Another Look: Outsider Lessons

Another Look: Outsider Lessons

Back in 2014 I wrote a Wilderness Update post called, “Square Peg Syndrome,” which resonated with many people. I wrote this as a follow-up to that piece. I’ve updated it for today.

Benjamin Corey, at his blog, Formerly Fundie, wrote a similar article called, “A Few Things I’ve Learned as a Christian Outsider.” He wrote it for those who, like him, “feel like outsiders– out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. . . . exhausted, and on the margins of faith.”

Here are a few of the lessons Corey said he has learned as a Christian outsider:

  1. I’ve learned to get my identity from Jesus, not the tribe.
  2. I’ve learned that the key to happiness is contentment.
  3. I’ve learned who my friends are.
  4. I’ve learned to forgive– not out of desire, but necessity.
  5. I’ve learned that sometimes theology becomes more important than people, and that I don’t want to ever be on the wrong side of this equation again.

He concludes with these words:

Sometimes I think that those of us who feel like outsiders focus a little too heavily on the negative, so these are some positive things that I’m learning– things that are helping me feel like I’m slowly finding life again.

What things have you learned from life as a Christian outsider?

Good lessons. Good insight. Good question for us. If I were to answer, what would I say? How about you?

Let me share three simple lessons, then it will be your turn to respond.

1. I’ve learned that “church” (as we generally do it) means different things to me in different seasons of my life.

In our culture, church as we have organized it is primarily a young person’s place and an activity center for families. Especially in more suburban settings. Especially in larger churches. Keeping a lively program going for families, children, and youth is essential in the competitive ecclesiastical atmosphere where I live, just a few notches from the buckle on the Bible belt.

Therefore, I don’t feel at home at church as much as I used to when I fit the demographic. Now I want depth, silence, beauty, an emphasis on formation and contemplation, respect for tradition, leisure for conversation, questions, and reflection. I don’t care so much about action, and when I do, I would prefer meaningful missional works that actually accomplish some good in the community around us, not mere Christian activity or events.

But you gotta pay the bills, right? So we keep bringin’ ’em in and meetin’ their needs.

Now, don’t simply mark me down as a curmudgeon. I know the church exists as a family for all generations, and I don’t resent the activity and programming that younger people and families may need. I’m merely suggesting that the church has lost its imagination for anything else but that, and that there are entire groups of people out there longing for something more attuned to where they may be in different seasons and circumstances of life.

2. I’ve learned that what I really understand church to be is a group of people with whom I share a common life in Christ and who share a common humanity with our neighbors.

When I was a parish minister, especially in congregations where we lived in a parsonage near the church building, we were seeing people from the church every day, having conversations, aware of what was happening week in and week out in each other’s lives. I really miss that about being a pastor . . .

Believe it or not, what happens for me here on Internet Monk is as close to that as anything I’ve experienced in quite a while. So much so that, when we visited Ted’s home in Maine, I felt like I was meeting someone with whom I shared a true bond. Same with Randy in New Hampshire. Dave Cornwell has become a good friend here in Indiana, and Mike the Geologist has become one right here in town. Same with the other writers and colleagues over the years such as Dan, Denise, Jeff, Lisa, Damaris, Joe, and others that I may see infrequently but keep up with through this forum. I used to say regularly, “This is not where I live.” Now I’m starting to think that cyberspace can be as personal and communal as we make it.

Since moving last year, we have more regular contact with the people in the congregation where I preach and serve during the winter months. Living in the country, in a rural community, puts us in the midst of people with roots, with country habits and long-standing community ties. When combined with the fact that we have lived in this area longer than any other location in our lives, and that our children and grandchildren are close to us and we have been involved with the people around here for many years now, it’s good to say we feel at home, with a strong sense of place.

The problem people have complained about for years with regard to “community” in the church does not represent an ecclesiastical issue at heart. It’s a problem that has arisen because much of the contemporary world moved on a long time ago from the kind of slower-paced, face-to-face world that provided a grounded culture of community as the bigger context in our lives. It’s not “spiritual” connections we need, it’s human ones.

3. I’ve learned that the God of the church is too small, too tame, too provincial to deserve propping up any longer.

By the “God of the church” I mean the God we have largely created so that we can feel comfortable in our church cultures. As the modern prophet A.W. Tozer once said:

The God of the modern evangelical rarely astonishes anybody. He manages to stay pretty much within the constitution. Never breaks our bylaws. He’s a very well-behaved God and very denominational and very much one of us, and we ask Him to help us when we’re in trouble and look to Him to watch over us when we’re asleep. The God of the modern evangelical isn’t a God I could have much respect for.

This is, I think, what many of us feel when we say, “I’ve outgrown the church.” There is a sense, of course, in which that is impossible, and such a statement teeters on the edge of pride and disdain for others. But I don’t mean it that way at all.

I mean that, as one who long ago became an outsider (and felt like one for much longer than I would admit), I have seen a bigger God. I have seen the Father’s love at work in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in ways inaccessible to those who hide behind church walls and separate themselves from “the world.”

There is a parochialism, a separatism, a Pharisaism, if you will, that keeps people from seeing Jesus in any setting outside what they deem “holy.” But there are aspects of creation, common grace, wisdom, and the imago Dei so powerful and real in the most unlikely and unexpected places all around us every day! I hunger to explore them, but they have no place in the constricted imagination of our holy huddles, so one must become an outsider to access them. And once you have tasted the feast which God prepares for us in the midst of the everyday, the thin gruel of what passes for “Christian” thinking and good works in many of our churches can almost seem repellent.

No, I don’t think I’m “too good” for the church. But on the other hand, I don’t think a lot of churches are doing anyone favors by conducting business as usual. Michael Spencer found himself in the same wilderness, and urged us all to avoid “Mere Churchianity” like the plague.

Anyway, I may not be a total “outsider,” but my edges are still far too square to fit most of the places I see around me.

24 thoughts on “Another Look: Outsider Lessons

  1. In regards to point 4, forgiveness, I’d love to see a post on forgiveness, the hows and whys. Christians talk about forgiveness, but never really what it means (do all Christians have the same definition?), how to forgive, how to keep on forgiving in the face of great injustice, etc.


  2. A dedicated double post is so appropriate for me, because (1) I am a Gemini, and (b) I can’t remember (b).

    You inspire me to write a couple responses to Corey’s bullet points:

    “I’ve learned to get my identity from Jesus, not the tribe.” Does that differ from the message of the WWJD bracelet? If it does differ, I don’t understand it. If it doesn’t differ, I’m good with being as simple-minded as a bracelet.

    “I’ve learned that the key to happiness is contentment.” Does happiness closely resemble a person sitting in a Lazy-Boy with a six-pack of Bud Lite by one hand and a bag of Doritos by the other? Probably very few of the readers here would be either happy OR content with such a slug life, though someone who worked 12 hours a day at backbreaking labor might well love it in doses. I suspect that Corey meant his readers to apply this much more personally. I have friends who live a contented life rescuing dogs, writing computer code, and growing excellent tomatoes. What contents You?

    “I’ve learned who my friends are.” Well, yes, but I think that comes as much with maturity as with religious associations. FWIW, I (a flaming liberal) have a friend in my prayer group who is an avid Trump supporter. We don’t talk politics, but certainly she is not a “surface friend.” I know she’d have my back in whatever circumstances; I’d trust her with my life. The fact that we don’t talk politics doesn’t mean our friendship is “surface,” IMO it means it is deeply respectful.

    “I’ve learned to forgive– not out of desire, but necessity.” I’ve learned to forgive, out of both. As far as forgetting, who ever made that a requirement?

    “I’ve learned that sometimes theology becomes more important than people, and that I don’t want to ever be on the wrong side of this equation again.” OK. For me this is embodied in the distinction between religion and spirituality. (Half-snark, half serious: “Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.”)

    For instance. I was talking to an AA friend today, and AA is a deeply spiritual program. So he said (apropos of something), “For instance, men have one less rib than women.” I kind of jumped on this and said, “No they don’t!” He said, “Yes, it says in the Bible that God took a rib from Adam in order to make Eve.” I said, “Well, it also says in the Bible, in the *first* story of creation, that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It’s only in the second creation story that you get this alternate story of the rib.”

    Fortunately I caught myself in this silliness and said, “You see how religion divides!” He agreed. I said, “The God of your understanding took a rib from Adam to make Eve , and the God of my understanding created them both at the same time.” We were both fine with that, because spiritually we are both sinners who are trying to recover, and that overrules everything else.


  3. Well Heather, I was hoping for a like at the most!. You made my day as I am just learning to like myself. Seriously I would like to dedicate my double post to you, just joking. Thanks for the positive feedback as it is the only kind I like and respond to. Now I have 3 Heathers who I like, Heather Locklear, Heather Thomas and you. No one will ever accuse me of being too deep. I love your cows also.


  4. CM. Is it possible that most people experience [ at times ] of being an outsider? ..”lives of quiet desperation.”

    Because of “the fall.” I think we’re doomed to outsider status until the return of Jesus Christ.


  5. Mike, more people should meet you. It was an honor.

    The Square Peg analogy is good. What do we do, and where do we go, when we don’t fit? The voice crying in the wilderness gets tired. When a church goes off the path, and tries to find its way back looking for more and more rules, confusing rules for the gospel, thinking the rules are Jesus, and when nobody even understands the problem, where do we go? There is nobody to talk to. It’s lonely in the wilderness.

    I have a Randy Glasbergen cartoon on my refrigerator: a psychiatrist is counseling his patient, “No need to feel embarrassed. The whole world has gone insane.”

    Thanks for being here to talk. You’re one of the sanest people I know.


  6. Christiane like the song says “ I Have To Be Me” , I have to add, I have to be me, no one else wants to be or cares. I use to say I have to be me but would rather be George Clooney but closer to Rosemary


  7. Actually, I’ve thought about this a lot in the past in one context or another. But trying to get it on a writing platform in one sitting is proving to be more difficult. Getting ready for a weekend trip today for a family reunion, so not sure how much time I’ll have to actually get it done.

    However, I do share some of the same ideas and opinions that have been expressed by others and hopefully, my own thoughts will take on some order as the day wears on.


  8. The God of the modern evangelical rarely astonishes anybody. He manages to stay pretty much within the constitution. Never breaks our bylaws. He’s a very well-behaved God and very denominational and very much one of us…

    i.e. Aslan of Narnia declawed, castrated, and purring on our laps.
    “He who is not a tame lion” completely utterly TAME.


  9. To the civilized world, to all of humanity and to those who had to endure the rantings of my double post I apologize. I thought my first post was lost to the ages but it did finally appear. No one deserves a double dose of John Barry musings. I did feel that the lost of my first post was comparable to the lost of knowledge when the library of Alexanderia burned down but that is my opinion only


  10. FYI
    ‘the Pope’ is recognized as by all of the various ‘designated’ groups and rites within the whole Catholic community;
    the ‘RCC’ is only one rite among many


  11. Here are some questions I have about the blog of Corey.
    1. Is every denomination/faith a tribe. Is the RCC, Baptist, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, etc. are they tribes rather than people who follow a faith or practice certain religious traditions. Is the Pope the head of the RCC tribe for example.
    I personally not a big fan of the newspeak language that creeps in where we are not divided into tribes. Would you go up to a Christian Native American and ask him what tribe he is from. If a missionary went to many parts of Africa they do with tribes.

    2.Hapiness in key to contentment and of course vice versa. The pursuit of happiness is just that and many times the goal post move as life goes on. However, not being content with your personal life or the state of society is now change occurs. Individuals and our society seem to mostly strive to do better than accept the status quo.

    3. Friends, real true friends are hard to find and hard to keep for any life journey. Of course those who share common values, beliefs and cultural viewpoints are easier to be long term true friends. The old saying birds of a feather flock together is good enough for the simple bird brain of mine. I have a couple of ultra liberal friends I do play golf with but we are surface friends by mutual agreement.

    4. Not breaking news that to forgive is a healthy thing to do personally. We are to live in the now. I can and have forgiven people from my long ago past but I have not “forgotten” how their actions affected me however I am free of letting their past actions control my life. Jesus truly forgave and forgot but John Barry is not Jesus, I can only do half.

    5. Theology more important than people not good, who could argue against that? However putting that in workable practice is hard to do in interactions in society. Does that mean that theology cannot set standards or values that their believers should follow. Again, to me personally, this is a statement that while true demands a full fleshing out to have some deep relevance to me. The movie Silence that I forced myself to sit thought was worth it in the end as it addressed so well this issue.

    Not picking on Corey as he wrote a short bullet point blog and I do not know much about him. I was just not that impressed with this blog of 2014. I hope he has moved on to a place where his needs are met as his journey continues.

    As this is too long I say forgive me as I know not what I do, which I can apply to a great deal of my life actions.


  12. for me, the Church, the whole Church (the Body of Christ), will always be greater than the sum of the wretchedness of its wounded and wounding members . . . . there will be those ‘in the Church’ who heal, who feed, who clothe, who visit those in prisons and in hospitals and nursing homes where no family comes anymore to see the one abandoned . . . . . .

    there is about ‘the Church’ that which cannot be destroyed, and in spite of all the wounds and baggage and grief, the Church for many still remains ‘sanctuary’, a place of peace and prayer, shelter, and renewal


  13. In effort to be congitively charitable [to the church], I’d add the church always exists in its society, nation, etc… and tends to reflect back the bests and worsts of that.

    “””It’s a problem that has arisen because much of the contemporary world moved on a long time ago from the kind of slower-paced, face-to-face world that provided a grounded culture of community as the bigger context in our lives””” – – – there was a serious failure of the imagination of a generation of the greater culture, reflected in the places which that generation built. I no longer believe The Church is a magical place, so much of it cannot fail to be ensnared in the failure. As the next generation shakes itself free from the dream|nightmare of the autonomous-nuclear-family I wait, with some optimism, for the impact of that on the church.


  14. Agree.

    That the end-caps of the post are “”” I’m merely suggesting that the church has lost its imagination for anything else””” and “””I hunger to explore them, but they have no place in the constricted imagination of our holy huddles”””.is either consciously good writing or it is all in true orbit around that central truth [or both].


  15. Great post; spot on.

    This: “””The God of the modern evangelical isn’t a God I could have much respect for.”””

    “””And once you have tasted the feast which God prepares for us in the midst of the everyday, the thin gruel of what passes for “Christian” thinking and good works in many of our churches can almost seem repellent.””” – truth.


  16. Looking back over church history… doesn’t it seem to be the case that the church is at its best – and does its best – when we reach out to, and *identify with* – the marginalized and outsiders? And when the church is at its most “respected” and “influential” in wider society, that the church is typically at its worst?


  17. Chaplin Mike, I am struggling to follow Corey thoughts and I am sure the fault is mine as many times I cannot follow the ball.

    1. Following Jesus not the tribe- I am certainly with him on following Jesus. What constitutes a tribe? Is the RCC a tribe, the EO, the Lutherans, Jews, Baptist. Certainly the evangelicals believe in personal salvation and a personal relationship so are they correct. Is every man his own Pope, a thought from a long ago? Jesus came to peace to the individuals regardless of what happens to the world. Do we not need corporate worship?

    2. Happiness is contentment and vice versa. Should we be content with the status quo? Should we just be at peace with yourself as we are and seek no advancement in faith or knowledge.

    3. Friends, very few people have many deep, “true” friends. One thing common to any base for most friendship is a common bond that is sustained whether the bond is one of faith or a secular bond. My simple mind goes back to birds of a feather, flock together.

    4. To forgive means to forget and no one can argue that to forgive/forget someone or events that negatively affected your life is a positive step for us , as individuals. Justice and mercy are always what we as unperfect people try to achieve.

    5. Theology becoming more important than people is such a broad statement that it is hard to argue with. Does that mean we should not share our beliefs or live our faiths, promote our values and try to spread the Gospel in a loving, caring and to follow the teachings of Jesus?

    Again, I am sure I am taking this to literally. Faith is what it is all about, a little mustard seed of faith . At one time and perhaps many times in our life we may feel like outsiders but it is the faith we have that the Gospel message is what it says it is.


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