I have a confession to make. After going through all of my school years as the nerdy, prudish, goody-two-shoes type of kid nobody really liked, I finally became one of the ‘popular girls.’ At church.
That was never my goal, but it happened. I met this incredible woman who quickly became my best friend, and she was really good at connecting me with others. Before long, I had a solid group of best girlfriends. We did life together on a daily basis, and would all sit in one big group at church on Sundays, dressed in our fashionable best. Our love for each other was real and genuine, and in a lot of ways, we set a good example of Christian sisterhood. Those friendships made me feel valuable, loved, whole, and alive.
Because when we feel we belong, we feel powerful.
My place in that group gave me tremendous confidence, which allowed me to step out in ways I never was able to before. I began to lead others in various ministry contexts and gained the respect and admiration of the leadership. The validation and self-worth I received from that only deepened my sense of belonging. Even when some of my original besties moved away, it was easier to form a new group of friends because I felt pretty good about who I was. I was a person of influence. Important. Known. I knew my place and my role within my large church family and I felt safe and secure there.
One time someone told me that she didn’t feel like she belonged in my circle of friends because she didn’t fit in with all of the “beautiful people.” The suggestion behind that statement stung. I felt judged and a little offended. Why should I feel guilty that I’m happy and loved?
But you know something? She was right. Her comment about the ‘beautiful people’ was sarcastic, but I knew exactly what she was getting at. To others my group of friends felt exclusive and privileged. It was, for all intents and purposes, a closed circle. I knew it, and I was fine with that. After all, this was my community, right?
Then one day, everything I had built my life upon collapsed, and my power and my place evaporated.
And here I am, several years later, no longer part of the same fellowship. Really nothing is the same as it was. All those roles and all those people that I thought made me who I was, that made me safe, secure, loved, influential, respected–when I no longer had them, I no longer had ‘me.’ I was forced to rethink everything. And with the painful process of rebuilding my identity came some painful realizations:
I made other people feel left out, like they didn’t belong.
Like they weren’t good enough, or important enough, or interesting enough.
I reveled in my own secure position on ‘the inside’ without remembering what it feels like to be on the outside.
The Holy Spirit has convicted me. So much so that I’ve had to stop writing a couple of times so far and just weep. Even though it was never really my intention to make others feel this way, I am still responsible, because my heart was not in the right place.
It wasn’t in the right place because it wasn’t for the lonely, or the lost, or the marginalized.
It wasn’t to include people into a community of love, acceptance, and safety.
My heart’s main concern was to protect my own place and role within the circle, because without them, I was nothing.
I know I’m not the only one who does this.
I’ve seen this same scenario play out in other churches, with other people, other groups. I think it’s pretty common, actually. And now once again, I am experiencing what it’s like to be on the sidelines, the fringe, the outside looking in. And you know what? It feels terrible. Even if you don’t even want to be part of those particular cliques.
That’s because most of us are desperate to belong. Even when we are relatively whole and secure, we still need it. We’re meant to need one another. Not for identity, but for community. If you’re not caught up longing to be part of one, chances are it’s because you already feel that you belong somewhere, to someone. You have your people, your tribe, your posse, your place. But what about those that don’t? Are we responsible for them? Am I really my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?
And we are.
Especially in church.
There is nothing wrong with having our favorite people, the friends we do everyday life with. And we should have an inner circle of trusted, closest friends with whom we share the tightest bonds. But not ‘on display’ at church or in our small groups or in our ministries, especially when we are wearing our leadership hats. I’m not only referring to the people with actual titles–you know whether you carry authority or influence in your place of worship. If you do, then you also carry a greater responsibility for the care and wellbeing of those around you. Those people are your community. Your family. Your flock. And so many of them are walking around wounded, lonely, hurt, and desperate to belong somewhere.
I have come to see that the entire gospel message is centered around inclusivity.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Father intentionally, increasingly widened access into the inner circle. This is why Jesus came, died, and rose again–that no one would be left out; all could be included. This doesn’t only speak to our salvation, but to everything that is now available to us as part of the family of God. With our identity firmly grounded in him, we do not need to seek it elsewhere. But access into his family does offer us acceptance and belonging, safety and security, along with endless possibilities and varieties of blessing. It is part of the genius of God that his children are so beautifully diverse and each so uniquely equipped. We have much to offer one another within the body, and more still to those not yet in the fold.
Sadly, however, we limit God’s reach through us when we move in closed circles. That is not to say we limit God–he will find other ways to accomplish his purposes. But sequestered within our cliques, we limit how he will use us. We need to open our eyes, especially in church, and look out for those desperate to belong. We must open our circles and our arms and welcome them in.
As for me, I want to say to those I have hurt, I am deeply sorry and humbly ask for your forgiveness. My eyes have been opened now, and so has my heart.
One of the things I realized even in writing this post, is that from the beginning, I’ve counted on other, more outgoing people to be the ones who reached out, made connections, and drew others in. I mistakenly concluded that since it wasn’t really ‘my gift’ to be a connector, it wasn’t my responsibility, either. I was wrong about that. As sons and daughters, it is our responsibility.
We represent our Father in this, and it is incumbent upon us to represent him well.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. -Romans 15: 5-7 ESV