“I don’t know why they don’t like me.”
I wrote those words six years ago, in the notebook normally reserved for my sermon notes.
I wrote them in the church bathroom, where I’d spent the last 45 minutes hiding from the youth group I was terrified of attending.
I wrote them after finally ignoring my parents’ command to go “make friends.”
I wrote them after giving up.
I’d spent my whole life in church.
The felt board was as familiar as the schoolroom chalkboard.
My family volunteered in the nursery, went to the summer afternoon barbeques, and racked up the Awana badges.
So I was excited to enter the magical realm of the “youth group.” I was just as excited for all-nighters and after-proms as I was for the spiritual maturity I assumed would be instantaneously granted to myself and my friends.
What a harsh collision was the reality.
I wasn’t accustomed to feeling more accepted at my large public high school than my church.
I watched my former friends either slowly beat down their parents’ resistance and stay home; or join one of the cliques that dotted the hip youth group basement.
The most piercing memory of that time was the conference my parents made me attend my sophomore year of high school. Sounds like a good idea – forced bonding over sleeping bags in church offices and emotional worship sessions. Instead, I felt the sting of rejection in the place I most desperately wanted to feel at home. I remember my former best friend saying of a late night session – “Maybe…maybe you shouldn’t go with us.” I pushed my sleeping bag further and further from the cozy circles high school girls love creating.
But the tears that ended that weekend were not hurt or angry. They were joyful.
In the midst of the exclusion and pain, He found me.
I began a relationship with Christ that weekend. In spite of the pain this church was causing me, He fought for my heart. As much as I resisted, as much as the rejection of my peers fueled my insecurity and anger, He fought harder still.
His love overcomes even the sin His children commit against each other.
My senior year, I moved to a church with a very different youth group. This one was well loved. By its pastor, by its high schoolers, and by its church.
But my pain had made me cynical. I loved my God, but I was wary of His bride. My faith had spent its youngest and most vulnerable years growing alone. Like everything else in my life, I aspired to self-sufficiency.
So I avoided this new youth group. And I guarded my heart from this church.
It took the relentless love of a group of people that had experienced His relentless love to break through my defenses.
I learned the love of a church that is striving to reflect His love – imperfectly, messily, but relentlessly.
And I’ve learned a lot about the way the church can wound and heal people.
But more than any of the laundry list of lessons I’ll probably write about over the course of my life, I’ve learned these two things.
- He works through our imperfect attempts to make disciples.
I was reconciled to my Creator in the midst of a situation that was anything but conducive to it. He did more than work in spite of my circumstances. He used them.
I found a love for His bride that was not the feel-good butterflies of someone who’s never been hurt. It wasn’t honeymoon phase love. He built up in me a fierce love for His children. He let me experience the pain of being the outcast so I would fight for the forgotten ones. I got angry at the high school girls who ignored me and then he showed me the depth of their insecurity and heartbreak. He met me in a barren place so that I would know how to fight for His people anywhere.
He showed me that even in imperfect and messy attempts to follow Him, He was faithful.
I wish I could go to that girl in a bathroom stall and tell her – He is working in this. Just wait. You are going to be amazed.
- I have a responsibility. And so do you.
It was easy to blame that church for everything it did to me. It was easy to get bitter and angry and isolate myself. It was easy to label that first church “bad” and the second one “good.”
But now that I go to a church that I love and that loves me, I have realized: we have a responsibility.
I don’t feel excluded anymore, so I have a responsibility to include.
I am no longer lonely, so I have a responsibility to be a friend.
I’ve been loved, so I have a responsibility to love.
I definitely don’t have many answers. I don’t know how to “fix” the fact that churches sometimes drive more people away than they draw in. I don’t know how to deal with the multitude of disputes churches have with each other or within themselves. I haven’t scratched the surface of denominational conflicts. I know so very little, but this I do know: I am not a passive bystander. I have a responsibility to make my church the kind of place that heals, not hurts.
I wish I could go back to those high school girls that tormented me and tell them: You have an incredible opportunity. You can say one word that will light up that girl in the bathroom’s face. You can include. You can build up. You can love. But you have more than an opportunity. You have a responsibility – whether you realize it or not.
You that have found a home in this church have a responsibility to continue making it a home – to cultivate it into a place that heals the wounded and befriends the forgotten.
My prayer is as much for the girls texting in the youth group basement as it is for the girls hiding in the bathroom stalls: that we would experience His love so overwhelmingly that we would seek to love each other as He does.