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:
- I’ve learned to get my identity from Jesus, not the tribe.
- I’ve learned that the key to happiness is contentment.
- I’ve learned who my friends are.
- I’ve learned to forgive– not out of desire, but necessity.
- 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.