Christian Social Culture
by Dr. Peter Brimstone
Many people who have visited church recall times of being offended and hurt by church people who seem friendly at first, but become distant very quickly as if initial pleasantries were performed out of obligation rather than genuine interest. We begin to accuse Christians of being insincere. I have also felt a taste of falseness in smiles without closeness, invitations that are left hanging indefinitely, and conversations that remain guarded, but is this behavior intentionally malicious or simply a part of Christian, and particularly evangelical, culture?
Sometimes the social disconnection between Christians and others seems to be more of a culture gap than a problem of malice. I came to consider this possibility, interestingly, at a travel agency. One day while searching for airplane tickets, I realized that I routinely interact with people who act surprisingly Christian even outside of church contexts.
On that day, I visited multiple travel agencies, and one agent was friendly to an impressive degree. The computers were slow, giving people plenty of time to converse. Perhaps a manager had advised them to keep customers entertained during the delays, but in any case, this agent performed particularly well.
She asked about my upcoming trip, described her past travels all over the world, and asked what hobbies I had. The computers were quite slow and I kept asking to modify travel dates to get the best price. Nonetheless, she handled the waiting time skillfully. Even when I called the next day to let her know that I had gone with a different agency, she said that I should have tried to consult with her first, because she might have been able to match the competitor’s price or even beat it.
I was taken by the delightfulness of this agent and how she gave the sense of wanting to help in any way possible including making me feel comfortable. She was warm and welcoming, and I felt that she must have genuinely enjoyed talking to people and helping others even in small ways.
It has been over a year since I spoke with her, and of course, I did not take her pleasantness as a signal for friendship, a desire to get to know me more, or even an implication that she found me interesting. Such hospitality was merely a social convention. Neither was I hurt nor did I take her behavior as misleading when she did not email me afterward so we could meet to get to know each other or share aspects of our lives. The simple reason for the lack of misinterpretation and hurt was that both of us completely understood that our temporary relationship existed only while I was looking for an airplane ticket.
If everyday interactions like these take place so smoothly, why do church interactions have the potential for so much emotional pain and misunderstanding? Perhaps, it is because people can read too much into church interactions. Particularly those who convert to Christianity as adults are prone to this confusion, although it can occur at times for well-seasoned Christians as well.
In many secular environments, when someone, such as a coworker or classmate, starts having an extended conversation with you, appears rapt with attention, and makes comments such as “Wow, that’s really interesting”, “I’m really glad I met you”, and “We should talk more”, these actions are usually an indication that he or she would accept an invitation to meet later for a drink or even dinner. At least, it is a strong indication that you will both acknowledge each other more readily the next time and most likely try to advance the relationship to future meetings and possible friendship.
A misunderstanding occurs when we take the same assumptions to churches. At church, if people say that they are glad they met us, we infer that they would like to meet us again, and if they say that we should talk more, we feel that they must have found us interesting. But for many Christians, these are weak associations. In contrast, if the travel agent had made these remarks, I would not have read great implications into them, because the social exchange was operating within the context of the travel agency and around the premise that I was considering buying a ticket from them.
When we step into a church, we often assume social rules closely follow those we usually experience from day to day in the rest of the world, rather than those in more controlled exchanges such as at a travel agency. It is true that some church people may be nice out of alternative motives such as winning praise from others and God, but the majority of Christians probably do not think that way. They have just been trained differently.
Christian community is dominated by a culture of niceness and nonconfrontationalism. This behavior comes from a Biblical pressure to display love, unity, and peace, and a large part of Christian training guides people toward expressing these fruits of spiritual maturity. Consequently, well trained Christians will earnestly try to act in ways that will make newcomers feel loved and the community seem united and at peace with one another. A problem occurs when inexperienced Christians, seekers, or late converts confuse feeling loved with being loved. Unfortunately for them, no one remains a newcomer, and after a little time, the display of warmth and interest common for visitors at many evangelical churches dissolves. To expect a churched Christian to display emotional closeness for a prolonged time when there is no real closeness is similarly unwarranted as expecting the travel agent to express the same level if I were to run into her somewhere else, such as a grocery store.
In many cases, the likelihood of forming friendships in a church context is comparable to elsewhere. For example, sometimes we end up in workplaces where we find lasting friends whose companionship endures throughout our lives, but we are at least as likely to find ourselves in places where we make casual friendships that do not take much life outside of the work environment, yet they still serve to make the workplace more pleasant. I believe the latter type of friendship is more common, since most people cannot maintain more than a few very close friendships at once. Church follows a similar pattern. The majority of friendships have a high chance of falling into the casual category. At times, one may attempt to pursue a deeper connection by inviting people to one’s home, organizing group dinners, or planning longer outings or trips together, but after a moment of community, relationships seem to return to the same state as before. Most work gatherings, parties, or company trips are scarcely any different. They can have close moments, but usually do not affect much for the long run.
The issue is not that churches are harder places to make friends. It is that Christian community nurtures different and potentially confusing social signals. Some of us might have heard Europeans commenting that Americans often come across as shallow and insincere because they try to act friendly, when they actually mean nothing by it. Evangelical Americans are the same way, but even more so. Americans who grow up in the US naturally become adjusted to their cultural signals in the same way that evangelicals become accustomed to theirs.
Culture shock sometimes occurs when Europeans move to the US or vice versa. In a similar way, a non-Christian converting to Christianity in adulthood is like a European moving to the US and sensing a gap between behavior and underlying emotion. As many Europeans living in the US say they have a hard time adjusting to American culture if they ever do, late Christian converts may have difficulty adapting to evangelical culture and might relapse into old patterns of thinking, such as feeling someone is deeply concerned when all he or she did was ask if they wanted prayer for some issue.
Perhaps, the most important step is to realize that some of the hurt that comes in church is possibly due to cultural, not moral issues. Even seasoned Christians who have not progressed deeply into Christian culture could fall into this trap, because they continue to interact with non-Christians and their social conventions.
From the alternative perspective, well-trained Christians could benefit by considering that misunderstandings in social conventions might color their interactions with weaker church members. For example, if someone responded to the question “How are you doing” by saying “I’m having a very bad day” and the person were a strong evangelical, it could be a signal that he or she wanted to be taken aside to speak further or to seek regular counseling. On the other hand, if the person were new to Christianity, the statement could mean anything from having caught an illness to something more serious such as losing a job or breaking up with a significant other. However, for even these serious concerns, a weaker Christian may not be asking for formal counseling or even be on the verge of an emotional breakdown. He might simply want to express himself openly, so that he does not get to a more critical point. In contrast to the strong evangelical, if the new Christian were taken aside and recommended for therapy, she might be taken aback or offended, inadvertently creating another instance of hurt and misunderstanding at church.
A characteristic of non-Christians is that they often filter less between what they feel and how they express themselves when they feel comfortable around someone, such as if they have interacted with another person weekly over an extended period. This does not mean that they are incapable of controlling emotional expression. Returning to my earlier example, I am sure the travel agent started with the standard courtesy of asking how I was doing, and I answered “fine” without reflecting much. Even unchurched people can do that. It is simply that they may not realize that that is what is often expected in a Christian environment.
Consequently, in instances when a weaker or less experienced evangelical or new convert appears inexplicably offended or hurt, maybe the strong evangelical or leader could further avert unnecessary wounds by speaking to the weaker person and making clear the differences in social expectations. More proactively, church members and leaders could make expectations known beforehand. For example, is it okay to tell me when you are having a bad day or should you save that for friends outside of church? Or, am I willing to listen to your struggles with loneliness, insecurity, and so on, or is there a point after which I will feel uncomfortable speaking to you again? In addition, when I say that I would like to get to know you more, do I have the availability or energy to follow through with the proposition or am I simply offering a momentary reassurance? I believe it would really help our position as a church if we were to reflect on and clarify some of these potential misunderstandings. If we as Christians were to state our social expectations clearly, we could potentially eliminate much hurt and pain and show what the church truly stands for.
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