When I was sixteen, a revival group came to our church for a week in an effort to pump up our Baptist hearts for evangelism. We youth group kids got relegated to a Sunday school classroom down the hall from the sanctuary where the adults were meeting, and I don’t remember why this irritated me, but it did. Probably because I was sixteen and everything about church irritated me.
Because church was a place that limited who I could be. My natural inclinations at sixteen to wear jeans and chew gum and ask questions were leveled as soon as I crossed through the doors. Chewing gum was distracting, wearing jeans was disrespectful, and asking questions was disruptive—a point hammered home to me by the youth pastor of this revival group.
He was a short guy, not much taller than me, with square glasses and a serious demeanor. He spoke a lot about “not being of the world” and about God “spitting you out if you were lukewarm,” a reference to a passage in Revelation that, frankly, made me mad. Because we were just kids, and I think he was just trying to scare us.
He was a big fan of the phrase “garbage in; garbage out,” and as such encouraged us to break all our “secular” CDs. I sat on the front row and said, probably too loudly and not loudly enough all at the same time, “Why would I do that? I really like Third Eye Blind.” And he scowled at me.
When that evening’s session was over, he asked to speak with me. He stared eye level at me and told me I was “a disruption to the work God was doing” by asking too many questions and suggested strongly I not attend the revival meetings the rest of the week.
To which I said, “Fine by me.” And I walked away.
Because when you’re a sixteen-year-old youth group kid who is super irritated by all things church, there is no cooler story than the one about that time you actually got kicked out of church.
That was sixteen years ago and, frankly, I still think it’s a cool story. And not because I got kicked out of church, but because I’m proud of my sixteen-year-old self who wasn’t swayed by the manipulations of a too-serious youth pastor guy. I’m proud of the way she knew what she liked and wasn’t willing to throw it away just because someone told her she should. I’m proud that she had a brain in her head and she exercised it in church.
Too many of her friends didn’t, and they broke all their CDs, and they had to buy the Third Eye Blind album again six months later.
Three years ago, I was kicked out of church again.
Not officially, of course. No one had the courage to say I was being disruptive this time, but in a time of leadership at my home church, I was repeatedly made to feel small—because I was a woman and because I wasn’t married. Month after month, my counseling degree was dismissed in a season when our church needed what I knew. In meeting after meeting, I was talked over, or argued with, or bullied. And I felt again what I felt when I was sixteen and asked not to return to the revival meetings—there is no place for me here.
So I walked away again.
Only this time, it was painful. There was no cool story to tell. This time, the story was hard, and ugly, and didn’t leave a lot for anyone to be proud of anything.
We were unkind. We said nasty things to each other. We hated. We picked sides. We judged. We didn’t care about Jesus, or the gospel, or each other. And we broke apart.
I broke apart.
For a long time, it felt like I was never going to be put back together. Sometimes, it still feels like that. Sometimes, I’m still that sixteen-year-old kid who is way too irritated with church and feels satisfied by my rebellion and my Third Eye Blind CDs.
But sometimes, hope creeps in. Sometimes I hear something true, or someone says something kind. Sometimes Jesus looks so clear in the text from a friend, or the email from a coworker, or the smile of the barista who makes my coffee every morning. Sometimes someone listens well, or gives sacrificially, or offers grace instead of judgment. Sometimes God and his goodness are so evident.
So I begin to believe again that there is a place for me in this broken-apart mess of people called church.
I think maybe this is why I take a more open-handed approach to church these days—all are welcome.
You have questions? Sweet. So do I. Let’s study and talk and see if we can find some answers. Or at the very least, maybe we can find a way to live with the questions.
You have cynicism? Cool. You’re my people. We can heckle from the back row together—until Jesus breaks through with a way to soften us, just a little bit, because he always does.
You feel small? Yep. I’ve been there. Church did that to me too. But maybe there’s a way even just the two of us can be a voice that counters that lie. Maybe we can empower people through prayer and affirmation, and we can put an end to people sitting in church feeling less than they are.
You’ve been kicked out of church? Yeah. Me too. And I’m so sorry.
I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to go. I don’t think that’s the way of Jesus. He certainly didn’t spend his time on earth drawing lines about who was in and who was out, telling people to stay away, or letting only the “good” or “clean” people come near him.
It was the religious leaders who told people they weren’t good enough to come before God, to stand in holy space with them and worship. It was the religious leaders deciding who got to stay and who got kicked out.
But Jesus says to the outsider, the condemned, and the kicked out, “Follow me.”
And this command, and then our response to it, changes everything.
You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone.
Jesus has called us, and we have followed, and we have a place.