In the highly controlled, conformist society into which I was born (the United States), how successful — and normal — you are depends on certain factors, many of which have to do with participating in groups.
Indeed, one of the key arguments that homeschoolers — who have a reputation for being radically different and independent — use to prove to the outside world that their children are normal is the number of social interactions each of those children is in. The nameless faces of conventional experts list 3.2 or so as a healthy baseline number, and it looks something like this:
1) church youth group (1 point)
2) 4-H (1 point)
3) soccer (1.2 points — we always give extra for team sports and athletics)
More Is Better
This, we understand, represents the shy child, because a more “normal” one would have twice, or three times, the number of activities. The nameless faces do not list a maximum number of groups for optimum mental and social health because, in our society, you can’t belong to too many groups.
“We need to be with people,” we’re told. “Hermits are mental aberrations, and no society can thrive when its people are isolating themselves.”
(When you’re a Christian, you phrase it this way: “The Bible tells us to ‘forsake not the assembling of one another,’ so we need to attend church, and small groups, EVERY week. Skipping is a sign of sin and disinterest in God.”)
Incidentally, qualified group activities do not include informal play time with neighbors and friends, nor do they allot importance to interaction with family members. This latter, actually, could be totally absent, and the child’s life — as long as it included the requisite 3.2 qualified group activities — still qualifies as normal.
We Don’t Grow out of This
As children grow up into adults, the group memberships change, but the requirement that they exist does not: you’ll still go to church, but instead of youth group you’ll graduate into Young Singles for Christ, then Newly Married, or Older Singles for Christ, or Widowed and Divorced Christians for Christ — there’s a notch, er niche, for all of us). You can still be in 4-H, only now as a “leader,” or you can be a follower in any number of community service organizations.
As with children, informal interaction with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family doesn’t really count, especially at church, where fellowship — unless it is organized and directed — is censured. So is studying the Bible, intensively, outside of a small group or free from a guide. I mean, left to your own devices — and Christ’s leading — who can say what you’ll start to believe?
How about . . . the truth?
While it’s good to have people in your life — especially ones who love and care about you like . . . family and friends — limiting interaction with them to primarily group settings fosters an under confidence in the value of your own thoughts, beliefs, questions, desires, dreams, and goals. In a group setting, everything you contribute is vetted through the group filter, and team-talk aside, every group has a dominant voice, promulgated through its leader. When you wrap your entire existence around belonging to groups, you may count yourself as having a lot of friends (the real ones are the ones who stick around when you leave the group), but what you definitely don’t have is a lot of say. One quickly learns when to speak, and how, and rare is the group that truly encourages every member to think, speak, and act independently.
This is bad enough in 4-H, when we’re discussing the butter/shortening ratio of the ultimate chocolate chip cookie, but when it comes to our spiritual existence, and our relationship with God, vetting everything through a group produces a sense of conformity that prevents people from asking the big questions, like,
“Why do I pray and pray and pray and never seem to get an answer to my prayers?”
“How could God possibly send people who have never heard about Him to hell for not hearing about Him?”
“If Christ has forgiven all my sins, and God tosses them as far as east is to west, then why does He punish me for skipping Sunday School?”
Talk to Christ Directly
In a group setting, you’ll get a specific parcel of answers for these, most of which lay the blame for even daring to ask the question on you. Pull away from the group, however, and ask Christ directly.
(Yes, that’s right: you can talk to God directly. As a former Catholic, this was an epiphany for me, until it dawned on me that too many Protestants, while they don’t have priests, have pastors that function as priests.)
You want people in your life? There are 7 billion of them on this planet, and many of them you can get to know outside of a group setting. Start with the people in your household, and work out from there. Take a walk with someone. Invite another to tea at your house. Put together dinner with a neighboring family.
You’ll learn, and impact, far more from intimate interaction then you will from a month of Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday meetings.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I’m trying to find the seekers — people who look, really look, at what God is saying in the Bible, and say to Him back:
“Is this stuff true? Really true? Because if it is, then I WANT it. Not the substitute that people shove in my face, but the real thing.”
That’s what I’m looking for, and bit by bit, I’m finding it.
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