We shouldn’t have to fashion a spiritual community in our own image to feel at home.
It was an early November Sunday, and on returning to the parking lot after a worship service, I found a pamphlet tucked beneath the windshield wiper of my car. I scanned the area and saw the same pamphlet on nearly every vehicle but no sign of the person who’d put them there.
I snatched up the paper to find a politically inspired message. “Don’t vote for Candidate X,” the pamphlet said, listing a number of reasons why. “People who vote for Candidate X are not real Christians and will go to hell.”
I felt an eerie chill. I was an undecided voter; I felt personally attacked. Why would someone do such a thing? This was an evangelical church parking lot. In 2008. Most of the people there would be voting exactly the way the pamphlet encouraged.
Though I was certain a vote in Tuesday’s election couldn’t determine my eternal destiny, the mean-spirited message threw me. My faith and how I lived it out had been changing over the years—growing, actually. I’d met Christians from other traditions and even other continents whose beliefs challenged my own. I’d plunged back into Scripture, reevaluating my previous assumptions about how “good Christians” should live, worship, and even vote.
Glancing up at the church building, I wondered if I still had a place there, with all my questions and doubts and even new beliefs. I’m not going to hell for how I vote, I reassured myself, then wadded up the paper, tossed it on the passenger floorboard, and headed home.
Recently, a friend admitted that the church her family attends “isn’t working” for them anymore. It’s not a change in programs or approach that’s left them questioning. Instead, she and her husband believe their faith has grown in a few areas, and the church hasn’t kept pace. For now, they’re staying. But it’s not easy. And her tone suggested they might be looking for a new church soon.
I, too, have known the suffocating pressure of feeling like the spiritual outsider, like the person whose faith no longer fits. I stayed for at least four more years at that church after I received the political pamphlet, often holding my tongue when I disagreed. I didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker, spewing out “foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23).
But it wasn’t that I no longer believed the basic doctrines the church taught, the essentials. I did. I still do. It was more the way my faith was lived out in the gray areas, the nonessentials. It was the way everyone assumed my passions and priorities and political convictions were exactly like theirs. It was the way expressing a difference of opinion made me feel like an outsider.
When I got married, I became part of a new congregation with my husband and stepsons. The new church belonged to a vastly different tradition, and at first I felt relief in being able to express my questions and doubts, which actually seemed welcome. But the new congregation held a different set of assumptions about its members, and my initial relief in expressing my changing views eventually gave way to a new kind of censure, where I hesitated to express the old things I still believed.
Before long, I felt as if I was right back where I started. I began to wonder: What if the problem wasn’t that I couldn’t express my growing and changing views in either of the churches I’d been part of? What if the problem was that I wanted these churches to become more like me?
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that flyer. In the beginning, it was a symbol for all that seemed wrong with Christ’s body: our lack of unity, our refusal to accept differences of conscience, our inability to really love, honor, and serve each other across all kinds of differences.
But more recently, as I’ve encountered more Christians, in both the church universal and in my own congregations, whose expression of faith is different than the norm—and especially different than mine—I’ve begun to see it as a reminder of all that’s good about the church: There’s room for all of us who are in Christ.
That’s the key: in Christ. The church is Christ’s body. It’s made to reflect His image, not mine. It’s a place where we’re all changing and growing together, all becoming more like our Savior, though not necessarily like one another in personalities and preferences. Sometimes we’re the weaker brother or sister, other times the stronger. We have liberty to operate differently, but we’re also parts of a living body, exhorted to treat the other parts with love. In fact, Paul says in Romans that we are not just part of Christ’s body; we belong to one another (Rom. 12:5). This isn’t simply a goal to strive for but a reality we’re presently experiencing. When those of us in Christ divide and separate, we’re actually tearing apart Christ’s body.
My husband and I are members of another congregation now. And even though it looks like others I’ve been in, it feels different, too, mostly because I’m different. I’m carrying with me the lesson I learned from that political pamphlet all those years ago. Not that a certain vote will send anyone to hell. Instead, I’ve come to understand the one thing that was so vexing to me back then: Why bother trying to convince people who already believe the way you do?
See, the person who placed the pamphlets on our cars didn’t assume everyone at the church believed the same thing or he wouldn’t have bothered. To him, a church filled with people growing and learning at different paces was a problem to solve. But for me, that’s what makes the body of Christ miraculous. It’s what makes me feel I belong.
Charity Singleton Craig