by Deeply Committed | 31 October 2019 |
My loneliest 90 minutes of the week begins when I step out of the children’s Sabbath School class I teach.
In that 90 minutes I walk through a sea of people, a couple of whom might nod at me or even say hello, on my way to the sanctuary. Church happens, and then I walk back through that same sea, and less often is there even a nod. I climb in my car and drive home. I love teaching and I am really good at it, but after eight years of attending this church I have only a few acquaintances and a couple of friendly relationships, but no real deep friends. None. I have no expectation that this will ever change.
I have been hesitant to write this article, not wanting it to just sound like I am whining. I constantly wonder if it is me, but I don’t think so.
When I Go to Church…
Each week when go to church…and I am there every week unless I am out of town, which is just a handful of Sabbaths, it seems as if everyone else already has enough friends. Here are some of the things I’ve tried.
- I had a conversation with someone who likes to hike—or something like that, something I love to do—and said, “Hey, I would love to go hiking sometimes or get some pointers about where to go.” Nothing!
- At a church breakfast I sat down at a table where a church elder and another person were chatting, thinking it would be a good way to get acquainted. They never even looked at me.
- I have suggested lunch or breakfast with a few others only to be told that their calendars were really full and they were not sure they could fit it in.
- The church school is working on a major project on some excess land where they are planning on developing a project, in a sector where I am an expert. I have never been asked to help in any way, though I have offered.
There is more, but you get the point.
But We Are Such a Friendly Church!
From the platform, the pastoral staff talk about how friendly the church is, and when I hear that, I find it crazy making, because I wonder if something is wrong with me since that is not my experience. Yet my spouse (who has done a better job of connecting) tells me that there are many others who feel the same way—but I also wonder if it is just them.
To those who have been here for a while or are in significant leadership positions, it is a friendly church. They have lots of friends—so many friends that they don’t really have time, energy or interest in more friends—good for them, bad for new people or people who struggle to make friends… really bad.
This is not just my church. I think it is pretty typical of Adventist churches across the country. I attended a church where the elder delivered the sermon and the whole thing was chastising the church for holding an evangelistic series and not holding on to a single person that was baptized. She attributed it to not building relationships with those new converts. It made sense except that when I walked out after church not a single person even said hello to me.
My spouse and I visited a large East Coast church in an Adventist ghetto where they invited visitors to stay for potluck. No one actually bothered to tell us where potluck was being held, but after some wrong turns we found it. It turns out there were no more seats available. We finally managed to figure out where they stored the extra tables and chairs and made ourselves at home.
We also noticed there were special desserts that some tables kept hidden for themselves under the table.
I would add that I have had a couple of amazing experiences of connecting at church, but that has been the exception and not the rule.
Was This Me?
This is a sobering question. In my last few church experiences I have been in the middle of the leadership mix and I find myself wondering if I was the same way. I don’t think so…. We had potlucks at our house, and anyone was welcome and were welcome to invite others without asking us. It made for some crowded but fun Sabbath afternoons.
And yet I wonder… if I were part of the inner circle at my current church would I see the problem, or would I become part of the problem? I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure.
Symptoms—Not the Problem
The business sector I work in is all about caring for people in need of help, and most of that help is performed by hundreds of thousands of people who exist at the bottom of the employment stack. I find, with very rare exceptions, the leaders in this industry are passionate about both the population they serve, and those people who do the hard work for so little pay on the front line. These leaders are always looking to make one more connection, to have one more friend. They are committed to making the world a better place for others. Some are religious, most are not. Still, they are Matthew 25 sheep.
Growing up Adventist I was obsessed with being good enough to be saved. I was not alone—everyone else was too. We are today mostly less legalistic, but we are still mostly obsessed with our personal relationship with God, which means we don’t really have all that much time to worry about our relationship with others unless it is low energy and entertains me. And since I am so busy worrying about my salvation and having fun relationships, once I get a few relationships that work—people who are just like me—I really don’t have any time energy or interest in new friends.
It is not particularly intention to freeze out people, so in one sense it is not evil. But on the other hand, it is an obsession with self and family that excludes—or all but excludes—everyone else.
The Matthew 25 Problem
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells what might be the most profound and complete picture of what it takes to be saved. It has zero to do with what we eat, drink, what we wear or even what day we worship on—all things that seem profoundly important to Adventists. The sheep and goats parable has to do with only two things:
- Do I notice people who are in need?
- When I notice them do I do anything about those needs?
This story is similar to the Good Samaritan, except that in the case of the Good Samaritan the religious leaders notice and still neglect to help. In the sheep and goats story, they don’t even notice.
This is a fundamental Adventist problem. We mostly obsess about the wrong things.
I lurk in an Adventist Facebook group where someone asked if it was okay to microwave food on the Sabbath. That question has 200 responses! Around the world, people are starving to death, being abused and dying of cancer, and many are extremely lonely—and we wonder if God cares about microwaving food! These are distractions. Frankly, if God is more interested in whether or not I microwave food on the Sabbath than genuine suffering, then he is not a good god and I want nothing to do with him.
Why I Stay
I stay for two reasons. The first is that Sabbath is so deeply ingrained in my heart and I believe that before Adam and Eve sinned it was God’s greatest gift and still remains the second greatest gift God gave humanity.
The second is that I am making a real difference in the lives of some young people. I am teaching them about Jesus, and about paying attention to those who are not their natural friends, but need to be friends.
But I would never recommend Adventism to my friends who are interested in exploring Christianity. I want them to learn to like Jesus by being befriended, not ignored, which is what largely happens to me every week. It is what happens in too many Adventist churches each week.
I pray that we will will take Matthew 25 to heart, but I am not sure it will happen.
Deeply Committed hates writing anonymously, but has chosen to do so for this article—hoping many congregations will wonder if the writer is from their own congregation and take a hard look at how friendly they are (or aren’t). Deeply has also remained anonymous because he or she doesn’t want to make it harder to serve effectively in his or her church family—but is willing to admit that perhaps he or she is just a coward!