Imagine this; an irate parent comes to church complaining about his untrustworthy son to a staff member. The parent cannot control the son’s behavior. The youth director feels that this young man is making people feel uncomfortable by inappropriate words and actions. His social interactions have become unacceptable. He is not welcome back to youth group. A woman shares with everyone she can, mostly complete strangers, about her horrible condition. She has gone through a painful divorce. Cannot pay her bills. She has had to leave her children to her ex-husband to take care of them. She is emotional dumping on every person who will listen and making him or her feel very uncomfortable. A staff member has to talk with her about proper boundaries and this behavior cannot continue. She then proceeds to tell someone else her troubles. Lastly, the drummer at the end of the service says, “I’m done”. He did not like the firm directions he was receiving from the worship leader. He wants constant affirmation, does not take guidance well and has boundary problems with women. What do the all have in common? The all have been coming to our church for quite some time. They all are socially awkward. They all will probably not come back. Welcome to the social world of church.
Every week ministers speak before congregations throughout the world. I am one of them. Each week people assemble to worship God in churches by listening to scripture, singing and hearing a sermon. This last week was an unusual one for us. These three people all on the same Sunday demonstrated that that they have deeply embedded social problems. This had come to a head all in one day. What happens on Sunday can be so misunderstood. First we come together not to the church but as the church. People interacting in relationships centered around Christ is what is central, not a building. Why is this so difficult for us to grasp? We have inherited a social construct of a previous churched social understanding. Secondly, listening is not the point of our worship. It is for our lives to be formed by God. As we exist in relationship with others in the church our lives can be transformed. Lastly, communication is not merely a message given and a message received. We are social creatures. Each person in a congregation does not come as an individual; we come with all of our present and previous relationships that have shaped us. We come from a local community and larger society that impinges its values on us. We come as social creatures above all else. The church is a social network.
David Brooks’ book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement affirms the social nature of human beings. He states that, “We are social animals wired from birth to crave social attachment.” (37) Brooks’ strength is in elevating the importance of social bonds and unconscious emotional movements within people that affect their behavior. These bonds have been studied through “attachment theory”. The way we connect with others is directly related to how we develop. (48). Those people who did not form an emotional rapport with parents and caregivers struggle with learning, forming close relationships and understanding social boundaries. They feel threatened and have trouble controlling their impulses. When people step into a church building then, and hear a message that may be exactly what they need to apply to their lives, they filter that though their social experiences of the past. What Brooks research implies is that people do not change and become healthy by a rational application of biblical truth. They need a social environment that encourages, nurtures and holds them accountable to it. Without that they will not live Christian lives. No one grows alone.
Brooks points out the error of thinking that we are primarily rational beings. He observes that there are two levels of thinking. Level 1 is the subconscious emotional level where decisions are made by unconscious impulses. Level 2 is our conscious mental processes.
We are not merely left or right brained. What we see is encoded all over our brain. He refutes the idea that reason and emotion are independent of each other. Instead emotions measure the value of something. Our brain and body interact to create an “Emotional Positioning System”. The EPS senses a person’s current situation and reaches certain judgments. (19) He asserts, “Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those variations.” (21)
We are socially formed. That forming is often an unconscious process. Level 1 drives can warp people’s perceptions. This is where people form stories of themselves and their world. We are held together by the stories of ourselves that we derive from our social bonds. The people who have trouble with making healthy connections in a church body are affected by their perceptions. People can attend a church service and hear a message that addresses their problems but the narrative they tell themselves is stronger than the rationalizing they make of their behavior. The quality of our social relatedness comes down to the health of these bonds. As Brooks comments, “The broken unconscious bonds are the roots of social problems.” (323) So the problem we all have with “church” isn’t necessarily about the music or the preaching or even when everything is done well. It is a human problem. Whenever two or three people come together their will be conflicting social stories. Perhaps that Jesus admonition to love one another was a command. He knew that all of our social attachments all have fragmented Level 1 thinking.