Church culture, Life, Uncategorized

And my least favourite question to be asked is…

The church I go to has just started a new sermon series all about mental health, following a short guide called “Livability”. Each chapter of this book looks at a figure from the Bible, and uses their story as a starting point to talk about a particular aspect of mental health such as depression or anxiety. As I have said before on the blog, I have personal experience with social anxiety and agoraphobia. Writing about my own experiences may be useful for others, and given that my church is focusing on it (hello to this part of my audience!) now is a good moment to do so.

In today’s post I want to want to talk about my least favourite question to be asked.


My least favourite question is a really simple one.

It’s a really common one.

It’s an innocuous looking one.

Ready?

So what do you do for a living?

Really? That’s it? What’s so bad about that?

Everyone’s experience of life is different. For me, this really is the number-one worst question out there. Honestly, I dread it. Doesn’t matter where I am – the pub, at church, meeting friends-of-friends socially. Why?

One of the areas where I’ve struggled most with adult life is employment. I’m now mid-thirties. I’ve never yet had a full-time job.

After writing that last sentence, I automatically started adding other sentences to qualify and explain it. But I’ve decided to get rid of them to leave it on its own. Because this really cuts to the heart of the issue – the importance of employment is so fundamental within our culture that an explanation is needed. Without offering one, its at best a puzzle; at worst it might be assumed I’m a person of questionable character. (Gasp! Sharp intake of breath!)

I want you to keep reading, so I’d better justify myself a bit to put you at your ease. I’m neither useless nor lazy. Every year I have had some work – sometimes one part-time job (though perhaps very part-time), sometimes two. All in the secondary/tertiary education sector, so entailing a reasonable level of diligence and responsibility. But, taking into account my limitations – in particular social anxiety – as well as my skill-set, and up to now I have found it difficult to match to a full-time role, whether to do with education or something else.

Which is a problem. I’m far from idle the rest of the time – learning new technical skills, volunteering with several different charities in a small way, as well as producing useful things like this blog and the website that hosts it. However, the usual social expectation for a mid-thirties guy is having a full-time job. And this means answering questions about “what I do for a living” gets tricky. Obviously, jobs are about earning money. But in terms of social function they do more than that. Having a full-time job shows

  • Something about your values: that you are willing to work to provide for yourself and others.
  • Something about your value: if you have a job, it means someone considers you worthy of working for them. There is a level of accreditation just from having a job.

In other words, the social worth of having a job is partly in showing you are happy to be a “decent” or “contributing” member of society. This is one of two reasons I can think of that unemployment or underemployment is psychologically hard: your value as a member of society is immediately put under question. Perhaps this statement is a little over-negative. But the cumulative effect of giving an explanation of your circumstances to lots of different people, each of whom really is well-meaning, can lead to feeling rather under-siege and defensive. Particularly with the often-negative media coverage of people without full-time work lurking in the background (even though, in reality, the people whose lifestyles they decry are very much in the minority.)

(The other reason un-/under-employment is psychologically hard is simply that not earning enough money to provide for yourself and your dependants sucks. I am fortunate in that I have been able to live with family in economic circumstances that mean I have never had contact with the benefits system. But reading about the difficulties of those who have needed to use it, I am highly sympathetic as it is obviously far from easy.)

The upshot of this is that I find talking to people for the first time can be jolly awkward. When the subject of employment comes up, as it almost inevitably does, what do I say? Do I simply say that I have a job in the education sector? This feels awkward, as it gives the impression of something full-time, and I dislike being misleading. So do I say I have a part-time job in the education sector? But that brings up the questions of why-only-part-time, and what-else-am-I-looking-for. Which is immediately a can of worms. I have come to accept that I can’t expect to get a full-time role in the short term. It may happen – in which case, great! – but I can’t rely on it. But I don’t really want to tell my whole life story, explain about issues with anxiety and so on, right when meeting someone for the first time.

So when I meet new people I feel this question hanging over me, and am embarrassed and sheepish. What I say depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes I give a response like “I have a part-time job writing maths teaching materials for secondary/tertiary level students.” Not a bad answer. If I’m feeling less confident, I just say something more evasive like “Not very much at the moment.” Which actually gets some hilarious responses. I went to a social event a couple of years ago that was well-attended by some people from my old school. Now, I have always been particularly good at maths and physics, which got me marked out as a smart cookie – someone really going places. The idea that at the moment I might not be very successful in career terms, and my “Not very much at the moment” might be based on awkwardness, embarrassment and shame… didn’t seem to compute. They assumed that my reticence meant I must be doing something I can’t talk about, so I must work for MI5 – which is hilarious, and naturally something I denied. But, they figured, if I worked for the security services then denying it is exactly what I would do… To this day I don’t know what they think. Some kind of bearded James Bond?

A guy who works part-time walks into a church. And everyone in turn says..

At one point in my twenties I joined a new church. For anyone who doesn’t know, the way churches usually work is that there is a formal “meeting” with a Bible reading, talks, prayers and songs, which is followed by a social time with tea and coffee, chatting and getting to know new people. Here’s an artists impression of how coffee-time chats went for the first few months:


Sunday 1, coffee person 1: Are you new here? Tell me about yourself, what do you do? Oh, you don’t have a full-time job yet? Well how I got my first one was…

What a friendly person! That’s a good sign.

Sunday 2, coffee person 2: Hello there! I don’t believe we’ve met. What’s you name? What do you do for a living? Ok. What sort of thing are you looking for?

Quite like last week. But I suppose I am new here.

Sunday 3, coffee person 3: Hello, my conversation is surprisingly like that of coffee person 1! But instead of telling you about how I got my first job, I’ll tell you about my son and how he got his current job.

I’m sensing a pattern.

Sunday 4, coffee person 1 (again): Hello! Good to see you here again today. How’s the job search coming along?

Someone talk about something else next week, please.

Sunday 5, coffee person 4: Hello, I haven’t spoken to you before. You won’t know this, but my favourite subject is talking about the details of my health problems. In detail. Whether anyone is going green or not. Now it all started when…. … … and then it fell out … and you’ll never guess the colour of … Why are the lights out? And where has everyone gone? No-one in this church ever listens to me…

That’s not what I meant by something else! Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!! TMI!


I’m being light-hearted, but to make a serious point. Everyone I spoke to meant really well. The questions they asked were perfectly reasonable – most people do have an occupation of some sort, so asking about it is a sensible way of getting a conversation going. They really were interested in finding out about me. Interested in sharing their stories with me, and giving advice, in the hope that my life would be improved as a result. But overall the effect was like coming up against a wall. Employment was a barrier. I had to cross it somehow in order to talk about other things, and so be a “proper” adult member of the church.

For this, and other reasons, I stopped going to church for a while – and when I did my attendance was sporadic. Eventually, the barrier was breached. For a couple of weeks the church ran a project. Volunteers with a can-do attitude were needed. After several days of using tools and wielding a paintbrush, I had shown I was willing to work hard, diligent and could produce a quality result. It was like passing an audition; suddenly I was able to talk about all sorts of things with the other men from church. And I felt much more like I belonged.

So what’s the take-home?

So there’s a few thoughts from my personal library of stories to do with employment and inclusion. Is there a lesson? I don’t think there’s just one simple one. But here’s a few ideas:

  • When it comes to community inclusion, activities like “helping re-decorate a house before someone moves in” can be really helpful. I’ve been involved in this particular activity at least three times, and each time its really useful for getting to know new people. The value isn’t just in the end product – though that is the goal. But in the process of achieving this product, they function like auditions. Does someone turn up, work hard, and to a good standard? Its a chance to show what you are made of when, for some reason, you can’t do this so easily in words.
  • Sometimes, even when everyone means well, social barriers can be set up accidentally. This is just something to be aware of.
  • Employment is a particularly bad area for barriers as money is foundational – it’s needed for buying cars, houses, supporting a partner and children…. So to put up a wall on the subject of “jobs” can effectively mean putting barriers on these other things too.
  • In my experience churches aren’t immune to the problem of accidental barriers. Being a “responsible” member of the community is part of a mature Christian life. For those who are in traditional job-for-life roles such as teachers, doctors and lawyers (who are hardly lacking in UK churches), appearing to satisfy this type of responsibility is pretty much locked in. But not everyone is in the same boat. For those of us who really struggle with employment, showing evidence of this kind of responsibility is much harder. Where there is a social expectation and you don’t appear to meet it, there is a danger of feeling second tier, or even being treated this way (sadly, there are cases I’m aware of where this has happened).

So there’s some of my thoughts on jobs and inclusion. Currently lots of people – I think over 6 million? – are on furlough due to the virus outbreak. Its possible that when things open back up there will be more unemployment, though I hope that doesn’t happen. But this is perhaps a good time to be talking about these issues.

So to quickly sum up the entire post: opening a conversation with asking about employment isn’t wrong per se. But because of the social factors involved the conversation can get tricky quickly. Next time you meet someone new, why not ask about their interests first?

Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Digital potential, part 1 – the sum is far greater than the individual parts

Our survey says…

Last autumn I took it upon myself to do a (totally unofficial) survey of how technology is used by the different churches in my town and the surrounding villages. I used Google to draw up a list of all the churches in the area, then working outwards I went through the websites of these churches one by one, making a note of things like

  • Do they actually have a website?
  • How well does it work? Is it frequently updated?
  • How well does the site describe services, facilities and activities?
  • Does the site have things for particular interest groups (e.g. 20s-30s, marriage-prep, Alpha)?
  • How well does the site use media (audio, video), and does the church use social media?
  • Does the website gives examples of where church members can get involved in using technology, and are these supporting roles (e.g. operating AV equipment) or creative (video production, animation, graphical design etc.)?
  • Does the church use only its own resources, or point people to carefully chosen external resources?
  • How well is the church website digitally integrated into the Christian community in the Aylesbury area (e.g. by advertising events at other churches)?
  • How well is the church website integrated into the wider community, for example by linking to groups from outside the church that use its facilities during the week (e.g. NHS support groups, fitness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous)?

This survey had some obvious limitations. It only provided a snapshot of a church’s digital footprint at one moment in time, it only included items that churches chose to externally advertise (so intra-church WhatsApp groups got overlooked) and so on. Despite this, I thought it was a worthwhile activity to try. Modern technology has already changed the world, and a good question to ask is whether the church (as a whole) is making the best use of it. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, this is a question I felt I could have a reasonable go at assessing. As a by-product, I gained a good overview of the Christian groups in the area and how they are involved in their wider communities. Which is no bad thing.

Here is some of what I found out.

And the winner of “Best Website” goes to…

Okay, I’m not really going to rank church websites in order of greatness. But some are better than others. Overall, churches with a larger congregation or from a more modern denomination (e.g. Vineyard, New Frontiers) had a better web presence. In comparison, smaller, more established congregations were weaker in this area. This was true of churches in the town as well as in the surrounding villages.

The obvious reason I can think of for this is that making and maintaining a website takes resources (a lot of time, some money) and a degree of expertise. Also, technology (particularly social media) skews towards the skill set of younger people, and there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation whereby tech-savvy people are pulled towards a church that is already tech-savvy…

Some of the best use of technology was actually by churches set up to cover the new housing estates. With hindsight this is hardly surprising, as taking into account their target audience (and in some cases lack of a building) they have had to innovate and engage with modern methods of communication in order to succeed.

The stopping point

Some websites were very basic, giving little more detail than services times, contact details and information that certain types of activity existed during the week. Others were much more fully-featured with libraries of recorded sermons (though some of these seemed to be pretty erratic selections), information on volunteering opportunities, pages describing social action and supported missionaries, and so on.

There was a point at which even the best websites ran out: creative content and resource curation. Some churches had music they had recorded, book reviews, or an introductory video. However, creative content of this sort was always pretty limited. Also, there was generally little attempt to link to external resources, even from within the same denomination. There’s an obvious reason for these things – creating content takes time (it takes me a day to write something as long as a blog post), and so does updating websites. Blogs and “news” sections in particular were often rather like zombies – they’re dead, they’ve clearly been dead for a long time, but they get trapped in an archive as no-one can bear to finish them off.

Everything community

When it came to “community” I was particularly interested in three things: how well churches cooperated with each other, how well churches catered for special interest groups, and how well churches seemed to be integrated with the wider community.

For the first of these, the short answer is: when it comes to technology, most churches hardly seem to interact with each other at all. For one church to link to events or resources at another did happen, but it was actually quite rare – even within a denomination.

Some special interest groups were well catered for. Most churches had a children’s programme, though the extent of it varied. Likewise, there was often provision made for senior citizens, men’s and women’s ministry, and mother-and-baby groups. This was often the point at which official programmes ran out. This isn’t really surprising, as most churches are of a similar size (more than fifty, max a few hundred), have a quorum of children and the elderly to care for, and both too few people in other special interest groups and too little time for running anything else.

When it comes to integration with the wider community, the visibility of this on websites varies greatly. Some churches have a wide programme of social action going on and are keen to talk about it. At the other end of the spectrum, some seem reluctant even to mention the public-service organisations (NHS support groups, disabled clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous etc.) that use their buildings during the week. And few indeed mention those that operate at other churches.

Drawing the threads together and making suggestions

In one sense my survey is now way out of date. As a result of the coronavirus lockdown, churches have been adopting new technology across the board in order to keep functioning. The church I go to now has an active social media group for the whole church, Zoom services on a Sunday, and even Zoom homegroups during the week. However, running in the background there is a strong undercurrent of “this situation is temporary, then we’ll be able to get back to meeting together in person.” Which naturally leads to the question: if the lockdown ends soon, will the new technology be jettisoned as quickly as it has arrived?

I think its an open question. Lockdown is a developing situation, and even the best guess is unlikely to be totally right. The thing that concerns me is not so much whether my particular church keeps this or that specific bit of technology going, but rather that in the desire for the familiarity of physical community the church (in the broader sense) might simply return to what it was doing before without giving the wider role of technology much thought.

Over the last few years I have been thinking that it would be a good idea if churches worked together more. Here are a few ways in which greater cooperation in the digital sphere would be useful:

  • Currently each church reinvents the same wheel. Is there any margin in the idea that churches work together on shared webspace, freeing up resources for doing extra things rather than duplicating the same functionality? As an example: the evidence suggests that no church can support a “church blog”. But if churches worked together, maybe they could?
  • Currently, larger churches have better technological capability, i.e. in a sense there is “digital poverty/inequality.” Is there a way in which more tech-savvy, larger churches can partner with smaller churches in the same area (even crossing denominational bounds)?
  • Digital roles tend to be support rather than explicitly creative, and creative work tends to be limited to introductory videos and youth work. Is there a way in which like-minded individuals from across the churches can be teamed up to make something more significant in the adult space?

Perhaps some of these things are already going on. In which case, do leave a comment below!

Phew. This post has got rather long. Hopefully there is something to get you thinking. One final suggestion:

Somebody please come up with a way for Christians in the same part of town to get to know each other! Currently people living a street away drive to different parts of town for church and don’t know each other exist. This is bonkers!!

See you in the next post!

Church culture, Life

Church culture, part 1 – the joy of singing?

Its a church with an informal style. Its a Sunday morning. Warm those voices up, its time for singing. Who doesn’t love a good sing?

Well…

Let the trauma begin

At the age of eight I moved to an all-boys school. It was a private school, which meant school days were a weird length (we finished at 5) and term dates were out of sync with the rest of society. The school had “a Christian ethos”, which meant that it had its own large Anglican chapel, a resident chaplain, assemblies with hymns from “Hymns Ancient And Modern”, and compulsory weekly services of a high-Anglican nature. In their first year at the school everyone had a “singing test” to see if they had any natural ability, with the hope of finding suitable candidates for the choir. Apparently I had enough ability for my parents to be asked if I would join. I was highly reluctant, and to my great relief I was allowed to escape this fate.

To be in the choir meant many things. Choir practice was at lunchtime, and took the place of football. Choir music was… traditional church choral music. If you were in the choir, then in services you had to wear a dress. Well, ok, technically “choir robes”. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

And this was before we even got to the peer pressure. Take a load of boys without a lively Christian faith, put them in a cold chapel on a Friday evening when they’d rather be elsewhere, and ask them to sing ancient hymns to choir accompaniment. And then take into account the fact that the role model for a younger boy is an older boy… which matters because (due to puberty) older boys have a much deeper voice than younger boys and… you know what the result is? Well, its hardly going to be 8 year old boys enthusiastically learning to sing their high-pitched hearts out is it?

To be in the choir was to be mocked. And to sing, well, the rule was you don’t sing.

This of course drove the head of the music department nuts. Every Friday morning after assembly we had “congregational practice”, during which the poor man tried everything to teach us a little about how to sing and get us to practice the hymns. It was a pretty forlorn exercise. For those of us of a more obedient disposition, congregational practice meant a state of tension between the orders of the teacher and the pressure of the group. In my case the result was trying to sing… but in such a way that other people couldn’t hear me. Obviously, that just doesn’t work. Later on, I latched onto the idea of trying to sing lower than my natural voice.

Result: after ten years of “church singing”, I had

  • learnt the lesson that you don’t sing (though by 18 it was okay to sing if you sounded like Tom Jones or Eminem, i.e. a secular superstar).
  • learnt to sing in a uselessly inaudible fashion (no technique)
  • lost the ability to sing what I was hearing (by spending half a decade singing the wrong notes)

In fairness to the school my year-group was particularly sports obsessed, and the school has changed a lot since I was there. During my time it began the transition to co-ed and it has been modernised a lot. Who knows, maybe kids do like singing now!

Widening the field of view

The point of the above is to give a background as to why, for me, singing in church is usually not a fun activity. I lack both competence and confidence – and my technique is dreadful, so it often makes my throat hurt.

Now, many people do love “(sung) worship” as it is often called. Great! There is nothing wrong with singing Christian songs at all. One stereotype of Africa is that there everyone sings. But the UK is different: we don’t have a singing culture. Adult men sing at the football and at karaoke; otherwise we’re happy to watch, but generally leave singing to the professionals. Singing badly is a thing to be mocked. Singing among women is, I think, more socially accepted. Obviously I’m generalising here, but its a generalisation I feel that many people will identify with. In short, for many men simply being asked to sing in public is a bit of a facer.

In churches are there any things that aggravate the problem? Yes! Such as

  • Music factors: You know that bit in most modern church songs where the volume of the instruments drops low, so that just voices can be heard, and there is that lovely harmony? Well, think about what this means for those that have trouble with singing: their voices are directly exposed to public view. Or they have to stop for a break.
  • Language in modern songs: You know how these days teenage guys and single men show their appreciation for their male friends by telling them how much they adore them? No, neither do I. This isn’t language we use! But it is the language in our songs to God (who chooses to be known as a Father) and Jesus (in terms of his humanity, a human male). Mental gymnastics time!
  • Emotional expectations: Look at pictures of a service on a church website, and there’s a fairly good chance you’ll see a picture of a large number of people with their eyes shut, hands in the air, singing or praying. In this style of church there is an unwritten rule that “proper Christians not only love singing, but have an ecstatic emotional experience, in public.”

The issue of singing is picked up on in research from the States. In his book “Why Men Hate Going to Church” David Murrow gives this wonderful picture relating to the second point in the list above –

Picture two male hunters sitting in a duck blind… One hunter decides to express his affection for the other, using the words of a popular praise song. He turns to his friend and says, “Hey, buddy…

Your love is extravagant,
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel I’m moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in this secret place.”

Readers, I cannot imagine saying these words to another man – especially one carrying a loaded shotgun.

This particular song isn’t so familiar in the UK, but you get the general idea. Its not that the ideas expressed are wrong, or that this song shouldn’t be sung, but if you ask a random bunch of men to sing this sort of stuff, don’t be surprised if men think that church isn’t for them. And this really gets to the heart of the problem. What and who is church for, and what is the singing for? In my observation, here are three groups that find singing an issue

  • Many adult Christian men often don’t sing, at least not with too much gusto, or stop part-way through songs for a break. (The more times a chorus is repeated, the more men stop singing – have a look out for this phenomenon!)
  • Teenage and young adult men often don’t sing, even if they have a Christian faith.
  • Non-Christian visitors (of both sexes), such as those who come into the church for things like baptisms, often don’t sing. I imagine that many of them often feel pretty uncomfortable with being asked to sing when really they’d rather not join in.

The church puts considerable effort into reaching out to people outside of the church (particularly to men), and in trying to bring up young men to adopt a lively faith for themselves. Now, for some people coming into the church and hearing sung worship is instrumental in bringing them to faith. However, I would suggest that for others it is more of a stumbling block. And a fairly big one: by my estimation something like 40% of every service is taken up with singing. That is a lot of time to have to endure being put on public display doing something at which you aren’t competent, comfortable or confident!

Being helpful

Let me re-iterate that I have nothing against singing. For many people “sung worship” is something they enjoy and is integral to their Christian life, and it has drawn others to the faith in the first place. So it is a good thing and I certainly don’t want to stop others participating – go for it! However, I suggest that both its unquestioned prominence and its current format could do with serious consideration. Here are a few ideas.

  • Make greater use of performance. Even people who don’t like singing themselves are generally happy to listen to someone musically-gifted singing at a good standard.
  • Make greater use of a wider variety of creative arts by the congregation. Music and singing is only one of the creative arts. What about the rest – traditional art, video-making, writing and so on? Why are these usually limited to kids, or reduced to low-standard, novelty items?

This post is long enough, so I will wind up here. One final thought – why do I care about this subject so much? Singing is not an issue alone, but part of a broader concern I have. I became a Christian as an adult, and see Christianity as a good thing that I would want to share. But I am single, male and mid-thirties. Most of the friends I make are in their twenties and thirties, they don’t have kids, and their interests are a long way from a church context. Which gives me a real difficulty: “church” is simply not somewhere I can bring people to, or in which they would truly thrive. And that really is a problem.

This is a big statement to make, and needs some justification. I hope to return to it soon in another post.

J


P.S. You may have read in another post that I’ve started internet dating. Given the general tenor of this article, it might surprise you to hear that one of the things I think would be quite nice is to find a partner I could sing with (!). As I’ve said several times, I have nothing against singing. But for me singing is a highly vulnerable activity – essentially intimate in nature. If I sing with you, its a mark of great trust and/or value.

Dating, Life

Let the online dating begin!

So, three days ago curiosity finally got the better of me and I signed up to an online dating site.

For those of you who know me, that might be a bit of a where-did-that-come-from moment.

The reason’s a simple one really. The way church is usually structured in the UK, in my experience if you’re above 25 and live in suburbia, its virtually impossible to meet a single Christian woman in the same age group and spend enough time talking to actually get to know one another.

Lots of things contribute to this:


Church size

Most churches in small towns or suburbia are about the same size, something like 80-150 people on a Sunday morning. In consequence, the number of single people in any age group is just small.

For a long time I went to a local Anglican church in Sussex. In my age bracket there were two single people, me and “the single woman”. In comparison, at my church in Aylesbury there is a positive riches of singles – me, and TWO single women. Heady days. In fairness, I don’t know everyone at the church equally well, and there may be people who come less often that I haven’t considered, so technically I may have miscounted. But my estimate can’t be out by much. The point is, within a church of standard size the “dating pool” in any age category is tiny.

Churches rarely work together

So for dating, church size is an issue. However, in a reasonably sized town there are lots of churches, most of the same standard size. So if churches worked together, it would be possible for a working dating pool to operate. Aylesbury is large. It has 20-30 churches, so if each has one or two single people of each sex in each age group, that means that town-wide each person has perhaps 50 potential partners. Great! There is plenty of scope there for some happy campers.

However, churches don’t really work together very much. So the chance of meeting more than a handful of these 50 people is, well, small.

Relationships are based on communication, and communication takes time – which is hard to come by

Really getting to know other people takes time. And churches don’t make this easy. Church on a Sunday morning usually takes the form of a service, followed by a short time for coffee/tea and a bit of chatting. Services generally don’t involve much communicating with other people, and coffee time is a fragmented affair – if you speak to the same person more than once a month you’re lucky! Based on Sunday mornings alone, getting to know anyone well is virtually impossible.

Churches generally do have more going on than just Sunday morning services. Our church has a lunch once a month, there are midweek homegroups for Bible studies / talking about specific issues / prayer, and a few times a year there are social events. However, not everyone goes to everything all of the time, and there may not be any other single people of a similar age in a homegroup (there aren’t in mine, and I go to two groups from different churches!). Over time it is still possible to get to know people. But slowly is the key word – and waiting 3 years to get to the point where you might know someone well enough to know if you want to ask them out is not really workable!

Changing social opportunities

By their late twenties most Christians are married and have started a family. This is great, but comes at a price. Suddenly, they aren’t available as much socially – and for a single person their social scene often contracts. Some couples consciously make an effort to include single people (particular shout out to B&R, who are wonderful at it) but even their time may be limited.

Meeting friends-of-friends is one of the best ways of meeting other people. Not only might you be introduced to someone that your friends think you might be interested in, but the fact that you share a friend means that in a sense you come pre-vetted, which greases the wheels. A lack of this social mixing is only exacerbated by changing location, which is often a hazard of modern life. I’ve lived in four different places as an adult, each time moving hundreds of miles. Those I know best are scattered over the whole country, and meeting up with them in person is rare.


In short, for a Christian over the age of 25 and living in a small town or suburbia, the off-line dating scene can be pretty much non-existent. If only there was a solution to this problem…. Which is why I’ve decided to give on-line dating a go. Dating sites are set up to solve exactly the problem I’ve just described.

Last thought

At the start of this post I said that those who knew me might find this action bewildering. I think this is probably true. The reason is kind of sad: in the ordinary course of events, no-one ever asks me about relationships. No-one asks if I’m dating anyone. Or have ever dated anyone. Or whether I’d like to. Or whether I want to be married. Or whether I’d like to have children (a separate but related issue). So in crucial ways no-one knows what I am actually like.

This was brought home to me a few years ago when talking to a counsellor. During one conversation they asked me about my experience of relationships, what kind I thought I wanted, what kind of a person I would be interested in meeting or was attracted to, what I thought about sex, and children, and so on. And as they did so it suddenly occurred to me that this was a unique conversational line, the kind of subject that may come up only once every few years. It was eye-opening, and a somewhat painful experience akin to a kind of grief.

I’m not sure what the reason for this is. Partly it may be a desire not to pry; partly because I’m male, on the quieter side, or not astoundingly good looking; partly because my closer friends don’t live nearby. But I think that a lot of it has to do with the dominant style of Christianity in the places where I’ve lived. When I’m down the pub for Drink-and-Draw* night, or to play board games, relationships come up in conversation all the time. With church people – usually tumbleweed: relationships are things that just happen, or don’t.

(*I should clarify that Drink-and-Draw night is a monthly art event, in which a group of us spend the evening in the pub with a drink in one hand and artists’ materials in the other. My proofreader was sent into a five-minute hysterical laughing fit at the thought of what “Drink-and-Draw” might be, given that the context of this post is dating related. I still haven’t got to the bottom of this, but their suggestion that I clear this point up has been noted.)

My suggestion to the Christian community is this: if you know single people, but have no idea about what they think about any the kinds of things listed above, why don’t you ask? By all means tread the waters carefully, as not everyone will want to talk and for some people the subject may be a raw one. But some will. By doing so you will get to know much more of the person under the hood, and who knows you may even be able to help them out!

Updates on progress to follow…

J

Life

Welcome to the new Life and Lions blog!

Hello!

Welcome to my new blog on my new website!

My name is Jonny. I’m in my mid-thirties and currently live in the town of Aylesbury in the UK.

I have interests in a wide variety of different things. I studied physics at university, where I became a Christian, so I am interested in both of those. I create art both using traditional media and digitally. I play computer games and board games. I enjoy gardening, and photographing the flowers, plants and bugs that live outside. I love light-hearted detective shows, science fiction, fantasy and (despite any previous denials) romantic comedies. Oh, and cryptic crosswords. In short, a whole lot of different things.

The fuel

Since finishing uni a decade ago, life has turned out nothing like I would have expected.

Here I am half-way through my thirties, still single, and living with mum. It is less than five years since my dad got diagnosed with cancer and, after a lengthy and unpleasant illness, sadly died. Do I have a traditional career path? No. I have, however, gained plenty of first-hand experience of social isolation and anxiety problems. For a couple of years I was badly agoraphobic, though that has now passed and we have since moved to Aylesbury, where there is much more for someone of my age and abilities to be involved with.

This is a long way from the “standard Christian narrative”. In this archetype you get a job in your early twenties, ideally a stable job-for-life in a middle-class profession – preferably something caring like a teacher or medic, though traditional careers like architect and engineer and so on are also acceptable. After a courtship that is sexless yet somehow also absurdly long, you marry a beautiful spouse in your mid-twenties and move in to a place filled with inspirational Bible quotes written on sunset or woodland backgrounds. By your thirties you have several beautiful kids. And then life is more or less set. You’re in an Instagrammable groove, heading for sending-the-kids-to-university and retirement, one hosted Bible study at a time.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. At all. Trouble is, my life looks nothing like that. At all.

The motivation

When expectation and reality collide there is friction, which is uncomfortable. But it is a great learning experience. I wouldn’t have chosen the last decade to take the path it has, but now that it has happened and I have had a chance to reflect, I think it has given me a fairly unique perspective on practical life as a Christian with a lively faith; on church culture; and on the relationship between the church and the wider world. And I think its the right moment to usefully start to share this angle.

At times I feel like a canary in a coal mine. The canary detects a problem, and alerts the miners to its presence. He serves to highlight to the miners an issue that is actually affecting the whole body of workers, but which is not easy for them to notice. This doesn’t make the bird better than the miners or vice versa – they are a team. The miners are needed to mine the coal, the bird to look after the miners, and the miners in turn feed the bird. They work together. (Okay, the analogy is a bit limited. If the bird does detect a problem he…. keels over dead after inhaling poisonous gases. Its only an analogy, I don’t intend to do that!)

The timing

So why start writing now? During my experience of social isolation, I became used to communicating with people mainly via the internet as most of the friends I had were hundreds of miles away. Using YouTube and tutorial sites I taught myself some computer graphics skills. I took up gaming, both online and on my own. I learnt something about using a greenscreen. In short, my social world became largely digitally-mediated.

Currently, we are in coronavirus lockdown throughout the country. This is a serious illness and a serious situation, and I wouldn’t want to trivialize it in any way. One consequence of the shutdown is that it has forced people online, helping many who were formerly resistant to overcome their reluctance – Christians and churches in particular. In a specific sense, and without intending to be flippant, it now feels like suddenly everyone is playing in my back yard (metaphorically of course!). They are in the digital world, where I am already fairly comfortable. As a result, socially I am more connected than before. This is a space I feel fairly comfortable operating in, I feel less alone, and that I can make a worthwhile contribution in a way that hasn’t previously been possible. Such as starting a blog.

Getting going

To start the blog and the website off, I am launching with three posts. This introduction is the first; the next two are

I hope you find these interesting and learning something from them, and stay with me for future posts,

Best wishes,

J