Being the Church: Socialization

Back in the day, pre-pandemic, my local faith community had a social hour.  After worship, we’d hear announcements, then adjourn to a large community room down the hall with coffee and tea and water and snacks.  People would stand around—the room had no seating—and chat.

When I first started attending, I was incredibly shy.  It took months for me to gather the courage to walk down that hall from the worship room to the community room.  And the first time I did, I took one look at the disorganized mob of people and turned to flee.  I wanted friends; I wanted to connect, but the prospect of walking up to strangers and introducing myself overwhelmed me.

In later years, when I felt more confident as a member of the congregation and less shy generally, I used to look for people who were stuck in the hallway, like I had been…wanting connection, but afraid to walk into the community room.  There were many more than you might expect.  I discovered that most of the hallway dwellers were perfectly happy to talk with one person in a semi-private setting, without the extra pressure of people mulling about, jumping from group to group.  

So, each social hour, I’d go down to the community room, get myself something to drink, and then come back out to check the hallway.  When I found somebody, I’d say, “Hi, I’m Emily.”  I didn’t have to say much else.  Generally, that was enough to get them talking.  If the person didn’t want to connect, they would have left immediately after worship.  If they were lingering in the hallway, they were wanting to connect and unable to do so in the context of a big social hour.

Post-pandemic, when many of us have moved our worship online (or partly online), I’m thinking a lot about hallway dwellers.  I’m wondering two things.  

First, is it possible that there are more hallway dwellers joining our virtual worship than ever joined our physical worship?  For many people, it’s much easier (emotionally) to click on a link than to go to a building.  Online, you can leave in an instant if you’re uncomfortable, and your body remains in the safety of your home.

Second, is it obvious to the hallway dwellers—who, by definition, do want social connection but fear initiating it—how to access the social connections they’re seeking?  Is it obvious to the rest of us, if we’re online, that new people are present and possibly hoping we’ll reach out in some non-threatening way?  (I acknowledge that some people don’t want social connection, just worship and worship only.  There is nothing wrong with that desire; however, that’s not the group of people this article is talking about.)

Separately from the question of the hallway dwellers, what about the long-time members of the community who may be hungry for social connection?  In a world of livestreaming and Zooming and outdoor socially distanced masking, are we as faith communities successfully meeting that need?

Social connection is helpful for the purpose of the connection itself, even if we have no additional agenda.  Even pre-pandemic, loneliness was a significant and increasing problem in many societies.  And social contact is one reason people are drawn to faith communities.  But beyond that, social contact is also a necessary precursor to genuinely knowing one another, to understanding each other better, to learning what our needs and our gifts are.  If we don’t know each other, we have a really hard time being the church together.

How do we provide easy-entry socialization opportunities for both existing members of our congregations and the hallway dwellers?  How do we do that, especially, in hybrid or online communities, or in communities that are still being careful about in-person gatherings and distancing?

Truth told, as problem solving goes, I think this one is relatively low-hanging fruit.  We already have solid research that tells us that small groups lead to feelings of belonging, especially temporary small groups that are loosely structured and semi-spontaneous.  Socializing with a new community as part of a newly forming small group is much easier than trying to do it by entering a large group with all of its social norms already in place.

If you’re not doing it already, you might think about encouraging temporary small groups to form.  Invite anyone who is part of your worshiping community to suggest a new, temporary small group open to all.  It genuinely doesn’t matter what the small groups are for, and variety is great.  Maybe one person wants to start a small group that is knitting on Zoom together.  Another wants to start a small group to gather in a park and read the book of Ruth.  A third suggests streaming science fiction movies together (each person in their own home, using their own Netflix account) while chatting about the movies through a WhatsApp group.  All the faith community needs to do is include information about each group in its regular communications so that anyone who is interested can join.

Another approach (and there’s nothing saying you can’t do both) is to build in social time to every online or hybrid event.  The trick is to make sure that the in-person contingency isn’t having its social time before or after the web-based portion kicks in.  Before or after worship, before or after religious education gatherings, before or after committee meetings, schedule a few minutes of social time, and give it a little bit of structure.  Ask people to form small groups of three or four people, share their names, and respond to a simple question—serious or silly, whatever feels right.  If you’re fully online, you do this with breakout groups.  If you’re fully in-person, turn your chairs.  If you’re hybrid, do both.  Just don’t leave anybody out.  

Making room for people to be social seems like such a little thing.  And encouraging spontaneous connection by structuring it into the schedule might even seem oxymoronic.  But the truth is, in a post-pandemic era, we have to be deliberate to make sure the social connection happens.  And I can testify from my own experience that my life would be very different now if I had never managed to make it down the hallway.

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