Photo credit: Noah Silliman, Unsplash.com
Unlike some people I know, I didn’t grow up with the idea that the people from church were my family. They were just the people from church.
My parents didn’t invite the pastor over for dinner. Our family didn’t get together with other families from church. The kids from Sunday school were the kids from Sunday school, and it never occurred to anybody to suggest getting together at non-church times. When I was in third grade, Debbie Piccarelli was in my Sunday school class, and she was also somebody I knew from school, but that was the extent of the crossover. If there were social groups—the church equivalent of Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts—I never heard about them.
When I was in high school, we began attending the congregational church in the center of town. This church had a youth group, but they didn’t do much. Once, we made a marathon walk of some sixteen miles to benefit a clinic in pre-gentrified South Norwalk. Other than a bike hike and a bonfire, I don’t recall the group doing anything else.
In any event, it didn’t really matter, because all through grammar school, middle school, and the first two years of high school, my friends were the people I knew from school. Those were the people I’d hang out with at lunch time or after school. They were the ones at slumber parties I attended or cafeteria tables where I ate lunch. Nobody paid much attention to whether or where we attended church.
My first experience with a church family as such came when I was sixteen. An acquaintance of my older sister played the organ at her church, and she invited my family to come to a service. I don’t know why we all went, except that my parents weren’t enamored of the congregational church. What I remember was that that church was different from any I’d ever attended. There was an intimacy about the congregation that I’d never seen before: the people seemed to be friends rather than just fellow congregants. Eventually, when I came home after college, I made a few real friends in that church, people with whom I’d get together outside church functions.
From there, I went to a tiny Christian college in western New York. My first inkling of just how different this world was came three weeks into my freshman year, when my father had a stroke. My resident assistant, a beautiful gentle soul whom we all called “Mom,” sat with me until one of my father’s coworkers arrived to drive me to the airport. The girls on my floor—strangers to me a few weeks earlier—offered hugs and promised to pray. I felt as if I’d been wrapped in a soft, plush blanket of caring.
After graduation, I returned to the “real world” and to my home church. I had friends in the choir, in my study group, and in the congregation. Oddly, the “singles group” proved to be the least fruitful place to form friendships. I have long wondered about the notion of creating a group whose members have as their primary goal the day when they no longer qualify for membership. It didn’t seem to matter that the only things members had in common were their marital status and the fact that they attended this church. On rare occasions, members of this group would marry each other, fueling the hope of the remaining singletons that Mr. or Miss Right might one day be sitting next to them, too.
Photo credit: Marc-Olivier Jodoin, Unsplash.com
Over the years, I’ve attended several different churches. For the most part, they seemed to be content with allowing people to form relationships on their own; the organized groups, such as the singles group, were merely add-ons where people might meet others at a similar place in life.
I probably wouldn’t think a great deal of all this if it weren’t for the relatively new focus in my long-time church. Several years ago, the church instituted “small groups,” which are now called “community groups.” I was familiar with the small-group concept, because I was a part of one in the church I attended before moving north for law school, and it was a wonderful experience. Scheduling being what it is, though, I had a hard time taking on a weekly commitment, so it was a fairly long time before I gave the notion of a community group more than a passing thought. Besides, I already had friends within the church, and I was active in several ministry groups. But as the years went by and my friends moved away, died, or merely drifted in other directions, it seemed that joining a community group might be a good way of gaining connection.
So, in the fall of 2016, I took the step. The whole “evangelicals support Trump” thing had me skittish, but I thought I chose my group well enough. The second week, one member walked in wearing a MAGA hat, but I told myself we didn’t all have to agree on everything, and I persisted. I made an effort not to feel excluded as the group—all couples, most with high school-aged kids—talked about what their kids were doing, their parenting issues, and not much else. I did my best not to read too much into it when one of the guys opined that he had no problem with the first Muslim ban. I showed up for the group’s holiday party and the group leader’s birthday party, both of which were populated almost exclusively by church people, and I did my best to find people to talk with about things other than politics or their kids.
Photo credit: SplitShire, pixabay.com
Finally, though, it was too wearing, and I dropped out. I didn’t announce my decision or make a statement; I simply stopped going. No one called or texted to see if I was being prevented from coming by some sort of personal crisis or emergency. To this day, not a single member of the group has ever asked why I left.
In any large group, there will be cliques and in-groups. That’s life, and it’s naïve to expect anything else. It’s one reason that community groups, Sunday school classes, Bible studies, choirs, and other groups can be such valuable parts of a church. As my pastor says, “You can’t know everybody, but you can know somebody.” On the other hand, the reality is that if you don’t make the effort to be part of the accepted social structure, you’re on your own. My own church attendance has dropped dramatically over the past two years; if anyone has noticed, they haven’t mentioned it to me. As long as I show up once a month to sing and a few times a year to prepare for communion, nothing appears to be amiss. That’s how easy it is for people—even those serving in visible roles—to fall through the cracks in a group that claims to be a family.
In one of Rachel Held Evans’s books, she talks about the day she and her husband officially left their evangelical church. She’d grown up in the church-family construct, and on the way home, she said to her husband, “Who will bring us casseroles when we have a baby?” Bringing people meals in times of need used to be a big thing in my church. Now, I rarely hear of such a request. Maybe people’s church friends or community groups handle the need; maybe the people rely on Uber Eats; maybe they just don’t want to ask. Before my last surgery, I made meals and put them in the freezer because it seemed silly to put out a call for others to do what I was perfectly capable of doing myself.
I don’t know how much of my isolation from my current church stems from what people know about my political views. Those of us who aren’t conservatives have found one another, but our number is small. It’s odd to think that my connection with them is derived from how much we don’t fit with the traditional church family. We are our own little clique, with our defining factor being our opposition to political conservativism. Sadly, on the occasions when I do show up at a worship service, I rarely see any of my fellow outsiders.
The obvious question is, “Why don’t you change churches?” The answer is simple: I like the pastor’s sermons. Granted, I can get them via podcast. I can download them from the church website in written or audio form. But it’s more complicated than that. I’ve spent more than twenty years in this church. Leaving it means more than sitting in a pew in a different building. Our relationship is struggling, but I’m not certain I’m ready to get a divorce.
Maybe the question is, “Where can I find a church with like-minded people?” Or perhaps, “Should I be trying to find a church with like-minded people? Or should I reconcile myself to the notion that all churches are made of up of flawed humans, and so I might just as well stay where I am?”
These are notions I wrestle with in this troubled time. The church is struggling, too. The idea that the local church is a family sounds lovely, but it seems unrealistic in these polarizing times, when political and religious views seem to be so closely linked. I understand that families can disagree—mine certainly does—but every time I hear that white evangelicals support the current regime, I cringe and think, “That’s not me.”
Two years ago, I went to hear Rachel Held Evans speak about her book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Afterward, I waited in line to have her sign my copy. It was a slow line, because she took the time to have real conversations with everyone. I was one of the last to reach her. I told her how much her words meant, how they resonated with me, how alone I felt amid the white evangelicals in my church. I don’t remember now if she hugged me, but I felt hugged. More importantly, I felt as if I wasn’t alone. As if, just maybe, my church family isn’t my local body of believers and my special pals there. Maybe, it’s a lot bigger.