I walked into a large church, uneasy and tugging at the cuffs of my ecru J.crew denim jacket. Even as an extrovert, no one loves being “the new kid” and here I was, again, walking into a crowd of strangers. A smiling woman with an iPad caught my eye and asked me if I needed to register. Though I’d combed the church’s website for details on this evening’s “small group call-out” – I hadn’t seen a place to register online, so I followed her beaming face to fill out all the necessary information. Name, address, how long I’d been attending, and then she asked me a question I wasn’t expecting: “What kind of small group are you looking for?”
I’m not one who gets tongue-tied, but it sounded like my mouth was full of marbles, “Ummm, one with men and women who, umm, you know, love Jesus.” She looked at me, unblinking and perma-grin, “Well, that’s not an option.”
A sip of the Starbucks iced chai I’d brought with me (so everyone would know I was a cool kid) caught in my throat. I coughed and stared at her – trying to gauge her sense of humor. Not an option? Surely, she must be joking. Her blue eyes reviewed the boxes of the Excel spread sheet we’d just filled out and then glanced at my left hand.
“Are you married?”
I shook my head.
“How old are you?”
And although I usually lie and say 28, I mumbled honestly “34.”
“Well, the only option for you is a women’s-only small group. It’s either that or our groups for married people, which you aren’t, and young singles under 27 which you aren’t.”
“But… ummm, but that’s not biblical.” I spat out, probably with more snark than Jesus would’ve preferred. “Well, that’s how we do things here. So did you want to stay or go? If you choose to stay, I can walk you to the room for single women.”
Seeing as how I’d driven half-an-hour and felt like storming out was too dramatic a statement, I stayed. I hoped that maybe somehow if I sat down and got a chance to ask more questions, there’d be a “place” for me that wasn’t obvious at the moment; I stuck on my nametag and followed Heidi Grinsalot to the room of old spinsters just like me.
There’s a lot more to the story of that Thursday evening, moments that saddened my spirit and moments that made my blood simmer. To boil it down – I was told that my desire for diverse community was “small” compared to the need for married people to be together. I received eye-rolls when I asked what the biblical basis was for their intentional separation, and had a very uncomfortable hallway conversation with a church staffer who grew splotchy hives on her neck when I brought up the fact that Jesus and Paul were both single dudes who would’ve been left out of her small group. After quietly walking out of this large church, I got in my car and cried so hard I couldn’t see the road.
Why was I crying? What was it about one disappointing meeting that had left me in tears?
Friends, I was dissolved in sobs because for the few weeks up until that evening I’d felt closer to finding the church community I’ve spent thirteen long months looking for, and I sat there in my driver’s seat back at square one. I felt that I’d been told rather loudly that I didn’t fit, that the only place for anyone pursuing community was with those who are our carbon-copies.
But is that what God says about His church?
In the second chapter of Acts we read about the beautiful church forming true community: “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”
What were the stipulations for those that gathered? As far as I can tell it simply says “ALL.”
In a previous season of life I’d known what that kind of “all” looked like – as a part of a church that didn’t do everything perfectly, but did a lot well. They never based “doing life” or “being the church” by gathering the flock into matching groups. In fact, as a single women I’d been a part of for three years and then led a small group of fellow believers for four years that was made up of men AND women – married and engaged and single and divorced and broken-hearted. I was able to pray with and over, serve alongside of, and learn from men and women ranging in age from 22 to 81, black and white, popping kids out faster than puppies and suffering with infertility, wealthy and in student loan debt up to their eyeballs. This gaggle of believers squished into my living room for years, choosing to be together because of one reason: Christ.
Having seen that echo of the New Testament church in my own neighborhood, there’s a driving pang in my heart that won’t settle for a church that exists without emphasizing the beauty of diversity Christ calls His Bride to so clearly.
To the church in Galatia Paul wrote: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.” Galatians 3:26-29
As I sat in my car crying, I called my brother (who luckily for me, happens to be a pastor and my very best friend), and we unpacked the evening. At one point he said, “I love how much you love the church, how beautiful you believe Her to be. Do you know how many conversations I have each week where I have to try and convince people to believe what you already do? Kate – everyone is looking to ‘do church’ with people JUST LIKE THEMSELVES. I am constantly advocating, just like you are, for their hearts to desire the diversity painted for us in the New Testament. Affinity-identified churches are our generation’s desire, but diversity-identified churches are God’s desire for us. I know you’re hurting right now, but I’m so glad that you ‘see’ what God’s hope is for His beautiful Bride!”
Oh my fellow brothers & sisters, isn’t the fullness of His beautiful Bride that something our spirits long for?! And it’s God’s design that we pursue it on this side of eternity together. If you look around your circle of Christian pals and your church pews, and see only mirror-images of yourself… it’s time to start a big conversation; one that might be difficult, but so worth it as you point to Scripture and beg to see it’s reflection. And dear friends, if your worship and relationships include vastly different voices and wise disciples who exemplify different facets of faith than your own experiences – praise the Lord for that gift! Celebrate it’s beauty!
Remember that the only thread that matters when tying us into relationship is the common love of Jesus. As I type, I’m reminding my own heart that no community until heaven will be a truly perfect picture of diversity, but the gift of a diverse church is one worth fighting for! And hear this… if anyone has ever convinced you that you don’t “fit” in the body of Christ, that is a lie from the enemy. It’s painful to feel out of place, especially in what should be the safest of spaces, and I’m sorry if you are uneasy or outcast because of your skin color or salary or singleness. Let’s both preach this truth to ourselves:
Our Savior has covered us with Himself, we are welcomed into the Throne Room of the King of Kings, and we certainly “fit” into His plan and His church. We belong because we are His.