“I just don’t feel like I know anyone here.”
The staff at the Oaks get comments like that with some regularity. It has been the most befuddling thing as a pastor to try and (1) respond to that comment appropriately while (2) ensuring that those comments happen with less frequency. Have we made progress at it? Absolutely? Have we hit our target? I don’t think so. But I am not 100% sure how.
I was more deliberate this Sunday to state some of the competing priorities that we all have to face—priorities which make that feeling of connection get diminished. I’d hope here to illustrate those (perhaps with more clarity) and then later this week offer up some solutions.
Baton Rouge is the littlest big town I’ve ever been in. I grew up outside of Houston. During seminary I lived in Dallas, spending he bulk of my time at a large church, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to drive 25-30 minutes to join up with others in a small group. The idea of knowing a lot of people was not even realistic.
In Baton Rouge—at least where I am in Baton Rouge—things feel different than anywhere else I’ve been (and I’ve been here for coming up on eight years with my family). There are numerous relationships people attempt to maintain before their local church can be included.
- Their family: This might have something to do with the strong Catholic roots in Baton Rouge, but a lot of people live their whole lives here and the bulk of that time is spent with their family—immediate or extended. I love my family. I’d spend every moment with them, so I get it, but we can fill our whole year with family events. Every holiday (large and small), every life event (birthdays, sporting events, etc.), and any other milestone can fill your calendar without second thought. Then you become the grandparent and it is game over—now you have numerous birthdays and other life events to handle.
- Their friends they grew up with: “What’d high school did you go to?” is a pretty familiar question. “Uhhhhh, Tomball High School” doesn’t really have the same reaction as “Baton Rouge High” or “Catholic High” or “Ascension Catholic” or “Lee High.” Praise God for deep and abiding friendships, but that’s a pretty thick layer of relationships to maintain.
- Their old church friends: “We used to go to that church,” some would say, “And we are still in Bible study together every week.” I don’t know how to take that. Good? I guess? I really can’t tell. What I love about this is that people took those relationships seriously. What bugs me? I think what bugs me is that it keeps people from drilling in more deeply with people at their own local church because they are trying to keep up with people scattered around the city. Maybe I’m a scrooge about this. I probably am.
- Their kids’ school relationships: The school culture in Baton Rouge is, again, one I haven’t seen before. It appears that some families have all their kids in the same school, some have their kids all in different school, others find some other combination. If it is private school, the private schools seem to be pretty demanding not just of a student’s time, but also the parent’s time (and money). Thus, a ton of time and energy goes to maintaining school life.
- Their (current) local church: Then, after the trickle down, there is room for our own local church.
The problem with trying to work within these networks is highlighted when someone is new in town. If people are relatively new in town then they don’t have at least three of the four networks (family, old friends, or old church friends), as best as I can tell. Thus, they feel unable to break into their own local church. Is there a handshake? Do I need to know the code? Unfortunately, yes, there is and you do. Our apologies, though, your access is contingent upon growing up here, going to school here, or having longstanding friends here.
As a pastor, this is a difficult hurdle to try and overcome. When someone says, “I don’t know anyone,” it might not be because they aren’t aware of people, but because as they look around the bulk of everyone’s relationships are pretty maxed. There isn’t much capacity to take on more—for better or for worse.
The solution? Try a different church for a while. See if that helps. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then try another church—or just give up on it entirely.
However, I think there are better solutions than this, but they take some work. I’ll be back on here later this week to try and offer some steps moving forward.
In the mean time—is this something you’ve experienced one way or another in Baton Rouge (or elsewhere)? Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.