages and all life circumstances but there's no denying I appreciate friends who really understand the pressures, difficulties and joys of being a single woman in a married world. That being said, I don't want all my friends to be the same. My single friends and I joke about the "Smug Married" people who can't think of anything beyond their own happiness (which is entirely tied up in their married state), but for singles I think there's a real danger of "Smug Singles" syndrome where we deliberately avoid - and often bitch about - the married (Smug or otherwise) because we are sure they couldn't possibly understand us, and because we're bitter about the way they've avoided us. We form an exclusive club in reaction to what we perceive to be a different exclusive club to which we have not been invited. There's also the danger of the situation where single people rally together for support and end up 'encouraging' each other in bitterness and sadness and complete obsessiveness about being single.

I do want to be free to be sad, because sometimes I am. I want to be free to be confused and angry, because sometimes I am. But the key word here is sometimes - I don't want those feelings, and my singleness, to define me or to influence all my actions and thoughts. I don't want to associate only with people who "really understand" because it means, in part, that I believe no one else can empathise or care. That's simply not true. If you extend that example it means we can't care for the poor, the terminally ill, the starving... because only those who have been in that situation can truly understand and offer support. It sounds ridiculous when you say that but it's exactly the same principle.

I want to be in a church where there are married people, old people, kids, young people, single people, divorced people, disabled people, happy, sad, bitter and joyful people. In short, I want my church community to represent the real community. Yes, I have particular needs at times and sometimes they need to be met by particular people... but sometimes they are unexpectedly and most joyfully met by other dear brothers and sisters who are not 'just like me'. If I spent all my time with unmarried Christians over 30 I would have missed out on some delightful times and some real blessings. I have married friends who talk to me about their marriage, and I pray for them. I talk to them about being single, and they pray for me. I haven't ever been married and they haven't ever been single at the same age as me, but we love each other, we listen, we try to understand, and we pray.

Another important point, for me, is the understanding that for many unmarried Christians the church family is their only family. I have some very dear friends who have made space in their families to include me. I'm sure partly it's because they want to look after me and make sure I'm not left alone, especially as my 'real' family are all interstate, but mostly it's because we are friends. We have similar likes and dislikes, we understand each other and we have fun together. I'm a 'good fit' with them so it's natural to treat me as part of the family. It's not pity or kindness; it's friendship, love and like-mindedness. If I were only hanging out with people in my situation I'd never feel like part of a family. Trying to help unmarried Christians 'fit in' by pointing us towards other unmarried Christians often means we miss out on some valuable family relationships.

I've been living this situation for a long time in various churches and I don't have the solution. There is no "one size fits all" solution since we, married or single, are unique individuals with different needs, joys and hurts. But I can't help thinking it might be a good start if we learned to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and not as Christian couples, Christian parents, Christian singles, Christian students, etc. Let's see what happens when we turn that adjective into the noun.


Le @ Third on the Right said...

hello - me again - go read www.jenx67.com - I think you might enjoy her thoughts on faith etc - cheers le

Hippomanic Jen said...

I go to a country town church. There are approximately 5-7 semi-regulars between 18 and 50 (which is a very big age group). Some of those have kids. One is single. Hubby and I are married without children. Sometimes I have more in common with the retired couples with children away than people my own age. If we all hung around with 'people like us' it would be a very lonely church.

Dee said...

you need to find a church that has just the one service. I can understand separating services for many reasons, but in teh interests of creating a supportive church community, it really needs to be "all together". We all have experiences to share, and thats waht strethens a commnuity, shared experiences.

femina said...

My church has ~600 people; we can't fit into one service. I'm actually very happy where I am (although it took me a while to find somewhere where I wasn't treated as a pariah). The so-called 'family' service at my church is actually very diverse in terms of ages and life experience... but still there aren't many people "like me", which causes some to fret about me. They don't seem to have realised that I'M not fretting so there's no need for anyone else to do it! :)

Thanks for your comments... it's so great to be hearing from lots of people.

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