Last Saturday night, a friend asked me what I was up to, and I told him "nothing"... but that was only half true. A few minutes later I decided to be a little more transparent, and shared with him my struggle.
What I was doing, was having my usual Saturday night battle in my head. About church. I'm a Christian, and I do enjoy attending church. Not only that, I see the value in fellowship, and believe in the mandate to corporate worship with other believers. This wasn't a problem a few years ago. Before the divorce.
I was attending a church at the time, that we really liked. We felt comfortable there, liked the people, the music, the preaching... and had even been a part of the church plant, when it was started from our previous church. We'd been in that church through the coming and going and coming again of several children (foster and adoptive placements), and felt supported there through all those trials with the kids.
Then when my ex moved out, he began taking the kids most weekends. We've been blessed to have no battles over custody or visitation or anything like that, and it worked well that he would take the kids on his weekends (giving me a break from the stress of being a single mom for a few days a week), and I would have them during the week. What that meant ultimately, though... was most Sundays I didn't have kids with me. I didn't realize that was going to be such a big deal, but it has been.
For the first several months I continued to go to the same church... but people started to get distant. I wasn't sure if it was the stigma of divorce that was the issue (though I wasn't sure precisely how they would have known, since I hadn't told many people there), or something else. It started becoming apparent that people that I didn't have established friendships with outside of the church weren't talking to me at all... and they used to, when I had my kids around. The realization of the problem came down after I invited a buddy to go Christmas Caroling with a group from the church that December. We had a great time, spread some cheer around the neighborhood, and came back to the church for hot drinks and cookies afterward. And that's when it happened... someone in church leadership (an associate pastor - it was a small church, and as I'd said, I had been a part of it from the early planning stages) came up to meet my friend, compliment his singing voice and try to recruit him for the worship team or choir. I introduced him, and they talked for a bit. Then that same pastor turned to me and asked "what's your name?" And it hit me. Hard. Why I was feeling distant. Why people weren't talking to me. Why I felt so lonely in church every week. Without my husband and children there, making up the "family unit" they were used to... I had no identity. Nobody had any clue who I was. I had been the mom of my kids, the wife of my husband... and nothing else. No one else. Without my family, I was invisible.
It wasn't long after that, that I started to find excuses for not going (sitting there feeling invisible hurt too much.) Then I found another church... the services were in the evening, which was great for those hard-to-get-moving days. I started going with my good friend (the same one that had gone to the Caroling party with me), and I enjoyed it there! Sometimes my kids came along, but usually they were with their dad. People were friendly, they valued authenticity and community, the sermons were great, as was the music... I felt like I might have found a church home. Then my friend got cold feet... he evidently wanted to be able to meet the single ladies in the church, and he was afraid that sitting next to me was impeding that, because people would think we were a couple. The first week he refused to sit with me, the rejection stung... and it was made even worse by the sermon being on marriage and what it's supposed to be... which just highlighted all the things my sham of a marriage was NOT. And I sat in the back of the church alone and cried through the service, and snuck out the back at the end. That day triggered my fear of going to church alone, off feeling like a lonely loser, and of being there by myself making me MORE depressed. Whereas before I would feel filled-up and joyful at church, now I felt empty and sad. It hurt more to go than to stay home. When I could talk my friend into occasionally sitting with me, I was fine. When I was dating someone and brought them along, I was just dandy. When I had my kids and brought them... all good. But when I had no one... when I had to go by myself... it hurt. In a deep, aching, gnawing way.
I eventually had to leave that church because the service times weren't working - the transition of the kids between their dad and myself left them emotionally dysregulated and the late service (they shared a building with another church) wasn't doable. It's a real bummer, too... since the people in that church were more welcoming than any I've found anywhere else.
I've tried a few other churches since then, when I've been able to drag myself there, to face that empty, lonely feeling... only to find there was no relief. Churches generally have a meet-and-greet time partway through the worship time, during which the people are instructed to "go say hi and introduce yourself to someone you don't know!" This is where my introversion becomes an issue, because small talk isn't my forte, and I'm not super outgoing... but despite looking around and trying to make myself appear friendly and available, I'd be lucky each week if ONE person said hello to me or asked my name.
And that's where I pulled the title of this blog.
People, I'm a Christian. I WANT to be in church. But if I'm not feeling welcome in your midst... if I feel excluded and invisible and inconsequential... how are you coming across to someone who wandered in looking for Christ? Seeking? Looking for a place to belong. Are they going to find acceptance there? Are they going to feel a part of things? Will they ever come back?
Admittedly, I'm picky about churches... I prefer a family-integrated model, and I'm decidedly against topical preaching, preferring expository - going verse by verse through a passage. So mega-churches, who are known for their welcoming committees and "entertainment value", aren't going to fit the bill for me. And I know part of this issue is mine to claim, since I don't make a point of introducing myself to everyone, and I tend to sneak out without staying for the social hour after, because I can't stand being the lonely loser standing by the wall, sipping coffee alone, too inimportant for anyone to talk to. And I know no church is perfect, but being ignored, feeling unwelcome and invisible... that defeats the point of fellowship.
So... back to that Saturday night conundrum. It's a battle of wills with myself about whether I'm strong enough to face that empty feeling the next morning... or whether to wuss out and watch a sermon online. It's a struggle of decision - do I go back to one of the churches I've tried and hope this time will be different, or do I try somewhere new? It's a war inside my mind that I don't see ending anytime soon. So every Saturday night... that's largely what I'm doing. (And if I happen to have a date on a Saturday night, it's what I do after the date!)
Just needed to process that...