Last Thursday, Christianity Today Women published a version of an article from this blog : 5 reasons I don’t always sit with my husband in church. I wanted to share three kinds of reactions to the piece so far, and a few theological observations. 1. Multiple single people have said how much the piece resonated with them. Some who have never been married have shared how they experience church as an underscore to their singleness. Others have lost their husbands by death or divorce and find themselves feeling out of joint in church. One young woman shared that she and her children had not been to church since her husband died and she had moved house, but that the article had tipped her over the edge into going. Praise God, she had experienced exactly the kind of hospitality the article called for: a women came and sat with her and her boys, and prayed with her as she wept after the service. Another woman shared an opposite tale: she had grown up in the church, married in the church, and wanted her children to be deeply grounded in theology. She lost her (abusive) husband through a painful divorce and when she attempted to go back to church by herself, she described the experience as "humiliating." She has not returned. These stories made me long for a revolution in church culture, to where family means more than family and newcomers are embraced. 2. Numerous married people have commented that they want to be more intentional about extending hospitality in church. To be clear, this is not a call to cult-like love-bombing (as one or two have suggested!), or to a patronizing view of those who come to church without an entourage. Biological families extending their reach in church is not an act of generous condescension, but rather an opportunity for richer fellowship. I know this from the inside out. A few months ago at my own church, I was experiencing some relational stress. After dropping my kids off at Sunday school, I went to sit with a lovely, empathetic single friend. I whispered to her, “Just so you know, I’m sitting with you today for my benefit, not yours!” Married or single, we all need friends, and sometimes a friend can provide the support we need better than a spouse. 3. The third category of reactions had been from people who do not appreciate the message of the piece. These folks have said things along the lines of, “I’m an introvert. I want to sit by myself and I would be freaked out by someone who is not family or a close friend sitting with me in church.” In a few instances, people have suggested that the article denigrates single people by assuming they need to be rescued from their social isolation - which, to be clear, is not at all what I’m saying! Others have suggested it denigrates family. I disagree: I am convinced that being outward looking is part of what it means to be in a Christian marriage, and part of what it means to raise children in the Lord. Finally, some have said they prefer anonymity at church: they’ve come to be with God, not others. Extroverts should get over themselves and stop imposing their company on other people.
Theological reflections A few thoughts on this last response: first, I’m definitely an extrovert, so I realize I bring my own bias to this issue. Buyer beware! But as I've pondered further, I'm inclined to believe that there are theological questions at stake, not just questions of personal preference. Our various temperaments mean that discipleship will stretch us in different ways. But we all need to stretch.
As an extrovert, I have to work at prioritizing private devotional time. I don't love being by myself and would rather be studying, praying, and worshiping with others. But Jesus is clear about the need for time alone in prayer. Conversely, if you're an introvert, the biblical call to lean into church as a one-body experience, a family gathering, a deeply relational engagement with a large and messy tribe may present particular challenges - challenges extroverts like me don't recognize. But at the end of the day, we cannot come to church and expect to avoid relating to others any more than we can come to church and expect to avoid the scriptures. Togetherness is intrinsic to what church is.
Of course, togetherness will look different in different settings. When I first visited my husband's hometown, we decided we wanted to worship with the local black church community. My husband recalls getting more hugs in the space of two hours than he had received in the previous two year in grad school in England! This may have been too much of a stretch for the average Brit. But it also felt rather closer to the biblical ideal than the individualized conception of church that many of us see as normative.
I want to hear my introvert brothers and sisters on this. I want to learn how to be a better sister in Christ to those less extroverted than I am, so I plan on processing this with my prayer group: all introverts, plus me! But I think there is a gospel imperative to make our one-body, one-family, one-people identity real in small ways Sundays. So if you show up to my church one day, consider yourself warned!