Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Small talk and community

Big confession here: I don't like small talk.

If you know me in real life, maybe you already knew this, thus it is not a big confession but a re-stating of the obvious.  :)

I'm incredibly introverted, and making small talk is exhausting for me.  I enjoy people, I enjoy relationships, and I enjoy good conversation, but small talk is something else altogether.

At church this past Sunday I really wasn't much in the mood for small talk.  And during the Passing of the Peace portion of the service (which lasts a good ten minutes or so), I didn't really talk to anyone.  I had to stay at our seat and watch Mary Lu anyway, so I wasn't able to make the rounds, but I secretly didn't mind. 

There are all these buzzwords we Christians throw around, words like "community" and "doing life together."  Lately I'm thinking about what that stuff even means.  I've seen how churches try to foster community and relationships.  It seems to work out for a lot of people, but certainly not always.  I have a few friends, for example, no longer attending our church because they just never felt like they were really building community there.  They always felt as if they were a little bit on the outside.  But the thing is, I don't know if ANYone feels like they're on the INside.

I've really given a bit more thought to this since we began attending weekday Mass in November.  The kids and I go once a week.  (Sadly Kevin has to get to work.)  Of course we all attend our Protestant church on Sunday mornings, where we are members.  Thus in order to go to Mass, we go during the week.  And yes I am well aware of the irony of belonging to a reformed Protestant church while also attending Roman Catholic Mass.  I guess we're crazy like that!  :)

Anyway, Mass is a bit different from a Protestant church service.  You go into the church and there's no snack table, no loud music, no chit-chat, no (gasp) hanging out before the service.  The church is quiet, and you go and take your seat.  At first it felt maybe a little stuffy and unnerving, especially with five small kids in tow, but now I'm coming to see it more as contemplative, reflective, and beautiful.  When I'm not hissing at my kids to stop fidgeting with the kneeler, I'm thinking about Jesus, enjoying the beautiful iconic artwork, praying, or looking around the room at the many faithful who regularly show up on a weekday (!) to worship the Lord.  Some of them are elderly, and I think about how they have been faithfully doing this for decades.

The focus is all different too.  The purpose for attending Mass at a particular parish is to receive the Blessed Sacrament (which of course we can't, so we receive a blessing instead) and to worship God through remembering (and in a sense re-enacting) Christ's sacrifice.  Plain and simple.  Even though there isn't a lot of visiting going on before it starts, and even though I don't know any of the other parishioners personally (save for the priest who regularly talks with us), I see the potential for a sense of community there because these believers are of one mind and one heart.  Coming together to humbly receive Jesus.  Like people have been doing from the time of the apostles.  Everyone all connected.  There is something really beautiful and profound about that for me.

And really, ever since we began attending our current (Protestant) church nearly three years ago, which unlike any of the former Evangelical churches I ever attended, observes the sacraments (communion is celebrated every week) and includes a time each week of confession and absolution, I've felt like church is PURPOSEFUL.  Suddenly the focus is off of the sermon (what did we "get out of it" this week?) and off of the socializing (why do I see these people every week but it doesn't really seem as if we're living in community?).  The focus is on Jesus' sacrifice, on receiving Christ. 

So I've had this in the back of my mind for awhile, though it's come into clearer focus since attending Mass, which is even more intentional.
But on the other hand, I've been thinking that Evangelical churches have worked super duper hard at creating spaces where people can build community.  Through small groups, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, coffee time, and various activities, a huge portion of Evangelical energy is devoted to building and nurturing relationships at church.  This is an overall strength somewhat unique to Evangelicalism, I think.  Friendships and companions on the journey are important.  Is it working, though?  ARE people finding authentic, life-giving, soul-nourishing community through these avenues?  And what should that even look like?

Yes and no, I am sure.  My dearest friends did indeed used to be people I attended church with.  Not as much anymore.  And that's fine.  But somewhere along the way I think I've bought into the idea that this is a HUGE component of what church should be.  A lot of churches even SAY that.  (Especially if they don't recognize the sacraments, because if you're not attending for the purpose of receiving Christ in the bread and the wine, you obviously have to go for some other reason.)  But the whole authentic community thing is hard.  And difficult to build in the confines of a Sunday morning.  We are united in our love for Jesus, perhaps, but often that's where it ends.  Everyone has varying ideas about pretty much everything else.

Jennifer at Conversion Diary once wrote about the idea that living in community is distinct from socializing.  You cannot imagine the huge sigh of relief I breathed when I read that!  Because I keep hearing about how we should be living in community with others, but to be honest, what I picture in my mind's eye when I hear that is NOT necessarily something positive.  It sounds draining.  Exhausting.  Contrived.  I am just not an overly social person outside of my immediate family and maybe a couple of friends.  And our small group.  I'm all for loving others and sharing in their lives, joys, and sorrows, and meeting peoples' needs, but I have no desire to live in a commune or spend all of my time with lots of people at crowded parties.

In recent months, I've wondered what Catholic church culture is like, in the sense that they don't seem to push for socialization as much as Protestants do, or at least not in the same ways.  (They do have coffee and donuts, and pancake breakfasts, youth groups etc., but it seems different, at least from the outside looking in.)  I enjoy the socialization aspect of Christianity, and I do think it's important, but I'm beginning to wonder if we're not getting great results, considering how much effort is going into it.  Plus, we're all busy earning a living or raising our children.  And if you can't build meaningful relationships Sunday morning, you have to get involved in a small group, and go to these activities...And, see, this is where you get into the bigger-picture, what is church supposed to be types of questions that I've been mulling over in my mind for the past four years.  :)

Friends are good.  We need relationships.  Don't get me wrong.  Small talk is tricky though, and it really has nothing to do with me, and countless other introverts, needing to get out of our comfort zones.  I'm happy to do that in a real, genuine conversation.  But small talk is different.  And I find myself doing a lot of it on Sunday mornings.  At weekday Mass however, I feel a strange kinship with the parishioners (even though I myself am not currently Catholic.)  When we engage in a brief chat afterwards, I usually find it encouraging--it often involves a kind comment about my gaggle of kids.  And they seem to assume a sort of camaraderie.  Thus I feel some sort of connection to these people, I think because of the unifying nature of their faith and because of the many things I know I have in common with the traditional Catholic.  More on that later, I am sure.

Bottom line, having grown up a Christian, and having now experienced some different types of churches, church community will always fascinate me.  I'm finding that the purpose for going on Sundays (sermon?  Eucharist?  community?) makes a huge difference in the overall experience and perhaps even satisfaction level.  I love the intentionality of the Mass, but I wonder how relationships are built.  I like all the Protestant socializing, but occasionally get tired of the small talk and wonder if we have to rally so hard to build community because we're not building it around a unified belief system and purpose.

So those are some ramblings.  That definitely do not qualify as small talk.   :)


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