Growing up with divorced parents prompted me to become a reconciler who desires nothing more than making sure everyone gets along. Underneath this way of functioning day to day, I’ve absorbed an underlying fear of the fragility of relationships. I know that things can fall apart dramatically and horribly, and even the most basic things like your family and your home could be taken away from you, either by your family themselves or by a judge.
My two sons enjoy peace and stability where the foundational issues of their parents, their home, or their future are as solid and steady as can be. I write that without judgment of my own history, but there’s no mistaking that the things I worried about and feared as a child are completely different from anything my kids have faced so far. They have a stability that comes from knowing these relationships are steady, permanent, and secure. When I developed nervous ticks in elementary school and continue to struggle with talking fast when my social anxiety kicks in, it’s hard to communicate all of this succinctly to people who say things like, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” or “What? WHAT? I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Oh, I just spent the first 15 years of my life fearing that a judge would take away everything that I love.”
When it comes to the stability of family, our closest relationships, and our homes, their security, or lack thereof, can underpin so many of our struggles and fears. These are also some of the core issues behind why so many people struggle to commit to a church or feel like they can never return again after a church let them. Issues of control and rejection are a big part of why I still can’t attend a Catholic mass with any measure of freedom or openness.
Put bluntly: in many churches, the people are expendable.
The reasons why people become expendable vary, but the common traits between the churches where I have felt secure and able to belong vs. the ones where I have not have tapped into this deeper need to know that I am not expendable. Those who struggle to belong in churches often sense that they are in some way expendable.
Just as I feared saying the wrong thing in front of my parents, a judge, a lawyer, or a psychologist, churches can foster atmospheres of fear, suspicion, and defensiveness where everything can change after supporting the wrong doctrine or admitting to a particularly taboo action.
Extreme situations aside (such as those involving criminal activity), I wonder if our core problems in the church boil down to how welcoming we are prepared to be. Or more to the point, under what circumstances will we kick someone out of a church or make him/her/they feel unwelcome?
I have seen friends who attend fairly conservative churches with strict doctrinal statements, and these friends struggle mightily because “belonging” means they need to sign documents, take classes, and jump through various hoops in order to be a part of the group. In other words, the message is that being part of the community or even the “family” is contingent on putting a signature on a list of doctrines. If you can’t sign the doctrinal statement, then you aren’t fully a part of things.
The doctrines are essential for churches, but the people are not.
However, these aren’t problems isolated to conservative churches. Anytime a group of people gathers together to form an organization, there is an inevitable struggle to define insiders and outsiders. Those who say the wrong things in a liberal congregation can just as easily be labeled and dismissed.
As our family prepares to move to a new city, we’re going through the rather agonizing process of researching churches in the area. The stakes feel especially high since we have kids who have a very particular, and overall positive, experience of church that is noisy, joyful, and full of freedom to be themselves.
The question I keep returning to about each church is how expendable we would be if we entered into their little subcultures.
Will they value particular doctrines over us when they learn what we believe?
Will they value a quiet service over seeing my son jump around with joy in front of the band?
Will they require signatures on documents and covenants and statements over sharing in our joys and struggles?
Will they demand commitment and service before they even think of inviting us to their homes for a meal?
These tensions may appear to be false dichotomies. Perhaps reading this you think to yourself, “Our church values people AND doctrines!” That could be the case, but what happens when the rubber really meets the road? I admit that I have struggled with this myself. Where would I draw the line personally with someone? Of course there are situations where boundaries are necessary. However, what does it look like to hold out compassion and mercy for people outside of the boundaries set by our faith communities?
I have seen good people in both liberal and conservative denominations fracture when someone comes along who doesn’t fit the mold.
We all long to fit in, to become a part of the group, and to be accepted as who we are. If we make enough investments in relationships, there may even be grace for messing up or believing “the wrong thing.” I suppose the question becomes where that grace could run out. Can grace and goodwill be exhausted or negated?
I have dedicated the spirituality of my 30’s to rediscovering the God of the Bible who doesn’t turn us away or discard us but welcomes those who turn back to him. We aren’t expendable in the eyes of our loving creator. For some reason, it hasn’t been that hard to believe that he would die for us in the past before we screwed anything up. However, once we start to actually fail, mess up, disappoint people, struggle with doubts, or start to shift our beliefs, it’s easy to believe you’re expendable.
If you’ve been immersed in a church culture with clear lines you can’t cross in order to belong, it’s hard to believe that God would be any different from that. The more I immerse myself in the Psalms each day, the more I confront a God who meets us with compassion, blots out our sins, and shares unceasing steadfast love and mercy with us. I’m also convinced that believing in a God who views people as expendable will create churches where people are expendable.
A missionary friend once shared with me that we must find our homes in God, and I can’t get that image out of my mind because God wasn’t safe or a sure bet for so many years. If I was expendable to God when I couldn’t get my act together, how could I truly find my home in God? Wasn’t this the same kind of insecurity that I endured in my childhood?
Once again, the Psalms describe God as a shelter, a rock, a strong tower, and a fortress. As I reach and grasp for God, asking for help and security, I fail to look down at my foundation. When I reach out to take hold of God, I fail to realize that I’m already being held.
I often think that God acted to save me before I had a chance to mess up, but it’s also true that God saved us before we could prove ourselves worthy—worthy enough for God to keep us around.
The home I have longed for is found in God, even if I still need a home and a place where I belong here on earth.
We aren’t expendable in the eyes of God, and at the end of the day we long for a church home that reflects this. Perhaps the greatest challenge some days is to rest in the love and acceptance of God without letting that reality hinge on what those in our communities believe, do, or say.