Outlier. The word intrigues me. I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of weeks, wondering if this word relates to me or not? I am beginning to identify with it. I also wonder what creates an outlier? Could it be that outliers have a somewhat common experience of the world, or a common way of looking at it? Do outlier’s share certain personality traits? Might understanding some of these things help me to unpack my struggle with the elusive sense of belonging in any church?
What is an outlier? Or another word I’ve heard of late is “done,” though I don’t like that word as much. An outlier is defined as a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system, and a person or thing differing from all other members of a particular group or set. In a church context this is a challenging type of person, because one of the things churches wish to do is create community, belonging, family. The church wants to draw all people in, most especially the outliers. But what if the outlier cannot be drawn in?
Maybe it’s best to start with my personal journey in and out of the doors of churches. I’m curious to see what I can mine from my story. Let’s see where it goes. Please join in with your thoughts on this as I can only speak to my own predispositions and experiences. Please join in especially if you self identify as an outlier.
First stop, my church story.
Born into a fundamentalist christian sect, I grew up in the church, the eldest daughter of an elder, and from the start I was a good girl. There were so many teachings from my formative years that are vital to my story; purity culture, end times prophecy, the inerrancy of scripture (literal interpretation), male headship, within a small church where whose you were mattered. I struggled to fit in. I was not athletic, chatty, outgoing, and my father was an Elder. I was doomed socially. I loved books, art, time on the family farm, the quietness of the garden, music. I understood God to be rules, love to be conditional, and relationships to be complicated.
Leanings: introverted, with artistic ability, kept from culture (in the world but not of the world – rules against movies, drinking, dancing, smoking, swearing, etc.) and pushed to the social margins of church. Pleaser. Somewhat repressed.
I invested and persisted with church through to my senior year of high school, when I concluded that while church youth didn’t like me, non-christians did. I found friends outside church. I found a capacity within me to rise to intellectual and artistic recognition by applying myself with good old work ethic. Work was easy. You either worked hard, or didn’t. Achieved or didn’t. I had part time jobs, and enjoyed making money. I had long been aware that the kids who rejected me at church were not who they pretended to be. I didn’t call it integrity at that time, or recognize my bullshit detector, but I knew intuitively who was to be trusted, and who was not. I especially found this perplexing around church leaders who lavished love and belonging on some, but not on all, and in particular not on me. I didn’t feel sought after or special. At church. On my grandparents farm and in nature however, my heart sang.
Leanings: intuition, a felt sense of what is truth and fiction, strong work ethic, a desire for more – self improvement, environment improvement, love of the natural world, no nonsense approach to things. Sensitive. Quiet. Curious.
In my final year of university I was excommunicated from the church. What was my crime? I married a Catholic. I’ve written about this before on this blog. Any sense of lingering belonging I may have had within the church of my childhood, no matter how challenging it had been, was ripped away from me for choosing to love someone who I was told did not belong. I took it all on the chin and carried on. For 35 years.
Leanings: trusting, until trust is broken, judging of others and self, introspective and curious, educated, seeking, idealistic, keen, resilient, stubborn.
Marriage, career, the upheaval of moving across the country and starting over, 3 children in 5 years, and church again became part of my life. Healing began as I discovered a different church culture and within it God’s grace and love for me. But his people continued to create havoc in me. In particular I struggled with what it meant to belong, what was required to fit in, and how fleeting that belonging seemed to be. When I served I felt belonging. When I did not I felt invisible. This sense continued over years, but I pushed it down, pushed through. Perhaps mega church was an odd choice for someone like me, but that’s where we found ourselves at last…with good friends, good children’s programs, good teaching, and a good life…fast forward 22 years to a place I could no longer abide by what felt like duplicity or confusion or plain old unanswered questions around the love that supposedly defined the place, yet denied certain people groups.
Leanings: social justice, righteous indignation, taking a stand on behalf of others, questioning of doctrine, theology, and black and white thinking.
Retreat, full on. No church. For a couple of years. Followed by testing out a few options. Nothing seemed to draw me. I went to the beach and thought about nature’s beauty. I wrote poetry and thought how like prayer it was. Slowly and incrementally God became more real to me in ways that had nothing to do with church, and all to do with a personal experience of his love. I found elements of Christianity…Desert Fathers and Mothers, contemplative, liturgical, great theological writers and poets, resonant thought…and at the same time felt a warning to proceed with great care…to not jump from one box into another, to not exchange one language for another…but to find a way to live in integrity with Christ, myself, and others.
Leanings: willingness to say I don’t know, willingness to hold unanswerable questions, willingness to withdraw and be solitary, seeking, asking, disillusioned, hopeful.
35 years after I’m put away from my childhood church, this happened. Another layer is peeled back and I recognize how my excommunication was spiritually formational. Big time.
Leanings: personal trauma, a desire to make sense, and overcome. Willingness to do the work.
Of note here is I carry my peculiar sense of things to the world, not just church…I also feel apart when I consider society and culture. What appears to matter to many folk, just doesn’t to me. I weigh things, and I find so many of them wanting. I am peculiar, one who finds it hard to relax, play, give myself over to pleasures. I can’t imagine retirement. I seek meaningful pursuits, and often give more to others than I give to myself. I’ve been told I’m too hard on myself, am my own worst enemy. I wonder what it’s all for, why I am the way I am.
Still God persists with me.
I find myself volunteering at a church run street mission, facilitating a poetry circle for those experiencing homelessness and marginalization. It is an evangelical Christian organization but I find a way to participate without having to give answers for myself. I dip my toe in the water of belonging. I join staff. I apply work ethic and creativity. I create things. I instigate things. I still sense there is a divide between the in crowd and me. I don’t know why but it haunts me. I cannot abide group think or conformity. I still have so many questions. Am I creating my own sense of marginalization?
Leanings: self knowledge, independent spirit, lived experience of God’s presence, creative energy, rebel, brave, lonely, leadership tendencies.
Present day. Again I step back, and wrestle every Sunday to go to church. Staying home wins out more often than not. When I do go I spend time listening, and watching. I sense intimacy between others in the group, I long to be asked to do something, I long to be seen. I am seen more by my street friends than by the staff. I offer my help, I facilitate a study, continue to visit my street friends, but I know I am again on the outside looking in. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in. I wonder if being in is like “The Borg”…a form of assimilation? If so, I sense I will never experience that feeling because I am attuned to it, repelled by it, and run from it. The very idea of conformity stands against who I am, rightly or wrongly.
Leanings: a strong sense of personal mission, a strong sense of God’s leading, learner, seeker, fragile, indignant, willing to speak out and bear the cost most days.
How do I interpret all this, I wonder? I think it will take more thoughtful consideration. Someone suggested I look at my Enneagram # and consider how that informs my sense of belonging. Do I set myself against the very thing I believe I am longing for…belonging? Is there too much about how the church operates that is against my grain, so that in some ways, the church repels me?
This I know, I continue to see the beauty of the church and her ability to bring love and hope and mercy and justice to those who are in great need. I believe passionately, and I am not all in with everything, and I continue to have some deep questions. God has not left me, Jesus is walking with me. I may not align completely with the church but I have not given up having a place and purpose there. I have a sense that being an outlier matters to God…