It doesn't happen all at once. It might take a while before you really notice. But you will. Because if you don't act/dress/talk a certain way, you don't fit. If you don't believe certain things and like to challenge authority from time to time, you don't fit. If you don't already know certain people, and if you aren't related to so-and-so, you don't fit. If you are single, you don't fit. If you don't have kids, you don't fit. If you don't live in a certain geographical area, you don't fit. If you don't have an outgoing, bubbly personality, you don't fit. If you want to serve beer at a men's group, you don't fit. If your life is just too "messy," well, sorry...you just don't fit.
Sometimes it's really subtle. Nobody actually comes right out and says it. But it's true. If you meet one or more of the above criteria (and each church seems to have their own hierarchy of which ones are most important), you will find yourself without many friends. At the worst, people will gossip about you and just be downright nasty. (Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying ALL churches are like this. I sure hope not, anyway. However, in the various churches I've attended in my lifetime, I have almost always -sadly- found this to be true.)
As a Facebook status posted by Jamie a few weeks ago says, "The more I feel part of a community at church, the less I feel church is shitty. 'Love covers over a multitude of shitty-ness' ~ The Bible. Pretty much." While some people may laugh at this over-simplification, (and others of you may be offended because I just used the word "shit" in a quote), let me tell you: when your heart is ignored by people who are supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus, it sucks. And it makes going to church and being around so-called "Christians" feel really shitty.
In her blog post titled "When it Hurts to go to Church," Serena Woods writes: "Within the Christian subculture is this overwhelming message of the importance of community. [However]...these communities can also be really damaging. They’re damaging when they’re more about conformity and less about the Gospel. They’re damaging when they’re more about appearance and less about the heart. They’re damaging when they’re no longer about honesty in weakness and more about the illusion of almost perfection....
In search of community, I have taken part in several small groups over the years. In one such small group, we were asked to answer the question, "Have you ever been angry at God?" We took turns going around the circle. Out of some 12 or 15 women, only myself and one other woman said, "yes." I was incredulous. Either everyone there was lying through their teeth, or everyone had experienced an incredibly easy life! Either way, it was very clear that I didn't "fit" there. I left that night, and never went back.
So often in churches today, we hear the unspoken message all to clearly: "We don't want to hear about the messiness of your life. Your biggest struggle should be, 'I need to read my Bible more often.' " Well, guess what? Life is messy. And the sooner we get over ourselves and stop pretending that we have it all together, the better off we'll be. Sometimes reading your Bible more just isn't enough. Sometimes, experiencing the love and support of community (in its many forms) is more helpful than hearing another message about how you need to change. If the church can't handle my messiness, well then, who can? Where else should I turn?
Our last church was incredibly damaging to our emotional and spiritual growth. We left nearly two years ago with a very bitter taste in our mouths. It has been a long journey to get to the point where I can walk into a church without completely breaking down. Walking away, however, also meant leaving behind some very dear friends-friends who didn't understand what we were going through, and who for them, saw our leaving as a betrayal. Things with them have never been the same since. We have been left with either a giant elephant in the middle of our friendship, or with an irreparable rift.
We are blessed to currently be part of a church family in which people (for the most part) do not shy away from the "messiness" of life. We stand behind it's mission of "reaching, restoring, equipping, and releasing" people, and have experienced part of that mission firsthand already. Our pastor knows us personally, and has patiently stood by us and walked us through some of the baggage that we dragged in with us.
However, while it's been great to feel like we can be ourselves and to not be ostracized and gossiped about within this congregation, it's been tough in other areas. After nearly two years, I don't feel as though I have any really, really close friends; I still feel very much like "the new kid." I definitely don't "fit" in any of my previous churches, yet I don't quite "fit" in our new church either. The sign outside our new church reads, "A Place to Belong." Yet why, after nearly two years, do I still feel so much like an outsider?
For people who have abandonment issues, there is no greater pain that that of their heart being ignored-in whatever way, shape or form that might take. Whether it's deliberate or completely unintentional, it doesn't matter; the pain is still there. Sandra Upson writes, “People who attend services regularly but lack [true] friends in the congregation are worse off [mental health-wise] than those who do not go at all.”
For someone who wants nothing more than to belong, to connect, to do real relationship, it's been very, very hard to sit on the outside looking in. Both in my old church communities, as well as my new one. Although my head understands that people are busy and have lives of their own with years of history with their own circle of friends, it hurts so deeply when invitations are unanswered, when no invitations are extended, when the inbox is empty, when your heart is ignored.