As a single woman in her mid-twenties I am struggling to find my way. I struggle to find community. I have more non-Christian friends than Christian ones. I so crave community. I even told a pastor that I don’t like going to church alone. I told him it is scary to me but I am going to try anyway. I told him this after we had been having conversations about how I was doing and how I could get plugged in. He simply didn’t reply back to my answer. It made me want to run from the Church even further. What do you do when you’re all alone? How do I find that community of believers that I so long for? I have been to all the programs. Sometimes it all feels fake. How do I make Church feel more authentic when honestly it seems to be the least authentic thing I have ever been a part of. ~ May K
The summer I turned twenty-four, I found myself in the backyard of a suburban evangelical church, holding hands with summer-sweaty junior high students, yelling “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Katie right over!”
I was in the middle of my third lonely church experience in three years…in the middle of falling apart.
The overzealous eleven-year-old girl next to me kept trying to tickle me, and the youth pastor kept jogging past the kids, spraying whipped cream into their open mouths. And I remember thinking, What am I doing here? What the hell am I doing here?
Of course, what I was doing there was trying to find community, to get plugged in. What I was doing was making one last slapdash attempt at belonging after three years of painfully exhausting church failures. (At the first lonely church, my husband and I sat for months among swankily dressed young married couples who never bothered to ask our names; at the second lonely church—a house church—Andrew grew more and more connected, while I slid further and further toward the fringes . . . an afterthought, a shadow.)
This suburban evangelical church with its white siding was a last-ditch attempt. The first Sunday we attended, I ran my finger down the list of programs and ministries listed à la carte inside the church bulletin—a veritable menu of things that might feed that emptiness in us—and I signed us up to help with junior high youth group in a fit of motivational rage.
Never mind, of course, that neither of us actually liked junior highers all that much. Never mind that we were fragile and broken and distant from ourselves and from each other after all those other churches. Every week, Andrew and I drove in air-conditioned silence to the white church in the suburbs and ran around the sweltering backyard with those kids. And I suppose that what I was doing there was trying to transport myself back, somehow, to my first taste of community when I was twelve years old. Back when I’d walked into the junior high youth group—nervous and gawky—and they took me all the way in.
I could say it like this: my own faith was ignited, once upon a time, by community and belonging and friendship, and I’ve never been able to separate them all. Those years of looking for a church where we might belong were the most desperate and dark I’ve had so far in my life. I needed my people like I needed oxygen, and every unintentional rejection, every inauthentic church-foyer-greeting, every time someone forgot our names, it felt like air was being sucked out of the room. Without that chemical compound of community, the flame of my faith was dwindling, dying, burning out.
I don’t remember when we stopped going to the suburban church officially, but that Red Rover day was the last day I remember being there. The youth pastor sprayed the fluffy whipped cream into the kid’s mouth next to me, and it was so far from what I needed. I didn’t want the airy sweetness of programs and platitudes. I needed the substance of love. I needed someone to see me. I needed someone to recognize that I was falling apart and to take me in.
But they didn’t. So we stopped going. I started, instead, frequenting a local Caribou Coffee, where I became instant friends with a motley crew of Twenty-Something Coffee Shop Regulars, and I couldn’t figure out how they could offer so easily what none of the churches had managed to give. Belonging. It made me angry—furious—at the Church People and at God and at myself.
It made me want to drink tequila and flirt…and so I did…at least until it all crashed down around me, and I ended up at the rock bottom of a fractured marriage, at the bottom of my own selfishness, at the bottom of a world I no longer understood.
I’m telling you all this because I want you to know that this isolation, this loneliness, this lack of community at church is not some personal failure of yours, nor is it something felt exclusively by those who are single.
You are not the only one, dear May, who hears a tinny falseness in the notes of these programs and ministries that can never add up to the haunting, beautiful song of community. So many of us feel this way. So many of us.
Sometimes the gap between what church should be and what it actually is feels so enormous that you feel like you could disappear into it and never be seen again.
Here’s the bad news: there is no magic room—no perfect church—where your community is formed and waiting for you. There is no search term to type into Google that will lead you to the place you need.
It does not exist.
This is what I finally came to understand when Andrew and I went back to church after my near-miss affair and after all our therapy. We went back, and it wasn’t a victorious kind of homecoming. It wasn’t a perfect church where we ended up on Sunday mornings. In retrospect, it wasn’t even a very good one. It was a crash landing. We went back to church because we had nowhere else to go.
And what I learned in those first early days back is that there is nothing you can do to make church feel more authentic.
The only choice you have is to be your most authentic self in it.
This happened for me mostly by accident. I wasn’t trying to be authentic at the new church. It was just that I was so stripped down by my own failures, so scrubbed raw from all the therapy, so tired that I couldn’t pretend to be anything more than what I was. I could not plug in. I could not join a ministry or play Red Rover. I could only tell the truth.
And the strangest thing happened. As I started telling the truth about my own journey, other people started telling the truth about theirs. It wasn’t always easy or nice. Often it was awkward; a few times, it was downright discouraging.
But a few other times? A few times, it was community. It was my people all of a sudden, peering over the coffee shop table in faces I did not expect. It was one small moment of connection that sustained me until the next small moment of connection. It wasn’t the bright, spacious room that I’d hoped for. But it was a strand of blinking white Christmas lights that allowed me to see in the dark anyway.
This is not the easy answer I wish I could give you, dear May.
It will not make you feel less afraid when you walk into a sanctuary alone on Sunday mornings, and it is not a small thing, to sit alone among a hundred married couples. It’s hard to be a single person in a local church that so often does a piss-poor job with that particular demographic. Your current pastor sounds like a prime example of this—unsure about what to do with your fear and restlessness, choosing to ignore it instead of to engage with it—and that is not okay.
And yet, I also wonder if the reason he hasn’t answered you is because there is no answer, at least not one that anyone could put into an email. It’s not so simple as programs, and there is no clear-cut solution to the desperate question, How do we create real, authentic community?
There is only you. Only me.
Only the whole fractured church full of us, sitting side by side, strangers and family all at once.
There is only your one, beautiful, terrified, lonely authentic self. You will have to decide what to do with it.
Sometimes bravery will feel impossible, and that’s okay. There is no shame in that. If you can’t go to church this week, don’t go. Give yourself the grace to figure out this next step in your life.
But also? I think the community we crave—both you and I—is not some ready-made space waiting to usher us in, but rather a thousand small moments and tiny interactions and sincere smiles and honest exchanges that together make something new. Something bright enough. Something beautiful.
And if you can haul your tired disillusioned self to church, if you can muster up the courage to find someone you don’t know and invite her to lunch, if you can say the truth about your fear and loneliness and pain and happiness, then you might find something precious. Something like community.
Something that looks so different from what you imagined but fills you up anyway, like oxygen in your lungs.
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