Is your church a welcoming community?

Most of us attend churches that strive to be open to visitors, and friendly to people at different stages of their faith journey. But a lot of us forget this means all sorts of church-goers with all sorts of struggles are sitting next to us in the sanctuary, reaching for coffee cups with us in fellowship hall, and sharing in classroom discussions.

It’s a perfect environment for predators to breach the protectionist walls we want to exist around our fellow worshippers. And yes, even though it may sound sexist, women can be particularly vulnerable. Men who prey on single women know churches provide prime hunting grounds, because we’re all supposed to be loving and accepting, particularly of people who, outside of church, we’d be wary of.

Trouble is, identifying predators isn’t easy, and fraught with variables. Some guys make a habit of infiltrating churches and exhibiting intimidating behavior toward single women. But other guys are simply socially awkward men who may not even realize they’re giving off all the wrong vibes.

For lack of a better term, let’s call them the “balkers.” As opposed to “stalkers.”

The difference between them dictates our approach to dealing with them. Some balkers whose mannerisms make women uncomfortable may benefit from a discrete “word in the ear” and some helpful coaching in interpersonal interaction. But genuine stalkers have likely played this game before, and a firmer resolve on our part may be necessary to dissuade them. Yes, it sounds unpleasant, but if their behavior is left unchecked, not only are the rest of us abdicating our responsibility to protect our sisters in Christ — at our church, or the next church they target, but we’re not doing the stalker any good, either.

After all, does caring for victims absolve our duties in ministering to the perpetrators?

The Balkers

First, however, is identifying the balkers from the stalkers.

Believe it or not, ladies, but plenty of churched men these days still don’t have a clue regarding how women want to be treated in our post-sexual-revolution culture. Some guys may have been raised in a home where their father abused their mother. Today, those boys from socially dysfunctional homes have become men grappling with how to mesh true standards of appropriate behaviors into a mindset they weren’t trained for growing up. It’s also possible that some nice guys were emotionally abused by a woman they’ve previously dated, leaving them befuddled as they try to reconcile that bad experience in a new relationship.

Perhaps one of the reasons some awkward guys are still single is because, up until now, nobody has bothered to invest the time it takes to help them interact well with members of the opposite sex. Some guys are genuinely intimidated by women, and after they’ve worked up the nerve to try and talk to one, the way they do it ends up intimidating the women by whom they’re intimidated.

All of this can make for some socially disadvantaged males. To them, the term “social butterflies” aren’t people who flit from party to party, but the dreaded upheaval they get in their gut when they try to talk to a woman.

Women who are the target of balkers might consider taking the opportunity to pray for grace to tolerate this learning curve on his part. Not that women need to interact with socially clumsy men out of mere obligation. That could be patronizing for both of you. Quietly bringing the situation to the attention of a trustworthy man in church might be the better option for all sorts of reasons. At least knowing a socially clumsy man doesn’t pose real harm could be incentive enough to try and help provide beneficial opportunities for interpersonal interaction which might help change his behavior. And maybe even — eventually, at least — groom him into a suitable suitor.

The Stalkers

On the contrary, genuine predators exhibit behaviors designed to coerce, manipulate, and even socially defraud women. They prey on perceived vulnerabilities and often operate on an unbiblical, perverted concept of female subservience.

They’re the men who don’t take “no” for an answer, even after they’ve heard you say it in the most serious of tones. They’re the men who kinda creep you out when you first meet them, and the creepiness stays when you learn he’s not a social misfit by happenstance. They’re the men who say things to you that are more than simply socially inappropriate; they’re invasive, suggestive, and even degrading.

They’re the men who seem to linger around you, even as you engage others in conversation. They’re the men who always manage to find you in the church parking lot — or worse, your neighborhood grocery store. When you’re by yourself.

Even if he intends no sexual harm to you, you don’t need to take that chance. Just because you’re in church, you’ve no obligation to suffer through such an experience. That being said, however, might you consider this an opportunity to participate — along with others — in another sort of intervention? Consider how likely it is that he’s already preyed on other women who’ve simply wiggled out of his way, leaving the path free and clear for him to come and find you?

According to Matthew 18:15-19, the biblical method for confronting fellow church members with sin is through personal communication. But that doesn’t mean that in situations like this, you should do it alone. When dealing with a stalker, ask for support from others in your church, especially if you genuinely fear for your safety. It would be great if your team of advocates could create an opportunity for the stalker’s repentance. Remember, the Lord can turn any situation into something that benefits everyone involved.

And men, if you notice predatorial behavior in your midst, or if a woman in your church brings suspicions of such behavior to your attention, take it seriously. Maybe the guy in question needs someone like you to come alongside and offer kindly advice on how not to be so intimidating. Maybe the guy poses a greater danger to not only your sister in Christ who feels threatened, but to other women, and even the sound fellowship of your faith community.

Contrary to popular belief, stalkers don’t necessarily look out of place in church, whereas balkers sometimes do. Stalkers can be smooth talkers with slick mannerisms that help them avoid easy detection. In a way, being on guard against stalkers helps broaden the meaning of God’s admonition to look at the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7).

The bottom line is this: evangelical churches offer one of the most unique fellowship environments in the United States. Anybody can walk through our doors, attend our services, and develop relationships with people they might never otherwise meet. And this is a good thing.

But every good thing can be perverted by sin. And in this case, single women often suffer the brunt of bad socialization encounters. To the extent that we can represent Christ both to those who respect our fellowship and those who abuse it, what that looks like will differ depending on their motives.

In the end, hopefully each outcome will still point all of us to Christ.

 

From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.