My family and I lived in an urban area of Michigan for fifteen years. Then, we moved back to our roots in Iowa, cornfields and, well, more cornfields. One of the first things my girls asked me after living in Iowa for a few days was, “Dad, where are all the Black people?” They were simply struck with all the homogeneity – lots of white people... and corn. Maybe you, like me, have strolled into a church on a Sunday morning and are immediately aware of how much the people are all alike, whether it is race or something else. Typically, in any given church on any given occasion, the people talk pretty much the same; wear pretty much the same clothes; and, act pretty much the same.
Too often we focus on fitting in rather than belonging. We know how to talk, what to wear, and how to make the people around us happy. We know what not to mention, what subjects to avoid, and how to be nice even though we fought like cats and dogs on the way to church. After all, we want to fit in by appearing to have it all together, right? Researcher and author Brene Brown does as good as job as anyone in making the critical distinction between fitting in versus belonging. She says, “fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
We all need a secure sense of belonging. We do not all need to fit in. Likely the reason for the presence of a Christian and/or Evangelical subculture lies in this tendency to want to fit in. So, we learn how to wear gaudy t-shirts, place provocative bumper stickers on our cars, and be generally obnoxious to those who disagree with us because we want to fit in with our group of whatever-we-call-ourselves. It is important to note, however, that we are not hardwired by God to fit in, but we are specially wired by him to be loved and to belong.
Even within local churches, there can be cliques which focus more on a special issue or interest rather than Christ. It was into such a situation that Paul said to the Roman church, “For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” He went on to make this conclusion: “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:8-12).
It is not our job as Christians or church leaders to force people into fitting in. Rather, it is our responsibility before God to give people a proper sense of belonging in Christ. We all have a desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. As Christians, we long to see God’s kingdom come on earth and to see his will done here as it is in heaven. We want to be a part of God’s grand work of spreading the good news of Jesus. Fitting in to whatever is chic and seeking cheap approval are hollow imitations of the real deal. True authentic belonging will only happen when we are real and open about ourselves to the people and the church to which we are committed.
If we constantly fear what others think of us; measure our words in order to be accepted; or, swear at ourselves under our breath when we screw up; then, we have a problem with trying to fit in. It is much better to be who we are and simply invite the Holy Spirit of God to do any kind of work in us that needs to be done, rather than being someone we are not in the false notion that people will reject us if they knew who we really are. What is more, when others let us in and open ever so slightly their real selves, there needs to be unconditional love and empathy. To sit and stare at another person like they are from Mars will not only shut down authenticity, it will push truth to the margins of the church. If the truth will set us free, then we can only expect bondage when genuine sharing is not met with love.
Practicing belonging instead of fitting in can be looked at as a spiritual discipline. That is, honing-in on belonging to Christ and to one another are to be daily decisions of faith and commitment. The church needs more Christians who belong, and less mindless conformity to cultural standards of fitting in. We all need to give and receive love each and every day – the kind of love that Jesus displayed and practiced. We do not need the second hand smoke of ornery believers who press others to be like them. This is a conversation worth having with any small group or leadership team so that we foster a solid sense of godly belonging. So, go for it and resist the temptation to be quiet and fit in.