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In groups like the Advanced Training Institute, we have an identity and a community. We might not always like it, but it gives us a level of security. We are surrounded by people who think like us. We speak a different language from other people around us, using words like “courtship,” “motivational gift,” “rhema” and “wisdom search.” We laugh together about “Gothard gaps,” share concern over “the breakbeat in that song” and pray about “holes in your umbrella.”
Even when we use words all Christians use, like “faith” or “grace,” we ATI students know that the rest of the Christian world has the wrong definition for those words. We are the enlightened ones. When we are together, we all understand each other.
Then some of us see the problems with a lot of these ideas. Maybe we are reading our Bible and see something that is completely contrary to our ATI worldview. (What? Paul demanded his rights as a Roman citizen?) Maybe we follow all the principles and end up broken (and broke) and don’t get the blessing we were promised.
Sometimes someone just points out error after error, listening to our arguments, but still pointing us back to truth.
So we step away from ATI, and we find a good church. We are thrilled to let go of the burden of earning God’s favor and blessings. We are happy to hear that all those “other” Christians really aren’t the enemy we’ve been told they are.
We can’t wait to join this community of the bigger body of Christ. After all, we are coming from an “interdenominational” ministry and know how to fellowship with various denominations. We consider all those people our brothers and sisters and can’t wait to find our spot. And since ATI trained us to “see a need and meet it,” we jump in with both feet.
But when familiar-sounding ideas surface in our new community, we find ourselves on the defensive. We explain why we don’t tithe (you think God owes me something if I do that?) or why we don’t circumcise (haven’t you read Galatians?) or why we don’t teach our kids courtship, or watch the Duggars, or think saving your first kiss until your wedding is a good idea, or… So many ideas with baggage that our new community doesn’t understand.
Or we hear something that really sounds like legalism, not the grace we’ve so come to cherish. We expect our new friends to take the time to understand where we are coming from. Surely they’ll say, “Oh, I’m so glad you pointed that out. I didn’t realize it came across that way.”
But that doesn’t happen. We aren’t understood. We aren’t given grace. We’re confused and hurt. Why would the church of Jesus Christ, purchased because of grace, not extend it to one another? Don’t they know the horror of living in a graceless system? We do. We would have been happy to share our experiences. But now we are afraid.
Gradually, we learn the hard truth that there are no perfect churches. Deep down inside, we also know that we withhold grace ourselves. So what do we do?
Some of us just quit going to church altogether. Others go, but shield ourselves from too many relationships in the church because it’s just too painful to risk. Others just keep trying over and over to find a church where we fit in.
That’s where I am—trying to belong. Trying to find people who will not just be nice to me, but accept me. I’m looking for Christians who will take the time to understand why I act or think differently. Ideally, I want a church which values the experience I bring as a survivor of legalism.
I’ve tried churches, homeschool groups, multi-level marketing companies, Facebook groups, and co-ops. Surely, I tell myself, I’ll find a safe place. I’ll recover what I lost when I walked away from ATI—the identity and community, the special language, knowing that people understood me. I’ll find a place where I belong again.
But you know what? That might not ever happen. The “belonging” I left behind was a false security, and this is a fallen world. We will all fail our brothers and sisters. We will fail to rightly represent Jesus. We can’t be a perfect safe place.
But Jesus can. He never fails. He never lacks grace. He never misunderstands. The security He offers isn’t false or conditional. He is my Hiding Place, and I have a place in Him. I belong.