Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Have you been asked "The Question?"

What do you think of “The Question?”

As in: You’re new to town and meeting someone for the first time, and they ask, “Where do you go to church?”

An earlier post on this blog sparked a lengthy discussion of whether that question is rude. Or, is it something newcomers must learn to expect when they move to the South?

In my year of covering newcomers, I’ve heard from lots who come from areas where this isn’t a customary question, and find themselves repressing a reaction along the lines of “That’s none of your business.”

But from my years growing up here in Charlotte, I understand that for many people, it’s a conversation-starter much like “What neighborhood do you live in?” or “Where do you go to school?” It can be a way of learning whether you might know people in common.

And yes, for some, it’s an evangelical way of reaching out and attempting to proselytize. I understand that might be offensive to some people, but I’m certain this isn’t the only area of the country where that takes place (I know people who’ve met some very enthusiastic Mormons in Salt Lake City, for example). Most people could probably benefit from coming up with a graceful way to respond to that.

In the meantime, I’ve found myself offering advice to newcomers who tell me they’re having trouble meeting people and making friends. I often suggest finding a house of worship, whatever your beliefs. The fact remains that a lot of people’s social lives revolve around them, and they often will have newcomer groups with many people in the same boat. The places of worship here represent a wide variety of beliefs, so most people should be able to find one they agree with.

I want to write an article about this debate, and I want to talk to both newcomers who’ve been asked The Question and Southerners who’ve asked it. If you’re willing to be interviewed, please e-mail me at Ldyer@charlotteobserver.com.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

your post seems to suggest that everyone *has* beliefs ("...whatever your beliefs..."), and that one's "faith" is/should be an important point around which one's life revolves. although i do not usually describe myself as such, i'm an atheist; "faith" plays so little a role in my life that i don't even care to meet with other professed "atheists" about the topic of "atheism". (indeed, since atheism, a-theism, seems to imply an oppositional stance to theism, i usually describe myself as non-theist, neither "pro" nor "con", just not interested). i'm totally secular and don't really want to spend any time focused on faith or lack of faith.

what's offensive to me about "the question" is the way it seems to be used to make inferences about your class, social group, etc. it's an apparently neutral question with ulterior motives.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Leigh said...

To RMJ: I am interested in speaking with an atheist to learn how you respond to The Question, so please get in touch if you are willing.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RMJ: I actually took the line, "whatever your beliefs," to mean whether one is religious or no. So, in that case, you'd be included, which makes Ms. Dyer's advice all the more intriguing and, perhaps, revealing.

Is it ethical (or intellectually honest) to join a group whose fundamental values (fundamental to both the group and to the individual) one, patently, doesn't share just to score a date? Is the Charlotte dating scene so unsophisticated that one is brought to such contrivance?

As to whether the question of where one churches is appropriate to ask of strangers, it's a harmless provincialism -- born of a very real, very large, intergenerational majority of folks that have gone to worship in this area of the country -- that will fade as the influx of those from outside of the region continues and expands. Let's hope the civility of the South does not suffer a similar end.

P.S.: Leigh, I'm an agnostic, if you're in need of comments from one.

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Southerner, I absolutely HATE "the question". I'm young, single, career-oriented but have no friends here in Charlotte after 3 years. My family (Southern Baptists) all keep telling me to find a church and go there to meet people. I have serious issues with that. Very serious. I understand that in small towns like the one I'm from, the community is based around the church and church family. Charlotte's supposed to be a world-class city. I've never been a big church-goer myself and refuse to use a place of worship as a social hangout. The lack of things to do in this town (other than boozing it up at a bar...ugh) has made it so hard for young people to meet each other that we're almost being forced into "finding religion" as a means of finding friendship. Is it all a big bible belt conspiracy to get more butts in the seats at church???

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charlotte native here:

"The Question" really asks
1) Do you fit in?
2) What's your social status?

Faith and proselytizing are really secondary to the above 2, I think. "The Question" really is a way of getting to know people but there are better ways. Instead of "where do you go to church" how about
1) How do you like Charlotte?
2) Which neighborhood do you live in?
3) Have you thought about a local charity as a way to get better acquainted and do a little good for folks?

I love Charlotte and miss many things about it. But I don't miss the feeling that you must at all costs conform or you will never be happy and successful here.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, it seems like it's the fundamentalists who go to Calvalry and Central Church of God, and who devote a greater part of their social lives to those places, that seem to ask 'the question' the most. If you expect a cold look by telling them you're and athiest or agnostic, you should see the pillar of salt they turn to when I tell them I'm a Catholic. Very amusing indeed.


1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To RMJ: You have beliefs also; a belief in self-sufficiency, and a belief in a right to privacy concerning your beliefs. I don't think Leigh's statement was out of line.

Personally, I don't ask this question, at least not until I've gotten to know a person well enough that I know it won't be offensive to them.

If someone asks me, I simply answer. If the questioner has an ulterior motive, he/she will have to be explicit about it.

1:21 PM  
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9:33 AM  
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9:36 AM  
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9:39 AM  
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9:43 AM  
Blogger Meghan Wier said...

To me as a recent transplant that "question" still grates on me To put it into perspective for those people who have grown up with it, and don't think it is offensive here are some other inappropriate questions to ask of people you just met:
1) Is that your natural hair color?
2) Why aren't you having (any more) children?
3) Have you ever considered a nose job?
4) How much money do you make?

--would any of those be offensive to you? The church question is to me..

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Question" is kind of irritating to me, however, I also understand it's simply a get to know you type of question. You can answer it however you feel comfortable. Me, I'm a pagan, so I don't go to church in the traditional sense of the word. I'd say most people in this area are of the Christian faith, and therefore logically the thought process goes to where you attend church. (Notice I said "most" not "all!") Places of worship can be very social places, and introduce a newcomer to a lot of new people in a short amount of time. I also look at this as a way of saying "Hey, I like you, want to meet some of my friends" deal, because if you say you don't have a church, you're usually invited to the questioner's place of worship.

I was raised here in the South, and even though "the question" is kind of annoying, I also understand it's purpose, and have been guilty of asking it myself!

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mind the question. Most of the time, in my experience, that person is just looking to invite you to visit their church. It isn't exactly something to get so upset about.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since moving to Charlotte ten years ago, I can't recall one time that someone asked me that question. Not once.

For me, the standard get-to-know-you script in Charlotte seems to be along the lines of: "Where do you work?" and "In which part of town do you live?"

That leads me to wonder: Do many Charlotte folks put a premium on occupation and address when developing social connections - i.e. what might you do for me one day? Do I look cool standing next to you, in case someone notices?

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was shocked to be asked this question repeatedly upon moving to Charlotte. I find it completely rude and inappropriate. Until then I was a life-long resident of Winston-Salem and I do not remember people asking 'the question'. I have now lived in Greensboro since December and not one person has ever asked about church or religion. I think it is an indication that Charlotte is not as progressive as it would like to think.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't imagine how a friendly invitation to coverse could make you decide Charlotte isn't "progressive." Unless progressive means aloof and apathetic. I also can't fathom how someone could decide this question is asking about social status or "fitting in."

The question serves lots of purposes. When moving to a new place, it can be difficult to choose churches to visit. Church-going folks who are senstitive to that problem like to offer their recommendations and even their company (i.e. invite you to attend their church with them). In addition, it's a conversation starter about what faith (if any) you belong to -- something that forms an integral part of a person, so why shouldn't it be part of getting to know a person?

The bottom line is, there is no evil ulterior motive. There may be some ulterior motives, but there are with EVERY introductory question. "Where do you work?" is a way to find out what sort of job you're doing, educational background, etc. "What neighborhood do you live in?" can be a means to find out social status, availability for hanging out, and entertainment preferences (for instance, if you live in NoDa, people might assume you're into the art scene).

I am always amazed at the friendly things people are offended by! I have a friend from Maine who is actually offended when people say "Hi! How are you doing?" because it "interrupts" her private thoughts and is an attempt to "pry"! Don't try to find the bad in what people are saying! Recognize friendliness for what it is! I've often, trying to be friendly, asked new friends, "Have you found a church home yet, or are you looking for one?" If they're not, they'll say, "Oh, I don't go to church." That doesn't offend me, and I hope my question doesn't offend them! I could very well ask, "Have you found the farmer's market and the great art galleries yet?" And should they be offended if they hate veggies and find art nauseating?

I'm ALMOST ready to shut up. One more point. Some people do use this as a launching off point to talk about their faith. Especially in Christianity, where the belief is that you find joy and peace and eternal life in the Savior, it'd be rude NOT to want to share that greatness with others (in a polite way, sensitive to the preferences of those people). If you're not interested (although I do hope you've learned about it with an open mind before you decline to hear it) just say, "Oh, I don't want to discuss religion" or "Oh, I'm happy with my current religious philosophy" or something along those lines. It's no big deal. But please don't be offended when someone has good intentions and is trying to be sensitive.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the person currently living in Greensboro who posted above. The response above and several others theorize that 'the question' is a friendly Southern conversation starter. I certainly do not find this to be true. In all the cases I can recall it was intended to proselytize. I am proud to be a Southerner. We Southerners are taught that there are three things you don't discuss in polite conversation: sex, politics and religion.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the emotionally charged negative responses to this question, it appears that the only people who are offended by the question of where you attend church, are only those who do not have an active religious faith. I am a strong Christian, but have never tried to push my beliefs on anyone, and avoid the discussion until and unless someone else opens the conversation and/or asks me about my faith or church - which by the way are 2 distinctly different discussions.

The Bible is clear that Christians are to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ - the Great Commission. However, nothing is more irritating than someone trying to push their ideology on someone who may not yet be open to it. I am always open to the discussion when it is appropriate.

Someone wrote that they do not want to go to church just to find friends. Why not? People who attend church aren't perfect beings, they need and want friends also, and it beats the bar scene!

I have found that people who avoid church are often mislead to think that church and religion are the same - but they aren't. There are different churches to meet the needs of different people from those seeking to understand who God is to more mature believers.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Julie Kelly said...

Hm, yes if I am asking someone where they go to church, I usually ask if they go to church first, esp if I don't know them that well. And yes, I am looking for a conversation starter, esp. if church has been on my mind and I think I could get in a good, respectful discussion about how church is different in different areas.

Since I am one of the dreaded new comers with a much less-visited blog of my own (http://newtocharlotte.blogspot.com/ - a work in progress - I'm new at this), I am simply looking for a good church for purely selfish reasons. I want to get plugged into a church, and I'm looking for references and recommendations. I might also ask you if you know of a good doctor in town, and by doing so, I hope you are not assuming that I am asking for your medical history either.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm facing this situation soon with moving to an established neighborhood in Houston, TX. Given the numbers of mega-churches in the area, I'm thinking I'd best be prepared for "The Question." My husband and I are at best agnostics/leaning towards atheism. I'd like a polite response that refuses but doesn't have the neighbors looking at me like I have a third eye! (I was raised Catholic, by the way.)

4:42 AM  

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