A Goldilocks State of Mind: Belonging and the Church

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I met a Southern girl who moved to the Northeast a few years ago. My Northeast, the one I love for all its grit and intellect and tell-it-like-it-is and big-city glamour. She hates it here, saying it feels like a different country, one that barely speaks the same language.  After her move, she found a home church, but the church culture, as well as the culture at large, make her long for the familiar. It’s as if her soul was shaped for one way of living, and circumstances forced it to take on a different shape entirely. She feels uncomfortable, her soul chafes at the boundaries thrown up between herself and her new church community.

I have another friend who recently moved back to the northeast after living overseas for five years. While in Europe, she had a similar experience to my southern friend. She felt thrown into a church culture that no longer made sense, made doubly hard by an impenetrable culture at large. They didn’t speak the same language, literally. When she returned Stateside, she let out a huge sigh of relief, one she held tight inside her chest for five long years of displacement. She found a new home church, and she’s positively giddy when she tells me how good it feels to settle into something familiar.

My experience is different and yet in many ways it’s the same. I could write a book (and believe me, I’ve tried) about learning how to belong in a church community that looks nothing like the one that best fits the shape of your soul. Over the years, we’ve attended a charismatic church, a legalistic church, a Vineyard church, a brand-new doesn’t know what it wants to be church, no church, and a non-denominational mega-church.

I can tell you that not a single one of them met every need I wanted them to meet. Not a single one of them taught me how to live perfectly as a believer or how to best live in community or how to belong. Not a single one of them gave my kids the perfect foundation or lived up to my every expectation or gave me the opportunity to serve in exactly the way I wanted.

But, each church community gave me exactly what I never knew I needed. One taught me to embrace the Holy Spirit, another to embrace the Word of God. One taught me how to live in real community. One said don’t check your brain at the door. Another taught me faith is journey not a guilt trip. Not attending church taught me what I missed out on all these years, namely peaceful, lazy Sunday mornings with my family. Oh, I kid. Sort of.

My soul is shaped and re-shaped and shaped again by each of my church experiences. Some squeezed a little here, shaved off a bit there, or grew me in the hardest, most fruitful of ways. When I write about belonging, my mind wanders most often to where I belong in the church. It rises out of the rich soil of a childhood spent in the shadow of a steeple, and continues to play a pivotal role in my faith and my life.

As hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t found the perfect church, and my friends haven’t either. The temptation is to spend our lives in a Goldilocks state of mind, always searching for the perfect fit, when the right fit requires a lot of reshaping on our part. It’s more comfortable to place the burden of perfection on the church, ignoring the fact that often times, we need to accept the church the way we hope it accepts every messy, broken bit of us. Each place we worship holds the potential to teach us something about belonging, however imperfectly. I don’t want to hold my breath and wait for it to happen.

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Have you found a church that fits the shape of your soul just right? How do you make it work when it doesn’t?

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