Social Disconnection: Why Many Stay Home Sunday Mornings

When it comes to church participation, it is tempting to label the unenthused as probably unregenerate. Although this may be the case, it might be that professing believers who have lost the desire to come to church are simply socially anxious, isolated, and fearful of commitment. What I call “socially disconnected.”

Some people hate the church because they were raised in church-going abusive or hypocritical families and understandably want nothing to do with the church; some are vocal (or even militant) about this rejection while others console themselves, thinking they love Jesus but not His people. We are right to sympathize with those who thus suffered, but we also need to remember that such excuses will evaporate before the all-knowing Judge of all. To write off all churches or Christians is nothing more than stereo-typing and prejudice.

We live in a day, however, when growing numbers of professing believers avoid church for a reason they will not admit to others or even themselves: they are socially inhibited. (This should not be confused with shyness or introversion, or autism; shy, introverted, or moderately autistic people can be quite social, particularly if they have developed good social skills). Among the socially disconnected, complaints about the church may or may not be justified, but such complaints are not the actual reason for their non-attendance, just a handy pretext.

Such persons do not want to be involved in any social group, especially one with obligations. They have chosen to embrace a socially disconnected lifestyle. Some, who are only moderately disconnected, might prefer large churches where they can melt into the crowd, attend when they feel like it, and have no obligations or regular commitments.

Clubs, lodges, bowling leagues—you name it—have been on the decline for decades because Americans are increasingly repelled from groups that require commitment (like attending a club every week or month) and require social (people) skills. Robert Putnam documented this in his book, “Bowling Alone” back in the year 2000. Evey new generation seems less involved in social organizations and community than the previous one, it seems. Clubs, lodges, and bowling alleys are becoming sparse.

It is not that people do not have peers or friends or a “pack” with whom they “hang.” Boys make friends online with boys in other states or countries as they compete in video games online. Who needs to circulate at church or in clubs to meet someone to marry, when you can meet someone online? People at the workplace become a surrogate social club.

In the past, the socially uncomfortable had to adjust to survive. You needed to talk to your butcher, cooperate with your neighbor, and depend upon those nearby in case of an emergency. You faced the challenge of either being bored to death or socializing via church, clubs, card parties, or other associations. You may have been introverted and a private person, but you learned how to be a participator, at some level. Now millions do just fine—in some ways—without it. Technology has changed all that. The socially disconnected have no idea what they are missing, for a good social life is a key factor to a rich, happy life.

The good news is that people who are glued to the computer or to their solitary lifestyle can choose to add some balance to their lives. They can discipline themselves to attend church, to volunteer for a short-term commitment of some sort (then perhaps a long term one); they can learn social skills (self-help books can be helpful at this level). They might even find a mentor. But this will only happen if they are unhappy with the status quo. In my experience, we tend to like who we are, just not always the consequences. Change begins when we realize many consequences develop because of who we are.

A serious commitment to Jesus Christ that results in becoming a disciple (eager learner) is the best motivation for someone who is socially disconnected to become connected to a church body. The problem, however, is that it often takes the preaching of the Word to bring someone to the point of taking Christianity seriously! The socially disconnected have generally removed themselves from that opportunity.

I suspect I would not be committed to church or any organization, had I not made a serious commitment to Jesus Christ at the age of 17. Although I was reared with good social skills and probably would have had several friends even if unconverted, I am among those who love to stay home, though you might never know it. To voluntarily make a commitment to do things I am not required to do—I wonder if I would have done that. God changed me.

It is easier to prevent social disconnection than fix it, and that can be done through parenting. Parents can limit computer game/social media times, encourage their children to develop a variety of interests that require commitment and working with others, and teaching our children social skills—anywhere from good manners to never answering a question with just one word.

There are many books on the market to help with social skills, including books written for children on the autism spectrum. One good starter for adults is, How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends,* by Don Gabor.

Some of our social skills are innate—more so for some than others. Introverts are not meant to be extroverts, and private people are not meant to wear their feelings on their sleeves. But the good news is that we can learn them—and teach them to our children.

* Amazon affiliate link.

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

This is an interesting perspective and I do think a percentage are in this category. 

What's your impression of how many lapsed attenders are basically recluses?

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

...but if you read the testimony of people like Adam Ford, formerly of the Babylon Bee, it's out there--there's a reason that the Bee does a lot of articles about the joy that introverts have at the isolation we've had with the 'rona.  The point that introverts used to need to get out more is well taken, and on the flip side, that means that formerly, extroverts had to learn a bit more...about how to interact with introverts.  Probably worked out better for everybody.

I'm also somehow reminded of a time when I was helping out at VBS, and the parents of one boy made sure I knew he was mildly autistic so I wouldn't freak out.  The funny thing is that we got along great--I guess I'm enough of an introvert that my pace of interaction worked great with his. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, I don't know if I would call these "lapsed" attenders, but rather believers who are either on the fringes of the church or never attended regularly. I am saying that people in a similar situation (with their level of commitment to Christ ) in the past would have been in church.  So these aren't people who were regular and then abruptly stopped attending, although they may have been raised in church and a t one time regular.. 

We have always had plenty such socially uncomfortable people, but not like now.  The reason we have always had such people (besides lack of genuine faith) is because some people have always chosen social disconnection -- or are fearful (or without direction) regarding becoming social.  We are all damaged in some way, too. So the problem is old, but its preponderance is what has changed.  There are several times more such people.

I don't know percentages, but I believe the slope is downward from the World War II generation to the present.  People raised before Facebook and video/computer games will have much less of this problem than younger generations.  When it comes to folks under 40, I might guess half of potential attenders are lost when it comes to being socially connected.

In 2000, Putnam used the WWII generation as a starting point. They were very social (measured by voting, reading the community paper, belonging to organizations, giving blood, etc.). He found the boomers were only half as socially connected, and generation X half of that!  There was an uptick in volunteerism among young people about 15 years ago, but that has dissipated.  So, putting it all together, my guess is half of all younger people (reached or unreached) have this kind of issue. Especially those without career and life direction.  But that's a guess.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert wrote:

The point that introverts used to need to get out more is well taken, and on the flip side, that means that formerly, extroverts had to learn a bit more...about how to interact with introverts. 

How true.  I love introverts, and generally have attracted introverts to church the years I have served.  Introverts can be very social, however, but in ways different from extroverts.  Most evangelical/fundamental churches PUNISH people for being introverts by embarrassing them or hounding them to behave in extroverted ways. This is especially true of churches that harp on revival or forcing your way to sharing the Gospel. 

Introverts tend to be thinkers or more relational (melancholic or phlegmatic, to use the La Haye temperament paradigm from Hippocrates).  So many churches push doing things or feelings and downplay thinking and relating.

That might be a subject for another article some day.  BTW, I have had a lot of involvement with  moderately autistic children/youth/adults, and I get along very well with them. Love 'em.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Ed, I'm currently working with a number of young people who, like myself, are about as comfortable handing out tracts and cold calling as they are during root canal surgery.  So any input you've got on how to "live things out as a non-extrovert" would be great.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert said:

Ed, I'm currently working with a number of young people who, like myself, are about as comfortable handing out tracts and cold calling as they are during root canal surgery.  So any input you've got on how to "live things out as a non-extrovert" would be great.

Bert, that is a tall order!  I am afraid some of what I would say would be considered taboo in many fundamentalist churches, but here goes.

All Christians are called to be witnesses, but not all are called to be evangelists.  Most aggressive and confrontational evangelism is unproductive compared to building a relationship with someone first. So I would suggest an introverted person look for one person of the same gender to befriend, perhaps invite that person over to his/her home and to youth group.  Not everyone can succeed in doing this, but many do.  That is the best approach, and also one of the most effective.  A lot of campaigns, etc., make people feel like they are evangelizing, but most people come to Christ because a Christian cared about them.

It is important to make sure that each youth understands what the Gospel is and how to be saved.  They may have a chance, IN A NON-CONFRONTATIONAL ENVIRONMENT,  to share Christ with one person.  We tend to reach people most like us, so they are more likely to reach another introvert, and introverts are scared away by anything aggressive or pressured.

Also, the body has many parts.  Introverts can be the faithful support team ministry need so desperately. They become prayer warriors,  church treasurers, secretaries, givers, or event organizers.  When the zealots have burned out and moved on, it is the faithful, quieter people that keep a church going.  Evangelism is just one strand of body life, and we should  focus  where our gifts and personalities are the best fit. We all need to do SOME of everything, but most of what comes naturally.  

IMO, there is generally too much emphasis on soul-winning and not enough on the blessings of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

I have been working with our youth group off and on for decades.  It is small, but it seems to me the more introverted ones are more faithful as adults that those who were more outgoing. So value  the introverted, and use their strengths without trying to make them into extroverts.  

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

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