[Ed. Note: This is the first of several parts I'm going to write about re: the topic of dating, marriage, and sex within the church because, well, I've noticed the way most Christians approach these topics is pretty weird/funny]
Dating is so simple yet so complicated. It's simple because all it take is being attracted to somebody, initiating conversation, and asking them out on a date. If you guys click, you become a couple. If not, you move on. Simple concept. But if you've ever dated before, you know it's more complicated than that. Insecurities. Mixed signals. DTRs. There are so many factors that make this simple concept of dating so difficult.
This is especially true if you're a Christian. You'd think that trusting in an almighty, sovereign God would make people in the church learn how to date with a little more sanity. But from my experience, the Christian dating scene is really weird. In fact, I sometimes feel bad for young Christians when they end up liking each other.
That's because churches today have created this interesting Christian sub-culture when it comes to dating. For some reason, there are all these hidden rules and "Christian hoops" that we're supposed to jump through if we want to have a godly relationship. And while I see the good intentions behind it, I can't help but think it makes dating in the church more complicated than it needs to be.
So why is Christian dating so weird? What makes it all so awkward? Well, I think it all begins with how Christian guys and girls interact with one another in the first place.
The Awkward Guy-Girl Dynamics in Church
Perhaps one of the oldest social riddles in life is knowing how to navigate the strange social dynamics that exist in a male-female friendship. Think about books like Much Ado About Nothing, movies like When Harry Met Sally, and TV shows like The Office. They all address the age-old question, "Can men and women ever just be friends?" It's complicated because there's always a possibility this friendship can turn into romance.
The interesting thing about Christians is that we typically respond to this social riddle in an overly cautious way. It’s unavoidable that guys and girls interact in the church, but the "spiritually mature" ones know they should keep a healthy distance from one another. That's because Christians take dating very seriously. You see in Christian sub-culture, you're never supposed to be dating; you're supposed to be "courting." Translation: if your relationship doesn't lead to marriage, you're both horrible people.
So if you’re a guy who befriends a girl at church, you’re not just risking her liking you – you’re risking her thinking that “you’re the one.” Because Christians attach dating so closely to marriage, the romantic shadow that plagues all guy-girl friendships feels all the more looming. Therefore, Christians end up feeling that they need to be really careful how they interact with the opposite sex. Guys are expected to “guard a woman’s heart” while girls are supposed to “not be a distraction.” So feel free to joke and play mafia together. Just don't get too close.
As a result, there tends to be a lack of freeness between men and women to cultivate real friendships in church. As one Christian writes, “I think it hasn’t been until the last few years that I haven’t been scared to interact with the opposite sex…guys walk around feeling like if they are friends with girls, they have to explain that they aren’t interested in anything more than being friends...All this silliness just creates awkwardness for both sexes, making it almost impossible to merely ‘be friends.’”
Now don't get me wrong: I see the wisdom in this. Men and women should approach friendship differently with one another. But I think our overly cautious mentality makes dating difficult before it even starts.
The Christian Dating Scene
I mean think about it. If guys and girls act standoffish around one another at church, how are they ever going to date? If romantic relationships are, at their core, friendships, then how can Christians start one when they feel like they're not allowed to be friends?
Should guys just make their intentions clear from the beginning? Should they just message a girl saying, “Hey, I noticed you at church. Would you be interested in grabbing coffee?” Perhaps this works for some people. But I think for most Christians, this approach feels too forward and even a bit creepy.
Some Christians think romance in the church should just happen naturally. Brief chats should lead to a social media connection, which leads to a flirty facebook comment, text messages, etc. But if you ever take this approach, you better be careful. Interactions like this will draw unwanted attention from your church. Your friends will tease you ("so what's going on there?"). Your small group will question you ("are you being wise?"). Your mentor will rebuke you ("she’s your sister in Christ"). And all this interrogation makes things weird before anything even happened.
Perhaps the most popular way guys and girls really get to know each other in the church is by serving in a ministry together. I mean, how many wedding testimonies have you heard where the groom first noticed his wife after serving with her side-by-side? That’s because when you do ministry together, you can interact with one another under the pretense of “serving.” So if church members ever see you out in public, you can just tell them, “We're talking about ministry,” and they'll nod in approval.
In other words, our Christian sub-culture has created a very limited context for guys and girls to naturally interact with one another. And any interaction outside of this limited context ends up feeling inappropriate.
The Problems With the Church's Dating Context
This is a shame because I think as a result of guys and girls being so cautious with one another, a couple of problems arise.
1) Christians Are Hearing Contradictory Messages
Most Christians believe marriage is a good thing that singles should pursue. And since friendship is the essence of marriage, we often tell them they should be friends with someone before ever marrying them. However, we also tell them that they should be weary about opposite-sex friendships. Simply put, this is what Christians are hearing:
"It's good for Christians to get married"
"Stop talking to each other!"
"Why aren't you married?"
This creates a confusing landscape for singles to navigate through when their spiritual guides seem to be giving contrary messages for them to follow.
2) Christians Will Date Outside the Church
If this is the awkward party that Christians must navigate through to find a dance partner, then should we be surprised when they end up looking elsewhere? Should we be shocked when they look for romance online or end up seeing a non-Christian? Have we made the church an unappealing arena to find a dance partner?
By no means am I saying that the church should be seen as some kind of dating meat-market. It's weird if people mainly visited your Sunday worship in order to find a mate. But if we make it really weird to find ever find one in the community, we should expect our members to look elsewhere.
3) Male-Female Relationships Are Important in the Church
The stigma that guys and girls should be weary of befriending one another doesn't only hinder potential dating relationships - it hinders the church community. Again, I understand why guys and girls need to approach friendships with each other differently. But this shouldn't mean the two sexes should always sit together in opposite sides of the church like some kind of middle school dance.
After all, God created the church to be filled with both men and women. We reflect the body of Christ not by attending church together but by relating and ministering to one another. But this image is tainted when the genders avoid one another. As Jen Wilkins writes, "We've grown positively phobic about friendship between men and women, and this is bad for the church...How else can we truly refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ?"
By no means am I saying that this awkward guy-girl dynamic exists only within the church. As I mentioned earlier, this is a social riddle that plagues every social circle. But I think the church perpetuates the problem by drawing sharp, seemingly holy distinctions that, in my mind, looks kind of silly.
And I'm not necessarily saying that guys and girls at church need to loosen up and start hanging out one-on-one. Rather, I'm just pointing out an interesting social dynamic that seems to exist in the church. And because of this dynamic, the church has become an environment that makes the possibility of dating feel a bit awkward.
But let's say you actually find somebody you like. Let's say you're that guy who naturally falls for a girl because you admire how godly she looked building that hut in Africa on missions. And let's say she feels the same way about you. Since your guy's intentions are now clear, surely things become less complicated, right? Think again. More on this next time.