Wednesday, April 20, 2016
How to Thrive in the Church When You’re Misunderstood
I don’t fit the Christian norm. I’m thirty-four, single, and working on my fourth degree. Not exactly a Proverbs 31 woman. Life took a different route than I’d planned and sometimes, especially in Christian circles, I feel out of place. I’m not the only one, though. I have a gay friend who’s chosen celibacy and two others who’ve opted for heterosexual marriage. Then there’s the single mom, the childless couple, and the guy who’s unemployed.
Most conservative churches have a definition of “normal” that my friends and I can’t live up it up. It can leave us feeling confused and isolated, because most of us didn’t choose our unorthodox demographics, we just found our lives playing out on the single, gay, childless, artistic, or job-wandering stage.
Photo courtesy of Michael Furtig via unsplash.com
So, how do we navigate life in the church when we don’t quite fit in? During the last decade, I discovered four secrets to thriving in the church even when I’m misunderstood.
1. Remember that misfits make up the church.
While some versions of American Christianity imply that church is only for families with 2.2 kids, God disagrees. His started his church with a bunch of misfits — uneducated fisherman, social outcasts (a tax collector, demon possessed woman, etc.), and one terrorist named Saul.
As the church spread to places like Corinth, it picked up adulterers, people in same-sex relationship, drunkards, and thieves. “And that is what some of your were,” Paul wrote to them, “but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Not only that, later in the same letter Paul suggested that, when it comes to serving Jesus, singles have the edge on married folks (7:38).
So, when we feel like we’re not “church material,” we need visit the New Testament again. No matter how unconventional our lives or how dark our past, we’re just the kind of people Jesus wants in his church.
2. Find someone to be vulnerable with.
Conversations can get awkward when your life doesn’t follow the usual path. Well meaning people — straight folks, people with kids, or with great jobs — can say things that leave us feeling dumb, hurt, and angry. We can get focused on doing whatever it takes to avoid another awkward conversation, pulling out plastic smiles and superficial answers or sneaking out of church before the service ends. Maintaining a safe distance, though, can leave us feeling lonely. We need to find someone who is safe and be vulnerable with them.
If someone seems sympathetic and open-minded, we need to put in the work of getting to know them and risk being vulnerable; not all at once, but little bits at a time. As we start to verbalize all the messy contradictions of being single, gay, childless, or jobless, we’ll feel less alone. We’ll have someone to call on the gut-wrenching days, on the fabulous days, and on the days where we want to turn our backs on God. Being a member of Jesus’ church means that we “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Not everyone may be able to do that for us, but we need to find at least one person who will.
3. Pray honest prayers.
Too often, we limit our prayers to safe subjects, like the rain, stomach bugs, and busy schedules. We offer God a flimsy version of life while we crumble on the inside, or we stop praying altogether. I’m not sure where we got the idea that God wants our prayers dressed up in a Sunday suit and tie. Jesus didn’t pray that way. Even when he knew the outcome, he begged God to change his mind, pleading so hard that he drenched himself in sweat. David didn’t pray that way, either. He told God to attack his enemies and accused him of neglect and abandonment, and these prayers got recorded in the Bible.
God knows how hard it is, not fitting into a mold. He sees when we ache be different, when life feels too heavy us, or when we’re angry at him for not intervening, and he invites us to wrestle with him. Being brutally honest with God might feel dangerous or unspiritual, but God wants our truthfulness (Psalm 51:6).
4. Find someone to love.
We might feel alone in our singleness, same-sex attraction, infertility, or unemployment, but we aren’t. There are other Christians hurting just like us, feeling disenfranchised from the church, and they need to know that Jesus loves misfits, too. They need someone to be vulnerable with, someone who will tell them that God wants their honest prayers. Our pain, if we’re willing to look past it, can be a gift to them.
While we might not fit the norm, we’re exactly what Jesus wants for his family. He chooses the most unlikely people for his church and that’s good to remember when we’re misunderstood. It also helps to find someone we can be vulnerable with, to pray honest prayers, and to love someone else who needs it just as much as we do. After all, Jesus was celibate, childless, and misunderstood, and he’s the one we’re following.
* This piece first appeared on ConvergeMagazine.com.