We all want to belong. That is one of the core human desires. Religious cults prey on it. Urban gangs manipulate it. Corporate advertizing capitalizes off of it.
We long to feel like we’re a part of something. That is why we join clubs and cheer for our favorite sports teams. It is how we choose the community where we want to live and raise our families. It is a factor in the churches we attend. It is at the heart of every competition, every election, and every social hierarchy.
It is simple. We want to be loved, and (more importantly) we want to be liked. We want people who accept us for who we are – just as we are. When we feel like those around us love us, like us, and approve of who we are as a person, we feel safe.
The places where we should most experience this sense of belonging are often unloving. We should feel protected and accepted at home, but too many homes are broken or abusive. Kids should feel safe at school but our schools are overcrowded, understaffed, and ill-equipped to handle the needs of every student.
We should feel loved at church.
Yet we don’t.
I shouldn’t say “we” in some wide generalization. There are people who fit with their church. They love their fellow parishioners and feel like they belong there.
But if you ask around, you’ll find a frequent theme among those that don’t go to church. Someone somewhere hurt them. They were rejected. They were shunned. They were insulted. Church is a naughty word. Church is a source of pain. Church is a place of condemnation. Church is a place where words and actions do not logically coexist. They come looking for love and they find shame.
For many, church is nothing more than a den of hypocrites and pious jerks. It was Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”
Brennan Manning said, “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle.”
I don’t think churches do this on purpose. It’s not a part of some grand conspiracy to frighten away the heathens. No genuine church has hostility written into their mission statement. Most Christians believe that their church is a safe place for non-believers to visit. Yet there seems to be some hidden social structure in religious populations that is foreign to outsiders and has translated into something unwelcoming.
How did we get here?
Why is there a disparity between what our churches are and what they should be?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should give you some background. My church history would best be described as awkward.
I grew up as an outcast.
My family attended a church where my dad was once the youth pastor. When he left the ministry, we stayed there. The people of that church were good people with heartfelt intentions, but the demographics were predominantly older; many of the elderly had attended since the church’s founding. There were a lot of rules, a few of which were unspoken.
I was out of place there, yet that’s the church I attended until I was 20 years old.
I felt like I didn’t belong economically. The church wasn’t a wealthy group of citizens. There were affluent people there, but for the most part it was a church of middle class Christians in a middle class suburb. My family was poor. Even though I wouldn’t describe the kids I grew up with as rich, it was clear that they were better off than me. They lived in nicer and newer homes. I lived in a hundred year old farmhouse in need of updating and repair. Their dads worked for Boeing. My dad was a commission only salesman.
I felt like I didn’t belong socially. I was the geek in a crowd of cool kids. My peers were all tall, athletic, and attractive. I was short, uncoordinated, and kind of homely. They were sporty and I was artsy. And I couldn’t hide. My youth group averaged twenty kids, while the biggest youth group in our town averaged three hundred. I could have blended in at that other youth group, but I was stuck with the kids who were all infinitely more interesting than me. (Yet I still consider many of them friends.)
I felt like I didn’t belong fashionably. That was one of the unspoken rules. You were supposed to wear your Sunday best anytime you walked in through the church's entrance. It was as if wearing jeans to Sunday morning services was a sin. To go against this tradition was a sure way to draw looks of scorn and/or curiosity. Somehow the Nazarene church – a denomination founded on a ‘come as you are’ theology – evolved into a ‘come as you are as long as you’re properly dressed’ kind of place.
All those pesky rules.
I felt like I didn’t belong legally. Those rules didn’t completely make sense to me. I couldn’t understand why dancing wasn’t allowed. If King David danced naked (or nearly naked) before God, why couldn’t I do it with my clothes on? Why was alcohol forbidden when Jesus and his disciples drank wine? Why was it a sin to watch movies at the theater while it was acceptable to watch movies at home?
I wish I could say things changed when I started attending church as an adult.
The first church Bekah and I attended in North Idaho was another of those awkward situations. The pastor is one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. The people there were the caring type. Yet I still felt out of place. The men there were sportsmen and the first Sunday of hunting season was sparsely attended. I don’t hunt or fish so I was usually the only adult male in the congregation (other than the pastor) on that Sunday. Some there believed that a man’s holiness could be measured by the length of his beard. And others there believed that guitars were tools of the devil.
I didn’t belong.
As a thirty something who didn’t grow up here; a data analyst who would rather stare at a computer than a car engine; a nerd that would rather play Halo than wade into a river with a fishing pole; a person who finds value in art, theater, and rap music; I am finding myself as the misfit of the religious community.
I am having a hard time finding somewhere I belong. I am quickly becoming disillusioned with church.
Not because I don’t believe. I want my kids in church. I long to worship with fellow believers. I crave fellowship. I want to be a part of a community that is wholly devoted to the call of Christ.
It’s not as easy as I once imagined it would be.
So I get it. I get why many non-churched people don’t want to go. I get why so many people think of church as a place of painful memories.
If all we really want is to be loved – to belong – why would we want to go somewhere where we’re not valued, not appreciated, or not liked?