When You Feel Left Out at Church
It is a miserable thing to feel alone in a crowd of Christians. There is nothing more lonely. It seems like you are the only one who doesn’t fit in. Jesus promised you a family in Christ and yet you struggle to be connected to anyone. You are never meant to be isolated like this in God’s family…and I know it hurts.
I used to attend a church of thousands. I would come to the same service every week and sit in the same seats with my family. The atmosphere seemed friendly. It felt like there was great fellowship all around me. I shared the room with so many people around me it appeared like we were bonded. The problem was it was just that, an appearance. It was an illusion carefully fostered through the design of the service and building. They had friendly looking staff, a casual coffee bar, relaxed ambiance, and exciting music to draw you in. The issue was they did not have actual human relationships. This was not Christian love expressed. It was just marketing to give the feel of love.
I was a new believer at the time and excited. I read the Bible about being part of the Body of Christ. I yearned for close relationships with others in this new adventure of loving Jesus. I made an effort week after week to show up at church looking for fellowship. Yet, the people themselves also seemed not to care. No one seemed to notice or pay attention. Thousands of believers around and none of them cared a bit for me? These Christians were too busy and too overbooked. They were content to come for an hour each week and “feel” connected without actually being bonded in Christ. The fellowship only went an inch deep but it was way easier this way.
There certainly wasn’t a Paul to be Timothy alongside. Each week I hoped to be included and loved. I left feeling rejected and more confused. Was this the family love that Jesus talked about? Feeling more alone in the crowd each Sunday?
It was enough that I did not want to come back to any church, not just that one. It is terrible to be rejected. It is worse when you are a believer and it is the church you feel left out of. Feeling invisible at church is a terrible thing.
This is Christianity without a full understanding of the love of Jesus.
It is sadly the situation in many churches in modern Christianity. Thousands of people coming to one room as a church but only passing each other by.
The entire ministry of Jesus was about others. He came for love. How could His church be missing the same focus?
I prayed in pain, sorrow and anger about it. I asked God to answer me why this was happening.
“Why aren’t people reaching out, loving and discipling like I see in the Bible? ” He answered in a way I was not expecting:
“Why aren’t you, Tom? I see you. I love you. I am with you. Now you see the problem. You feel the pain. You know the isolation. Go and be the person you wish someone would be to you.
Be like Barnabas!”
My disappointment had caused me to focus on others. It was understandable and the church culture was broken. But I stopped there. This was a waste of what God was doing with me. I stopped with my pain and anger. It made me part of the problem rather than part of God’s solution. Pain is never useless in the Lord. It is what you do in response with it that matters.
God called me to “be like Barnabas”, what does that mean? It is being the person willing to reach out to the disciple around you in love, even when no one else will.
It is following the example of Jesus rather than the culture.
A Scary Disciple
Paul was initially rejected by the church in Jerusalem. He was newly saved and tried to join the fellowship. The problem was they were all too afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer. It is understandable. The Bible records Saul’s efforts to destroy the disciples in Jerusalem. He jailed them, had them killed, and in some cases forced them to blaspheme the name of Jesus. He was a terrifying figure before Christ.
The church wants nothing to do with him. It was their friends, family, and brothers in Christ Paul sought to stomp out. They heard about his conversion but fear and distrust are strong motivators. Paul was on his own. He was excluded from the church. This decision left a huge divide in the church. One of God’s sheep was left out of the group. This is never God’s intention!
Your church likely does not have a Paul. Yet, every gathering of believers has many potential lines of divisions. There are always potential tensions and differences to be bridged. They could be age, race, style of dress, popularity, or socioeconomic status. People naturally gravitate to those like themselves. The current political climate reinforces these tensions and encourages dividing. God wants to use all of our uniqueness for His glory. Man wants to tear us apart. It is also easy for a church to become a drive through service as people zip through life with no significant interactions with others in the Body of Christ.
A Son of Encouragement
This is where God’s family needs Barnabas – a Christian filled with love and encouragement for those in the church. People who are willing to see the natural gaps that can separate the Body for what they are: opportunities to show God’s beautiful diversity. A tapestry of only one color is just a blanket. One of a million colors is magnificent. We call these modern Barnabas’ “glue people”. They are the ones who pull a group together with the love of Jesus no matter the cost.
“Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus. So Saul stayed with the apostles and went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.” Acts 9:27-29a.
The man’s real name was Joseph and he was a Levite. The Apostles gave him the nickname “Barnabas”. He is one of the underrated great men of the Bible. Paul gets most of the attention for the missionary journeys. Barnabas was right there with him. He and Paul were the first missionary team to the Gentiles in Church history. After they separated, Barnabas continued on the mission field taking John Mark with him to reach the world for Jesus. He preached the Lord and brought many to faith in Jesus.
Our account, though, focuses on a different aspect than his preaching or missionary activity. Though he was named Joseph, he is remembered by his nickname Barnabas because of what it signified.
Barnabas means “Son of Consolation” or “Son of Exhortation” or “Son of Encouragement“.
Consolation is something that helps another person feel better after a loss or disappointment. It is synonymous with solace, sympathy, compassion or empathy.
Exhortation means to summon to one’s side or entreat. It involves developing deep relationships with people to encourage them in their spiritual walks.
Encouragement means the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope
What an awesome nickname for a Christian! What great values to have in your Body of Christ! What an example of Christ!
Barnabas was not born with this name, he earned it from the men who walked with Jesus. His day to day life was defined by reaching out and making others feel better. His developing relationships with others to uplift and edify them was noticeable. He would be the one weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice and suffer with those who suffered in the church.
His service to the Lord so defined him that Peter and the Apostles named him for it.
What are we known for as believers?
When people observe our Christian walk, what do they see? Are we characterized by works of the Spirit?
What might our nickname be?
It makes perfect sense that Barnabas is at the forefront when newly Christian Paul returns to Jerusalem and there are problems. Paul comes back from a foreign land to his people and the city of his Lord and seeks to join the church.
Can you imagine how moving and difficult that was for Paul? It was the city that was the Jewish center of the world and where Jesus Himself preached. It was also the city where Saul tore apart the church and killed the saints. How hard it must have been for Saul to see the place where he had taken part in Stephen’s stoning.
The church turns him away out of fear. Paul had met the Risen Lord, and they thought he was faking it. How painful this must have been.
Then the man characterized by consolation and exhortation steps in. He brings Paul alongside him and offers encouragement. He bridges the divide and makes the way for Paul’s conversion to define him. He focuses on the good in Paul. He focuses on the transforming work of Jesus in him. He repairs the fractures that formed among the believers.
Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
Barnabas takes a great chance on Paul. It was who he was – the one who comforts, empathizes, encourages. He was an imitator of Christ so he forgives, he keeps no record of wrongs and reaches out for the Lost Sheep.
Paul was a believer who was likely hurting, excluded by the church, experiencing the consequences of past sins, unable to move forward in the church. That is when Barnabas was at his best. Barnabas is a great reflection of the grace of God.
I am just a flawed Christian who felt invisible at church. I was lonely and felt left out of Jesus’ Body. You may be here right now. Yet, God called me to change my attitude and be like Barnabas – a son of consolation, encouragement, and exhortation. He called me to look outward and be His solution. I found out there are so many others just as lost, left out and lonely as I was. They just did not know what to do about it.
Was I willing to be to them the person I wanted someone to be to me?
I could be the hands and feet of Jesus and offer love and acceptance to even the scariest people in the Body of Christ. I could make a way for them as well as the shy, the introverted, the awkward, and the angry into the Body of Christ.
The people of that I was church were indeed self involved, self centered and overly busy. Yet, I was forgetting I was one of the people of the church. I struggled with all those same things. Jesus loved me despite my failures. It is unreasonable and ungrateful of me to expect people to be perfect before I would love them.
I accepted God’s direction and started reaching across divides. Sometimes it worked and lifelong friendships were formed. Other times, it didn’t and the person I reached out rejected my offer of fellowship. I ultimately left that church because their model worked against the seeking of real fellowship. You may have to go to another to find a new church if yours is unwilling to change.
The funny thing is I have never felt alone since regardless of the response. I am doing the Lord’s work in offering His love to His lonely sheep. I desperately need Him to carry out His will. He is so clearly with me every step of the way I cannot help but feel part of Him.
Even alone in a crowd with Jesus doesn’t feel lonely.
I have been blessed to see the fruit of responding to Jesus’ call. My church now is smaller than the one of thousands I used to attend. Yet, it is a church of love, encouragement, friendship, and exhortation. It is a church filled with Barnabas’ and those in training to be Barnabas..and it is wonderful.
I refuse to be ok with someone not being offered the love of Jesus when they walk through our doors.
Take heart if you are a lonely Christian today. Be encouraged if you are feeling invisible in your church. The Lord has given you insight and wisdom about a problem. Bring your pain to the Lord and lay it before Him. Be honest with the issues you are facing and seeing. Then ask Him whether you are the answer to your own prayer.
Are you being called to be Barnabas to your church, family, friends or workplace?
Are you willing to push past the fear and earn the nickname Son or Daughter of Encouragement, Exhortation, and Consolation?
Do you want others to see you and immediately think of Barnabas?