I have tried three times tonight to go to sleep. And each time, I just end up sitting there, thinking and getting upset. So I eventually thought, stuff it. Let’s get up and write my thoughts out and do something productive. It’s probably going to be the kind of post I shouldn’t write. But that’s who I am. I’m honest about my feelings and I’m honest about my pain. And really, I don’t think there’s much point in writing about personal experiences unless you are honest. It’s honesty that makes a piece of writing worth reading - in my opinion anyway.
So anyway, what I have been thinking about is in-groups. Now people who are in the ‘in-group’ usually don’t even realise there is one. I’ve been in heaps of situations where I point out there is an ‘in-group’ and those who are in the ‘in-group’ go, ‘no, there isn’t’ and people who are out of the ‘in-group’ nod their heads in acknowledgment. It’s really hard to recognise the in-group when you’re inside of it. It’s hard to miss when you’re outside of it.
I’ve spent most of my life not in the in-group. I’ve looked at it from outside, wishing I was a part of it. It was like that at school. It’s quite often like that in church. Today, I felt a bit like that at my own birthday party.
And that’s okay. Because in-groups are rarely a deliberate decision to exclude people. Most people in an in-group don’t realise that anyone is being excluded at all. They’re more like the goldfish swimming in water analogy, used mainly to describe worldviews. When people are swimming in it, they don’t see it’s there. And to take the analogy further, they also don’t see that not some people might want to share their goldfish bowl.
And look, to be honest, I’m sure there’s been times when I’ve been part of an in-group and been oblivious to those out of it as well. I try to recognise it. Mainly because, as I said, I’ve spent most of my life out of the in-group. I know how much it hurts.
I think actually one of the most painful things about not being part of the in-group is other people’s inability to actually see it. Often people in an in-group will say things like, everybody is welcomed and included here. But so often, way more often than we realise, people don’t feel included for one reason or another. It may be because the people in the in-group are really good friends and it’s hard for them to accept another good friend into their midst. They could be so tightly bound together that it’s hard for other people to inch their way into the circle. Others are welcome at the outer edge, but there’s no room left in the centre. And when ties are strong, people will automatically turn to those already in the in-group first, rather than looking to outsiders. And it can also be because some people are shy and find it difficult to reach out to others - and those in the circle don’t need to reach out to anyone outside of it.
We all want to belong. I think it’s one of the prime needs of a human being. We want to belong. We want to feel accepted. Not all of us get that. Even in church.
I feel like I belong to my church. Even though I keep leaving and disagree with this, that and other, I still feel like I belong. I also feel accepted - exactly as I am, warts and all.
But although I feel like I belong to my church now, I didn’t for ages. And maybe that’s partly my fault. I am shy. I do lack confidence. I have had that much rejection in my life that it’s really hard to reach out to others - especially as so often, when I do, I simply get rejected again. That makes it hard to make friends at all. But at the same time, when you are shy, lacking confidence, fearing rejection, the last thing you need is to go to church and find that (just like high school) there’s an in-group and you’re not part of it. And sometimes the church itself seems like the inner circle, and when you’re not part of that, you don’t feel like part of the church at all.
We tend to think of in-groups as something that only teenagers worry about. I remember thinking when I was a teenager that I couldn’t wait until I was an adult and all the worry about in-groups was behind me. But it still hurts even when you’re 37. You can still feel like an outsider no matter how old you are. You can still feel like you’re just not quite good (pretty, friendly, outgoing, funny, smart) enough. You can also feel like everybody else has all these really good ties and friendships and they just don’t have room for you.
It’s so easy to think that our group of friends are just our group of friends. And we visit them, and we hang around them, and we talk to them on the phone and we go out for coffee together because they’re our friends. And of course everyone wants to hang out with their friends. But do we really think about the people who need our friendship? Do we think about the people who might be looking in, wishing they were part of our circle of friendship? Those who might be hurting because they just want to be accepted and loved by somebody? Those who feel like everybody belongs except them?
And one thing that often gets said is people who need acceptance and friendship from church just need to reach out for it. But the analogy I often use is, even if a person with two broken legs can get instant healing if they go to the altar, they can’t get there by themselves. Somebody needs to be prepared to help them. And sometimes, I’m afraid to say, people do reach out - and feel rejected. And then it makes it all the more harder to reach out the next time.
If I had one wish for the church it would be this - that every church, in every place could be a place where EVERYONE felt like they belonged. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Partly because people feel like they can’t fit the mould. Partly it’s because people’s own fears, insecurities, shyness keeps them from belonging. But partly I think it’s because we often don’t do enough to help people through those fears and insecurities. We’re so focused on what’s happening inside the group that we don’t see who’s struggling outside of it.