After I became a mother five years ago, it became really hard to feel like I fit in at church. Church-mom culture (CMC) is a very active subculture that pervades churches world-wide. Being a part of CMC basically takes the mom-guilt most of us already feel and adds in some God-guilt for good measure. I have learned by attending mom groups at church that there are a lot of assumptions that every woman feels the same way about God and has the same “right” perspective. I heard a lot of “as we all already know,” and “of course you have all read this,” and “Everyone knows this part of the Bible means this” and “We all know ___ is a sin,” and so on.
And on top of all that are even more assumptions and judgements about how you should discipline your children, where, when, and how you should feed your babies and children, how you should view modern medicine and science, where your children should go to school, how you should decide to give birth, how you should feel about being a mother, how you should view women’s role in leadership in the church, how you should view your role as a wife, and last, but certainly not least how much you should love watching other people’s children in the church nursery.
Are you exhausted yet? You can really feel should-on in that kind of environment.
I came to my Christian faith just over 12 years ago shortly after leaving a decade-long abusive relationship. Desperate to leave the life I had been living far behind me, I quickly began attending a church. Much to my relief, the church community seemed to immediately embrace me in my broken state and welcome me in. I was overwhelmed with invitations to every potluck, event, or group hang-out. After a few short months, I was at the church any time the doors were open. All of my close friends, who by then felt like family because of all the time we spent together, were a part of my church. Since living the life of a “good Christian girl” was all new to me, I made sure to observe everyone around me and study what others did so I could do it too. Every compliment about how godly I had become or how well I was understanding the Word of God fueled the part of me that wanted so badly to be accepted, respected, and loved.
In order to keep the compliments and praise coming, any part of myself that didn’t fit in with my church community died a swift death without pomp or circumstance.
I tried going to a different church. And then another one. And another one after that, but my “otherness” kept following me.
I needed the life I lived before, where I was disappointing people with all my screw ups, to be gone forever. If a part of myself felt doubt or questioned anything, I told it to hush because I couldn’t trust my feelings. I needed others to tell me how to be and the church is the perfect place to find that kind of direction.
Things went great for about a year or so, but then everything started to change. The questions and doubts I tried to chase away kept coming back. The parts of my personality I tried to kill off rose from the dead and decided they weren’t going away. I felt broken. I tried going to a different church. And then another one. And another one after that, but my “otherness” kept following me.
All the churches I attended over the years have been different from each other in some ways, but what has remained the same in all of them is this unhealthy part of church culture which requires at least some degree of assimilation in order to be invited into or remain in the “inner circle”.
If you weren’t in the inner circle, then you were a project — a person to “help.”
I was told “all are welcome” in church. Over and over again. I saw it on church signs, bulletins, and church websites, and heard it out of the mouths of pastors and parishioners alike. But what I was realizing is that while the invitation is genuine, it comes with a caveat — a caveat no one says out loud and most likely don’t even know they are participating in.
The caveat is this: Anyone is welcome to attend church as long as they understand they are expected to assimilate to church culture (both within that church and also within the larger church) and change in ways that have little or nothing to do with the kind of holy change we are called to that grows us in healthy ways all while allowing us to be ourselves. (That kind of god-directed change doesn’t have a timeline and doesn’t use guilt or shame.)
I finally had a realization that I had left one unhealthy relationship where someone was telling me how to be, what to do, and how to think, and moved on to another one. All of the pressure to conform and the lack of desire (and, truly, inability) to do so forced me to figure out ways to be a woman and mom of faith who wants friendship and community, but doesn’t want to participate in or be crushed by the church-mom culture wars.
The first thing I did was begin to trust myself. When something didn’t feel right to me or I felt hurt, I began to speak up. The more I trusted myself, the more confidence I gained to be who I was created to be all along. And the more myself I became, the closer I felt to God.
Unhealthy church culture tells us we need to be fearful of surrounding ourselves with people, ideals, and beliefs different from our own.
The next thing I did was expand my friendships and community to include others outside the church. This may sound obvious, but I had to ask myself honestly if I was really open to people who weren’t a part of, and were not going to be a part of, my church. When I became more mindful about this, I was able to create some of the deepest and richest relationships I’ve ever had, both inside and outside of the church, with people from all religions, cultures, races, orientations, and ages. The more diverse my community becomes, the more clearly I see God and the more I understand myself.
Unhealthy church culture tells us we need to be fearful of surrounding ourselves with people, ideals, and beliefs different from our own because it will pull us away from God, but I have found out first hand this is just not true. When Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he didn’t say our neighbor sitting next to us in the pew. Loving others as opposed to tolerating others is what we are called to do.
And finally, I have allowed myself to feel the hurt and pain that comes from being a part of an unhealthy church culture. I feel the anger and I don’t allow the idea that anger is wrong to push it down. Once I feel the anger, I am able to use those feelings to fuel my desire to speak up and advocate for church reform. Changing culture can take a long time, but the more we push against these things which were created by man and not God, the faster they will shift. Allowing ourselves time to mourn and express our disillusionment with the church is not unholy or without grace. Unhealthy church culture demands we rush through or completely dismiss the anger and pain to immediately forgive and show grace. But that’s not how forgiveness and grace work. In order to truly change unhealthy church culture to actually be inclusive for everyone it is going to take a church that is willing to truly listen, believe, understand, change, be open and vulnerable, then rinse and repeat.
As women and mothers we need to be willing to trust ourselves and know the difference between the kind of change all humans are called to in order to make us the best versions of ourselves, and the kind of change others put on us for their own agenda or comfort. We can’t control anyone but ourselves, so when we find that our needs aren’t being met or we aren’t feeling welcome at church, we need to speak up and say something. If things don’t improve, it’s okay to leave. It really is. There is so much love available out there in this wild world, we just have to be courageous enough to seek it.