Dating works best if it grows out of a communal context. Why is that? And how can we develop a dating-friendly community? (You might like to first read "Whatever Happened to Dating?".)
Whatever happened to community?
Many influences have weakened the bonds of community. Three of these are very pertinent to the question of community as the context for dating.
The first influence is the greater mobility of society.
Young people commonly move away from their home town or region and are no longer in practical reach of family support. This applies also when they get married. They might be starting from scratch in a new marriage, in a new town, knowing hardly anyone. For those who are young and single their lives become much less structured. While this can feel liberating for a while, it also becomes a burden. The lack of a supporting structure can narrow your options, because you have to find everything from within yourself. There are fewer people to rely on.
The second influence is reliance on friends and youth culture.
Even when living in the same area, even still at home, young people can effectively move out of their parents' sphere of influence, in their choice of friends, of how they spend their time, even of their beliefs and values. Their community, such as it is, consists of their friends and acquaintances. However, this can be a fragile 'community' as they all tend to be in a state of flux, as well as often moving away. The bonds are predominantly emotional rather than practical, and even then can be fairly weak. This is reinforced if young people live solely or predominantly within 'youth culture', and lose emotional connection with the adult world.
The third influence is the loss of religious faith or practice.
This has often happened long before young people leave home, and indeed may have happened in their parents' or grandparents' generation. What many never stop to consider is that loss of religious practice is also a loss of community. It is the weakening of the unifying core of belief, but also the loss of the practical and emotional bonds of belonging. Many churches have themselves weakened from within, so that they have already lost much of their communal character. Even if young people did want to belong it can be hard to find a welcoming community even at church.
'Stand Alone' Dating
For reasons such as these many young people reach an age when they want to start dating with a view to a serious relationship but find they simply don't have any communal context in which to do so. Let us look at the three factors above and see how each of these impact dating.
No one ever asks you on a date. / You don't know anyone you could ask on a date.
Social mobility means that you have effectively moved away from many, even all, of the groups of people among whom you might have looked for a partner. Family is often far away. School friends have scattered, except perhaps just a few, and these are more likely to be of the same sex as yourself. You might only know people from work - that is, if you have a steady job. So you can end up in a situation where you know only a very small pool of people.
You can't find anyone who has much in common with you.
The tendency to rely heavily only on your friendship group during school years exacerbates this problem, because now that those people have moved away, you have no 'reference community' to return to in the hope of finding new friends. In any case, maintaining friendships now gets harder, or it moves into the 'virtual world' where you can gain emotional connection but not much practical help. You also find yourself mixing with people from quite different cultural and sub-cultural backgrounds, often having markedly different attitudes and values from your own. When looking for a serious relationship you want to find someone with whom you can share these deeper things in common. Many potential partners can be ruled out on the basis of differences of fundamental beliefs and values.
You don't feel you actually belong anywhere.
If you never belonged to a church, or drifted away, or never found much community there, you also lose a potential source of suitable partners, especially those more likely to hold similar values. If your parents are still involved in a church but you are not you also lose effective connection with a support structure. If you stay involved in a church then you can reconnect when you move to a new town. If you can find a 'youth-friendly' church you gain entry into a pool of reasonably like-minded people who can become your new community.
If all these connections are lost, or the pool of people is too small, you need to look to less personal options, like online dating. This is the ultimate 'stand alone' dating. You don't know who the people are, and if you do get a date and it doesn't work out, you never see them again. It is dating in the context of an aggregate, not a community. It is a coincidental aggregate of strangers. Some people strike it lucky, but many don't. This is not a criticism of online dating in and of itself, but rather, to point out that it should be an adjunct to a communal form of dating, a supplement to it rather than a replacement for it.
It's all up to you.
In all this scenario there is the great burden that it all falls back on you. You have to keep finding it within yourself to get up, dust yourself off, and have another go. You might not even have anyone you can talk to about it.
Why is community so important?
Community can make dating easier and more fruitful in three ways.
Firstly, a community can provide a 'pool' of prospective partners with whom you can become familiar over a period of years.
You can gradually get to know people without the pressure of romantic expectations. You find out about people's character, and about their family. You can do a lot of this by getting involved in the sorts of things the community does, in groups, programs and activities having nothing to do with dating as such.
Secondly, communities like churches also have a wider network of communities, in the same city, and throughout the country.
You can find a place to belong even where you initially don't know anyone. Not only that, a network of connection between the different church communities in a city or region greatly enlarges the pool of potential partners. It can be a bit awkward in one small community, but having this larger connection helps to keep things fresh.
Thirdly, a community like a church can help by providing guidelines and setting standards for relations between the sexes.
You can find a pool of people who are less likely to behave badly, pressuring others for sex, and just using them. You can also find adults who can be mentors in helping to work through some of the emotional issues involved in learning what makes the other sex tick, and how to navigate your own feelings during this time. Not only that, some places will have programs that help in both remote and proximate preparation for marriage, as well as ongoing support for married couples.
A Challenge for Churches
Although many churches are themselves somewhat lacking in these things, there is at least a community of people that believes in these things and has some realistic possibility of addressing these issues better as time goes on. One of the big obstacles is that so many of the very people who could contribute to these solutions drift away. Part of the challenge being addressed here in "The Dating Manual" is this very issue of trying to make church communities more attractive and hospitable to young people.
We will address these matters in more detail as time goes by, but for the moment let's look at some of the ways that church communities could become part of the solution.
Establish a Youth Program or Group
This might sound like a no-brainer but it can be quite challenging. I use the Catholic Church here as an example. Realistically some parishes are not going to be able to manage this, at least in the short to medium term. This is because the young people in a region who are still involved in the church are likely to have already gravitated to a parish where there is a larger pool of young people, and where at least something is being done for youth.
Establish a Young Adult Program or Group
This can be harder because young adults have already 'scattered' and can be hard to find. Most also juggle study and work for several years after leaving school. The most effective way of doing something is to find a suitable adult mentor, and if possible a married couple who can fill this role. It can be as simple as a couple hosting a regular dinner or gathering at their home.
Promote Key Celebrations
Various places hold periodic youth festivals of some kind. These serve a valuable function of allowing a large concentration of like-minded young people who can be reinforced in their faith, while also meeting a lot of new people. Many make new friends, and then keep up contact. Such festivals can be valuable ways of meeting a prospective partner. (See also "Signs to the Pathway of Hope")
Establish a Married Couples Group
Again this might seem like a no-brainer, but most parishes don't have such groups. One of the difficulties is that such groups are established but then don't really know what to do, what to talk about, or what resources to draw on. This is a larger question which will be addressed in more detail in future articles, but for any adults reading this you might like to read "Competence for Marriage".
In the present context we could note that one of the best ways to help a group clarify its purpose is to give it a task focused outside the group.
Since married couples are all likely to have some concerns about the situation or the future of their own children, they can be enlisted to help establish some communal connection for young people with regard to the issues we have discussed here.
One of the simplest approaches is to simply have a group of couples host regular dinners or gatherings and invite young people to attend. It doesn't have to have any 'high and mighty' purpose, but simply to be high quality social gatherings at which young people can mingle and get to know each other in a safe and positive environment. This also puts the young people in touch with adults who can be mentors for them as they negotiate the challenges of this period of their lives.
Develop Youth Leadership
It is most important that young people are not treated only or even primarily as recipients of help. They need to be encouraged, trained and supported to be leaders among their own peers. The realm of social life is a vital arena for action, including for the sorts of reasons addressed in the present article. We haven't traditionally seen 'social life' as a serious focus for training and action, but we need to redefine 'social life' as building community and culture. (See also "Signs to the Pathway of Hope")
The world of young people is crying out for leaders to organise and lead high quality social occasions that intentionally foster belonging, friendship, and emotional and relational growth. These objectives can be attained through enjoyable social activities that become communal experiences. The leaders form a centre and a boundary. They form a boundary by modelling and establishing the desired kinds of behaviour. They form a centre by intentionally drawing everyone into full participation in the activities and helping them feel they really belong.
What does all this have to do with dating?
It creates the communal context within which dating makes sense.
It aims to provide the kind of social life for young people in which they can get to know others in an enjoyable way without romantic pressure, yet with activities that draw on that underlying energy. It prepares the ground and it provides guidelines and standards for behaviour, not primarily through laying down rules, but by modelling them in practice and showing how they lead to positive and happy experiences.
Then, when they are ready, they can begin formal dating with a view to developing a serious relationship. They won't have to use dating as the substitute for a non-existent community. And they will be able to 'hang out' in positive and rewarding ways without 'hooking up'. The 'hanging out' becomes purposeful and enriching, not impoverished and drifting. And by the time they are ready to date they will have reasonable hopes for a successful outcome, and not be led into 'hooking up' as a lacklustre and harmful alternative to dating and courtship.