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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11 thoughts on “on not fitting in at church

  1. Reblogged this on Enough Light and commented:
    For all the “different” folks, I hope you’ll appreciate this post as much as I did…I totally related to it. And so appreciated the words of hope and encouragement at the end.

  2. Jesus was a great friend to those who didn’t fit in to polite culture in his day. Why should we imagine that the church today should be any different? I love your thought that the great beauty of the Church is that we do NOT naturally fit together and yet we can unite in Christ. Thank you and bless you from another one who doesn’t quite fit the mold:) Judy

  3. Laura, I love where you ended up with this, probably since it’s the same conclusion I’ve come to: People feel like they don’t fit in at church because no one fits in at church. At least not in the way people are used to fitting in when it comes to other organizations. Church is a spiritual place as much as a temporal one. It feels funny to us, but it also feels right in some ways.

    That said, there are certainly some churches where I’ve felt more comfortable than others. I think that’s me, though, and not them.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  4. This is a weird article. Because it’s about exactly the thoughts I was having last night about my own church. I don’t feel like I belong. I go to church. But I don’t belong to a church. There’s a difference. The fact that this article came out right now is such amazing (and weird) timing. Methinks there might be something here I’m supposed to be taking to heart.

  5. Brilliant, love your honesty! I have just left a church after five years of trying to fit in and have, hopefully, found one that suits my “needs” where I feel I can grow and in turn, contribute. Ditto what Laura says, “thanks for the ecouraging words at the end” and God bless you.

  6. Hi Laura, i understand your frustration I didn’t feel I fitted in at my last church, I became someone else to fit in, but that is not what it’s about, you should be accepted as you are, the solution I found was to instead of find a church I felt i “fitted in” but to find and follow God. When i did through much prayer bible reading and reflection, he lead me to a church that accepted me for who I am, so I could be myself. So please don’t blame church’s the reason you don’t fit in (well in my case) was because it wasn’t the people I didn’t fit in with God, so when I made the effort to do so, it all fell into place because If you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and if you love your neighbour as yourself, then you can fit into any church so I encourage you to go on the journey.

    God bless

  7. it is neat to have a discussion around a matter that is honestly shared and that I am sure is topical for quite a few! I sometimes have felt this way myself but I always try to remind myself that God made us all unique and that He loves us all even when we are far from Him. For me the answer to the problem is to identify ur gifts and talents and use them to serve God and others. In turn u get to meet many people and u might just find u have more in common with them than u think! 🙂 tc and God bless

  8. ESFJ church, LOL. As an INTP myself its hard to think of a worse fit. I hear you on not fitting in. But then, Jesus didn’t fit in too well with the ‘in’ crowd either.

  9. yes Christianity, Christians and the church can be rough. I am a Christian who doesn’t know where I belong cannot say I don’t fit but trying to find where I fit. Just a process, I know I’ll find my way soon with help from good Christians like you who seem to be aware of others sufferings or concerns.

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