"Community" is a buzzword we hear everywhere we turn. In the media today, we see examples of both good community and bad: the racial unrest plaguing America and much of the world on one side, and countries rallying behind their Olympic teams on the other.
Every individual experiences many layers of community. Communities like cities, states, and countries will undoubtedly fail us on more than one occasion. We also have communities among our family, friends, and workplaces that fail us from time to time. But what I never expected, and especially never wanted, was to be failed by my church community. Sadly, I think many of us have our own stories and scars from damage done by church communities. I know that what should serve as the rock-solid foundation in every Christian's life has, on more than one occasion, left me bruised, battered, and feeling homeless.
How my church community failed me
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that attended church. We spent each Sunday and Wednesday evening in church in our various groups and classes. I loved knowing exactly where I would be on those days and who I would see. I made lasting friendships through church throughout my school years. Then I graduated from high school and lost the consistency and social stability of my youth group. It felt like my support group for all those years had suddenly evaporated, and I was left wandering around, trying to find my place in my own church for the first time.
I'm still dealing with this identity crisis to this day. I love the structure and predictability of how my childhood church did Sunday School and youth group, but it also gave me a false sense of security. I had put my identity in these routine gatherings, rather than finding my true place in the church body.
The church I attend now embraces a gathering schedule driven by community, something most churches have adopted. The irony of it, though, is that I feel like even more of an outsider because of this. I didn't grow up going to this church, and I don't really live in the area, which makes it hard to connect and feel like I belong. I'm also a married, working full-time mother - the cherry on top of my church identity crisis.
The members of this church have years of relationship history, something they are very proud of (as I would be, too!). For an introvert like me, though, this makes it exceptionally hard to find my place. Before I became a mom, I attended a Thursday morning yoga class taught at my church. The class started at 10AM and was filled with stay-at-home-moms and middle-aged housewives who were thankful for a chance to get away from their responsibilities for an hour. I enjoyed the class, but no one seemed in much of a mood to socialize, so I never really connected with anyone. After my son came along, it became pretty much impossible for me to justify the effort and planning it would take to get to yoga.
My husband and I have tried multiple church groups and gatherings. Each has resonated with us in a different way, but none have felt "right." Because of this, we went for months without attending anywhere, completely discouraged by our inability to fit in with our church. Of course, this is the worst thing we could do when trying to connect with a new church community, but I know many other women experience the same struggle.
Sometimes, it's not an inability to find the right fit in a church that leaves us without community. Instead, egos and agendas overshadow the true mission of the church, and good Christians fall victim to the sin of disunity and fall away from the church. Religion, like families, requires a degree of emotional investment, and those emotions can quickly turn into tools of destruction rather than edification in a hostile environment.
When I was kicked out of the hyper-legalistic and very conservative college I first attended, I was shunned from my childhood church. To my independent fundamental church, being kicked out of that college meant instant black sheep status for me. I was forced to sit down with my pastor and discuss with him what had happened. The walls must have had ears, because within a few days, everyone in the church knew my story, and people who had been friends and leaders in my life for the past few years turned their backs on me. My family ended up leaving the church because of this, a reality I hated but was forced to face.
This minor infraction left me branded with a scarlet letter. My church family, who should have been forgiving, loving, and willing to come alongside me and mentor me through my situation chose to cling to their legalistic mindset of appearing to be "perfect Christians" and rejected the blemish I had become.
I know that I'm not alone in this experience. Many believers have dealt with less than Christ-like treatment at the hands of fellow churchgoers, who should be the first to extend forgiveness. We all mess up, and becoming a Christian does not remove our sin nature from our hearts. Becoming a Christian, though, should give us a support system God can use to guide our hearts and actions toward who He desires us to be. And when that support system fails, the church is no longer seen as a safe haven for the broken, but rather yet another finger wagging in our faces when we are at our lowest.
How we can restore church community
So what can be done? How do you get back on your feet after your church community fails you? It's important to understand that the problem almost always involves you. We are all sinners and our sin doesn't check itself at the sanctuary doors. The church reflects real life, and life gets messy. While those who've turned against you are at fault, you shouldn't only play the victim and forget that you likely have your own mistakes to fess up to.
In my situation, I feel like I could have stood up more for myself. Rather than numbly taking my church's rejection and turning away, I should have sought out mentors within the church to give me sound Godly advice. I should have asked those giving me cold shoulders why they were doing so. By leaving the situation and the church, I left conflict unresolved and might have unintentionally left the door open for other members to experience the same treatment.
"Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." Ephesians 4:31-32
I do not feel like I harbor resentment toward the church after what I went through. However, my wounds left a mark on how I view the church. Can a church feel like extended family to me again? How can I find my place and secure my spot in the body of Christ? I want so badly for my son to grow up and have the same communal church friendships and experiences that I had. Here are some ways I feel like I can start walking toward true community at church:
- I need to actively seek and remain open to God's plan for the church He has in my life now. This might mean going way outside my comfort zone.
- I need to stop trying to replicate old church styles or structures and embrace the church I am in. No, I don't have a Sunday School class to go to, but maybe I can find a community group my husband and I can connect with.
- I might need to recognize that I'm not where God wants me. As much as I want to love the church I'm at, God might be trying to show me I need to keep looking.
If you're dealing with a community crisis, understand that you have the power to change it through prayer and a commitment to reconciliation. You might not be able to completely eliminate a crisis of community, but at the very least, you can make strides to better the situation for yourself and your loved ones.
Please click here to receive these impactful blogs automatically to your inbox.