Dear Addie,

I grew up thinking Christianity was like a circle that I was enclosed in. My evangelical bubble was small yet so very certain. Every issue I ran across was clearly pre-marked inside the circle or outside the circle. Most of my friends and family still find themselves there, and certainly so does my church. I didn’t think twice about it.

In the past few years, my circle has slowly been cracking and I’ve been hatching out of it. (Slow-w-wly…did I add that?) Instead of finding myself in a 2D circle, I’m staring wide-eyed into a 3D sphere. It’s scary and good. It’s terrifying and comforting. God’s grace is more gracious than I ever imagined. I’ve spent many hours trying to untangle what is American Christian subculture versus truth about God. Still am, in fact. I have a feeling that is going to last for some time. And I’m okay with that.

My question is…now I feel like a complete outsider in my church. (Our church runs heavy on doctrine and is very black & white.) I find myself agitated and frustrated on Sunday mornings, and I often leave the service. I don’t think they are teaching anything wrong exactly…but it’s so definitively always “correct” that it’s stifling. I joke we even have pre-approved authors in the church bookstore.

We’ve been there 13 years, so it is comfortable.

 

It’s comfortable for my husband and our 3 little kids, just not for me. We have been visiting other churches for the past few months, but it feels so random. Any church is going to be imperfect, since the Church is made up of imperfect people. Am I going to feel the same way someplace else? After dragging my family along? They are willing to go to another church, although I know that will be harder for them.

I’m willing to stay but I’m afraid of becoming bitter. In the size of our church, I’m sure I’m not alone. When I’ve been brave enough to try and broach the topic though, I get the “concerned look.” I’m sure I’m on some prayer chains. 🙂

I’ve gotten to the end of this and realized I don’t exactly have a question here. Thanks for listening, though, and I’d love to hear your perspective. Sometimes the ear that hears and the eye that sees differently from me can be the most helpful!

 

Claire,

 

*

 

Dear Claire,

 

We stayed at The Big Church* for a lot longer than we probably should have.

 

When we first started attending, it was more of a crash landing than anything. My husband and I had just come off of a long series of bad church experiences that had nearly destroyed my faith…and very nearly our marriage.

 

At the culmination of all of that “trying and plugging in” and waiting and, finally, leaving those churches, we were exhausted. We crashed into The Big Church, and even though there were signs at the get-go that it wasn’t a perfect fit for us, we were too mangled to hoist ourselves up and try someplace else.

 

So we stayed. For four years.

 

There were, of course, good things that happened during that time. I started working with the homeless ministry; Andrew went with a team to build houses in Mexico and was moved and changed in that building. We found some close friends, and for a little while there, those relationships were a life raft for us, a place of transformation and healing…

 

But then, life changed. Jobs shifted and people moved away…and it stopped being good. There we were, sitting alone in the back of the sanctuary at The Big Church, feeling more and more adrift in this ever-changing sea of strangers.

 

The ways that we didn’t quite fit at The Big Church were becoming increasingly pronounced. The gaps were big and telling, and when we tried to express our discontent, it was hushed. We became more cynical every week until we were rolling our eyes and snickering when the pastor cried for the third time in one sermon.

 

Even then, we stayed. We still craved the kind of belonging that only comes from faithfulness and longevity, and we’d already sunk nearly four years into this place. On some level, I think we were also afraid to leave, afraid to go back to that uncertain place, pinging from one church to another, waiting for something to click.

 

What if we left, and we found more of the same?

 

What if we left and it was worse?

 

We sat in that murky, middle place for months, wavering, unsure what to do. Go father in? Or count our losses and get the hell out?

 

*

 

Do you have to belong to a local church to be a Christian? Absolutely not.

 

But at the same time, there’s something so good and grounding about it. It’s harder to write off “Those Church People” when you know them by name. It’s also harder to romanticize the work of grace when you see it all up close and messy, on display over the years in people who are broken in their own particular ways.

 

And there’s something exquisitely beautiful, too, about choosing a church and staying there for the long haul. We are such a transient society, always on our way somewhere else…and I believe that something powerful happens when we stay in a place long enough to grow roots.

 

But it’s one thing to stay in a church because you’ve chosen it and because it’s chosen you and because you’re quite at home and dedicated to the life of this community.

 

It’s another thing altogether to default to a particular church because you’re afraid to rock the boat.

 

Your kids and your husband are happy enough, and you are the Mama. If you’re anything like me, this means you are used to putting everyone else’s needs above your own and martyring your desires to theirs. I hear it in your resignation when you write, I’m willing to stay, but I’m afraid of becoming bitter. You don’t want to make things harder for your family, particularly when you feel like the only one struggling. I’ve been there.

 

But Claire, it’s like when the pressure drops in the airplane, and the masks pop down, and they tell you to put on your own mask before you help someone else. It’s so counterintuitive for a mother, but you have to save yourself first. And right now? It sounds to me like you’re not really breathing.

 

I believe it is possible for nearly any church to feel like home…as long as it is a place where you have the freedom to be honest.

 

That’s it.

 

The music, the teaching, and the programs – all the things that we usually assess when we look at a church – are peripheral. Whether a church is big or small, liturgical or contemporary, traditional or modern – these are preferences, and they’re important things to think through. But also, they’re not really the point.

 

Can you tell the truth about your doubts, your struggles, your sins? Is there space for your big questions and your small ones? Is there an invitation to dialogue? Is there room for different perspectives?

 

There will always be the Prayer Chain Ladies who look at you with concern. But are they the exception or the rule? It is so natural to judge one another’s failures, and so you’ll find judgment in every church. But is there a sense that people are actively trying to overcome that tendency? Is it a safe place for your heart?

 

The freedom to be honest, to say who you really are, what you’re really thinking – this is oxygen. Without it, there can be no roots, no growth, no transformation in a church. No life.

 

And I think what people generally mean when they say, “Church isn’t for me,” is that they don’t want to be somewhere where they can’t breathe. They’re thinking of all those busted up people, airbrushed and Instagrammed into their most perfect self for Sunday morning… suffocating under the weight of all they’re unwilling to say.

 

You have to take the oxygen mask Claire.

 

And I can’t tell you what that looks like for you. It might look like staying in this church and pressing in to find those people who feel the same way you do. It might mean taking risks, taking Church Lady flack, shoving things aside to make the space that you – and others – need.

 

It might look like leaving – not in a spiteful huff but in grace and love, understanding that regardless of where we go to church, we all belong to each other.

 

It might look like pinging around for a while until you find a place where you feel like you can finally take a deep breath.

 

Whichever way you go, you have to act. You have to reach for what you need.

 

No one is going to put the oxygen mask on you. You have to do it for yourself.

 

You have to speak the truth about who you are and what you need…because you are worth the saving.

 

*

 

We left The Big Church in the fall.

 

I remember the week that we got into the car and looked at each other and knew that it was done – that we couldn’t go back.

 

The next week we drove to a church down the street, and we sat in the sanctuary…and how can I describe it except to say that I could breathe?

 

It isn’t a perfect place – the church we go to now. You and I both know that such a church does not exist. But there is space for struggle, for questions, for failure and forgiveness and healing and transformation.

 

Sunday mornings, we stand in the foyer talking, and the oxygen is rivering through us all – and slowly, slowly we are putting down roots.

 

We are taking deep breaths. We are growing deeper into ourselves and into the God who holds us and sustains us like rich soil, like abundant earth.

 

 

 

* Not it’s real name. Obviously.

 


 

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