Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

6 thoughts on “Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church”

  1. Another great read….worth the read of pastors…as a semi-retired pastor who move and “broke into a new church” family, wish we had done it better when I was pastoring. Your post says it clearly

  2. You are here, for such a time as this. Your words reflect many of my thoughts and experiences and biblical revelations over my past 55 years as a Christ follower (and sometimes not). I am now into my 30th year at that “Big Church” now going through a real state of flux as it searches for a top leader or two. Change has been the byword here throughout the years but this is the most challenging with things not going according to an earlier plan. Prayers appreciated.

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