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 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.