Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post titled “Me, the Invisible Woman in the Church Pew.” Many people responded. In the thirteen months since its publication, the post has continued to receive comments, people sharing stories of loneliness, frustration, and pain in church.
We’re at a different point in our lives now. We’re back at Church #4. (So we visited Church #1, Church #2, Church #3, Church #4, stayed for a while, went back to Church #1, stayed for a while, tried a home church, tried a mega church (#5)—where we went through four adult Sunday school classes—and I visited, alone, churches #6, #7, and #8. Frustration. Great gnashing of the teeth on my part, along with crying (in my closet, in the car, on the pages of my journal) over the death of my old church, the one that split. After our daughters transferred to a different school, we moved closer to Church #4, returned, liked it enough to stay, and there we are.)
It’s easier now to see why I didn’t feel welcomed the first time around. I was still grieving my old church, the first one where I’d ever felt accepted. Since Church #4 was a plant of the old church, there were many people we knew from that church, people who knew that the old church had split but didn’t have the horrible memories we did of that last year. At the time, I couldn’t handle that. Now I’m better adjusted to the grief, and though it flares up occasionally, it isn’t nearly as painful.
Things are more stable. We’re still newcomers. I have issues with some of the theology. It’s hard. Some of you know that feeling of frustration/sadness/loneliness firsthand. Many of you have said, “I can’t connect at church no matter how I try!”
But why it’s so hard to connect in church is the real question. It’s a problem in need of solving. So when I mentioned that old blog post to my family, I asked, “Why do you think it’s like this?”
My eleven-year-old daughter said, “I’ve noticed that the kids are usually friendlier than the adults.”
Hmm. There’s something here, I thought. “Why do you think that is?”
“They’re not as worried about how they come across as adults are, and they’re not, ‘oh, we’ve already got fifty gazillion Facebook friends so we won’t be your friend’ and stuff like that.”
My husband added, “They have fewer inhibitions.” He went on about how adults often have pain associated with churches and personal relationships, and so it’s easier to not open up.
Self-protection. Self-preservation. Self-defense, even when the other person isn’t attacking.
At the root? Fear.
Fear. I’ll be hurt again (and again, and again).
Fear. I’ll be taking a risk of rejected or ridiculed or body-slammed into the ground.
Fear. I have to hide my wounds because they make me look weak, feel weak, be weak.
One: the focus of fear is me, my hurt, my risk, my wounds. Me. Where should the focus of our lives be? On God. See any problem here?
Two: hiding our wounds doesn’t help anything. Donning an image of perfection is dishonest. It also hinders the healing process. Healing begins with brokenness. When we finally admit to ourselves that yes, I am broken, we can start the path to healing.
Often, this means letting someone else see our broken hearts and spirits. A frightening thing to do. But a surgeon can’t operate on a heart when it’s still covered by flesh and clothing. He wouldn’t be able to see it, for one thing, and the material would get in the way of the knife. The shirt must be taken off. The flesh must be cut open. Then the procedure can go on. But not until then. *
I’ll also mention that Christ didn’t hide his wounds, either. He showed his disciples the scars on his hands, let them touch the spear-wound to his side, pointed out the nail-marks on his feet: symbols of a shameful death. Ostracized by the crowds, abandoned by his disciples, alone in his personal pain as even the Father God forsook him.
Yet that shameful death was followed by a triumph over sin, his resurrection. In doing that, he made it possible for us, those who follow him (imperfectly, to be sure!), to be vulnerable before him and vulnerable with other people.
We don’t have to hide our wounds behind shallow relationships and superficial conversations.
It’s not easy, and this isn’t really a solution for those who are on the receiving end of the alienating, self-protective behavior. It’s definitely not useful for first time church visitors, either. I’m not certain what is. None of us can change other people.
We can influence, though. Maybe the only thing we can do is set an example, modeling the behavior of Christ’s love and vulnerability with those around us.
I wish there were more concrete solutions that I could offer. I don’t have any. Anyone have any ideas? Share them in the comments! (If you’re shy about that, email me and I’ll share with my readers, keeping your name confidential.)
*Please, medical people, don’t take me to task for not being medically-correct in my metaphor, okay? I know there are robotic thingys that go places inside our guts and do nifty, high-tech stuff in itty-bitty parts of our bodies and all that, but I don’t really understand them. Just be thankful that I’m a novelist and not a surgeon.
Photo Credit: AcrylicArtist, on morguefile.com