Guest Post: When Belonging Feels Impossible

This week is going to be a little different at Church Thought.  I am currently finishing up an eBook based on the church planting series, and preparing to head to Exponential (let’s connect!) next week.  In order to maintain a degree of sanity, I have asked a few friends to share their wisdom with us this week.

Today, Ed Cyzewski shares some of his story with us.  Ed is an author, freelancer, Flyers fan (no one is perfect), and a lover of Jesus.  His blog, In A Mirror Dimly, is a daily read for me… I think you are about to find out why.

A few weeks ago I started a series on my blog called Belonging. I hope to provide a series of stories and reflections on what it means to belong in Christian community as well as some hopeful and practical suggestions. Deep down we all crave to be known and to share our struggles with Christians who can empathize with us, pray for us, and benefit from the support we provide as well.

I began this series with a hint of hesitancy. I’m discussing situations that I’m sure some friends will recognize, offering my own opinions, etc. As a general rule, I will change details, names, etc. in order to respect privacy, and the focus throughout will be on my own struggles to belong in Christian community rather than offering a critique of anyone else. My goal here is to walk through a particularly difficult season in my life when I lost Christian community, journeyed without it, and then tried to find it again. The ending is happy, but the process was anything but that.

When Belonging in Church Feels Impossible

Stepping into the car one Sunday morning three years ago, I had no desire to go to church. It was the last place I wanted to go in fact.

To my mind, back then, church was where you went to be ignored. And if you weren’t ignored, you’d be worked to death, made to jump through hoops called “discipleship,” and discarded when you failed prove yourself useful or willing to play the game.

If you don’t know what “the game” of church is, you need to keep reading.

If you do know, I promise that something better than a rant about the failings of the church follows.

Before my falling out with church, I used to be that guy who volunteered for everything—well, everything except children’s ministry. I mopped, taught, facilitated, strummed, drove, listened, trained, and typed season after season at church. I knew what it was like to give and give and give.

When I’d had enough and the system stopped making sense, I only heard condemnation for bailing on the people of God. I didn’t really want to leave, but I also didn’t see how I could be a healthy person in the church.

I didn’t see how all of my input paid off. I just felt hurt and frustrated, when I was promised hope, community, and salvation. I had no choice but to walk out, since staying just made the pain worse. Those seven years outside of the church meant a lot of griping, but they also sparked healing—just enough that I could start thinking of going back to church when we moved to Connecticut.

I didn’t know what I wanted from the church that Sunday. I knew what I didn’t want. I knew what I feared: I expected it to be a big production lacking authentic human interaction and a meaningful connection with God.

What would a positive Sunday morning experience look like? I couldn’t even say for sure that such a thing was possible back then. Perhaps I longed for some experience of God among people who cared enough about me to learn my name.

I think that’s the problem with finding Christian community sometimes: it’s so hard to put your finger on what you really need or what it will take to silence that nagging voice in your head telling you that something isn’t quite right. There’s always someone accusing you of being a picky consumer Christian, when maybe, just maybe, there’s something to that hunch.

In the past, I’d belonged to some wonderful churches. In many ways they were healthy and strong. They did so many things right. God used them to teach me from scripture, to introduce prayer and fasting, and to provide glimpses of heaven on earth.

And yet, they also failed me in some ways. Perhaps I failed them as well.

Regardless of who shoulders the most blame, I felt like a square peg surrounded by round holes. I just couldn’t make church work. I wasn’t cut off completely from Christian friends or even prayer meetings with Christians, but my Sunday mornings were complicated to say the least.

By the time we pulled into the parking lot at our new church in Connecticut, worst case scenarios passed through my mind. Would anyone talk to us? Would the worship feel forced, poppy, or too self-centered? Would the sermon lambast liberals and the godless people outside the church? Would the sermon be a laborious exercise in rigorous biblical interpretation?

The service passed, and I survived it. However, we hadn’t yet spoken with anyone, and I realized that, more than anything, I wanted to connect with someone, anyone at this church.

Everyone had a friend to chat with at the end of the service, and standing in place, unsure of whether to stick my hands in my pockets or by my sides, I caught a glimpse of what I wanted from the church: I wanted to belong.

I ached for community, for people who were going through the same things. For people who could say, “I know what you mean, I’ve gone through that too.”

Our awkward waiting paid off. I made myself a beacon of loneliness and someone noticed it. Another young couple walked over to us and introduced themselves.

In the years that followed, we didn’t become particularly close to them, though I wish we had. Rather, they offered us a faint glimmer of hope that we could belong there. We could worship God with them. We could experience community with them.

Of all the things God had taught me over the past seven years, I kept returning to the idea that people matter most. As this couple reached out to us, something shifted in my heart. Perhaps I could deal with my other church issues if I could at least find a place to belong—a safe haven to work them out. The impossible act of going to church became a possibility once again.


About the Author: Ed Cyzewski

Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life and the co-author of Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus with Derek Cooper (CLC, July 2012). He blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com and lives in Columbus, OH with his wife, a baby due in July, and a couple house rabbits.