social anxiety and the church social main image
Anxiety,  Connections,  Encouragement

Church socials and the socially anxious

Church event organizers across the country are going to come after me for this post. In the next few paragraphs, I am going to admit something that won’t surprise you. Here it is:

I’m not a fan of church socials.

If the goal of an event is to mingle, practice small talk skills, and relax together, I do what I can to duck out. It’s that relax part that gets me. Do some of you relax in a big group setting? I am envious. Church socials and the socially anxious don’t always play well together.

Crying over broken ice

Or this one—Ice Breaker Games. Have you ever been on a church retreat or attended a church training meeting and been forced to play ice breaker games? I quit going to women’s retreats years ago because of ice breaker games. (I know. I’m terrible.) I would get so tense and upset fearing I was going to be the one at the end that everyone laughs at—and too many of these games are about exposing secrets to strangers or the entire room ganging up on the ‘loser’ of a game and laughing—that I said no. No more. Never again.

But let’s face it–church socials aren’t going anywhere. There’s simply no easier way to start forming community between twenty or fifty or two hundred people than to put them in a room together and watch connections form.

It just so happens that some of us are so uncomfortable in that room that we focus on calm breathing, settled stomach, and not fleeing to hide in the bathroom, and we get nothing out of them.

Not. One. Thing.

Except, of course, ticking off the box “Attended church social.”

But keep reading. There may be hope…

Not just the anxious

This isn’t limited to anxiety. The introverts aren’t having the time of their lives, either.

There was a time that I honestly doubted God loved me because I was an introvert. The church seemed like it was made for extraverts, and I wasn’t one of those, so it proved I was faking. I wasn’t really a Christian. If I was, if God wanted me, he’d have made me different so I could do everything I thought Christians should do, and all of those required extraverted tendencies.

I think in the past decade the church has started see that people are different. There are a few books and articles out there nodding to the introverts and the anxious and telling them it’s okay. God loves you, too. The church may not know what to do with you, but God loves you, and that’s what matters. It is a step in the right direction.

There is a growing acceptance that mental health issues are real for some of us, and we want to participate fully, want to interact easily, want all the same things as anyone else, but it’s not easy to get there. And I am thankful for that. But still, the easiest way to jumpstart church unity is through social events, so those of us who struggle have to figure out how to make it happen.

Navigating uncomfortable water

I’m saying most of this slightly tongue in cheek, but church social events aren’t all bad. They can help a lot of people touch base, meet newcomers, find their niche, and I think most of us want to belong and find our places. So how do the anxious or the introverted navigate?

For a long time I haven’t attended. Usually social events are no commitment, come-when-you-can and come-as-you-are ordeals, which isn’t a bad thing, but if I honestly only show up when I’m comfortable showing up, I stay home. I’m finding myself more and more isolated because of that, which isn’t good for me in many ways, so I don’t recommend a moratorium against all social gatherings. (Here’s a recent post on my feelings on Showing Up.) That means we have to find workarounds or work-throughs. Here are my thoughts.

Church social events aren’t all bad, but how do the anxious or the introverted navigate?

The type of event matters

How about group gatherings with another purpose? For me, these are the best way to show up, get a little face time with humans, make a few connections, and not have to take two days to recover. Some examples are Bible studies or book studies, where the focus is the study, not small talk. Small talk happens, for sure, but it’s not the main goal. I attended a group like this earlier this year, and it was wonderful. The topic gave me a hook to hang conversation on, and from there other conversation came naturally.

Also, on days when I’ve done all I can do just walking through the door, and small talk doesn’t happen, I am still successful. I listened and learned whatever the study was meant to teach me. No guilt or self-recriminations on the way home. It is my super-favorite way to socialize in a group setting.

Service projects are also excellent for this. Working together creates natural conversation in a way forced small talk might not. Again, the focus is outside of self, and for some of us, that’s where it has to start. Relationships can be slow to happen, but while they percolate, we get a lot done serving, and we are successful and see spiritual and mental growth even on days we crash and burn on the social part.

How about recon? It’s part of the intended purpose–to spark conversation that leads to connection outside the event. If I tell myself the goal isn’t refreshment or relaxation (NOT going to happen) but simply a recon mission (and when is recon easy? All those spy movies can’t be wrong!) then I have an easier time coping.

Know the goal. Accept the cost.

I need friends. I’ve been reading about it, praying for it, hoping for it, and yet strangers are not texting me asking to be my bosom friend. And asking people to get together over coffee hasn’t worked, either. I get the feeling a person needs to talk to me in a social setting several times before they will take time from their day for friendship. (Whereas a lot of people will put Church Social on their calendar.) So recently I attended a women’s fellowship.

My goal was, simply, to talk to people. Not even recon, just survival, knowing these events get somewhat easier if I just do it. Sometimes. Usually. Again, church socials and the socially anxious may never mix well, but they can get better with the right mindset and preparation.

Prep time…

Remember above where it says to accept the cost? For me, for where I was that day, that included wandering without focus for most of the day of the event while hoping the evening went well. It meant a day of excuses, but I know myself well enough to have headed those off. I drove past the venue the day before so I couldn’t say I didn’t know the way. I filled the car with gas. I got clothes ready. Got the blood sugar nice and steady a couple hours ahead (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a type 1 diabetic.). I told my son I wanted to go and asked him to force me out the door.

On the way, I practiced deep breathing exercises. I did a little role playing: If someone says this, maybe I’ll answer with that. I smiled a few times in my car, which would have looked crazy to someone on the outside. Smiling at a social is a good idea, so why not practice? I told myself, out loud, that I was going to be brave and talk. Sometimes I’m so proud of myself for getting through the door that I don’t keep up the inertia and talk to people.

I did all that, and I walked through the door, and I talked a little bit. I got there a few minutes early, as I usually do, so I had a minute or two to talk to the hostess one-on-one before the event began, because that is pretty much the only situation where I am comfortable.

People showed up, and a few conversations happened. So far so good.

All eyes on… me?

Then we sat in a circle. Raise your hand if circles make you sweat. In a circle, all eyes can be on one speaker. And unlike Bible studies, where I can answer a non-personal question about the study in that circle, in a social setting, all eyes are staring at me while I talk about me. Usually in that case I can’t remember anything about me. Apparently when I am in a circle I have no memory of any moment before the circle happened. I admit I said not one word in that circle. But I also didn’t run from the room. I’ll take the win.

Apparently when I am in a circle I have no memory of any moment before the circle happened.

So I made it through circle time. A few minutes before that I did talk in smaller groups of two or three, and I was a proud of that. And the group wasn’t huge, so that was good. All in all, the event was a complete success.

Big goals

But still, when it was over I walked into my house and felt like I had spent the evening on a battlefield. It went exactly as well as it could go, but too much energy went into it. When I got in bed I had a headache and couldn’t get to sleep until the wee hours.

Because I want so much more. Long, deep conversation with heart friends. Shared purposes, time digging into the Word with someone who loves it like I do. I want community, deep and fulfilling and intimate. And that is so, so hard to put together. Does it happen this side of heaven? I hope so.

Images by Joseph Redfield Nino and Pexels from Pixabay

The door to that seems to be the church social. A lot of people, like those lucky extraverts, probably enjoy the socials themselves. I am so envious. There are people out there who might have no idea what kind of struggles and victories and defeats happen at church socials. It’s rather epic, and if you’re anything like me, you get it. If not, be kind to the wallflowers. We might be fighting a battle of the ages.

My vow to myself

I’m going to keep showing up to events. Not every event, but more than I do now. God has impressed on me that I can’t live in isolation. So I will continue to pray and fret and show up to more events and take headache medicine and toss and turn, and maybe in time there will be some connections. During the lost year of 2020, I lost a lot of my connections, and I need to restore them. I know God wants me connected and useful (see this post about why I think it’s important to show up.) So. Deep breath. Head off excuses. Use the car to prepare. Expect it to be rough and then show yourself mercy on the way home if it didn’t go as you’d hoped.

And trust that God will put connections together and let all of us find our people and our purposes within our church bodies. We are told to gather, to bear burdens, to love one another. That cannot happen in isolation.

If you have great tips for connecting with people at church, with or without church social events, I would LOVE for you to comment below!! I am ready to learn from you.

(This is written slightly tongue in cheek with the utmost respect for ANYONE who has gone to a church event with me. Every problem I have with socials is my problem, not yours. My delightful comrades in the faith, you are awesome. And I am working hard to be part of your world!)

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