Friday, February 03, 2006

Just Like Me: Are Affinity Groups Hurting the Church?

From H:
Some years back, I tried to join a small group at a mega church. The church had been making every effort to connect people with similar interests in small groups, I suppose because it's easy to feel disconnected when you attend Sunday service in a massive auditorium with an admission ticket and an assigned seat number. (On an unrelated note, the story of the loaves and fish does come to life when you're in a room with, literally, 5,000 other worshippers.)

I did feel disconnected, so I called the local small group coordinator, hoping to find friendship and a sense of belonging. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I'd like to join a women's small group.

The Lady: Do you have children? We have groups for new mothers, working moms, moms with teens, teenage moms, mothers with children in prison ...

Me: I don't have any children. I'd be happy to be in a women's group with mothers of every age.

The Lady: Are you married? We have couples groups for newlyweds, seniors, interracial couples, May/December relationships ...

Me: I'm married, but my husband doesn't attend church. I'd just like to join a women's group.

The Lady: So you'd like to be in a singles group? How old are you? We have several great programs where you can meet eligible Christian men ...

Me (irritated): No! I'm not eligible ... I'm married ... happily ... I just want to connect with other women ... women of all ages, all backgrounds, all phases of life ...

The Lady: Oh, we don't have any groups like that. I'll put you down for a couples group. I'm sure your husband will love it ...

Me: Never mind. (Hangs up, never to contact the small groups coordinator again.)

OK, I'm exaggerating. But, truthfully, only a little bit. And lest we assign the affinity problem to only huge churches, I gotta tell you it can happen in tiny ones, too. My current church boasts about 150 in attendance over two services. (That includes everyone from infants and nursery workers to the worship team and the sound guy.) It is the picture of diversity, ethnically and socio-economically, with folks from every walk of life. But every week, I find myself navigating toward women who are my age, who have my general temperament (outgoing), and, if possible, who are my height (so I can make eye contact).

I never would have seen my homogeneous social pattern on my own. This week, I was reading an editorial about this subject in Light & Life magazine. A sample:

The narrow me-ism of our self-absorbed culture has created a new inalienable right to happiness by affinity. A philosophical rationale supports this: Everyone is best served when in relationship with people of similar age, gender, background, life experience and/or interests. ...

In contrast, the Bible urges unity through diversity ... The fact that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Galatians 3:28) is a great witness to the reality of the Source of supernatural love. ...

Also, the affinity model undercuts obedience to Scripture’s many cross-cultural and trans-generational admonitions, such as having the older women teach the younger.

Most startling to me is the fact I was ready to reach out in the past--to anyone and everyone--when I was a new fish in a very big pond. And today, now that I'm in the comfy confines of a small church, I'm prone toward relationships with others who are just like me.

We've been called to move out of our comfort zones, to be like Jesus who held company with every age, every race, every social status. That doesn't mean we should disregard friendships with those who are like us, either. Looking in a mirror does offer some perspective. But it takes a whole lot of eyes, with a whole lot of viewpoints, to get closer to the real picture.

To ponder:
1) Think of your closest friends. In what ways are they just like you? In what ways are they different?

2) On any given Sunday, think about the time you spend interacting with people at church. Do you spend the majority of the time talking to visitors or long-time members? Are the people you converse with a lot like you?

3) Share some ideas for meeting new people. How do you approach someone you've never met? What do you say to them?


Teeriffic said...

Hee, hee, hee. I know what you mean. As I think about my life, I realize that I have very little interaction with people who aren't very much like me in some way (similar profession/age group/marital status). I need to expose myself to more of the Body (not the same thing as exposing myself to more of the Body . . .uh-oh. I'd better get off this train of thought . . .)

Brooke said...

I loved this. You are talking about one of my pet peeves. I really have never liked affinity groups. Although, they may work well in helping churches grow numrically and have been highly advocated in the church growth movement, I don't see much Biblical support for that type of structure. We all have blind spots. It is so much easier to maintain those blind spots when we limit much of our interaction to people and groups who are much like us and see the world in much the same way. That is a sure formula for spiritual immaturity and stunted spiritual growth. Thanks for touching on this subject.