One day last summer I lost my church. Or rather, it lost me.
I'd been out of the country a couple weeks, and, therefore, hadn't been to church in a while. My first Sunday back, I showed up at the usual time and place ready to reconnect with friends through a communal experience of faith.
My first clue of something amiss was pulling in my usual three minutes late and being the only car in the parking lot. Inside, the community center that had been our church plant's meeting place for the past eight months was empty. I even drove to the new building we were in the process of converting into a church to see if we were holding a special service there. Nope.
I drove around feeling like an idiot. Who loses their church?
Apparently I do.
When I got home and consulted our church website, I realized services had switched to summer hours while I'd been gone. Apparently with preparing for and taking my trip, I hadn't been to church in longer than I'd thought.
The following week I came down with pneumonia, making me miss another three Sunday mornings of worship. So, all told, I didn't darken the door of my church for two months (though, for the official record, that one week in there I really did try).
As I came out of my pneumonia–inspired stupor and began re–entering the world, I had a startling thought: It would be easy to simply not go back to church.
While I enjoy my ethnically diverse little church plant family, I and four other people are the only singles in our 150–member congregation. The rest of our body of believers is mostly young couples with several toddlers in tow.
Being the odd one out every Sunday isn't easy. I often have to sit alone. Several of the parents are connected to each other through their kids, and I don't share that connection. And many of the sermon illustrations, centered on marriage and parenting, apply to the majority of this congregation, but leave me out.
While most days I truly enjoy my single life, I struggle to sit amidst so many people at a life stage I thought I'd have reached by now—and to do so week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out.
I think I was most concerned that no one called during those two months I went missing to find out where I was.
For all these reasons, sometimes I simply feel invisible at church. So I'm tempted to really truly disappear, and therefore not attach such negative connotations to one of my key spiritual experiences.
I've discussed the lack of single men in the church, part of a larger issue of males in general drifting away from "too feminized" worship experiences on Sunday mornings. About a year ago, I told a friend I was worried that if churches didn't change their hyper family focus, they'd start losing single women as well.
While I have no studies to prove that theory, I've watched several single female friends leave church in the past couple years. These women are strong Christians, long–time believers, and even past leaders in their congregations. One or two of these women specifically cited the strong family focus of their congregations as a major reason for departure. These singles just got tired of hearing about family camps, back–to–school ice cream socials, daytime women's Bible studies, and moms gatherings. While these ministries certainly belong in the church, they led these single women to feel left out, as if maybe they don't belong in the church. And many female readers of this column indicate they've left the church for these reasons as well.
Still, I never thought I'd be tempted to help prove my single–women–leaving–the–church theory. While I'd always understood how singles would want to leave the church after repeatedly feeling like the odd one out, I'd always thought these folks were a tad irresponsible. Yes, being a minority is tough. But Christians have a calling to do many uncomfortable tasks, such as taking up the cross and following Christ or dying to self.
While Christians can certainly exist without a Sunday morning community of faith, they'd find practicing faith alone to be tough going. God understood this, so he made sure to include Hebrews 10:25 in his Word: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
Even with this understanding of and commitment to obedience, I still was tempted to drift.
When I discussed this temptation with a single friend, she asked a striking, thought–provoking question: "What specifically should the church do differently? How would a more singles–inclusive church look?"
The question seemed easy enough, yet I struggled to formulate an answer. I certainly don't desire a singles–focused church. I have nothing against the traditional family, and completely understand the reason for our churches' current family focus. The traditional family has been struggling in the culture. So, of course, we who believe in the Creator of families are championing the cause. Great. I understand. But the simultaneous trend of increased singlehood is complicating matters. Surely our congregations can both strengthen families and make this growing demographic of singles feel welcomed and valued.
But how, specifically, does that dual mission look?
Honestly, I don't exactly know. I admit some of the problem is my pride. I get tired of not fitting in to the "normal" demographic, tired of wondering if people think me too picky, unmarryable, perhaps gay. Admittedly, some of this issue is my problem, not the church's.
I also wonder if some of this church–drift issue is more a symptom of our fractured, isolated culture than a result of our current church climate. I hear many people from all walks of life craving authentic, close relationships, the kind of true community described in Acts 2. I hear people in other demographics feeling a bit left out at church, and in other social arenas. And I'm beginning to see what a huge opportunity we Christ–followers have to be compellingly countercultural by practicing true community.
I'm still searching for answers—or at least insight—to these questions. And as I wait and look and process, I keep driving to my broken, little congregation most Sunday mornings. Broken not just because it's made being a single person there difficult, but because it's composed of broken human beings . . . like me. Who sometimes forget why I'm there. Who fall prey to the isolation of our broken, individualistic culture. And who need to keep obeying the call to meet together, and striving to practice true community.
Even when, and maybe especially when, I occasionally lose my way.