How to Thrive in the Church When You’re Misunderstood

smgianotti@me.com  —  April 19, 2016

I don’t fit the Christian norm. I’m thirty-four, single, and working on my fourth degree. Not exactly a Proverbs 31 woman. Life took a different route than I’d planned and sometimes, especially in Christian circles, I feel out of place. I’m not the only one, though. I have a gay friend who’s chosen celibacy and two others who’ve opted for heterosexual marriage. Then there’s the single mom, the childless couple, and the guy who’s unemployed. 

 

Most conservative churches have a definition of “normal” that my friends and I can’t live up it up. It can leave us feeling confused and isolated, because most of us didn’t choose our unorthodox demographics, we just found our lives playing out on the single, gay, childless, artistic, or job-wandering stage.

 

Tattoo guy stairsPhoto courtesy of Michael Furtig via unsplash.com

 

So, how do we navigate life in the church when we don’t quite fit in? During the last decade, I discovered four secrets to thriving in the church even when I’m misunderstood.

 

 

1. Remember that misfits make up the church.

 

While some versions of American Christianity imply that church is only for families with 2.2 kids, God disagrees. His started his church with a bunch of misfits — uneducated fisherman, social outcasts (a tax collector, demon possessed woman, etc.), and one terrorist named Saul.

 

As the church spread to places like Corinth, it picked up adulterers, people in same-sex relationship, drunkards, and thieves. “And that is what some of your were,” Paul wrote to them, “but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Not only that, later in the same letter Paul suggested that, when it comes to serving Jesus, singles have the edge on married folks (7:38).

 

So, when we feel like we’re not “church material,” we need visit the New Testament again. No matter how unconventional our lives or how dark our past, we’re just the kind of people Jesus wants in his church.  

 

 

2. Find someone to be vulnerable with.

 

Conversations can get awkward when your life doesn’t follow the usual path. Well meaning people — straight folks, people with kids, or with great jobs — can say things that leave us feeling dumb, hurt, and angry. We can get focused on doing whatever it takes to avoid another awkward conversation, pulling out plastic smiles and superficial answers or sneaking out of church before the service ends. Maintaining a safe distance, though, can leave us feeling lonely. We need to find someone who is safe and be vulnerable with them.

 

If someone seems sympathetic and open-minded, we need to put in the work of getting to know them and risk being vulnerable; not all at once, but little bits at a time. As we start to verbalize all the messy contradictions of being single, gay, childless, or jobless, we’ll feel less alone. We’ll have someone to call on the gut-wrenching days, on the fabulous days, and on the days where we want to turn our backs on God. Being a member of Jesus’ church means that we “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Not everyone may be able to do that for us, but we need to find at least one person who will.

 

 

3. Pray honest prayers.

 

Too often, we limit our prayers to safe subjects, like the rain, stomach bugs, and busy schedules. We offer God a flimsy version of life while we crumble on the inside, or we stop praying altogether. I’m not sure where we got the idea that God wants our prayers dressed up in a Sunday suit and tie. Jesus didn’t pray that way. Even when he knew the outcome, he begged God to change his mind, pleading so hard that he drenched himself in sweat. David didn’t pray that way, either. He told God to attack his enemies and accused him of neglect and abandonment, and these prayers got recorded in the Bible.

 

God knows how hard it is, not fitting into a mold. He sees when we ache be different, when life feels too heavy us, or when we’re angry at him for not intervening, and he invites us to wrestle with him. Being brutally honest with God might feel dangerous or unspiritual, but God wants our truthfulness (Psalm 51:6).

 

 

4. Find someone to love.

 

We might feel alone in our singleness, same-sex attraction, infertility, or unemployment, but we aren’t. There are other Christians hurting just like us, feeling disenfranchised from the church, and they need to know that Jesus loves misfits, too. They need someone to be vulnerable with, someone who will tell them that God wants their honest prayers. Our pain, if we’re willing to look past it, can be a gift to them. 

 

 

While we might not fit the norm, we’re exactly what Jesus wants for his family. He chooses the most unlikely people for his church and that’s good to remember when we’re misunderstood. It also helps to find someone we can be vulnerable with, to pray honest prayers, and to love someone else who needs it just as much as we do. After all, Jesus was celibate, childless, and misunderstood, and he’s the one we’re following.

 

* This piece first appeared on ConvergeMagazine.com.

 

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19 responses to How to Thrive in the Church When You’re Misunderstood

  1. Excellent read. Thought provoking.

  2. So well said and boy could I relate. I now avoid church on every Mother’s day. Have you ever been somewhere when they ask the mothers to stand and you and perhaps one other person are the only two women left sitting in the church?

    • Yes, ouch. That’s a question I’ve been wondering about. How do we honor and celebrate marriage and family without implicitly dis honoring and sidelining those who aren’t. Like pregnancy announcements at church. That’s good, but makes me feel the smallest bit uncelebrated. I don’t think the answer is not to celebrate those things, though. What do you think?

    • I don’t really know the answer, but I do remember Crossroads celebrating women and including everyone. I think probably it’s just partly a reminder to myself that I don’t have what most women have and since it is often a hurtful reminder, I have learned to simply avoid situations, i.e. church on mothers day, so that I don’t expose myself to that.

    • The Lord in his infinite wisdom finally gave me a husband and it was worth the wait. We love each other and don’t have the problems a lot of people have so I am grateful for that. Looking back I can see where the Lord used me in a way He couldn’t have if I had been married. But of course as we know, that doesn’t totally ease the wonder of why the Lord did not have us go the so called “normal” route.

    • hm. That’s a good point. They remind us of what we don’t have, and that can be painful by itself. Still I wonder about how churches could expand what they celebrate. Once my church celebrated two people who’d published books. They’ve celebrated graduations. (All in the service like on Mother’s Day). Heard of a church that in the fall each week has a different sector of the work force stand up and get blessed/commissioned.

    • While I don’t have an answer to how a church can expand what they celebrate, I have been a part of a church that gave a flower not just to mothers, but to every woman on Mother’s Day. The sermon that year also talked of how women as a whole play a special role (not just mothers). It was a wonderful, inclusive Mothers Day. I was even specifically called out as someone who’s not a mother, but is like one to so many (I’m involved in children’s ministry and I work as a nanny).

    • Karen, that’s beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

    • I will say, even as a married woman, I can still relate. My “children” came to me by way of a package deal when I married my husband. I am only in my early 40s, but those children are now grown. I don’t really fit in either. Most people our age have small children, and those with grown children and grandchildren (like us) are in a much different stage in life than we are. I never know whether I should stand on Mother’s Day or not. If I don’t, he will ask me why didn’t imply that I don’t love my stepdaughter’s enough. If I do, they’re quick to point out that they’re “not really” my daughters, and I’m “not really” a mother. It can be terribly painful, and horribly isolating. I don’t really know the answers either, but there’s got to be someway we can improve.

    • I will say, even as a married woman, I can still relate. My “children” came to me by way of a package deal when I married my husband. I am only in my early 40s (and my husband in his mid-40s), but those children are now grown – and one is married with a child of her own.
      I, or rather, we, don’t really fit in either.
      Most people in our age-range have young children; and those with grown children and grandchildren (like us) are usually in a much different stage of life than we are.
      I never know whether I should stand up on Mother’s Day or not. My one and only pregnancy was aborted when I was 15-years old. My daughters whom I love as my own are, technically, step-daughters. If I don’t stand, people will ask me why didn’t and imply that I don’t love my stepdaughter’s enough. If I do, they’re just as quick to point out that they’re “not really” my daughters, and I’m “not really” a mother. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like to acknowledge the baby I lost to abortion. That opens a whole desperate can of worms – a big one!
      It can be terribly painful, and horribly isolating. I’ve come to hate Mother’s Day. And I almost never feel that I have a “place” to fit at church.
      I’m fine with having friends of any age, and any marital status. But the invitations to join in never come. Not because people don’t like me, I presume. But more likely, because they assume that since I’m “married”, or since I have “grown kids”, or since I’m “in a younger age group”, that I either can’t or don’t want to mi God with them.
      I don’t really know the answers either, but there’s got to be someway we can improve. And, I can guarantee you, singles are not the only ones who feel somewhat isolated. I love that you included so many different categories of folks who struggle with similar issues. If we can learn to see each other as valuable individuals, I believe that’s a big start in the right direction!

    • Jenna, thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds painful. I agree there’s got to be a way to be more inclusive. Something like how we talk about diversity maybe, not ignoring our unique differences, but celebrating them all. Your type of motherhood has its own challenges and sacrifices, I’m guessing, even though it’s looked different, and is no less worth celebrating.

  3. I, too, was in that place until I met Chuck at age 30. God is there for you Shannon.

  4. Sherri, thanks for this. Stereotypes don’t just hurt those outside them. That’s a really good reminder. We need to see people, not just what category they fit in.

  5. I hope you realize my attempt at just saying we all need each other and need the Lord. I don’t want to come across as uncaring about how you are feeling in the church – or anyone else for that matter.

  6. Agreed, 90% of the time I feel that way too.

  7. Great piece of writing, Shannon, and great dialogue in these comments. You highlight a challenge that churches face constantly, and as a worship planner myself, I have become painfully aware of. Thank you for your insight!