Theological FAQ:

I keep visiting churches, but I just don't fit. I always feel out of place. What am I supposed to do?

For starters, you aren't supposed to fit — if by "fit" you mean fit in. That is what our wider culture often means by "fit." Ever since high school, we have learned to fit by fitting in, by conforming to the group. People naturally bring those connotations and expectations with them to their churches and other Christian relationships. The perfect church is one where everyone is comfortable. People who look like we expect them to are constantly affirmed, their conventions reinforced, and their differences hidden or overlooked until the group takes them over. People who don't look like we expect them to are unwelcomed, rebuffed, alienated, and isolated until they finally give up on "Christianity" (or at least "organized religion") and look for another way.

I see this picture confirmed with heartbreaking regularity both with students entering college, and with graduates entering "the real world." The former search for social circles in Christian college that imitate the conformist standards of American youth culture. The latter search for church cultures like the college cloister they have grown used to. Whether they succeed or fail in finding what they are looking for, they are soon discouraged and wonder whether God is not after all the wrong prescription for their malaise.

The trouble lies not with God, but with what they imagine God to be offering them. Christian faith is not a fascistic cause to which each of us sacrifices his or her identity. Nor is it an individualistic journey in which each of us goes it alone. It refuses both the warm comfort of assimilation and the cold comfort of isolation, for the ultimate and only true comfort of sanctification.

Oh, the Holy Spirit conforms us all right — but conformity is not conformism, for the work of God conforms us only to the image of Christ. Sanctification makes us holy, which is to say that it makes us odd. It sets us apart. We stick out rather than fitting in, as Jesus did. Moreover, because Christ is only (!) the head of his whole body, we stick out from each other. Peruse a dictionary of saints and you will discover that people who really follow Jesus to the finish end up looking both like him and wildly different from those around them.

That apparent contradiction should not be so surprising. In counseling the messed up church at Corinth, Paul rejects the language of mutual conformity in favor of the language of specialization and mutual service:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. ... For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the one body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-12).

To dwell on Paul's body language, think about your liver. It has a funny shape. What it does, it does alone. But what it does is essential to the health of your body and every other organ in it. A body that drove it away because of its difference would become gravely ill.

What you do, you may do alone, as a liver. Or you may do it along with others, as kidneys or lymph nodes. What is important is that you do it in the Spirit.

It is true that many of us, especially in higher Christian education, are formed in ways that make us uncomfortable in bodies that prefer conformism to catholicity. I belong to a church where few of the people think and live like me. If I viewed them from expectations of being just like me, I would become disappointed and estranged. But our differences make it good that I am there — not only for others, but also for me. This is why we need each other. "If the whole body were an eye, were would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?" (1 Cor. 12:17). The discomfort we cause each other should be a sign not that some of us do not belong, but that all of us need to grow together. Churches that tolerate the latter kind of discomfort mature into strong and well habituated bodies.

Our provost once remarked that Westmont aims to graduate people who don't fit. I agree with the substance of her claim, but I worry that the popular connotations of the word "fit" make it easy to misunderstand. What we want to do at Westmont is honor the variety of members in Christ's body, by forming people in ways that make them uniquely suited to the tasks they are called to — that make them fit precisely because they do not conform to anyone else but Christ.

If you let such differences keep you from Christian fellowship, you are cutting yourself off from the one thing that can make you truly whole. If you drive others away from Christian fellowship because of such differences, you are killing them, and also killing yourself.

Grace and peace, Telford