Relational Aggression

It was a nice day outside, so we were allowed to have recess in the front parking lot while the playground was being remodeled. Some kids were playing four square, others were just hanging out. I was playing with the girl scout and her friends – some make-believe game, I think. A few minutes into it, the cheerleader came up to us. We all thought it was cool that the most popular girl in school would play with us, after all, it could only increase our social capital to know her and to play with her. To say that we were playing together would be the wrong word. She took over the game, changed it completely.

“One last thing.” She said, “I’ll play with all of you, but not her.” She was referring to me. Needless to say, I was dropped from the group like a hot potato. So I stood there and watched the cheerleader play with a group of kids whom I thought were my friends. Such events characterized recess for me more often than not.

Back then, that was a typical interaction between peer groups – particularly girls. A normal setting of boundaries between in-group and out-group members. Today we would call it relational agression – a form of bullying typical for girls and women, but exists in the form of cyber-bullying that also affects boys and men.

Relational agression includes excluding others from social activities, damaging a person’s reputation by spreading rumors, gossiping, and humiliating them in front of others, as well as withdrawing attention and friendship. It doesn’t happen in schools alone; but it can also happen in workplaces as well as houses of worship.

Perhaps it’s the outsider in me that more easily sees the connection. It’s hard to deny the prominence marriage has in modern Christianity – the church took on culture in a big way not for biblical singleness, but Biblical Marriage. Many churches struggle to put together a decent singles’ program, but often have a thriving marriage program. Church events are designed for or around the needs of the married members more often than those of the single members. Bible Studies are often about marriage or point to marriage as a metaphor for gospel truths rather than singleness. As such, being married gives a person higher social capital in the church than being single. The only thing worse is being divorced because that’s like having fallen from God’s good graces – to have fully known and experienced the truth of marriage and lost it.

Already we can see that the church tends to withdraw attention to it’s singles as well as excludes them on a regular basis from the events that are designed for the marrieds. Singles have noted being called ‘selfish’ and ‘immature’ for not being married – which could easily account for aspects of spreading rumors, gossiping, and humiliation – their experiences vary so for some it’s worse than others.

As relational bullies, the goal is to control another person through their relationships. You cut them off if you’re displeased with them by any means available to you. You do not hinder their relationships if you’re okay with where they’re at. By relegating singles to nursery workers and isolating them from group activities you’re sending them the message that they don’t belong because they don’t please you. The only real way to defeat this form of bullying is to be radically inclusive in every way. You’d have to learn to accept and talk about singleness and to stop doing ministries for marrieds only. Doing anything less would be complicit in allowing relational aggression to persist unchecked and unchallenged.

You would have to fold these diverse suits of cards in order to form one deck – of course they won’t be all the same and that’s the point. A deck of cards made up of hearts and clubs isn’t complete without it’s diamonds and spades – and when we don’t play with a full deck, there’s no winning at all.

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Time for Church

I actually went to church the other day. It’d been awhile and I was starting to think that it was time to just up and go. This church was one we had previously visited – a contemporary megachurch that usually has about three services a day. It’s also about an hour or so drive’s away – making it a chore to try to plug-in or get involved to any degree. The one advantage about this sort of church is that you can be just a face in the crowd. With so many people streaming in and out, nobody really knows anybody. You could attend there for a year and be just as much of a stranger as a stranger making their second visit. At least this time, we knew not to park the car in the western half of the parking lot – which was furthest from the main building’s entrance.

With contemporary churches – it doesn’t take a very long absence before the music goes from the sort of songs you do know to ones you haven’t really heard of. At least when we lived in the same town as our last non-denominational contemporary church, they also had this extremely popular Christian radio station. On the drive to church, you could listen to one of the songs that would soon be sung together. In this area, the radio stations are far less capable – so we have no idea what’s popular or being sung – no way to prepare ourselves for the new music. I did manage to write down the first line of each song that they displayed, but aside from that – there’s no real way to identify which songs were sung or who wrote / sang them originally.

Sermon theme: “Sacrifice”

Main points: “A Christ-follower understands the value of the Kingdom of Heaven.” “A Christ-follower is willing to sacrifice everything for the Kingdom of God.” “A Christ-follower knows the truth.”

The sermon was a fairly standard message – basically it was about giving up everything to follow Jesus. Which is something no church really wants it’s regulars to do. Churches need tithes to operate, tithes come from a steady paycheck, employment, housing, transportation. Sure, technically you could give up hobbies and leisure activities – but even Jesus was known to retreat from the world and rest. It felt a lot like preaching to the choir about needing to sing for the Lord. People don’t go to church because they aren’t saved – they go because they are and they have already given up the rights to their souls. They go for encouragement, being uplifted, being comforted, for a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

There was a moment I looked around and realized just how much of an outsider I always seem to be. I’m too contemporary for the traditional churches, and too out of the loop for the contemporary churches and in both cases not really belonging to any group at all. If Christians are trying to make it hard to leave – they’re not doing a very good job of it. They’re not really making it easy to stay, come to think of it. Churches have taken this “If you build it, they will come” approach to getting people to show up – but it’s like they don’t know what to do with them when they get there. How friendly should they be? How helpful should they be? Should they be left up to their own devices? Should room be allowed for them to approach the appropriate channels when they’re ready for more?

 

Outside-In

While I was thinking about friendship the other day, I realized that it works only so much as both parties are willing to operate on that level. One of the hardest things for a new person to do at an established church is to try to connect to already established groups of believers. They have to let you in in their circles – but that’s not always a given.

It’s a common enough scenario – there’s a new person at church who just keeps on coming. Just when you had the existing groups the way you liked it – you have figure out how to fold into the group the new person without throwing off the dynamic. But the reality is that whenever somebody new or different shows up and begins to integrate in a group, the dynamic will adjust itself accordingly.

I’m not even sure there are books written yet on how to get a church to accept you or on how churches can be a more welcoming environment to outsiders. But a conversation like this one will not do:

“Hey, I wanted to ask you, what’s her face – how long has she been coming here? Three months?”
“I thought it was five or six months.”
“Do you think that there’s some way we could use her? Get her plugged in and involved around here?”
“I’m pretty sure that Kate’s always looking for help in the nursery, but whatever her name hasn’t seemed interested in it. Everyone else doesn’t really need any help.”
“Hmm. That’s what I thought. Thanks anyway.”

Churches usually have a good idea of how new people can help them, but not the other way around – how a Church could help a new person. And they limit the avenues of ministry anyway so much so that if you don’t fit what they happen to need, then there’s nothing you can really do. Which doesn’t help you score any points with the insider crowd who tend to interpret a lack of interest in plugging into their existing ministries as spiritual apathy.

The approach is all wrong from the get-go. For one, a person shouldn’t be left waiting upwards of six, nine or more months before the church get interested in working with them as opposed to using them for something. If you’re going to be working with someone, you kind of have to get to know them, what they like, and what they’re interested in. In my case, many of my churches cared more about using me in the nursery than working with my interest in languages as a basis for helping me choose which ministry to serve in. Unsurprisingly, these churches are shocked when they realize that I do have quite a bit of skill in another language. But what good does it do me given that their predisposed to believe that my role is to serve in the nursery or not at all? Not only that, but used to feel like they didn’t care about me personally beyond what they could have me do for them.

There’s also the element of having room or making room for one more. Whenever a group sees itself as complete, it might see any outsider wanting in as an element of discord meant to interrupt their harmony. If a group recognizes that they are incomplete, they might be more willing to allow outsiders in.

One problem I had seen in my previous churches is that the groups were pretty one-dimensional, usually in agreement about everything, and didn’t have diversity of thought because of it. That’s a dangerous reality for anyone to live in. It lacks balance and perspective. It’s very much a go along to get along situation where anyone who doesn’t agree doesn’t really deserve to be in the same church. And that’s why it’s so hard to be accepted by a church; all too often it seems that even they don’t want you there with them. Trust me, once they understand that message; they’ll be out of the door before you know it – and things can get back to normal without any outsiders messing up the harmony of the insiders.

We’re Christians, not Friends

I can’t speak for everyone’s church experience, but I can say something about mine. I’ve noticed that my fellow millennials and I don’t really speak to each other. We show up, sit in our usual seats (usually spread out in different areas of the Church) and don’t interact before, during, or after the service. The case might well be is that we’re in different phases at this point and time: some are married with young children, some are single with young children, some are married without children, and some are single without children. It just seems odd.

I remember reading that America is in a time where people in general have fewer friendships but the friendships they have are deeper. ‘Quality, not quantity’ some might say. It just seems to me that given the small number of millennials in general at my church, that there’s hardly any friendship between them at all. We are a group of people with enough in common to be at the same place and the same time, but nothing special enough about it to turn our acquaintanceship into a friendship.

One would think that the church’s primary mission ought to be to encourage all kinds of healthy relationships between people – but I often find that message is so marriage-focused that many people are often ignored when they need to be connected to in friendship the most. Jesus’ teachings indicated that anybody who left behind their physical family would find a spiritual one in the Church. Jesus never required marriage as a metaphor for the Christ / Church relationship – that’s something the church had read into relationships for men and women based off of it’s own ideas. As a consequence, partial families and single people are often preached against for their perceived imperfection while married couples are praised for their obedience to the church’s ideas.

For single believers, friendship is often not on the menu. With so many single women being taught marriage preparation for years and years, they first questions on their mind is whether or not they are cheating on their future spouse in any given interaction with guys. They’re not God and so they don’t know that the guy on the other side of the aisle might or might not be him, they err on the side of caution that it isn’t and act accordingly so that sin is avoided. At any rate, they are taught not to initiate relationships as that is not her role.

There’s no relaxing or taking it easy and no friendships being encouraged out of fear. Single women usually outnumber single guys – I can’t speak to their experience in small churches like mine. I can say that they hold all of the cards but if they’re not willing to place them on the table, then there’s nothing anyone else can do to hurry up the game along but wait on him to take and complete his turn however long it takes.

It’s also not easy to bridge the divide between the millennials who are married with kids and the ones that aren’t. How do you become or remain friends with someone who is so busy that they have precious little time or someone who seems to have all the time in the world? I honestly believe that Christianity has missed the point of Scripture – the church is a family of siblings – brothers and sisters in the faith. The church is not a family of married couples – of wives and husbands in the faith. In a time when quality relationships are few, the church is certainly missing out on any contribution it could make so long as marriage is more important than friends.