Leaving the Party Scene

This is (part) of my story as to how Jason and I came to be involved in a house church. It’s a bit more personal than I normally like to share on here. I previously wrote this post for a few other women that I share more personal stuff with. Some elements of it have been changed in an attempt to “lighten” it up a bit.

I have moderate social anxiety issues, especially when it comes to interacting with people in my own age group. I don’t know where this phobia of peer interaction stems from; don’t get me wrong, I do very well with both elders and juniors – my years of conversing with adults at the farmer’s market stand and working in children’s ministry were of some benefit. However, I didn’t interact much with people my own age, and as a result I find myself somewhat terrorized by the idea of being among “equals”. I never had regular dosages of it, and to this day I feel alienated from most other 20-30 somethings.

I can’t really go to large social gatherings anymore, not without a full day of being nice to myself to get me through. The past few times I’ve tried attending a party on a Friday night, after a full day (and week) of work, I’ve gone home and laid on the couch completely exhausted afterwards. My brain gets stuck in vicious cycle of comparison at such events – I spend most of my time frantically glancing around me and feeling inferior. She’s better. And so is she. Better hair. Better skin. Better dressed. More educated. Better job. Better marriage. B Happier. Friendlier. Everyone is looking at me. Everyone is judging my messy hair. My bad posture. My deer-in-the-headlights-why-isn’t-she-talking-to-anyone aura.

I don’t justify this anxiety. I am working on it. I’m getting better at knowing what I need to get through situations like that. I’m getting better at preparing myself for social interaction so that I don’t resort to shrinking behind my socially capable husband and guilting him into leaving early because I’m obviously on the verge of a meltdown.

The irony of my life found me attending one of those hip, post-evangelical churches for the first five years of Jason being my partner. You know, where mostly everyone who attends is either a 20-something well-educated career-focused individual who may or may not be married, or is a 30-something family unit with 2.5 adorable kids dressed in handmade clothes where the wife stays at home and bakes organic bread all day and the husband works as a graphic designer.

(For the record, I know a lot of amazing people who fit into these stereotypes and I don’t think they’re awful hipsters. I’m just using exaggerated characterizations).

It was Jason’s church before we started dating, and being that I didn’t really have a church that I was attending I started going along with him. For five years, I fought my instincts to run out the door as soon as the service was over. Oh God, please please please not socialization around the Fair Trade coffee table. Please no awkward conversations with some well-meaning mom trying to be nice to me as I cowered against the wall. Please no forced greetings from my husband’s guy pals while I stand next to him patiently (not so patiently) waiting to get out of here. And then the comparing starts it’s riot in my brain and I’m a complete wreck and any spiritual benefit I may have reaped from the actual church service is consumed in the inferno of social anxiety. I have literally run out the door in a panic. I have hid in the bathroom. I have intentionally arrived late in order to avoid small talk. I have opted out of taking communion because all of the people serving were men and I was kind of appalled by this. I’ve felt extremely disconnected because I knew my beliefs didn’t line up 100% with the person behind the podium, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to say otherwise.

The worst part is that I knew I had things to share. I knew, deep down, that I am a creative, passionate person. I knew that if I could only figure out how to use my mouth and toughen up I could have a real conversation about social justice or some amazing artistic break through I’d made earlier that week. I knew that I could, in a sense, become OK with myself and not give heed to my inbred tendency to feel inferior to my peers. But the traditional church setting often felt very much like a party, and I could never get past the chaos and superficiality of it.

For a time, the church met in homes every other Sunday to try to facilitate deeper community within the body. I could handle this. It was still a challenge, but it was so much more of a healthy challenge. In a living room setting where everyone was free to share something and even encouraged to do so, I could say, “Yes, I’m an artist” or “Yes, I’ve given this topic a lot of thought”. I could feel encouraged by feedback, by prayers offered up for my struggles. I could sing along with the person on the guitar and feel the sweet balm that comes from simple melodies strung together in a small group. We were there for each other, for deeper interactions that just couldn’t happen with 60 other people milling around you in a converted warehouse space.

The church decided it was too confusing to continue meeting in this rhythm. Jason and I were adamant supporters of the house church setting, so we took it upon ourselves to continue small groups in a different time slot. We started a group in our own rented flat and pushed through the first few months to watch our gathering of four or five people forge deeply intimate relationships with one another. Midway through our first year, the church that we had been operating under changed their location, their mission, their doctrines, and their general direction so we stopped attending what we had come to refer to as “big church”.

We kept “small church” though. We were skeptical about the fact that people were now considering us their “pastors”, in a sense – we fully believe that churches should be run in as democratic a way as possible with every member (regardless of gender or life status) having some sort of say in how the church operates. But we wanted to keep going, and so did the other members. So we cleaned our house every Sunday afternoon and opened our doors and created snack schedules and kept the gears turning. We never wanted to be looked at as spiritual authorities, but we have come to accept our role as practical facilitators amongst the group.

At some point, another couple graciously agreed to host because we had outgrown our apartment. Over the last year, our group has grown from 5 to 16.  Most of us are “churchless” people – those who dance around the outer circles of skepticism and never quite feel comfortable in a traditional church setting.This made me doubtful for a little while about the validity of what we were doing – after all, isn’t evangelism a huge part of my faith? Isn’t it my job to bring people closer to God and not allow them to wade around in their doubts too long?

Jason and I were having a conversation about this one day, and he gave a metaphor based off of this photo:

This was taken on our trip to the southwest last fall. You can’t really tell from this photo, but we were actually hiking along the top of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. We were about 1/2 a mile from this:

Having doubts or difficulties with your faith is actually really similar. Sometimes, you don’t always appear to be close to something beautiful or awe-inspiring; sometimes, it just looks like a walk in the forest. But why would you judge someone for their particular stage in the journey? I’ve come to realize that it’s not my job to bring people closer to God – who am I to judge how close they are in the first place? Who am I to deny anyone the opportunity to ask questions and to be accepted into a community? Instead, it’s my job to provide a place where the Holy Spirit can interact with us in whatever way each individual needs.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others…Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2: 1-4, 12-13)

It’s likely that no two of us shares the exact same set of beliefs. Everyone has some area of discomfort in our faith. We are honest when we disagree. We are honest about our struggles.

But we’re also OK with that. It doesn’t divide us, it doesn’t give us the excuse to judge one another and not operate out of love. After all, if I truly believe that God is both all powerful and all loving, shouldn’t I also be able to believe that he is able to handle all of us working out our own salvation?

When someone says, “I feel this way about _____________” and someone else says, “but I feel this way about __________” we take it in stride. Jason and I still “facilitate” and this past year I’ve taken on the role of leading up social justice and service initiatives with another member. But everyone takes a turn leading or contributing, and that’s really important and beautiful to me. We meet on Thursdays, not Sundays. We have entire nights where nothing spiritual happens other than the beautiful act of sharing a meal together. We sing hymns and laugh about the range one would need to hit every note. We serve meals together at homeless shelters and clean up disorganized donation spaces at inner city ministries.

We went caroling together this past Christmas and people kept asking us, “Who are you? Where are you from? Are you a church? A group?” We never had a great answer. Sometimes, a few of us will meet up on a Sunday morning for what we jokingly refer to as “The Roving Church of God”, and we’ll visit a “big” church in the area – a Catholic church, a Messianic Jewish church, a Lutheran church. And some nights when I wonder where in the world this conversation is going, I jokingly  refer to our meeting as “Skeptics Anonymous”.

But mostly I just say that on Thursday nights, I go to a house church. Aside from sporadic visits to area churches, I haven’t been a part of any organized church for over a year. There may come a day when I seek that out, but for right now I’m content.

You might say, in a sense, that I’ve left the church party scene. When we meet, I am with family, and I feel far less inclined to compare myself to my family than with superficial acquaintances. I owe it to my family to have deeper conversations, to push past the constant hum of my social anxiety. I am better because of these people. I know God more because of them.

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