Today I was listening to Roy Kim’s The Same Boat Podcast episode 12, “This is Us,” when one of the guests asked this question outright: “If I don’t fit in to the church, can I still be a Christian?”
Something about this question pierced my heart. The guest, Daniel, named this question after he and his wife shared their story of deep suffering and faith deconstruction. I felt my heart move as he stated this question, because it was not out of flippant disregard of church that he asked this question. Instead he expressed a deep longing to connect with God and a sense of grief that conventional church settings were no longer a place where he could safely connect with God and others.
Part of what I feel in reaction to Daniel’s question is a sense of grief and sadness at how common Daniel’s experience is, and yet how alone he and many others can feel in the midst of it because there is so much shame and stigma surrounding these experiences.
The main hope of this post is to help those who feel out of place at church to feel validated and that they are not alone. I also hope that we can all be better supporters of our loved ones who may feel they don’t fit in with the church.
Let’s start by defining our parameters.
What is Church?
I don’t speak from the perspective of a theologian, historian, or philosopher, but I can speak from the collection of experiences I hear from my clients.
For many individuals who identify as Christian, there seems to be an important distinction between capital “C” Church and lowercase “c” church.
Loosely, “Church” refers to all the people who identify as Christian, whereas “church” refers to the physical meeting place where people gather to engage in religious rituals as a group.
What is a Christian?
What did I get myself into asking this question? The more life I live, the more difficult it is to know how to answer this question. It’s not as simple as it can appear at face value, and different people have different answers to this question.
I’m going to attempt to slyly sidestep this question by simply defining a “Christian” for our purposes today as any individual who self-identifies as Christian. I’m sure that statement can incite controversy, but I’m going to leave it at that for now.
I just glossed over that doozy didn’t I?
Why Christians sometimes don’t “fit in” at church
At face value, it might seem as though nearly all people who identify as Christian would feel like they fit in with a gathering of other Christians at a church (lowercase “c”). But it’s definitely not so simple. Here are some reasons I’ve heard for why people feel like they don’t “fit in” at church:
Cultural, political, or theological differences between the individual and the church leadership, or the church culture as a whole.
Not having space or a sense of freedom to ask questions about faith or express doubts.
Feeling unsupported in the midst of grief and suffering. (e.g., “Why are you sad? God is good!”)
Not being able to sing along with worship songs filled with joyful platitudes that don’t seem or feel true for the individual.
Being rejected by church leadership or peers due to experiencing same sex attraction, identifying as LGBTQ, or for making choices that are viewed as “un-Christlike” (e.g., pursuing divorce in an abusive relationship).
Confidentiality is not respected by church leaders.
Mismatched moral systems (e.g., views of women, abortion, etc.).
Honestly, every reason you can imagine is a reason for someone to feel that they don’t fit in. Churches are still gatherings of humans, and those humans make all the same mistakes as any other humans. It only makes sense that people will inevitably feel like they don’t fit in, because this is true of all groups of people.
The problem is that often there’s an implicit message that you’re supposed to feel like you fit into this group. Because, somehow, this group is different than other groups. This group is safer, healthier, more loving, more supportive – you name it, this group is better at all those things than other groups.
What an ostracizing and dangerous message. It communicates that anyone who feels out of place must not belong for some inherent reason to that person, and that it must not have to do with the church itself or the people in it. Sometimes peers will wonder if an individual who is out of place at church is really Christian. Or maybe, they are “wandering” in their faith. All of these assumptions imply there is something wrong with the individual, making it even more difficult for that person to be able to feel like they belong.
Entire churches can be guilty of the same self-deceit I wrote about in a recent post. When a group of people believe they must be better than others somehow, it creates a huge blind spot, making it incredibly difficult to see any errors clearly.
How can churches respond?
In my opinion, the healthiest churches can acknowledge that they are no better than any other group of humans. Humans make mistakes, so why would any church be above that?
If you know someone who is feeling that they don’t fit in at church, I encourage you to consider how you respond to them. Are you uncomfortable with their experience and prone to pushing them to value church more, or to return to church if they haven’t been attending? Do you give them side eye and secretly judge them while sitting in the church pews? Instead, ask yourself what this person might need to help them feel included – not for the end goal of having them come to church, but with the intent to help them feel validated in their experience and that they are not alone.
Sometimes, there is genuinely a mismatch. This individual may have grown or changed and the the church may have changed. If someone feels like they don’t fit in, it’s important they know they haven’t done anything wrong. It’s okay to allow others the freedom to be in a group where they feel they belong, whether it’s at another church or not at church at all.
Even if it were possible for a church to do “all the right things,” people can still feel as though they don’t belong. Church can be triggering for those who have had negative experiences around church in the past. It’s also possible that some aren’t wired to thrive in larger groups of people, or within the fairly limited format that Western Christian churches tend to operate.
I don’t say all this to bash church. Church is a wonderful gift. I’m grateful for the freedom of religion in this country, that we are welcome to freely gather and express ourselves as we wish. What a gift! And yet, it’s important to make clear that not all people will fit into the same gathering, and not all Christians will feel like they fit into a church. Some people who don’t identify as Christian will feel as though they do fit in at church. And all of that is okay.
If you feel as though you don’t fit in with your church (or any church for that matter), know you are not alone. There are others in any church that feel similarly (even if they don’t let on to it!) and certainly many many more who aren’t attending church at all.
Even if you choose to continue attending a church you don’t quite fit into, it’s important to find some people you feel you belong with, who “get you,” and who are for you. If you can’t find any of those people at church, it’s okay to start looking for them somewhere else.
As always, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
May you find joy in knowing that you belong here,