Have you ever been so nervous that the churning in your belly felt less like butterflies and more like a kung fu flick was filming in there? So anxious that you weren’t sure if you could convince the mini Jet Li in your stomach not to kickbox his way back out of your mouth? I once went to a bible study that made me feel that way. For what it’s worth, I didn’t let my anxiety issues stop me. I went. Almost every week for a year, in fact. And I battled the Karate Kid in my stomach. Every. Single. Time.
You probably assume that I did this because whatever I received at or after the bible study outweighed my anxiety as I drove to it. If so, you’re wrong. Really wrong. The best emotion I ever felt when I left that bible study was relief that I had successfully endured it again, and frankly, I often didn’t even feel that good when I left. Most nights I just left the bible study both depressed that this torturous evening was the social highlight of my week and dominated by knowledge of my own inadequacies.
For the record, I’m neither crazy nor a loser. I know that other people at the bible study felt exactly the same emotions – if maybe less intensely – yet they came too. Often 30 of us, in fact. And those of you who were ever evangelical singles in your 20s or 30s have already guessed why: it was a singles group! Christian singles will do anything to spend time with other Christian singles, no matter how horrible the experience is and how awful it makes them feel, and I’m living proof.
In the second post of this mini-series on declining empires, I suggested that two troubled American empires are the Republican Party and the white evangelical movement. For reasons I explain in that post I think the Republicans will survive their wee crisis; evangelicalism, on the other hand, has a deeper demographic problem. My experiences at the singles bible study above illustrate why.
The bible study I attended – it’ll be easier to talk about it if I give it a name, so let’s go with Awful Group – was one of the largest in a city of about 500,000 people (30 or so came regularly; the roster had close to 90 names), but it was otherwise unremarkable. People like me put up with the suffering because we wanted to meet other evangelicals our age; my own church had only three 20-somethings, and we all went to Awful Group for a time. As for what about it was so awful as to inspire so much terror, there were several factors at play. For one thing, at its most basic, the group didn’t operate in a way conducive to making shy people feel welcome; instead it was run in that way that extroverts invariably think will put introverts at ease: Awful Group’s leaders assumed the way to make introverts comfortable is to make them the center of attention, one at a time. As I said, several of Awful Group’s introverts visibly engaged in combat with intestinal martial artists weekly.
Awful Group could have overcome that moronic format, but there were two other problems that proved insurmountable. Awful Group had no control over the first; singles groups are invariably meat markets, regardless of whether or not they’re evangelical. People at Awful Group wanted dates, and that immediately stratified the group into gradations of datability. The result, predictably, was basically Junior High with less acne and more bibles.
The second of these two fatal problems exacerbated the datability stratification, and it was entirely the fault of Awful Group: Awful Group was explicitly for young professionals. Most people who attended were young lawyers, accountants, engineers, or medical professionals, and there was an inherent competitiveness regarding career trajectory. Awful Group gave these young professionals permission to scrutinize the validity of one another’s careers, essentially, and scrutinize they did. Worse still, of course, was the fact that maybe ½ the people invited to attend Awful Group were extremely intelligent non-professionals – many of whom were graduate students and were probably the intellectual betters of many of the professionals anyway. The result was a room full of lonely grad students judging engineers to be half-wits, while the engineers (and doctors, accountants, etc.) looked back and judged the grad students to be children who needed to grow up and get a job.
Since I was neither a professional nor a grad student at the time, I didn’t have an affinity group of singles to which I could cling and I experienced the social stratification more deeply for it. For those of us who belonged to neither camp but invited to join the group anyway, several conversations each night followed the same pattern: upon meeting, a person would ask my name, and I would answer and reciprocate. Then they would ask what I did for a living, and I would answer and the other person would say, ‘oh,’ frequently walking away or entering a different conversation even before I could ask what they did. It happened to me more than to most people (my job wasn’t at all sexy, and I never bothered to pretend), but I saw it elsewhere too; the structure of the group implicitly encouraged such shallowness. And as I said earlier, people – professionals, grad students, and otherwise – left each night feeling socially dominated, but came back each week anyway, because that’s what lonely singles do.
Since I’ve wandered so far from the tone of this series’ earlier posts, now seems like a good time to remind you that the very people who attended Awful Group are the type of people disappearing from evangelical churches nationwide, thereby casting the future of the evangelical empire in doubt. From the perspective of the church that oversaw Awful Group, it looked on paper like a success of the type that would reverse the evangelical demographic troubles, making it a model ministry.
What Awful Group’s parent church never understood is that while Awful Group appeared to thrive based on numbers, nobody stayed long, for obvious reasons. The stated demographic purpose of Awful Group invented – and imposed – all manners of social pressures, and it continued to draw relatively large numbers in spite of its focus on single professionals, not because of it. And that is the key to this whole post: Awful Group was created with a specific goal in mind (reach people who fit into a very particular social box) and it met that goal. This is what evangelical churches do, and this is why evangelical churches are in trouble. Exploiting the needs of specific demographics – like Awful Group exploited the need of singles to spend time with other evangelical singles – brings people in. But it’s a methodology that can foster alienation and identity crises, just like Awful Group did. This lies at the heart of the evangelical demographic problem, and it’s a major reason why the empire is in jeopardy.
Not persuaded yet? Read my next post, where I’ll broaden the lessons of Awful Group to cover the larger evangelical world. I’m out of time for now.