on not fitting in at church

I don’t feel like I fit in at church. As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of women’s coffee and dessert nights. We don’t really sing my type of music. As far as I’m concerned, the best church songs are at least 150 years old (with the original melody – and SATB harmony – please!). Often I think I’d probably fit better at the traditional service. Pity about the 60 year age-gap and the 8am start (not even the mighty Book of Common Prayer can get me out of the house before 8am on a Sunday). I’m married, but don’t have kids. I’m a student, but I’m not 19. I don’t make half the income of others my age. I’m a feminist and a Christian and I think they’re perfectly compatible. I’ll probably vote Green at the next election. I mill around at supper after the service… more small talk… I try to look like I’m looking for someone in particular as I circle the room… I’ve got nothing in common with these people… I don’t think I quite fit.

I’ve got friends who no longer come to church because they don’t like ‘Christians’ and they don’t ‘fit in.’ I can’t blame them; ‘Christians’ can be irritating at times, to put it lightly. ‘Christian’ sometimes seems like a distinct personality type (see Jon Acuff’s blog for a full description of the Christian species – they all dress, vote and think alike). Probably an ESFJ. Optimistic. Bubbly. And if you can’t fit that, you won’t ‘fit in.’

It’s funny, but sometimes I get the impression that most people don’t feel like they fit in at church. How can that be?

I don’t think the solution is just about avoiding clichés, chucking out the veggie tales merchandise, conference T-shirts and the WWJD bands – trying to demolish the stereotypes so that everyone feels like they can ‘fit in’ without having to buy into all that. Nor do I even recommend trying to cater to all the personalities or interests at church – a men’s breakfast group, a women’s reading group, a bike-riding group, a knitting group, a gluten-free baking group… This is all well and good, but don’t think you’ll ever cater for everyone. Instead I think we need to re-examine the assumption that people should be ‘fitting in’ at all.

Generally I’ve assumed that ‘fitting in’ is good and necessary, especially for something as important as church. If you don’t fit in, that’s a problem we need to fix. But is it? Is that the purpose of church, to be a place where you ‘fit in?’

Puzzle

I’ve been reading John Milbank’s essay Stale Expressions: The management-shaped Church. He slams the idea of ‘churches’ for people who naturally fit together.

The church cannot be found amongst merely the like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine-human community in a specific location. St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widow. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to  church is simply the refusal of church per se….

For him, a church by definition is an assembly of followers of Jesus in a particular place. That is, people who have nothing in common apart from being Jesus’ followers in that place. They share the one Spirit, and that’s it. In fact there can be no ‘fitting in’ because this would compromise the witness of the church to the gospel. More than not fitting, we’re a group of people naturally hostile to each other (Eph 2). We don’t fit, that is, apart from the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus bringing us together. God is making the new humanity out of people who otherwise have nothing in common.

More than not naturally ‘fitting’ together, we actually need the people who don’t seem like us. If we were all ears, how could the body smell? Since when did a nose ever look like it belonged on a face? Why is rhinoplasty so popular? Noses are funny-looking, but we need them to function.

Of course, this hardly helps pastorally for those who of us who don’t feel like they fit. Wanting to belong is a good and natural thing. The answer to someone’s sense of being out of place is not ‘so what?’,  But also, trying to manufacture a sense of belonging based on shared interests, demographics, hobbies or opinions is a false hope. Not everyone is going to fit. We’re too diverse for that.

Not only will it not work, but such an approach can risk masking a great truth of the gospel – WE DON’T NATURALLY FIT TOGETHER. There’s no explanation for how this random group of people can hang together apart from Jesus.

So if you don’t feel like you fit in at church, I know, it sucks, but I’d say have hope – this is actually evidence that there’s something miraculous going on. You do belong, but it’s through the Spirit, not your taste in music. More than that, if you don’t feel like you fit, we need you even more. You might just be the sense of smell or ears or eyes. You’re part of this body and we need you.

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Happy Friday, dear readers!

On giving

Aaron Moore Reflections of a man who sold everything and gave it to the poor

‘One thing you lack’ was my first solo art exhibition and opened to a few hundred people in Kudos Gallery, Paddington, just before Christmas. That was a matter of months ago when at the age of 34 I sold everything I owned in the space of one week. I emptied the contents of my bank accounts and, along with the proceeds from the sale, gave it to charity, moving me to financial and material ground zero in the hope of moving others out of poverty.

On discrimination

Rebecca Onion Take the impossible “literacy” test Louisiana gave black voters in the 1960s. I couldn’t have passed this test.

On love

Morgan Guyton Love is not love unless it becomes flesh

On theology

Brian Le Port Rethinking how we teach ecclesiastical history and systematic theology. He draws on Ralph C. Watkins’ essay “A Black Church Perspective on Minorities in Evangelicalism”:

Black theology, liberation theology, Latino theology, and feminist theology are considered “contextualized,” but Eurocentric theology is not considered contextualized. The theology of the others is not considered worthy of required learning for students in evangelical seminaries. Students are required to take systematic theology, and in these courses they may take note of “minority” theology, but the minority voice is nowhere equal to the dominant Eurocentric voice. The marginalization of voices in text selection, theological discussion, and the very design of the curriculum is a product of institutional racism.

On sex

Rachel Pietka Christians are not called to have amazing sex

This discourse also smacks of an inferiority complex that wants to compete with mainstream culture’s view of sex rather than modeling a rightly ordered sexual ethic to the world. For example, teachings on the Song of Solomon can range from using the book as a modern-day sex manual to a tool of manipulation to get women to acquiesce to inflated views of sex, such as a well-known pastor controversially enjoining women to perform oral sex because “Jesus Christ commands you to do so.” These sort of teachings on sex indicate the spurious claim many Christians accept: that the call to be a married Christian includes within it an obligation to become a sex god or goddess.

On gender politics

Stephen Marche Home economics: the link between work-life balance and gender equality

For the Boomers and members of older generations, a married couple’s decisions about work were ultimately questions of power. For younger generations, marital decisions boil down mostly to money. And yet the debates about gender, particularly the debate that has emerged in a thousand blog posts surrounding “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Lean In, retain the earlier framework. These discussions tend to recognize the residual patriarchy, but they do not see its hollowness, or the processes hollowing it out.

Laurie Penny I was a manic pixie dream girl.

For those of you who haven’t heard of manic pixie dream girls before see Anita Sarkeesian’s video.