When we don’t fit very well into God’s family, what should we do? If we meet someone who isn’t the type we’re used to, how should we respond?
If you’re not a person who is checking off the appropriate life-stage boxes at the “right” time, you’ve probably come across some people in church who make it weird in a hurry. Let me replay a quick anagram of the most common conversations I’ve had in church.
“Of course, your husband is invited too.” Cue the quick and unsubtle finger-check. “Or your boyfriend.”
Don’t have either, but I’m still more than happy to attend [fill in the blank].
“You poor thing! Have you joined our singles group? You’ll have a boyfriend in no time.”
I’ll pass. I’m at least a decade older than most everyone in the singles group. It’s a tad awkward to consider dating a guy who still has pimples, only owns two pairs of pants and complains about homework.
“You know, we are very accepting of people who are homosexual. Also, we have a great group for people recovering from sexual abuse. Were you molested as a child?”
Yes, these are actual comments/questions. At this point, I just awkwardly thank them for their concern. If I meet anyone who’s struggling with that variety of trauma or sexual sin, I’ll recommend them (…though, on second thought, nevermind).
“You know, a lot of people in the Bible are single, sometimes for life, sometimes just for a long time. It’s actually pretty normal, if you look at the history of the church.”
I deeply appreciate this one. It usually comes from people who accept that whatever God is doing in my life is probably quite different from what he’s doing in theirs. It’s also how I usually identify a future friend.
The Top Five Unseen
If you’re someone with a wonderful spouse, a house with a white picket fence and the national average of 2.6 children, it’s worth remembering that the church has several types of people who are often disregarded (or only receive negative attention).
Anne Peterson pinpoints a couple groups in her Crosswalk article about the top types of overlooked believers.
I didn’t bump this one to the top of the list because I am one. Doesn’t matter if you’re divorced, widowed or have never been married. The majority of church ministries focus on couples or families, and the pressure to get married or remarried doesn’t always help either. Someone might have very good reasons for not rushing into a relationship.
Chronically Ill People
Often illness isn’t visible to the casual observer. Those with chronic pain or a disability may already feel isolated or frustrated with their situation. Just add an extra layer of misery when someone tells them that the reason God hasn’t healed them is because they don’t have enough faith.
Ever walk into the room and immediately notice that you are not as young or as old as almost everyone else? That can be daunting, especially if you get the sense that your experiences or views are being dismissed because they’re different than the group’s.
Culturally Diverse People
If you grew up with a certain type of worship, preaching and way of relating to other people in church, attending a church from a different tradition can be jolt. It can be a struggle to fit in and find friends, especially if you’re also wrangling with a different language than the one spoken at home.
Church is like a massive house-party taken to the power of 10, basically a grueling social gauntlet for introverts. If you’re also someone who breaks into hives the moment you hear “Oh honey, I’m a hugger!”, the whole church thing is quite stressful.
As believers, we may need to remind ourselves constantly that Jesus didn’t exclude anyone because they didn’t look like him, make the same choices as him or have the same personality as him.
If he had, none of us would’ve been invited to heaven.
Being Part of the Solution
People on the other side of the fence aren’t off the hook either.
When we feel invisible in our church community, we have a couple things to consider. First, don’t let the disappointment of feeling isolated and undervalued evolve into bitterness. That’s the easy path, blaming other people and not considering that you have the ability to help fix the problem.
The body of Christ is filled with redeemed people who still sin and struggle with relationship wounds. Living together and building relationships is never going to be a walk in the park. We will get hurt by carelessness and inconsideration.
We have the choice to seriously consider everything God has forgiven us for in his relationship with us and then decide to extend a fraction of that forgiveness to others. This certainly isn’t easy to do, and not every relationship is worth salvaging (or starting to begin with). Regardless, we can’t let bitterness put its roots down in our hearts.
Next, it’s worth spending time praying about if your church or Bible study is the right one for you.
This isn’t an invitation not to be dedicated to a Christian community. As Jennifer Maggio, chief executive officer for The Life of a Single Mom Ministries, points out in her article, “You need to go to a church where you can thrive, be fed spiritually, and serve others. ‘Church-hopping”’ isn’t fruitful; it is important to find a place to be planted. Sometimes it’s difficult and time consuming to find a good fit, so make sure you are praying about where to be.”
Once you find a place, don’t be ashamed of inviting friends to attend with you. Having someone in your corner can help you be more confident and willing to reach out to strangers and make connections.
Besides, there may not be many people like you in your new church home, but your invites and presence could be the start of a new demographic.
As Jennifer also notes, “Maybe you are just the one that God would use to create a new ministry opportunity within the church. Consider how you may be able to be part of the solution for someone else’s loneliness or lack of belonging.”
I love how she puts that: consider that you might be part of the solution.
If there’s no ministry for your demographic, consider starting one. You might not be as alone as you think. Definitely also join a group that doesn’t have anyone of your “type.” God made the body of Christ with great diversity for a reason. We need people who are not like us.
Part of a Wild and Varied Family
The most important part of this discussion, though, is not getting wrapped in shame.
Whether it’s because people in church have treated you like an outsider or because you were the person who made it weird for someone else, don’t become stuck in that spot of resenting others or giving up on reaching out.
In his podcast, Gary Wilkerson emphasizes the importance of this forward movement in our life with others. “Shame is sort of like cancer to a degree…. I describe shame as that sense of not being enough and then how that relates to other people. For instance, anxiety is a very personal thing—'I'm just anxious’—but shame is a shared. It's a relational crisis; it's a relational problem.
“I think at the root of shame is a demonic attempt to stifle who you are actually [in Christ]. You're this joyful, creative, adventurous, other-centered person…. That's who you are. Then shame comes in with ‘I tried to give, and I was rejected.’
“It's a devastating thing unless we start looking at ways to escape it, and that's what the Holy Spirit has for us.”
Through the Spirit’s care and love for others, we can be filled with space inside ourselves and our lives for people who aren’t the same as us.
This could be as simple as accepting a part of my church’s service that I find annoying but that helps others connect with God. It could be as small as accepting a correction from someone when I’ve been insensitive to some part of their experience. It could be deliberately seeking out a friendship with someone who comes from a very different background than me.
This is how we grow together, as God’s family.