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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To my new church “home”…

architecture-1868940_1920Dear my new church “home,”

I wanted to write you and be up front with you about a few things. It’s kind of like on The Bachelor when a woman tells the man, “I think there are some things you need to know about me before we get more involved.” And then he ends up sending her away. Not immediately, he would look like a jerk, but eventually, he sends her packing. Her baggage is too much.

Well, that’s me. I have a lot of “church” baggage, and I want to be up front about it.

There are gory details that I won’t share, but I will say this: my heart is broken. It’s been beaten down. Sometimes it was my fault. Sometimes it wasn’t. But overall, I am wounded. I have been wounded for years. And let’s face it, while your gym or internet provider wants to know why you left and begs you to stay, people in churches just don’t do that. They often take more of a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” type of stance.

I was to the point a few months ago where I had given up on church. Not on God, I’ve never given up on Him. But I was at the point where I decided I didn’t need a church family. I simply could not put myself through the hurt again of trying to find a church and not being accepted. The idea of trying to fit in and being rejected was too much to handle.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, I read Kelly Minter’s blog post “Valentine’s Day from a Single’s Perspective,” and she spoke of how important her church community is to her. How its made her singleness less lonely. How it’s encouraged her.

“I want that,” I realized. And I decided I wouldn’t stop until I found it.

My church hurts run deep. Really deep. Like many, I’ve been pushed around, beat down, judged, ignored, given empty promises, and flat out lied to by people in the church. Because, let’s face it, churches are made up of people. People are flawed. There will never be a “perfect church” until we get to heaven.

Still, I desire a church that will at least accept me and all my baggage.

A church that will help me grow in my walk with Christ.

A church that will treat me as more than an unmarried woman.

A church that will realize I have things to offer, even though I don’t have a husband or children.

A church that will challenge me to spread God’s word and to go outside of my comfort zone to do so.

A church that will wrap its arms around me and see that I have value.

Despite my greatest efforts, I haven’t felt valued by a church in years.

So, new church home, I hope you will accept me. I hope you will let me be of service to you. I hope you will value me, and I will value you. I will let your pastor and people guide me. I will use my God-given talents to help the church.

I am scared. I am skeptical. I don’t want to get too excited. But I am hopeful that God has a place for me in your church. I hope you will be my church family. I pray I have found where I belong.

Sincerely,
Natalie, a very broken church goer

“We have created being married with children
as the superior status in the church,
but we serve a Savior who was single.”
Panelist at IF:Gathering 2017

 

 

Fellowship with Christian Women: Worth the Risk

DSC_0003My cheeks were sore from smiling. My mascara was slightly smudged from tears, some of them from laughing and others from listening to an emotional story.

“What time is it?” someone asked.

Rachel hopped off the couch and went to the kitchen to check. “It’s 9:30!”

No one believed her.

“No,” Joy said. “That clock is an hour ahead I think.”

“All the clocks say 9:30!” Rachel responded.

We all jumped out of our seats to head home, as the night had totally gotten away from us. Our “IF:Table” had sparked so many incredible conversations that we completely lost track of time. No one had even been on their phones.

So what is “IF:Table”? “A place to gather women and share a simple meal and dive deep with people over real stories and Christ-centered conversations. A time for a whole lot of laughter- and maybe a few tears- but time spent that leaves us with glad hearts. Full hearts. Grateful hearts.”

Joy always has the table nicely set as well as our "If" discussion questions ready for the evening.
Joy always has the table nicely set, as well as our “If” discussion questions, ready for the evening.

Although I’ve only met with Joy, Faith, and the two Rachel’s twice, each time has certainly left my heart glad, full, and grateful. It’s reminded me of a very important part of my faith: fellowship with other Christian women.

But let’s be honest. Women can be scary, even Christian women. They can be catty. They can be judgmental. They can be self-righteous. If you’re anything like me, and some of my fellow group members, you’ll admit that you’ve sometimes shied away from women groups for those exact reasons.

The problem is, passing up fellowship with Christian women might leave you missing out on what could be a bond with some amazing, likeminded women. There’s a good chance that they will be uplifting, caring, grace-filled, big-hearted women who will strengthen your relationship with Christ.

When our group got together last week, we read a short blog post from Shauna Niequist that talked about the following verse:

Everyone contributes to our meal, whether it's a main dish or dessert!
Everyone contributes to our meal, whether it’s a main dish or dessert!

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

Where is the wind blowing you? Where is the Spirit leading you? Is it possible that your life needs a little more fellowship time with Christian women? I encourage you to find a group of Christian women to grow with and fellowship with. Your heart and soul will thank you for it.

Sometimes your presence is enough

11233499_10152855702181573_1337504488390336071_nPhillip was in his late 20’s and dying of AIDS. His family had disowned him, and day after day he was in his bed, waiting to die. Sister Judith, one of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, helped take care of Phillip. She would change his bed sheets, clean his room and do his dishes.

Sister Judith was a hard worker. She was diligently washing Phillip’s dishes one day when he called out to her.

“Sister Judith!” he yelled from his bedroom. “Come in here!”

“I’m doing your dishes,” she replied. “Need to get this done.”

“I said, come in here,” Phillip shouted back.

Sister Judith went in Phillip’s room to see what he wanted. He pointed at an empty chair beside his bed.

“See that chair?” he said. “Sit in it.”

It was a lesson Sister Judith said she would never forget. She had been running around trying to “help” so much that she missed the importance of simply being there for Phillip, being someone to sit with, someone to talk to, someone to form a relationship with.

Sometimes, your presence is enough. Sure, there are things you can do to help people, but often what helps the most is just being there.

In September I’m going to Thailand with my church and Destiny Rescue. It is not technically a “work trip.” We aren’t building anything or painting any walls, we are simply going to visit. We are going to build relationships with the girls who have been rescued from child trafficking and sexual exploitation.

What does it really matter? Will our presence in Thailand at these rescue homes really make any sort of a difference? I can say with all sincerity and confidence that I know it will. I’ve seen it happen before.

IMG_3287 (2)When I was in Zambia with Lifesong for Orphans, I remember talking with some precious third graders. One said to me, “Why are you here?” I told her we were there to visit, to get to know them and to talk about Jesus with them. She then asked, “How much do you get paid?” My heart broke.

Once I explained to her that those of us who were there were using our vacation days from work to visit, she was absolutely dumbfounded. She couldn’t believe that we were there for them, and even more so, that we had to pay and raise the funds to get there.

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth
for a sincere brotherly love,
love one another earnestly from a pure heart.”
1 Peter 1:22

216059_10150151389976573_735678_nWhen I went to Nicaragua with my church and Food for the Hungry, part of our mission in the village of Terrencio was to dig latrines. While I know it needed to be done, no one seemed overjoyed at what we were doing, but they were more than thrilled when we spent time with them. Our sponsor children and their families were elated when we came to their homes just to chat.

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil;
hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection,
and take delight in honoring each other.”
Romans 12:9-10

One afternoon in Uganda, my friend Debby and I went to visit the father and stepmother of her sponsor child. Their mud home was as clean as a mud home could be, with furniture covered in white sheets, just for us. They even gave us cold bottles of Coke. Rude to refuse their kind gesture, we indulged, and spent the next few hours enjoying our time together. Their hospitality told us what didn’t have to be said.

“You came to see ME,” is what it said. In Zambia. In Nicaragua. In Uganda. “Someone from the other side of the world came just to spend time with me in the name of Jesus.”cross

I find it funny that people assume mission trips have to be filled with doing construction projects. Which is fine, but wasn’t Jesus the ultimate missionary, and what did He do? He spent time with people.

Even after Jesus came back from the dead, He spent time with people. He didn’t dig any latrines or paint any walls. Check out Luke 24:13-39. After the resurrection, Jesus walks a dirt road with two of His followers as a simple, loving gesture.

At first I felt strange asking for financial support as I embarked on this journey to Thailand, but the more I thought about it, I realized it’s just as important as any other mission trip I have gone on. Looking at what these girls have been through and simply being there to love them might actually be even more important than any mission trip I’ve already been on.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20

Learn more about my upcoming trip to Thailand with Destiny Rescue here.

Taking my talent elsewhere…

“Writing.”

It was the number one thing my Spiritual Gifts class revealed about how I could best be used by my church.

See, I've been a writer for a very long time!
See, I’ve been a writer for a very long time!

No big surprise there. I’ve been writing since the day I could pick up a pencil. Actually, my very first book, “Harry Carey Likes Cherries,” was written before I could pick up a pencil. I dictated the plot of the book to my mom, who wrote it down. I did the illustrations.

In elementary school I was the girl who won the system-wide writing contest. Every year. I wrote books like, “Never Let a Turkey Do Your Homework,” “Miss Piggy’s Bad Dream,” “A Painter in Ballet Shoes,” and a poem anthology, “Positively Perky Poems that will make you Laugh and Cry.” If I wasn’t me, I would have hated me. Writing came naturally. It’s always been easy.

I went on to receive a degree in Journalism from Indiana University, and the few years I spent as a writer for a newspaper, I won multiple awards.

I love to write. I love words. I love taking words and putting them together to say something great or heartfelt. And to be honest, I think I do it well. You’ll never find me saying I dress well. I don’t believe I am a phenomenal cook or a great decorator. But I can write well. I thank God for that.

So when I attended the Spiritual Gifts class (which also included an in-depth personality study) and was then told that’s how I could best serve my church, I was elated! I was told that there were a few different ways I could use my gift for the church, so I contacted the people who were in charge of blogging and writing.

I heard nothing.

I wrote to the leader of the class and said I hadn’t heard anything. I wondered if maybe they didn’t get my emails. She contacted them to let them know I wanted to help with any writing projects for the church.

It’s been months. I still haven’t heard anything.

This has been eating away at me for some time now. I try not to be bitter about it. It certainly hasn’t stopped me from attending my church. I still love my church. But I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want to use me to write some great things for the church.

10849890_10152440272986573_1647218886976012536_nSo then I start to feel insecure.

Maybe I’m not a good writer.

Maybe they think I’m too “edgy.”

Maybe it’s because I’m single.

Maybe they just plain don’t like me.

So I dropped it. They know where to find me. They know what I’m capable of. If they want to use my God-given talents to spread the Gospel, they will let me know. If they don’t, then I will do it elsewhere.

I was at peace with my decision to “let it go,” but then last week’s sermon at church totally threw me off. It was all about our resources, our talents, and how if we are loyal followers of Christ, we will use those talents to grow the Kingdom of God. We read the parable of the talents, about the men who did things with their talents (money) and the man who did nothing with his.

“Don’t do nothing with what your Master (God) has given you!” was the basis of it all.

I wanted to jump up and scream, “I WANT to, but apparently they don’t want me here!”

I was back at square one. Upset, hurt, and wondering why my church didn’t want me to write anything for them.

Then I remembered that serving God doesn’t always have to be through the church. I volunteer twice a week at the Rescue Mission, and that’s not through the church. I am a group leader for Bible Study Fellowship, and that’s not through the church. It’s pretty clear that if God’s going to use my writing abilities for His purpose, it will not be through the church.

And that’s OK.

It’s actually given me a little nudge of motivation. I’ve finally found a book idea that I’m really psyched about. Maybe God wants me to focus on that.

In studying Paul, the book of Philippians, and parts of Acts for Bible Study Fellowship, we learned that Paul had ideas of where he should go to spread the Gospel, but God had something different in mind. God said, “No,” before Paul was given a clear signal of what to do and where. Maybe God is doing the same with me.

I want to write. I want people to read it. I’m not waiting for the support of my church or anyone else. God has given me this talent, and I’m going to use it. Even if it’s just me and God facing this journey together.

There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side.

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

983786_10152277154276573_5651879649151518655_n
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.

At the feet of Jesus…. or the Lincoln Memorial…

It was one of those Sunday mornings where I really didn’t want to go to church. It was a last minute decision to haul myself out of bed, throw something on, and go.

We sang some songs, listened to announcements and then sang another song. And then, before the sermon, we prayed. The worship leader said he wanted us to take everything to Jesus. Whether it was problems at home, at work, with friends, with family… whatever it was, take it and put it at the feet of Jesus. He’ll take care of it.

Having the wild imagination I was blessed with, an image quickly popped into my head. There everyone was with the things they were bringing to Jesus. I, for some odd reason, imagined Jesus kind of like the Lincoln Memorial. He was big, stoic, and unreachable other than His feet where everyone was putting down their worries and troubles. They quietly placed them at the feet of Jesus and turned and walked away.9997Abraham_Lincoln_memorial

But I was different.

In my mind I saw myself with good intentions of simply putting down my cares at His feet, but instead I saw myself putting them down and then pausing. I looked up at President Linco…. Er…. Jesus, and I tapped His foot.

“Don’t miss this one!” I yelled.

He didn’t respond.

“Hey!” I yelled louder, as everyone else continued to quietly give Jesus their struggles. “Hey Jesus! Don’t forget mine!”

It’s probably not very appropriate to yell at Jesus, but in my imagination, I really wanted to be heard. And to be honest, right now, in reality, I’m not feeling heard.

I took a leap of faith when I moved to Uganda a year ago. I took an even larger leap of faith when I moved home a month ago. I have a great education, excellent experience, wonderful references, and yet each and every job I apply for is turning out to be a dead end.

At first I was OK with that. Even after I discovered my dream job did, in fact, exist, and I was definitely qualified for it, spent four hours filling out the application one Sunday, and was told two days later that the position had been filled, I still was encouraged. I believed that God must have something better for me.

I took it to the feet of Jesus and let it go.

But then I interviewed for another job I really wanted, and I haven’t heard anything. I was still hopeful about another job here in Fort Wayne in which I had the perfect background for in journalism and education. I got a letter a few days ago saying other applicants were better qualified. They do not want to interview me at this time.

I am feeling defeated. Useless. Unwanted. Like my education and experience have all been a waste.

And on Sunday morning I took it to the feet of Jesus, or the Lincoln Memorial, and I kept hitting His foot to make sure He was hearing my request, that He was taking my worries for me. The giant stone monument offered no comfort.

After the sermon we sang “I Will Not Be Shaken.” I love God’s sense of humor. The chorus of Tommy Walker’s praise and worship song says this:

So I’ll stand in trust.
I’ll stand in faith.
I will not be shaken.

All of a sudden the picture I had created in my mind became so wrong for so many reasons.

For one, when we take things to the feet of Jesus, He isn’t a giant monument. He literally walked the earth as a human. When we put things at Jesus’ feet, we kneel down before someone our size. We give Him our worries, and then He gives us a warm hug.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

Jesus is not unreachable. He is our friend, and He cares about us.

Secondly, I do not need to yell at God to remind Him of my situation. He knows the struggles I’m facing in finding a job, and He’s got it covered. He is always listening.

“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:12-13

Am I frustrated? Absolutely. I feel I have a lot to offer an employer, and I’m getting nowhere. For some reason, God hasn’t placed me in any of the jobs I’ve applied for. Although it’s difficult, I will stand in trust. I’ll stand in faith. I will not be shaken. I’m taking it to the feet of Jesus and putting it before Him.

And He’s not a giant stone monument. He’s holding me tight as I wait for what He’s going to do next in my life.