Confessions of a church hopper

2016-10-07_12_fullWe were loved. Important. Respected. We belonged. No doubt about it- the Trout family was a major part of the Celina First Church of God from 1982 until we moved away in 1996.

And I haven’t felt like I truly belonged at a church since.

Hi. My name is Natalie. And I’m a church hopper.

Here’s how it usually goes: I start attending a church. It’s exciting. I like it. I like the people. I learn from the pastor. I decide to get involved. I start to feel like I don’t belong. I convince myself that I don’t belong. I leave.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

“It’s not about you,” I’ve often heard from blogs and articles I’ve read and comments from friends and family. “It’s about God. People are messy. No church is perfect.”

Because, you know, I wasn’t aware of those things.

I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking for belonging. And I’m not alone. I have a number of amazing, Christ-following friends who change churches every year or two. We just keep moving. We can’t find a place where we really belong.

There are many of us who could win a gold medal in church hopping.

Part of it is my fault. Part of it is the fault of the church and other Christians. My biggest takeaway from my year and a half at a Christian college was that there was no room for sinners among Christians. I now know that isn’t true, but I carried it with me for a long time, and still often struggle with, “I’m not good enough to be here,” no matter how unbiblical that is.

It’s interesting. I hear family members and friends talk about “church hoppers,” and they roll their eyes, not even taking into consideration that I have lived in Fort Wayne for ten years and been a regular attender at four different churches in that time frame.

I left the first church because they royally screwed me over financially concerning a mission trip. Trust me, it was bad. And they knew it, but never made it right. Someone can only say, “We’re sorry you fell through the cracks again, we’ll be sending you the money we owe you this week!” so many times before you give up.

My next church was heartbreaking to leave. I begged and begged to get plugged into a small group for years, but was repeatedly told that there were “no openings.” I had to start my own group or wait for an opening if I was to be in a small group. I prayed about it, was not even remotely led by God to lead or start a group. So I was pretty much out of luck. I decided I needed to find a church that DID have room for me in a small group.

I searched all over the city for months until I found the most recent church I left. It was dynamic, exciting, they were doing so much to reach the unchurched! But as time went on, something was… off. I can’t explain it. I’m sad to say that most of the people I got to know there have since left as well. I believe it’s a good church. I believe their mission to reach the unchurched is needed in our community. But for me, I wasn’t getting what we call “spiritually fed.”

Time once again came to go church shopping. Ugh. Finding a church where you fit in is no easy task. While I feel like I have found one now, I am fearful and guarded.

And like most things, the internet makes you feel like an awful person because of it.

“Church hopping is dangerous and will cause injury to your spirit!” one article says.

But so many of us keep doing it. And here’s my take- isn’t it better to church hop than to give it up completely? Should those of us searching for belonging just give up? Because if we don’t, if we keep looking for a church where we belong, we’ll continuously be judged and labeled as a church hopper.

Grace for the broken. Grace for those with addictions. Grace for the pastor who has an affair. Grace for the pregnant teen. What about grace for the church hopper?

I’d rather jump churches for the rest of my life, hearing God’s word at each one, than to give it up completely. And no matter where I go to church, I do have Christian community and accountability in my friends and co-workers. I simply need somewhere to worship and hear God’s word.

I will say this about the most recent church I left- they are the only church in my 38 years on this earth that noticed I stopped attending. They have reached out to me multiple times to welcome me back, say they missed me, etc. etc. WE NEED MORE OF THAT. Jesus talked about leaving the flock to find one sheep. Shouldn’t churches be doing the same to some degree? To at least say, “We miss you?” All it takes is a card or an email.

The truth is I realize, I don’t need to “belong” to any church. I belong to Jesus, no matter where I go.

If you’ve got a church home that you love, good for you. If you haven’t experienced the discomfort of not belonging somewhere, consider yourself lucky. And please, have a little grace for those of us who are still searching for where we belong.

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Matthew 18:20

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When coloring turns evil…

I didn’t even try to resist when adult coloring became cool. I have a handful of adult coloring books that include a variety of designs, and you better believe I post my finished creations on Instagram.

Sometimes I color in silence. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes I color while watching television. It’s mindless, and it’s soothing. It relaxes me, and I like feeling like I made something beautiful.

On Facebook the other day a Christian woman I respect and admire posted this:

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“This is very interesting. I won’t be coloring them.” She said. The blog post talks about how Christians should stay away from mandala designs because they come from ancient pagan rituals, and the devil is fooling Christians by having them color these beautiful designs. Little do Christians know… they are PURE EVIL! As the post says, “It is not just opening a door to the spiritual realm, it is knocking on the door of a false temple.”

mandalab
Do you honestly believe I welcomed evil spirits into my life by coloring this?

I’ve never found a good enough reason to use this word, until now…

HOGWASH!

We went through the same nonsense with yoga. And now, we’re doing it with designs in adult coloring books.

Do you realize that there is a giant list of things we do that are based on ancient pagan rituals? One of them, you may have heard of it, is called Christmas.

I don’t know about you, but my God is bigger than designs on paper, and while hundreds of years ago there might have been pagan monks who designed mandalas, I’m doubting evil pagan monks created the pretty designs we see in coloring books. I love how the blog teaser says, “Drawing Christians into pagan rituals through adult coloring books.”

Seriously? Let’s drop the conspiracy theories. Even if some evil mastermind trying to destroy Christians via adult coloring books were to exist, my God is way bigger than that.

“You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” 1 John 4:4

It’s like the whole Starbucks red cup controversy of 2015. It’s simply ridiculous, and it makes Christians look crazy. Are we supposed to look different from others in this world? Absolutely! But not in the way that we look like conspiracy theorists or weirdos living in a bubble looking to lengthen the already long list of “Things Christians Can’t Do.” (The author of the blog post also wrote something similar about essential oils, calling them “demonic.”)

Don’t forget- a Ouija Board is just cardboard and plastic until you use it to summon spirits. Items are just items until we use them for something evil or inappropriate. Even the crosses we hang on our walls and wear around our necks don’t hold any special powers. I looked up my notes from a sermon on demons, and demons must have a HUMAN host. And guess what? They CANNOT possess Christians! (1 Corinthians 3:16, Roamns 14:8)

Here’s a thought: let’s talk a little less about cups, essential oils, and color patterns, and talk a little more about Jesus. THAT, my brothers and sisters, is what we’re called to do.

“He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” Mark 16:15

 

Five words I’d rather you not use to describe me…

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Don’t mind me! I’m just a religious, churchy, thick, photogenic, intimidating girl!

I started writing this post a few days ago. I had no clue how to start it, so I skipped the intro and saved it for last.

And then, the day after I wrote all about the five words I do not like to be labeled, one of my male co-workers called me TWO of the five words in one conversation.

“You just always look so happy. All your Facebook pictures are nice, you’re always doing stuff and going places. You’re super photogenic.”

Grrr… that was the first one.

“Most guys probably don’t want to go out with you because of all you’ve done and all you do. Nobody wants to try and measure up to that. You’re too intimidating.”

Grrr… that was the second one.

He also said if people don’t know me personally, they might think that I think I’m “high and mighty.” But that if you get to know me, that’s not the case at all. “High and mighty” borders “religious” and “churchy.” So he pretty much mentioned four of the five words I’m about to explain.

Here are the five words I’d rather you not use to describe me:

Word #1: RELIGIOUS

Definition: of, pertaining to, or concerned with religion

I’ve heard it often, especially from my non-Christian friends. They consider me to be very “religious.” I don’t identify myself with my religion. I am not a product of Christianity. I am a product of Christ. To me, there is a huge difference. Christianity is flawed, and I think God Himself would agree with that statement. Why would I want to identify myself with a flawed religion, as all religions are flawed? I find my strength from Christ. My faith is in Christ. I believe I have eternal life because of Christ… it is not because of my “religion.”

Word #2: CHURCHY

Definition: adhering strictly to the prescribed form in ecclesiastical matters

For some reason, if you’re a weekly church attender, follow Christ and talk about God, you’re considered “churchy.” This is different than “religious,” as it suggests you strictly follow the church “code of conduct.” To me, “churchy” is an insult, and people don’t exactly think it through when they say that about someone. I believe a “churchy” person is somewhat standoffish, judgmental, and closed-minded. I would hope that no one thinks that is a good way to describe me. I believe even the most involved person at church doesn’t have to be “churchy.” I don’t even consider my pastor to be “churchy.” Society has tied negative connotations to words like “churchy,” and unfortunately, sometimes I can see why.

Word #3: THICK

Definition: not skinny, with meat on your bones

I had to jump over to Urban Dictionary for this one. It’s a term I really pretty much only hear from black men. White guys don’t call girls “thick,” because to them they’re just fat or big. I guess because of the word’s double-meaning (which is often attractive in the eyes of one race, but not another), is why it bothers me. At least in Uganda they are outright with it. I have a number of friends who were told, “You look fat!” And it was meant as a major compliment. However, I think the word “thick” is insulting. If you like how I look, just tell me I look good.

Everyone be intimidated! I washed feet in Africa!
I washed feet in Africa. Apparently this makes me scary.

Word #4: INTIMIDATING

Definition: to overawe, as through the force of personality or by superior display of wealth, talent, etc.

I am so sick of hearing how “intimidating” I am, and I know a lot of other educated, well-traveled women who are tired of it, too. Sure it’s a copout for men sometimes, but even some of my male friends have told me that if they just knew me on the surface, I would be way too intimidating for them to ever ask out. It’s clearly not my looks, it’s everything else. I’m independent, I’ve done mission work, I volunteer, I’m educated, I have a fulltime job, I pay my own bills… all qualities one would THINK would make me desirable to the opposite sex, but instead it has only hindered my dating life. I’m not scary. I promise! Please stop saying I am intimidating. It is NOT a compliment.

Word #5: PHOTOGENIC

Definition: forming an attractive subject for photography or having features that look well in a photograph

This label has been thrown on me way before Instagram gave us filters that make our skin glow. Ever since high school, people have commented on how photogenic I am. If you have ever told me this, there’s a chance you’ve heard my canned reply of, “Pretty in pictures, ugly in person!” I know that’s not what people mean, but I like to see their reactions when I say that back.

If you’ve ever called me any of these words, don’t worry. I’m used to it by now. And I won’t go cry in my bedroom if someone calls me any of these things in the future. Luckily, the Bible doesn’t say I’m any of these words. But I’ll happily take some of the things God says I am, like forgiven, redeemed, born again, accepted, free, and loved.

Yup. I went and got all “religious” and “churchy” on you there.

America or Africa? The big decision…

“I’ve been praying, but I am not seeing any results. I don’t feel any guidance or that I’m receiving any direction.”IMG_3406

A good friend of mine who isn’t very religious or spiritual decided that maybe it was time to try prayer, but she felt like it wasn’t getting her anywhere.

My responses were all the things good Christians should say:

“God is listening! It’s apparently just not the right time to give you any answers or direction.”

“Don’t give up!”

“Keep praying!”

But now, even as a lifelong Christian who loves God with all her heart, I find myself asking, “God, are you listening? What should I do?”

And I’m not getting any response.

IMG_4872About a year ago I committed to two years as a high school English teacher at an international school in Uganda. I moved here in August, and about five months in, I decided that I missed home too much and that maybe this just wasn’t for me. International schools have a lot of work to do when it comes to finding teachers, so we had to give the school our intentions on January 9.

I didn’t tell many people back in America, but I gave the school my intentions on January 9: I wouldn’t be returning for a second year.

Then God stirred my heart. Or did He? All of a sudden, I regretted my decision to leave and felt like I not only COULD handle another year, but that I WANTED to do another year here.

And then I realized that maybe I couldn’t. So I did what everyone said to do, which is what I knew I needed to do: pray. I prayed. I continue to pray. I feel nothing. I hear nothing. I have no answers. I have no direction.

I understood why my friend was so frustrated with God as well. All my “good Christian answers” I tried to throw back at myself weren’t doing much for me. I wanted to hear something, anything, from God.

I pray.

Silence.

More prayer.

More silence.

It’s like I tap the microphone and say, “Is this thing on?” and God is in the sound booth just looking at me.

Then a horrifying thought hit me. What if this one’s on me? What if God’s leaving it up to me? One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past ten months is that God wants us to serve Him and spread His love no matter where we are located.

So maybe since God knows I’ll do that no matter where I am, He’s leaving it up to me. Where do I WANT to serve Him? Africa? Or America? There’s no right or wrong choice here.

I hate making decisions. I overthink every decision I’ve ever had to make in my entire life, except one. The one decision that was easy, the one decision in which I recall God literally speaking to my heart, was when I came to Uganda in the first place. This time around, He’s putting it in my hands.

The list of reasons to leave and go home is long. I’ve had terrible sinus and allergy problems that cause me to spit up blood some mornings. I am 33 and single, and staying another year would yet again prolong my chances of meeting someone and getting married. I miss my family so much that hurts. I long for the company of my best friends like a lost kitten missing its mother. Financially it makes no sense to stay another year. There’s always the chance of political unrest in a country like Uganda. The list goes on and on.

The list of reasons to stay another year is short. But the items on that list are important: I should honor my 1800357_10203260749505265_2087202430_n (2)commitment of staying for two years. I love my job, and my students are the most amazing kids on the planet. I’ve also made some new friends here who I really don’t want to say goodbye to. I learn so much from them, and we spiritually uplift one another.

Many of us are facing the same decision- to go, or to stay? I really think that if I were to stay, next year would be a lot easier. The transition period would be over, I’d know the ins and outs of living in Uganda, and I could focus even more on my students and other volunteer opportunities. If I were to go home, sure I’d be happy to be around my friends and family, but as one of my best friends asked me yesterday, “But would you end up regretting it? Would you end up wishing you had stayed that second year?”

And I think I would.

God trusts me enough to allow me to make the decision. America, or Africa?

And I choose Africa.

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CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT MY SECOND YEAR IN UGANDA!

You don’t have to be in Africa…

Sometimes here in Uganda… we can feel guilty. We look around at our beautiful international school campus and think, “This place is amazing.” We think about our remarkable students and their privileged backgrounds and think, “Why would God want me to help here? Should I maybe be in a village somewhere helping poor children?”

Our beautiful campus!
Our beautiful campus!

On January 10, my co-worker’s husband, Glen, spoke to all the teachers about our calling, about our influence and about how what we do is important. We don’t have to be living in a village and helping the poor to be a light for Christ.

“Declare His glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples!”

1 Chronicles 16:24

You’ll notice that in most verses about spreading God’s love, God wants us to spread His love to everyone- not just the poor. And after hearing Glen speak a few weeks ago, I really realized that what we do at our school is important.

Our school’s students come from one of three backgrounds: missionary families, government employee families, and families who own major businesses in and around Kampala. We have students from nations all over the world: America, Australia, Singapore, North Korea, Congo, Kenya, Eritrea, Columbia, England, Sudan, and more. Some will stay in Uganda after they graduate, but most will go back to their home countries to attend college. Our hope is that they take their experience at our school and use it to impact the world around them for Christ.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 28:19

Don’t get me wrong, I love helping the poor. I love our trips to the village where we play with the kids at the jigger clinic, our Saturday afternoons we’ve spent with the babies at the orphanage and cleaning the place up. But I do realize that first and foremost, I am here for the students at my school, the well-off students with a roof over their heads and plenty of food to eat.

In October we took the high school kids on a spiritual retreat.
In October we took the high school kids on a spiritual retreat.

Think they don’t need just as much support? I’ve got students whose parents have never come to a sporting event because they are too busy. I have girls with eating disorders. I have Muslim students questioning their beliefs. I have students who have suffered the escape of war-ridden countries to come to Uganda. I have a number of students who live completely by themselves because their parents are never home; their house help and drivers are a bigger part of their lives than their actual parents.

These kids need us. No, they aren’t poor, but they need us. Privileged kids aren’t any less in need of the Gospel and of good role models than poor kids. Often they’re in need of it even more.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:8

Glen also talked to us about our “mountain of influence.” Ours is here in Uganda at our school. In the same way that I don’t feel called to spread the Gospel in the villages for a living, maybe you don’t feel the need to come to Africa. And that’s OK! Africa isn’t your mountain of influence.

My roommate and I cheering on my students at a basketball game.
My roommate and I cheering on my students at a basketball game.

What if all Christians came to Africa? Who would be left to witness to the people in other places? We can’t all come to Africa or third-world countries.

God wants you to serve Him right where you are, and He thinks it’s beautiful when you do.

“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And who are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’”
Romans 10:13-15

Don’t wait to move to Africa. Don’t wait to meet a homeless person. Be a witness for Christ in your mountain of influence, showing God’s love to EVERYONE you meet.

I get it. But in a way, I don’t…

IMG_4833I get it. A&E censored a Christian from speaking his mind. It’s not the first time a Christian has been censored. It won’t be the last.

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” 2 Timothy 3:12

I get it. It’s frustrating that everyone else in America can express their opinions, freely worship and denounce things they don’t believe in, unless you’re a Christian. In that case, the world wants you to be silent. But God never told us it would be easy. He flat out told us we would suffer.

“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:17

I get it. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. It says the same about drunkenness, adultery, fornication, gluttony, idolatry, jealousy, etc. etc. Everyone else’s sins seem so much worse than your own, don’t they? So you hate. You’re tired of rights being given to people who sin. You see these people as your enemies.

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44

I get it. I may not agree with you, but I get it. It’s ruined your week and maybe even your holiday to know that a Christian spoke his mind and was then persecuted for it. Now, your favorite television show might not be on the air anymore.

But I ask you this holiday season to open your eyes. Think about the things that are getting you fired up. Is it politics? Is it Obamacare? Is it A&E and Duck Dynasty? Is it Miley Cyrus? Think about the things that, as a Christian, make you the angriest. And then, think about these things:

InIMG_3875 September I met a little boy here in Uganda who survived child sacrifice. He’s been through multiple surgeries because his head was literally cut open with an ax. He was one of the lucky ones because he survived. Here in Uganda, witchdoctors sacrifice children. They spare no mercy when it comes to abducting a child, chopping them up for body parts and organs and leaving them for dead.

The other day I went with some co-workers to a local orphanage. The place is filthy. The playground is insanely dangerous. The orphans’ noses run with no one to wipe them. Bath time means fitting as many children in a tub at one time and hosing them down like they were dishes or something. Orphanages like this are all over the city of Kampala.

To the north of Uganda is South Sudan. So not only does the violence in South Sudan hit close to home because it’s literally close to home, but one of my best friends here is from South Sudan. She has family and friends there, and has to wonder each day whether or not they will fall victim to the violence.

I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t be the one to say, “Look at what’s making you upset! And yet there are people dying because of such corruption and evil in the world!” But then I started to wonder… maybe that’s exactly what I’m supposed to do. Maybe part of the reason I’m here is to tell you about these things, to tell you that they are really happening.IMG_3976

As a Christian, what makes your blood boil? What gets under your skin? Is it the fact that your favorite reality television star was suspended? Are you going to let that ruin your day when there are people dying in South Sudan, children being sacrificed in Uganda, and orphans being treated like animals?

I’m not saying that it shouldn’t irritate you that Christians are so often censored and persecuted. I get it. It irritates me, too, but the Bible warned us about this, over and over again.

“Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” 1 John 3:13

I get why Christians are upset about A&E. I get why homosexuals are upset about Duck Dynasty. I get it. But when I’m seeing the things I see here and experiencing the things I experience here, I really don’t get it.

Open your eyes. There’s so much more going on.

The challenge I didn’t expect…

God likes to challenge us. It’s how we grow. But I never imagined that this would be the way God would challenge me in Uganda. I have quite a task ahead of me.

Each morning from 8 – 8:15 the middle school and high school students have devotions. I am in charge of the 10th graders, a class of about 15.

For the first five and a half years I was a teacher, I was in the public school system with a very clear separation of church and state. Now, here I am, in Uganda, teaching at a Christian International school where I am to lead devotions with an entire class each morning. I felt extremely awkward even being allowed to pray in a classroom.

Of course it’s a beautiful thing to be able to pray, but leading a devotion of some sort? I had no idea where I would start. So yesterday I was honest with the students about not really knowing what to do with them. They said their devos teacher last year asked them for ideas and they wrote down topics on a sheet of paper that she would sometimes choose from.

I thought that sounded like a good idea, but once the students got out their sheets of paper, their minds went blank.

“Miss Trout I don’t know!”jesus-on-cross-4-1364043-m

“I can’t think of anything!”

“Can we just watch Veggie Tales?”

All sorts of excuses were being thrown at me. I tried to get their minds going and prayed for the best.

I was not prepared for some the responses I got:

“How to deal with circumstances you cannot handle.”

“Why God has seemed to change from Old Testament to the new, but the Bible says He’s the same yesterday, today and forever.”

“Why does God get so angry at the Israelites when they’re in the desert (enough to kill them)? But then the Bible says He has infinite love and patience?”

“Why should we believe in Christianity rather than the Jewish religion? Which one is true depends on whether documentation and word of mouth is true. So why should we believe one or the other, how can we know? The same goes for Islam.”

And about a handful of students wrote something like, “Questioning your religion.”

God has given me these students for a reason. They have a lot of valid questions, and I feel God wants to use me to help answer them. But it’s very scary.

Those “questioning religion”, some are Christians and some are not. I have a very serious and timely topic on my hands here to deal with.

And as far as some of the other questions, I think I’ll be in touch with my pastor and retired pastors about a few of those! I think it’s great that they are asking questions like those. It’s when we stop asking questions and stop searching for God’s wisdom that we fall behind in our spiritual lives.

Like all of us in charge of a class for devotions here at Heritage, I need your prayers. I need prayers that God will give me the right words, the right answers, and that my students will have open hearts.

I read somewhere that high school is when people really start to think about what they believe in and why. I want to be the light for God that attracts these students and keeps them close to God. Wish me luck!