I once saw a billboard advertising “a church for people who don’t like church.”
Funny, I thought to myself, Isn’t that who every church is for?
Sanctuaries around the country had to be full of people like me: bored by churches’ lack of imagination, burned out by their lifeless buzzwords and bitter about the times they made us and others feel like we didn’t belong there. It’s no wonder so many in my generation complain of being “disillusioned.”
The only problem with this complaint is that disillusionment is the whole point of belonging to the Church and other healthy, human relationships.
Let me explain. Disillusionment has gotten a bad rap in American vernacular. We often use it when we’re feeling disappointed, discouraged or betrayed. But despite its negative connotations, disillusionment is actually a good thing. To be disillusioned just means to be freed from the lies that keep us from living in reality, lies that, according to the Gospel, dull our hearts, clog our ears, and blur our vision (Matt 13:13-17).
We need help staying connected to the world around and within us. It’s in true community that we’re freed from the illusions that keep us from belonging to God and each other.
So how can we move beyond the illusion of Christian community and create more “realistic” relationships at church and beyond? Let’s look at five of the most common illusions and how we can begin to debunk them.
The Illusion of Alienation
Or the Lie That I’m not Capable of Relationship
We often protect ourselves from being rejected by first rejecting ourselves. This move may come across to others as low self-esteem, but alienation can also be a source of pride.
When I first began looking for a church home, I told myself that I was bad at belonging and not able to conform like other, more dutiful Christians. The reality is that each and every one of us already belongs to the human race not because of anything we’ve done but because of who we are as children of God. We’re “pre-approved,” as writer Anne Lammot likes to say.
So next time you walk into a church or a coffee shop, instead of waiting for the other to welcome you, first receive welcome for yourself. Know that belonging is your birthright.
The Illusion of Difference
Or the Lie That I Will Never Be Understood
It’s easy to make snap judgments about whether certain people will “get” us or not. As a 30-year-old woman with a tattoo, I often assume that the old, white man in a suit won’t approve of my flower-stained boots, let alone my feminist-stained language.
While we each have differences that need to be recognized and valued, too often we use our differences as an excuse for why we can’t or won’t go below the surface with certain people.
It’s a scientific fact that every human on this planet is more alike than different. So when you start to feel out of place in a group, instead of sitting quietly with arms folded, ask someone a question about who they are and what they’re about. I often feel more known by others when I’m doing the listening rather than the talking.
The Illusion of Control
Or the Lie That I Can Avoid Suffering
In no community have I experienced more suffering than in the Church. I’ve suffered bad sermons and bad small talk. I’ve suffered sexist comments and savior complexes.
Mostly, I’ve discovered that life is messier when you live it together. While my Sundays would certainly be more peaceful reading a book on the back porch, I think they would feel smaller, too. In community, our view of reality expands as it collides and intersects with those around us.
Instead of opting out of relationships when the going gets rough, try leaning into the tension and ask yourself, “I wonder why this person believes what he or she does?” or “I wonder what God is teaching me about my own limits in community?”
The Illusion of Separateness
Or the lie that I can thrive apart from a community of practice
Albert Einstein called our feelings of separateness “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.” Paul said the same thing about Christians who do not belong to the Church—or the body of Christ. “If the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body’” (I Corinthians 12:16).
Belonging is not about whether or not a community accepts us but whether or not we choose to offer ourselves to them. It’s in offering our gifts—whether signing up to help in the nursery or speaking up in the prayers of the people—that we choose belonging for ourselves.
The Illusion of Scarcity
Or the lie that I will never belong
For two years, I looked for a church where I could be my authentic self. The problem was that no community felt perfectly authentic. The one that had worship I liked had a theology that crushed me. The one that had preaching that put me to sleep had people who welcomed me.
It’s easy to think when we’re looking for a church or any other meaningful human relationship that we’re never going to fully belong—and we’d be right. None of us is going to fully feel at home this side of life when there’s still a disconnect between reality as it is and reality as God promised.
But when we worship together as God’s people, we become co-creators of a new reality in which we are one as God is one. It’s within the context of community that we learn to live like we belong, even when we don’t feel like it.
I’m not saying we need to go around looking for disillusionment. There’s a difference between a church that’s disillusioning and one that’s delusional. A delusional church or relationship is one that crafts the very lies it should be unmasking. Healthy community—or “realistic community”—is a community where we not only get to be real, but we’re also transparent about being human: fragile, flawed and in need of near constant forgiveness.
Disillusionment may be good, but it’s never easy. Disillusionment, after all, is what the Cross was all about as God freed us from the well-worn complaints, excuses and hang-ups which got in the way of belonging to Christ and each other. If we can withstand the death of our illusions, we may have a chance at a real life together.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo. She works as a program director for clergy and faith leaders at the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit holyhellions.com.