(This is the second part in a series of blog posts based on interviews I did with 7 adults ages 26-32 about their experience growing up in an American evangelical Christian church setting. All names have been changed to protect their identities.)
Lauren was 32 years old when I interviewed her. She grew up attending a single church until middle school.
The pastor there “knew my name. I always felt loved by him, by everybody there.”
Her description of this church was “the happy, typical church experience,” but what she described was something almost too-good-to-be-true.
When her parents left that church to search for another, she struggled with feelings of insecurity and isolation. Her entire world revolved around her relationships at church and when they were taken from her, she felt totally alone, unloved, and unknown.
Her family bounced around from church to church. “There wasn’t any one person I could look back at that time and say that person truly cared about me really…. At that point I was a preteen and teenager and I felt like a ghost. I didn’t really belong anywhere.”
This loss of place, loss of identity stuck with her in the following years.
Sarcastically, she described her parents looking for “the perfect church in the county”, she felt like she was placed in very uncomfortable situations week after grueling week.
“So we went to all these different churches and you can imagine, middle school girls aren’t easy for anybody and now I’ve been ripped away from my friends and sort of that comfort and security, and thrown into these awkward, awkward situations of churches making you stand up and introduce yourselves and having you go to Sunday School class after Sunday School class with all these people that you don’t know and looking at you… and being on the outside. I was not an outgoing person at all and really shy, and it was just horrific. When I think back on my life, that was like the most… darkest, and uncomfortable, and just lost feeling ever… and I’m so angry at my parents for pulling me out of church.”
A detailed story that she shared illustrates how this time of transition between churches impacted her and actually helped her to discover strength that she didn’t know she had.
“I went to the overnight sleepover at this church, not really making any friends, nobody was talking to me. I was by myself the whole time. Then, they played a game of hide and go seek.
We hid and I had a really good spot, a great spot, and the game was over and nobody had found me, and I just sort of waited to see what would happen, and they just started the next activity. They didn’t realize I wasn’t there. It was purposeful. It wasn’t like I was stupid sitting in the dark not knowing what was going on. I knew that they wouldn’t notice, and they didn’t.”
This had an interesting effect on her. Instead of feeling unloved and unwanted, she had this feeling of being in control. She had put them to the test and they had failed to care about her. “I remember actually having a better time after that point because I realized that they didn’t care about me, and I was able to have that self-worth.”
When she realized that no one there cared about her, she took control and enjoyed herself without having to test them anymore. She could just take what they had to offer, the program, the event and have fun. She didn’t make an effort to try to build relationships. She knew that wasn’t part of the deal.
She later described these churches in this way. “They were running programs, it wasn’t there because the people that were involved truly cared about what I was going through.”
It was not until years later that she felt accepted, like she belonged anywhere.
Worse yet, Lauren never felt accepted by her parents. She felt like she could never make them happy, no matter how hard she tried.
“I wish I had grown up with the acceptance of people who had flaws, as opposed to this rejection of people who had any sort of flaws.”
A Church Family
Her family finally settled into a church, but she hated it. So, in ninth grade, she decided to start attending church with a friend.
She CHOSE to go somewhere other than where her parents went.
As an adult, she thinks it is strange that her parents would let her do that, but at the same time, she believed that having that choice and that independence helped to shape her identity.
Lauren described her time at her new church as reminiscent of her time at her first church. It was here that she finally felt like she belonged again.
She regained her sense of safety and security. It was here that she felt loved and accepted.
“I always will look fondly at [that church] because I had an Aunt [Rachel] and an Uncle [Bill] and I had Mrs. [Johnson], I had Mr. [Johnson], I had Uncle [Bob]. It was all these people that I didn’t know, they weren’t my family and yet they immediately became my family. You and Rachel, okay now I’m not going to cry, you never made me feel, I never felt insignificant. I always felt important.”
As she detailed many people from this church who became an extended family to her, the emotion rose in her voice. Then, she remembered a humorous story to illustrate how far this love and acceptance went.
As a teen, the youth group was preparing to leave for a retreat when the driver noticed that the headlight wasn’t working.
“He told me to hit it, and I decided to kick it. I don’t know why. I wasn’t like that. And I broke it, and it wasn’t something like, it wasn’t even the light that broke, I broke the…, the whole thing kicked in. The light stayed intact. I was horrified.
In my house, I would have been done. And here they were totally—I will never forget, it was the most, one of the most embarrassing times in my life—I remember they were both, they were cracking up that I had done it, and they were so loving and caring and it shocked me.”
She perceived the church family as being even more accepting and understanding than her own parents. This allowed her to grow in her identity and self-worth. She went on to say, “I think the churches that stick out in my mind are the churches where somebody noticed me; somebody cared; somebody paid attention; somebody KNEW MY NAME; somebody asked me a question; somebody cared about me.”
With this confidence in herself and guided by her understanding of what God wanted for her, she was able to move out on her own after high school, go to college, get a few jobs that she really felt good about. She became successful.
Perfection vs. Imperfection
As an adult in her twenties, she was actively involved as a volunteer at church and unknowingly had adopted this attitude of rejecting people who showed signs of imperfection. At one of the volunteer Christmas parties, Bill gave her the book, Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, which is all about God’s gracious love for broken people like the author, who was an alcoholic.
She recalled, “I read that book and this is literally what I said at the end, ‘This book is a joke. This isn’t true. You shouldn’t be allowed to mess up like this and then be able to write about it and make other people think it’s okay.’ That was my impression of that book and I couldn’t understand what [Bill] or anybody saw in it. I thought it was absolutely wrong and that nobody—you shouldn’t promote things like that.”
Her inability to accept others stemmed from the feeling that her parents could never accept her. She never felt good enough for them. So, she made sure that no one else was good enough either.
During what turned out to be a pivotal time in Lauren’s adult life, she felt frustrated with where her life was headed and decided to take control. She decided to stop trusting her future to God and doing what was expected of her by people at church. She was going to do what she wanted to do so that she could be happy.
Soon after this, she stopped working with the church youth group because she wanted to focus on herself and on getting married.
“You figure at that point I was 25 and every girl feels they are going to be alone forever at that point (which is totally irrational but now looking back that’s what I thought). I decided to focus on myself and so I met this guy who had two kids and was not a [Christian] and I was ready to throw everything away. I was going to date this man and just ‘Ha, ha!’ to everything else.”
Everything changed one day while she was brushing her teeth. She remembered
shouting out to God.
“I remember at that point God told me, ‘You’re doing something dumb. This is not the plan for your life. This is not what you’re supposed to be doing.’ And I remember shouting out to God and saying, ‘Oh yeah, what have You done for me?’ Because, by 25, I didn’t have a good relationship with my family. I had been moved a thousand times. I didn’t have a typical story. I didn’t have boyfriends. I didn’t have proms. I didn’t have these things that other people have.”
Lauren’s entire life was playing out before her. She could feel all of the injustice. She had sacrificed so much to be a Christian. All the normal things, the fun things that kids get to do, she had given up to serve him. She had done so much for Him and was so angry and challenged God, “What have You done for me?”
She was “just so angry and that’s what I said to God. And, you know those moments where God just talks to you? God said, ‘I sent my son to die for you on the cross’ and it was the most—I don’t want to even say like the most humbling—It was the most loving point, like I totally—It wasn’t a moment of like that God punished me and made me feel guilty and made me feel—cause that’s a horrible thing to say, you know that’s awful to say to God but it was like this moment of absolute purity and love and simplicity and I was like, ‘You’re right.’”
She struggled to find just the right words to express the inexpressible presence of God. The presence of God overwhelmed her with love and she no longer felt that he had abandoned her.
Her sacrifice seemed reasonable when pictured alongside Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God loved her and had not forgotten her desire to get married and be loved.
Soon after she broke off the relationship with this man, she started dating the man who would become her husband.
God’s grace did not culminate in Lauren finding a husband. God wanted her to know that he loved and accepted her for who she was and not just because she had sacrificed so much for him.
Lauren found herself in a very difficult and confusing situation when she “got pregnant before I was married, all of a sudden I [understood] that Ragamuffin Gospel. And now I get it because it’s not about—it’s not about perfect people and what he said in that book, the Gospel is not for perfect people.”
The culmination for Lauren was realizing that there was a lie that she had believed and accepted from her family. “I had adopted exactly what my parents did to me, which was “Reject everybody.” … If somebody has an issue, you reject that person, and just that perfection and that lack of love.”
This started her on a yearlong journey of trying to understand what love is. Her perspective on everything had begun to change, for Lauren, “it was an absolute break in the way that I have viewed the world for, up to that point, 30 years. It was a massive change of a worldview and absolutely I had adopted that [lie], probably unknowingly, because what’s the worst mask, [thinking that] you’re doing what’s right. So why would I ever doubt what I was doing was wrong because I was doing what was right.”
She recognized the lies of perfectionism and judgmentalism that had become her perspective. By God’s grace, she was able to begin the process of learning to love unconditionally.
She is still following that path, attending church and feeling very connected with her church family.
Lauren felt like everything was perfect in her world as a young child when she belonged, when she was surrounded by people that loved her and knew her.
When she lost that sense of belonging, she felt like she lost her identity.
Finding a new church, people that loved her and accepted her brought her a new sense of identity. And, typical of adolescence, that new identity formed apart from her parents.
She didn’t realize until years later that she had adopted some of the same judgmentalism and perfectionism that isolated her from her parents. As they had pushed her away, she had pushed so many others away.
When she had a moral crisis, she was forced to face her own imperfection and her own need for God’s grace.
In this place of humility and a desperate need for grace, she found her true identity in Christ. Finally, she truly belonged. She belonged in her own skin. She could accept her own imperfections and therefore accept the imperfections in others. Her understanding of what it means to belong was transformed and became a strong foundation upon which to build her life.