A few weeks ago we were visiting a couple from our church who have a young baby. As we were talking a sad reality came to light. It seems that social connections at church are largely determined by the presence of children or one’s marital status.
Not until this couple had a child did some of the other women in her age group begin taking an interest in her. Perhaps this was because they couldn’t find any commonalities other than being of the same faith, age, gender or also being married. Maybe they were too preoccupied talking about their children they forget about other conversation topics. Whatever the reason it’s unfortunate that one has to be a mother to be noticed by those in her same demographic.
This occurs not only on a female to female basis but on a couple level. A couple may be married in their mid 20’s and not have any children. At the same time there is another couple around the same age who do have children but beyond a cordial acquaintance level these couples will never really hit it off. Perhaps the couple with children want to prioritize making friends with other families so their children will have friends or maybe they feel that beyond being married they have nothing in common with the other couple.
Dating couples and individuals also face the same kind of dismissive attempts at friendship. Based on the fact that they are not in the exact same stage of life despite being the same age. As a result, they are disqualified from interacting on deeper than acquaintance level.
How Does This Cliquey Behaviour Begin?
Most times it starts when an individual moves from being single to the highly idealized state of being a boyfriend or girlfriend.
As soon as a couple starts dating they “need” couple friends. So little by little, they decrease the amount of time they spend with their single friends. Or soon after a couple gets married suddenly all the married people have something super in common with them and start to notice them. The downside to these seemingly natural but isolating behaviors is that people who are not married, don’t have children or who are single get stigmatized. For example, if by a certain age you haven’t reached the right level in your social circle people start to ask questions, make judgments or just exclude you.Maybe you don’t get invited to board game night because you’re not part of a couple. Or certain jokes go over your head because you don’t have a spouse to identify with. Yes, these interactions hurt even if they are not intentional. A more detrimental outcome of segregation by life stage is when it involves ministry.
Take, for example, Sunday School.
In some churches that I have attended Sunday School is divided for the adults into classes based on life stage. First, there is the Young Adult (college and career) class, followed by the young married class and so on. One can only move up when they reach the proverbial achievement of marriage.
I have so many thoughts about this… Yes, marriage is good but why are we making it something that grants exclusive access to a Sunday School class? What are we saying to those not married? That they aren’t spiritual enough to move on? It feels like marriage is inherently demonstrated to be a gift given to those who are more spiritual than the single person.
Yes, marriage is good but why are we making it something that grants exclusive access to a Sunday School class? What are we saying to those not married? That they aren’t spiritual enough to move on? It feels like marriage is inherently demonstrated to be a gift given to those who are more spiritual than the single person.
What about the individual who is still waiting to be married or who is content being single or the single parent? Where do they go for Sunday School? Church of all places should be an inclusive environment. Additionally, singleness should not be made to look down upon. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul commends being single because one has more time to devote to serving God over being divided by caring for a spouse and serving God.
Real Talk: I Struggle in Not Being Cliquey
Before I go on, I want to note that I am by no means perfect in this area of not being cliquey. I understand why it happens. Especially being an introvert. I like to interact with my same group of friends or people I know because it’s easy and I don’t have to be brave and talk to new people. Also as I have gone from being single to dating to married my availability to see people have changed. It’s a lot harder now than when it was just me to schedule plans. I have to coordinate my time with my husband plus I don’t live close to my friends. As a result, it takes a lot more effort to maintain friendships.
At the same, I still try to be intentional about being friends with people my age despite if they are married or have children. Although I do have to admit since becoming pregnant I’ve tried to get to know more moms at church. I now volunteer in the nursery and am slowly acquainting myself with the families that have children. Prior to being pregnant, this wasn’t a priority for me. I do understand there is comfort in the company of those who share similar life experiences. This can be a great opportunity to learn from those who have gone before you. At the same time, it’s not fair to isolate those who are not going through the same stage of life as you. Yes, it might be easier to relate to a married couple on some levels than a single person. However, I never want to define myself so narrowly that I’m just a wife or mom. I’m still Courtney, a person with unique interests and gifts and I want to cultivate friendships with a variety of people.
Why Do We Stay in our Safe Groups Instead of Reaching Out?
Why is it so easy to just get stuck in our safe little cliques instead of reaching out and being a genuine friend to all ages and life stages. A major reason is that it takes effort.
Reaching out requires intentionality. If a new mom is spending most of her time in the nursery she’s not going to have as many opportunities to get to know the women who don’t have children. That is totally understandable, being intentionality should go both ways. Although it may seem intimidating for a single person to reach out to someone who is married and has children. One reason is that they might seem too busy to talk to or they don’t know what to talk to them about.
My encouragement would be to just start by saying hi. People like what they are familiar with. The more you say hi to someone or smile or ask how they’re doing they’re going to associate positive thoughts towards you. Over time they may reciprocate the interest. One simple way I try to do this is by saying good morning to people in the church. Over time they have gotten to know my name and will now talk to me after church. Although I may never become super close with any of these people they still show an interest in me and ask how I’m doing. Plus, it’s just one simple way to get to know people I may never had the chance to get acquainted with.
One person who is a great example to me of being friendly to everyone is my husband. He will literally talk to everyone in our church from little toddlers to elderly couples. He can always find something to have a conversation about. His example has continually impacted me to reach out of my comfort zone and make more of an effort to talk to people.
How Can We Make Church More Inclusive?
First, we can structure ministry so that every person feels that there is a place where they belong despite their marital status or ability to have children. Perhaps having adult Sunday School classes by topic or age would be more helpful. People want to interact with those outside their age groups and genders. Although at times it is helpful to have a ministry that specifically reaches a certain group such as women or men or singles. It’s important to give people options and make sure everyone feels they have a place in the church.
Furthermore, as people, we need to be intentional with getting to know others in the church and to step out of our comfort zones. An easy way to do this is to get involved at church. Whether as a greeter, on the worship team, in children’s ministry or through hospitality there are so many options for everyone’s unique gift or talent. This can also take the pressure off of having to start conversations with people. When serving alongside others you’re likely to get to know them and their family just through your constant interaction. Plus you have a task to accomplish so things are less awkward than standing around and talking during coffee hour.
If you’re hesitant about getting involved or don’t know which ministry is right for you, I would first pray about an opportunity and then seek out those who are already serving in that capacity and ask how to get involved. Even if they don’t need help at the moment, let them know you’re willing to fill in if they ever need extra help. People really appreciate when others are willing to pitch in.
Overall let’s purpose to make church less about ourselves and staying comfortable and more about reaching out to others and helping them feel included, wanted and loved. Remember all it takes is a simple “good morning” to show someone you care about them.