When some feel alienated (II)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , ,

Once before I posted on this topic (May 9, 2011). It seemed to strike a nerve. Recently I decided to return to the topic by writing a piece for Critique in the form of a letter addressed to those who love Christ yet feel alienated from the church. I have no illusions about what such an article can cover or accomplish, but I do believe this conversation needs to continue. What follows is a brief excerpt from that article, that letter.

I would love your honest feedback. What I include here addresses only one part of the dynamic that is involved, but one that is worthy of some reflection. I realize much more needs to be said—this is, after all, only a brief excerpt. It is not the whole letter. But I would love to hear your comments about what I write here:

An excerpt from a letter to those who love Christ but feel alienated from the church:

…One thing you need to know is that many church leaders feel threatened by you, by your dis-ease with the church and by what you perceive as its failure. I know you have trouble believing that since they hold all the power, but it’s true. They are honestly puzzled by how anyone could have trouble with something they personally find very edifying. They feel comfortable with the programs and classes, the sermons and music, the potlucks and fellowship, and wonder why you don’t. What they hear and experience week by week affirms their choice of what they believe and where they worship. The more they attend the more certain they are correct in their beliefs, and in a world that seems to be rather quickly unraveling that certainty is something they cherish. They hear your critique and fear you want them to be looser with doctrine. They see churches emerging that seem to be progressively denying biblically orthodox teaching, and they feel obliged to guard against that happening in their congregation.

Another threat you represent appears when you seem less than pleased when answers are given to the questions you raise. They are used to giving answers, like giving answers, are good at giving answers, and are convinced the Bible provides answers, so what’s the problem? Letting questions hang at the end of a study or class gives the impression that the Bible doesn’t contain the answers or that their church doesn’t know the answers it supplies. They want people to go away satisfied, and they find answers satisfying. When you suggest that questions are good in themselves, or that answers given too easily cheapen the truth they see the church being weakened not strengthened.

The same goes for correcting bad theology. It’s not that anyone is trying to be a doctrinal cop; it’s just that bad theology is bad. They see correcting bad theology as a good deed, a loving act for which people should be grateful. If you needed to find Wal-Mart and someone gave you the wrong directions, wouldn’t you want someone overhearing the conversation to correct them? Theology is far more important than getting to Wal-Mart; it’s the directions for getting through all of life and finally to heaven. So, when you suggest that that people don’t feel safe if everyone is correcting every mistaken comment, they wonder why anyone wouldn’t want to know the truth.

And then there are the potluck meals. People like them. And people who like them have trouble imagining why or how anyone who is halfway normal could possibly dislike them or feel uncomfortable at them. And it’s sort of a personal thing. If you don’t like potlucks you must not like fellowship, and that means you must not want to fellowship with us, or with me. Which is why if you are spotted walking into the parking lot after the service as the potluck is beginning someone will ask why you aren’t staying and assure you there is plenty of food even if you didn’t bring any. They can imagine someone ducking out over guilt at not bringing a dish to share but they can’t imagine anyone leaving because they find potlucks unpleasant.

This is why church leaders get defensive when you try to talk about your concerns. Why they usually respond by marshaling evidence that you couldn’t be correct and suggest that you have a spiritual problem. Since so many found the class inspiring and edifying, the fact that you found it deadening means there is something wrong. Something wrong with you, that is…

Photos were taken 28 August 2011 at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. You can learn more about this beautiful place here.

This entry was posted at Monday, September 05, 2011 and is filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



I'm intrigued so far; I'll look forward to reading the rest of it.

What about when you want to run when well meaning (intense) people tell you that they want to "get together and discuss" the issues you've been having. Everyone seems to want to FIX IT NOW! If they can just talk to you, somehow they will manage to say THE ONE THING that will make everything ok, the one thing that will resolve all your issues and maybe then, then you will be ready to come to small group/teach Sunday School/become a member of the Ladies Bible Study. Because obviously, God wants it fixed right now, right??? And really, maybe if you just ACT like it is all ok, and do all those good work sort of things and sing all the hymns with gusto, that will be the ONE THING. Just fake 'til you make it!

So, maybe, much of this is about the church's impatience with a God who doesn't fix things right now? Patience is no fun. It is easier for them to believe that something is wrong with me rather than recognize that God just isn't fixing this, at least not right now.


September 5, 2011 at 7:25 PM

A friend commented on Facebook and gave permission for me to copy/paste it here, without using her name, which I am delighted to do:

I'll be interested to read the rest of the letter. I guess in many ways I'm one of the alienated ones: partly for theological/philosophical reasons; mostly for circumstantial reasons. I've found that my questions (and answers) are less than enthusiastically received while my situation (unemployed divorced mom with ongoing diffuse medical issues and resultant chronic difficulties with finances as well as with regular participation in church functions) places me in completely incomprehensible territory. You are illuminating some of the reasons why continued efforts on the part of the alienated one to breach the wall may serve only to reinforce it. Interested to see where you go from there. Peace, and thanks!

September 5, 2011 at 7:39 PM

Alienation is something that I've been feeling a lot of lately, and it's not the church leaders who have caused the problem--in fact, they're the ones who are keeping this introvert hanging on.

No, the problem that I have been encountering is from some long time members who are quick to criticize because our congregation is not 'welcoming" enough--even though they have barely a word to say to me after years of attending here. They have their own set of friends who are always and forever going to each others' homes for meals or drinks (while letting the rest of us hear about it in an off-handed way). If new people meet a set profile they favor (usually youngish couples, and never with any blue color leanings), they might be asked to join the inner circle. Meanwhile, they walk right past me as if I am nothing. All the wonderful spiritual uplift from the service can be wiped away by these cold rebuffs--which I wonder if these separate circle types even realize they are giving.

Yes, I DO like potlucks, if for no other reason that others HAVE to sit and talk with me. Of course, these inner circle types won't stick around and will often give the impression that they are too good for this kind of passe "fellowship."

Sorry if this sounds angry and hurt, but the attitude of some who seem to think that there are significant problems with OTHERS in the church has become quite hard to take at times. Can't we all just get along??

September 5, 2011 at 9:03 PM

There is this notion that one person's feeling threatened might lead to someone else feeling alienated and vice versa. The first is compelled to maintain formation within the group, the second must delicately negotiate every new social situation; both feel as if they have no traction.

Perhaps its just a case of those people who are alienated connecting to one or two people within the group. In this case the group would also need to be content to allow those smaller conversations to happen.

September 6, 2011 at 6:27 AM

Here I go again...
Thanks for continuing this dialogue.
Heather, I really like your contribution. That is something I am going to sit with.
It's interesting, the first thing you wrote struck a memory for me. In one of my last meetings with my last Pastor, I shared many of the reasons I was not attending church. He was not offended, he was not defensive. He cried. He cried because he knew that I was in pain, and he cried, according to him, because he knew I had valid points, and he did not know how to begin to address them.
On the one hand, I am forever grateful for his kind compassion. My heart still aches when I think of that, because I know his heart aches for his flock.
On the other hand, I felt even more desperate. The pastor was asking me to continue at the church because it needs my unique voice. It was precisely my unique voice that was causing me a bit of pain. I found church terribly lonely and alienating. That's why I'm taking a break for now, which I've already shared.
Though I have experienced each of your points in your blog post with different levels of leadership; I also have experienced being heard. The bummer of it is, there wasn't an answer. Which goes back to a comment I made in Part I of this. The whole structure of church as we know it may need to shift.
I believe modern day church is built on social norms that aren't normal anymore. As I was reading one of the comments, I was reminded of a scene in Jane Austen's Emma. She was explaining social structure to her protege. She could associate with people in her class or the poor and destitute who need her, but those in between, like the farmer who was pursuing her protege, were beneath her. Church can sometimes seem that way. At the pot luck, it is easier to sit with your set, or to have a heart for the really destitute newcomer, but that person who is different from you, but seems like maybe they are committed to church is often difficult to approach.
And on a whole other topic...I do think personality types in combination with gender play a part in the experience of church. I'd love to see a study of the female introvert in church. I know there are books on this subject...I must add them to the list.

September 6, 2011 at 10:59 AM

Your suggestion that this has to do with impatience is a helpful idea. I suspect we all get that way, wanting to see progress, wanting to know that God is hearing and answering our prayers, wanting to believe that our teaching and suggestions actually work. Certainly I do.

It's harder to simply walk with someone along their pilgrimage, especially when their pilgrimage makes me uncomfortable. Or isn't as smooth and as seamless as we tend to think the Christian life should be.

And now the marriage of conservative politics and faith has further complicated this--not only must everyone be adequately spiritual but financially secure as well.

Thanks for your comment--it's something I'm going to ponder some.

September 7, 2011 at 8:23 AM

To both Anonymous:

I so appreciate your honesty. Your comments echo what I am hearing from an increasing number of people, and so it is you I am trying to write to in this letter. In one sense the situation is simple: you feel alienated from the church but the church is not optional to true faith. So, what do I say into that situation that can possibly be helpful?

Your comments help a great deal.

September 7, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Good suggestion. Making real connection, so that something of meaningful listening and caring and community can flourish is so very healing. Such conversations can be life-giving.

September 7, 2011 at 8:28 AM

Couple comments. Alienation, social schisms, are issues. I have come to believe that the unforgiveable sin in most churches is to be unmarried (never married, divorced, widowed, etc.) More true the more conservative the congregation. Churches are happy for the volunteer services of anyone with a good reputation, but this is not the same as being embraced as part of a community. Churches are lousy places to meet a mate (for many reasons) AND as long as one is married, it does not matter to churches generally how one got to that point - so what is the lesson here for the young and the unmarried?

September 7, 2011 at 11:28 AM

Your comments about singleness are something I have heard before. How "married with family" is the norm for activities and programs, as well as the application of teachings and sermons. And how it never seems to be acknowledged that the most fully fulfilled and human person to ever walk the face of the earth was single (Jesus). It can be one more source of hurt. It can also be one more way in which the church's message seems incoherent and therefore implausible.
Thanks for commenting.

September 8, 2011 at 10:07 AM

Denis - I think your comments point at two things that have struck me on multiple occasions:

1) As one of the alienated, I try very hard to keep an open mind about what people find spiritually nourishing, edifying, encouraging, etc. If someone needs to be in a small group, I try very hard not to judge them as someone who is not mature enough to look after their own spiritual life or as someone who uses other people as a crutch to mask their own immaturity. I have no problem looking at them and saying "you need a small group. And there's nothing wrong with that."

What I find so incredibly tiresome and insulting is that it feels like those at home in the church are incapable of extending that same courtesy to people like me. I don't expect their spiritual life to mirror mine, so why do they expect mine to mirror theirs? You find small groups helpful. I'm happy for you. Really. I'm not being sarcastic. I'm glad that you've found some life there. I don't. I find small groups deadening, deeply uncomfortable, and have never been in one that didn't end up feeling like an obligation on a to-do list that I eagerly anticipate checking off when its done. That's me. I don't judge you for what you find spiritually edifying, so why do you judge me? You need small groups. I need long walks by myself. Why is that not OK? I don't go around telling everyone in the church that they are required to spend 2 hours a week walking by themselves in a scenic area. Why is being in a small group - for example - often viewed as being an obligatory part of membership in a church? Why do we have this one-size-fits-all cookie cutter spirituality? Are our imaginations that small? Or are we so insecure about our own spiritual lives that we have to have everyone around us copy us just so we can feel validated?

2) The potluck thing really nails this for me: Is there a place for introverts in evangelical churches? A few weeks ago I went to a church where I know a fair number of people there and am quite close to a couple. But it was a new church for me and it was a massive crowd. I felt deeply uncomfortable the whole time. It wasn't b/c of anything the church did. It was b/c I'm an extreme introvert who hates crowds of any kind and who esp. struggles in crowds of Christians I do not know because I have a really messy past with Christians. Is there a place for someone like that in your church? That's what I want to ask people. Have you given any thought as to how to love, serve, and relate to people who don't like crowds and who don't thrive on tons of time with other people?

September 9, 2011 at 12:39 AM
longtime reader, infrequent commenter  

From this and other things I've read on this blog, it seems like what you're hinting at (sutbly and sometimes not so) is that conservative politics are really the downfall of many evangelical congregations, am I right? You keep insinuating and attempting to guide the discussion that way...sometimes poeple bite, sometimes not, but the hint always seems at the forefront.

Of course, please correct if I'm offbase. Clarification would also be helpful, if I am way wrong.

September 9, 2011 at 2:14 PM

Thanks for your comment, my friend. Well written, eloquent, and needing to be said. Hope you don't mind my using your comment as a jumping off spot for my next blog posting.

Your question about people being able to return the favor is a good one. The church, like all institutions tends to get institutionalized, meaning among other things that what is good for one is assumed to be good for all. That raises interesting questions about oversight in the church and how size matters. I suppose the other side of the equation is that we introverts have done precious little to help people understand introversion. We've also not done enough to telegraph the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence. Maybe that's what we should do: plan weekends around these two disciplines for the congregation, bring in a big-name speaker (let him/her talk only once for 15 minutes), and assign everyone to be silent and alone. So sweet.

September 13, 2011 at 9:09 AM

longtime reader, infrequent commentator:

Thanks so much for your question. I'm happy to address that.

No, I would not say "that conservative politics are really the downfall of many evangelical congregations" and am sorry if I gave that impression. I do, however see the marriage between evangelical faith and conservative Republicanism to be an unholy and unfortunate one, for several reasons.

1. The marriage has been broadcast in the public square so that some coming to faith turn away from the gospel because they assume accepting it means becoming a conservative Republican. This placing a barrier to the gospel is most unfortunate and must be repudiated as strongly as possible. (This is what I was referring to in this post.)

2. Conservative Republicanism does contain some things in its agenda that parallel a biblical understanding of political faithfulness, for example a pro-life stance. On the other hand, it's lack of care for the environment of God's good creation is something Christians must repudiate.

3. As a followup of the last point, in some areas of concern, such as caring for the earth and treatment of the foreigner in our midst, evangelical Christians should be more attuned to a more "progressive" political agenda. Thus the marriage of conservative Republicanism and faith is incomplete and misleading concerning biblical ethics.

4. As David Koyzis demonstrates so thoughtfully in his book, Political Visions & Illusions conservativism is an ideology and therefore, biblically speaking, a form of idolatry.

5. In my own denomination, for example, (The Presbyterian Church in America) there are numerous congregations made up of Korean immigrants--they tend to vote Democratic because their concerns politically are more in the areas of education and immigration. Good Christians can differ on voting.

So, for all those reasons I find the marriage and assumed connection between evangelical faith and conservative Republicanism to be a serious distortion of the gospel and part of an idolatrous politization of life.

Hope that helps.
Thanks again,

September 13, 2011 at 9:29 AM

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