Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Church (S)hopping and the Stigma for Singles

Church hopping: is it morally askew?  An act of desperation?  Does it suggest a lack of faith in God to bless you right where you are?    Perhaps there are no hard and fast answers, but in this blog I will attempt to shed some light on the matter, and hopefully dislodge some of the stigma attached to church hopping for singles.

Rewind several months: I am at a pot luck dinner hosted by a friend of a friend.  All in attendance are church-going Christians, and during the course of the evening I meet a few new faces.  One attendee, a guy of similar age to myself, asks what church I attend.  I name the flourishing city-based church that I’m attending, to which he responds:
“Did you go there to find a husband?”
My immediate inward response is anger, and a big part of me wants to scream out “what would you know about the absence of the opposite sex in church?”  Fortunately though, I don’t speak out in anger.  Instead, I adopt a position of understanding for my fellow single sisters, and thoughtfully replied with this:
“No, but I really commend women who go outside of their comfort zones in an effort to meet new people”. 
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognise what such a response highlighted (in him) a lack of understanding or empathy towards his God-fearing sisters. 

Yet a certain stigma for single women who change churches does undeniably exist.  I’ve been in Auckland (Central) for seven years now, and in that time have belonged to three different churches.  My reasons for changing churches are varied and cannot be dwindled down to one single factor.  But if I’m to be completely honest, the absence of men in some circles did give extra weight to my decision to pack my bible and move to another church’s pew.  A question I’m commonly asked by women I meet in churches I’m new to is ‘What made you decide to change churches?’  For me, I’ve experienced this question as a rather loaded question.   Most women I meet and whom I’m already friends with are single, and to answer with ‘Because there were no men at the previous church’ is awkward for a number of reasons.  For one, it could suggest to the questioner that you think their efforts are passive and unacceptable.  For another, you could be expected to give subsequent updates on whether or not you’ve met anybody at your new church.  Personally, I’ve voiced all honest reasons for departing my previous churches, bar any reference to the shortage of men. 

There was, however, one exception to this.  I’d joined a choir at one church in the lead up to their Christmas performance, partly as I felt compelled to do my bit for the Christ-focused Christmas cheer, and partly because I wanted to meet new people so that I could sit with them at church on Sundays.  Arriving a few minutes earlier for practise one evening, I entered the facilities with another woman whom I’d never met before.  She introduced herself and we started chatting.  Learning I was new to the church, she asked me what caused me to switch churches.  I noted something prior to this question: this lady was wearing a wedding ring.  She was also several years older than me.  I decided, based on my assumption that she couldn’t find my motivation a threat or a subtle criticism of her own positioning, to answer with particular reference to the singleness factor.  I told her that I was now in my thirties, that there were no suitable single men in my previous church and that, because of this, I felt I should branch out and try some place where there were more men and, thus, more potential for meeting someone.  My expectations were met; this woman didn’t judge me and took quite a supportive stance on the matter. 

However, this seems to be more the exception than the rule, and the fact that changing churches to meet someone is so often frowned on and stigmatised is something I continually struggle with.  Just reflect on Brook Fraser’s lyrics “Faith without deeds is dead”.   Indeed, Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing year after year and expecting a different result.  Thinking about it, what is Date My Mate but merging many congregations in one common setting?  And this is for the select purpose of finding someone.  Single Christians feel ok about such functions because - at some point - someone has deemed it ok for us to mingle with singles from other churches, hence their decision to host the event in the first place.  But we needn’t make our endeavours to meet new people of the opposite sex limited to a singles function given the tick by an event coordinator; our own judgements bathed in careful prayer should suffice.  And I do think prayer has a lot to do with it.   Depending on what part of the world you are in, you might find yourself slightly overwhelmed by the number of churches worth considering.  Within Auckland city centre there are more churches than there are Sundays in a year.  Let us not forget that God ordained Sunday as the day of rest, so rather than stressing about how to get to a new venue and where you’ll find parking, try praying and listening from Christ first. 

Moreover, there is a certain parallel I have recently drawn in relation to the stigma of singles trying other churches.  Let us say you’ve been going to the same church for a good three years, and in that time you’ve made great friends, maybe admired one or two men along the way, but really the core circle of church goers in your age group isn’t really evolving in the manner of bringing new men into the church.  So, you think to yourself, the chances of meeting someone here on Sundays or in mid-week small groups is, well, extremely low.  Perhaps you mention thoughts of trying somewhere different to a friend or two, and no doubt they’ll ask what has prompted this desire to explore other houses of God.  If you are like me, at this point you feel awkward: you are Christian, so you don’t want to lie and say something along the lines of “I’m just not feeling challenged anymore”, but you also know there is an unspoken code within Christian realms that dictates you can’t leave on the basis of lack of male potential.  Perhaps you try to slip between the cracks and not announce anything, quietly leaving one Sunday never to be seen again.  It is pretty sad to think it might come to something like the latter.  After all, God created man and woman, and marriage is a sacred covenant the Almighty created.   Why, then, do we have to pretend that we are always happy with our single status year after year, and carry on the same routine so as not to appear human with inclinations toward God-ordained convenants? 

Let’s break this down and see it for what it really is.  Say, for example, there a Christian woman (we’ll call her Mary) who is looking for a job.  She has been at her current job for 8 years, and whilst she has formed great relationships there she feels that she needs a change.  So what does she do about this?  She prays about it, she views the 'Situations Vacant' colum in the newspaper, and she signs up with Seek (New Zealand site for advertised job positions) so that she can view relevant positions as they become available.  I want to point out two things here.  First, she doesn’t just pray about it and then sit on her hands from then on.  Again, we are called to be active – and, I think proactive – and make steps while trusting Him and letting Him guide us.  Likewise, as I’ve explained, we should incorporate prayer also when considering leaving or going to a new church.  Secondly, Mary signed up with a site that constantly lists positions employers are looking to fill each day.  We wouldn’t expect her to sign up with a site that rarely (or perhaps never) has any new listings, would we?  So why do we expect women to constrain themselves to a church that never has single men?  Such notions defy logic.

Also, by widening one's church circle, singles are more likely to meet different people of the same sex and form more new friendships, an action that can assist in absorbing an excess of time spend alone or even alleviate loneliness.   My close circles of friends are mostly from three different churches.  I first started attending a centre city church 7 years ago.  Had I not ventured from that church, I would in all likeness probably not have met two thirds of the friends that I have today.  I truly value those friendships, and my life has been enriched because of them.  Indeed, when faced with bouts of loneliness from time to time, I took comfort in the fact that, from having a reasonable number of friends, at least one of them would have time to spend with me.  Likewise, I hope that I have also helped them in their journey in life; even the simple act of attending a friend’s function when you’ve been invited shows them that you care, or sending a text to let them know they are not forgotten.

But doesn’t a rolling stone collect no moss…
If this were true, I wouldn’t have formed the friendships that I have, nor would I have had valuable fellowship with other believers.  However, I will stress that you do need to put down roots somewhere in order to cultivate friendships.  Like plants, friendships need time and attention in order to grow and strengthen.  Changing churches every fortnight is probably not going to result in too many new friendships.  Rather, you need to spend time there to connect and get to know people.  Most of my Christian friends I met through going to working bees, church camps, or joining the welcome team, not from attending Sunday services.  You can’t put a time bracket around how long this will take, that is why prayer and trusting in the Lord is necessary.   I am reminded of the theme song from the old sitcom ‘Cheers’, “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…  And they’re always glad you came”.

Moreover, we don’t know what role someone will play in our life until we can look back after some time and reflect on it.  One of my closest friends I met at a friend of a friend’s birthday party.  After a couple of my dating relationships dissolved, she has literally turned up on my door step with chocolate and tissues without me even asking anything of her.  That is priceless.  In another church I went to, I was to discover that I wasn’t to make many friends there.  I spent several months in a small group, but try as I might - bar one person - I couldn’t get connected.  That one person is my best male mate now, and through him I met another guy who accompanied me to Date My Mate (where taking a single friend of the opposite sex was a requirement).  Since that event, I’ve been seeing someone.  If you remove any one of these people from my life, perhaps things would look very different for me today.

The subjective “me” is not to be the whole picture though.  Others needs need to be recognised when considering the changing of churches.  Specifically, I do not think that changing churches should be so frequent that we avoid responsibilities like serving, whether it is serving the church as a whole body, or individuals in life stages that require encouragement and support.  Hebrews 10 versus 23-25 says:

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Indeed, meeting together facilitates familiarity if it is practiced on a continuum.  Certainly this can only come about with a sufficient period of time.  Also, in order to encourage one another we need to know where they are at and what they are going through.  Trust is not always garnered the first time we meet someone, it is something that has to be earned over time. 

Finally, having taken a look online, the definition of Church Hopping most recurrent is this: going from one church to another without committing to any one church for any substantial period of time.  Perhaps we’ve been miss-using the term in New Zealand circles.  It seems Church Shopping is more accurate, as it relates to finding a new church that you can then call home.  So, single Christian women looking for somewhere new, I wish you the courage and faith you need to stand against any stigmatism you may encounter as you negotiate your Sunday whereabouts.  I pray that you will draw strength from God and from those understanding people around you as you bravely step out.   And, when you do find your new home church, I pray that no brother-in-Christ will then quiz you with “Have you just come here to find a husband?” J


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