A common thread I hear over and over from folks who have left the evangelical church (whether because their politics shifted or their faith shifted or they came out or they were forced out) is a sense of loneliness and a loss of community. People are grieving and missing what they have left and they don’t know how to replicate it or find it in the new lives they are living.
When I was growing up, the church was literally my entire social life. I was homeschooled and lived in a rural town so the youth group became my whole friend group. We ate together and hung out together. Our social events were often church events. Sure, I had a few friends from my community softball team or from work, but the people that I invested my life in? Those were my church friends. And then I went to a religious college and it was the same. We shared our lives and our faith and our loves and our dreams and hopes. And then I came out. And some of those dear friends stopped speaking to me. Others stopped sharing their lives with me. I felt pushed out of the community.
And it was torturous. I thought I would never have friends like that again. And as I got into the queer community so many of those folks were (for very good reason) skeptical (or downright hostile) toward religion. And the liberal religious spaces I was finding felt kind of cold. Or all about justice work and not about spiritual depth. I felt alone, trying to navigate this new world. I missed the connections I had when I was an evangelical: how it felt like we were all in it together, how it was us against the world, how it felt like we were united and working together for some purpose that was bigger than us. How we were working on ourselves, but in community. Why couldn’t I find that again? What was wrong with me? What was wrong with the world?
I’ve had about a decade or so of walking through this world outside of the evangelical bubble and I’ve seen some things about communities and how to find a new place in the world. I want to share some of those learnings here.
First off there’s this misguided notion that the reason you don’t have friends is because you don’t belong to a church. Or that if you could simply find a church then your friend problems would be solved. So the first thing to realize/notice is that church isn’t about making friends. No, really, it’s not. It’s about making community. And community is more than just friendship. It’s more than just having someone to hang out with on the weekend. It’s more than just you not feeling lonely. I guarantee you if you walk into any place with the sole purpose of “making friends so I won’t be lonely” you will be sorely disappointed. Every time. Whether that’s church or a local meet up group. And, in fact, I’ll go further: I think walking into a church with the idea that “this is a church, people have to like me and be my friend while I’m here” you will not only be disappointed but you will be harmful to the church community. Why do I say this? Because I have seen it happen over and over again. People walk into a church expecting people to befriend them but they offer nothing in return. They don’t step up to volunteer, the show up infrequently, when they are there they complain about everything. They don’t attend service events. They don’t say hello to other people. And then they leave the church in a huff and tell everyone who will listen how “mean” people were to them.
But why do I feel such a loss now that I’m not part of a church? Why do I feel like I have no friends? My guess is that it’s not actually about not having friends; I’m sure you can point to people in your life that you are friendly with, some of whom you are even really close to. No, the real issue and lack is that you are missing values based friends.
Here’s what the evangelical church gets right (in theory and for the wrong reasons, but still):
- Community is based on shared values
- Community is based on a shared mission
- Community is based on shared language/norms
Now, I would say that that type of community, in evangelical churches, is often toxic because the shared values aren’t life-giving, the shared mission is about converting people out of fear of hell, and the shared language/norms are policing and outside enforced. But! This is how community works and is formed. The key is to find community that is life-giving and healthy.
You still want to be around people who share your values. So let’s start there: What are the things you value? This could be as narrowly focused as “environmental justice” and as broadly focused as “honesty”. A good list of values will probably include some from both narrow and broad categories. What is it you are looking for? A place to share beauty? To share meals? To work together for a common goal? You know I’m a fan of lists, but seriously, they are helpful to make. So make a list of your values. Okay, next up is shared mission. Where can you find people who share your values and want to live them out? Maybe that is a church. Or maybe it’s a local volunteer group. Maybe it’s “non-official” group of friends who all share a value of meals together and cooking. Start to look for groups and try them out. You don’t have to jump all in (in fact it’s probably better if you don’t). Attend some groups a couple of times and see which ones leave you feeling energized and alive. Go back to those groups. On the other hand if you leave a group feeling sad or beaten down, maybe give that one a pass.
Another thing to realize is it’s pretty rare that one community will meet all of your needs. And it probably shouldn’t. This is maybe why you’re grieving your evangelical church so much: you were taught there that the church would meet all of your needs and you probably invested all of your life into that community and now that you’ve lost it you don’t know what to do. I would encourage you to not go looking for another community to throw your entire life into. Instead, look for a variety of communities that you can invest in for different reasons, seasons, and needs. Maybe it’s finding an environmental justice group to volunteer with once a month, a support group to encourage you to speak with more honesty, a board game group to have fun and play with, and a group of friends you have over once a month for dinner to talk about life and struggles with. Might there be people who overlap between groups? Absolutely! But don’t force it. Let things happen naturally and organically.
Relationships will take time to deepen, especially without the forced pressure cooker of hell or eternal damnation speeding them along. So be patient with yourself. Be patient with the people you are getting to know. Learn what you can from your loneliness. Maybe you need to get used to going places alone for a bit. Or to sit in the silence and allow your own thoughts to be heard. Maybe this is a time for you to figure out what you truly believe without any outside influences. Don’t rush through it just because you are lonely. (But don’t sit at home alone just because you haven’t found the “perfect community” either.)
The last thing on the list is shared language/norms. This isn’t about in-speak or all dressing the same, it’s simply about having a similar approach to the way you live your life. We see this everywhere, not just church: The queer community has some shared norms around language in particular (and certain communities within the queer community have shared dress codes). We see it in fandoms or amongst people who share a hobby (like being outdoorsy). It’s not about being “in” or “out” it’s simply about bonding over an approach to life. This could mean anything from your group of friends who share meals together using similar wording to talk about what those meals mean, or gardening together for your food. It could mean that you join a bowling league and get funny matching shirts made. It could mean that you find other people you can talk about faith with who have a similar background and are on a similar journey. Again, it’s not about fitting in, it’s about finding commonalities.
You’ll need to try some experiments. You’ll probably need to have a bunch of different activities or friend groups. You might need to seek out some community online (for instance if you’re looking to connect with former evangelicals who are still Christians or you’re looking to connect with a community of queer/trans Christians). You have to put in the work. You have to show up. You have to invest. It’s going to feel different than your evangelical church and that’s okay! You are allowed to grieve what you lost and what you miss, but don’t let it hold you back from connecting deeply with others.
Now get out there and find your people!