For the past ten years, I have been working in the church and faith-based non-profit world. I also grew up in the church, making the decision to be baptized when I was in the second grade. I have loved the church and, for the most part, it has loved me right back. However, when I was about fifteen years old, I started to feel some frustrations. My once small church had become a mega-church and I was feeling lost in the shuffle. I felt like no one cared and like no one saw me; I was a number and nothing more.
When I went away to college, I had a few not-so-great experiences with “Christians” and I decided to leave the Church. The worst part: when I left, no one came looking. No one cared. No one invited me back. Around twenty-two, I found myself in a very dark and very lost place. I got into some pretty big trouble and despite my begrudging attitude and adamant refusal, a friend of mine (most of you now know him as my husband) tricked me into going to church.
The leaders of the church he took me to were the same people who were leaders in the mega-church I used to attend. They were surprisingly nice. At that point, I was positive that Christians were nothing more than hypocritical do-gooders who patted themselves on the back for saying “Jesus” and didn’t actually know a thing about the world. I agreed to come back with my friend the next time they gathered, and I was shocked at what happened when I walked in.
“Hey, Rachel! You’re back!”
They remembered me? Hadn’t we just met briefly last week? I also don’t think I ever took my hood down, so how did they even recognize me just now? As time went on, I learned that during the time I was positive no one cared, these people knew me. They asked me questions about back in high school. As it turns out, my pastor had also seen me during my time away. People actually had noticed my absence. The problem was that I wasn’t looking for hope, I was looking for something to feed my emotions. I found comfort in my separation. Perhaps, these people weren’t so bad, maybe I just didn’t understand them the way I thought I did.
My misconceptions about how the church functions allowed me to accept my perceived divide as Truth and spit venom at the place that was just trying to love me. The honest truth is that had they chased after me, I would have refused. The father of the prodigal son didn’t chase him down the driveway. The father let his son make his decisions because a truly loving parent understands the value of a tough lesson learned. And then, when the son was ready and returned, the father went sprinting down the driveway to receive his son with overwhelming joy.
If you’ve walked away from the church and felt unseen, unheard, unloved, unchased… I have been you. If you’ve felt let down by your pastor, like you’d be bothering the pastor to go to him/her, like you’ve not only been skipped over for the invite but just straight up been uninvited… I have been you. These feelings are valid. You are ALLOWED to feel them. And please, don’t just feel them, process them. The processing is what led me to healing and led me to love the church again.
When it comes to the “why” behind these feelings, I cannot speak for all those disillusioned by the church, I can only speak for me. When I was in this place, there were three little thoughts with big repercussions that I embraced. They gave me the freedom to not only accept the divide between me and the church, but to find comfort and safety in it.
Here’s what I wrestled with:
1. “The Pastor isn’t leading me.”
The Pastor seems to love that group more than other people. Why don’t I get the same amount of time? Why don’t I get the same attention?
What I was missing in this season was the understanding that my pastor was just a person. If Jesus had twelve that he poured himself into, why did I expect my a.) youth pastor to be able to pour himself into all 150 people in the youth group and/or b.) head pastor to be able to pour himself into the hundreds that gathered every Sunday? I had unrealistic expectations AND expectations that were never communicated.
The vision lived by Jesus is that each of his disciples would be developed to then lead people of their own. Once I’m able to view the pastor as human, suddenly I can allow myself to be led by other people, perhaps the very people the pastor has developed. Had I gotten out of my own head and opened my eyes, I might have seen that the people who greeted me that Sunday at church with my friend were the same people in that other church waiting for me the whole time (seriously, they very literally were). It was easier to be mad at the pastor than to dive into relationship with the leaders standing next to me. Perhaps the very person I was venting to was the leader God had sent for me, but I was too comfortable in my anger to see it. I valued the pastor more than the person in front of me, who was a person trained and led by the pastor. God had placed people all around me, but I let anger block my vision and venom take over my heart.
2. “No one is seeking me out.”
The shepherd went for the lost sheep so someone should be coming for me, but they’re not.
I had a huge part to own in this one. I remember sitting through a sermon during my period of reconciliation with the church where the pastor explained how a shepherd actually goes for his lost sheep. For starters, the sheep is often baa-ing (bleating? let’s go with baa-ing), making it able to be found. However, I regularly responded to someone’s ask of, “Hey, how are you? Where have you been?” with “I’m good, just been busy.” I wasn’t making it known I was needing to be found. I wasn’t baa-ing. They were seeking me, but I was not being honest and allowing myself to be found. When they didn’t push after I said, “I’m good” I would get upset, but why? How could I be upset when I made the choice to not be honest? I made the choice to mask my feelings. That was a hard pill to swallow. Even writing it now still stings.
But the shepherd… this one really got me. In the time when this passage was written, it was understood that when a shepherd would finally get to their lost sheep, they would do one of two things: a.) they would throw the sheep on their back and take away their freedom to walk, or b.) they would break the sheep’s leg so it literally could not walk, and they would carry it until it healed. Both moves were made in love with an attempt to train the sheep to follow the shepherd. The shepherd was showing the sheep that it could trust his leading. The sheep had one of two things happen: pain inflicted and/or freedom taken. The outcome was a closeness and a deeper understanding of the shepherd, but I was going to have to swallow some pride, accept painful truths, and give up my freedom to get it.
I chose, “I’m good.”
3. “They’ve never invited me to something.”
There’s no real community happening here.
People talk about bible studies and cookouts and gatherings of various sizes for various reasons, but perception is reality. My perception was that while these things were being talked about from the front and posted in the bulletins, I didn’t see them so they weren’t happening and I wasn’t being personally invited so therefore I was uninvited. This perception is a lie. Let me say that louder for the people in the back… THIS PERCEPTION IS A LIE. This is a lie straight from the pit of hell designed to keep you clinging to the gap that has been or is being created between you and the church; you and YOUR church.
There is community happening, but community is created and covenant is accepted. These things take work. When the announcements are made about gatherings happening within your church, YOU are being invited. The hospitality committee and the pastor and the leadership team cannot get to deeply know you during a couple short hours on a Sunday morning. BUT, they can get to know you when you show up for small group and choose to engage. They can get to know you when you honestly offer your hurt and your brokenness instead of saying, “I’m good.” That announcement is for you. That social media post is for you. Your pastor is for you. Your church is for you. Those leaders are for you.
I am for you. And I am for you because I have been you. I have been hurt. I have hated the Church. I have hated my church. I have hated pastors. I have preferred venom over relationships and I have chosen the gap over the community.
These little thoughts have big repercussions. If these ideas resonate with you, PLEASE feel free to contact me. I would love to help your heart find healing because I can promise you this… You are seen. You are wanted. You are loved. You are invited.
Will you step across the divide and take the invitation?