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I'm terrified of going back to church.

9 months ago, I wrote a piece on how much it sucks when you're not invited to something.

At the time, I felt isolated and excluded.

I had just gone through a break-up, my parents and sister had moved overseas, my social group was shifting, and I no longer knew where I fitted in my community.

There was hurt and loneliness, and I spent a lot of sleepless nights crying out in frustration. On one of those nights, I wrote:

"Oh, Papa. My chest feels so tight. The corners of my mouth are heavy. My shoulders hurt, and my insides feel queasy. I'm so lost. I don't understand why I was excluded. I want to fix my eyes on you, but the tears make everything blurry. This hurts. I feel so left out. Why am I not wanted here?"

The response to that blog post in January took me by surprise. I was swamped by messages from friends -and strangers- who struggled with the same sense of loneliness. I was encouraged, but also deeply saddened. How could it be that so many of us felt the same sting of exclusion?

Little did I know back then that this would be a year of such dramatic social upheaval. A year that has, for many of us, amplified that sense of loneliness and rejection. Social-distancing restrictions have forced us to make tricky decisions about which friends to invite to things, and how to gather in small groups without offending or excluding anyone.

It’s been tough, and I haven’t always gotten it right. But what I have learned this year is that community doesn't happen by accident. It's not a passive construct. It's built. Intentionally. Bit by bit.

I'll be honest: I still catch my breath when I see Instagram stories of things I wasn't invited to. But I'm finding so much peace and freedom in knowing that my value has absolutely nothing to do with the fullness (or emptiness) of my social calendar. Whether I catch up with 20 people this week or two, my worth remains the same.

9 months ago I didn't have the answers. I still don't. But I've spent the last few months asking God to teach me what building community looks like, and I'm learning a lot. Inclusion is a nice idea, but what does that mean on a practical level? I believe that together we can:

1. Think beyond our inner circles (Romans 12:16). None of us think we’re the issue or that we’re part of a clique until we’re on the outside of one. Most of us would never intend to leave others out. It’s great to have a small group of close friends, but let’s aim to look outside of our circle for others who may be on the fringe. Who can we reach out to?

2. Examine our motives before posting photos from a gathering or talking about the weekend’s social events with people who weren’t invited (Philippians 2:3-4). That doesn’t mean we have to be secretive, but it’s good to be aware of the times when we’re sharing for the sake of promoting our own sense of ‘social status’ (which I am most definitely guilty of).

3. Always be ready to say yes (Romans 12:13). Yes, our friend can bring someone. Yes, their sister can join too. Yes, partners are welcome. Yes, the neighbours are invited. If someone asks and we have the capacity (or physical space) to include more, we can say yes. 

4. Be the connectors (Ephesians 4:2-3). It’s unrealistic to try and be best friends with every new person in our community. But what we can do is make an effort to connect them in with other like-minded people. 

5. Call out exclusion when we see it, in gentleness and humility (Hebrews 10:24). We can ask our friends why a certain person isn’t invited, or gently suggest adding that person in. Whether the exclusion was intentional or not, we can help our friends to be mindful of fostering inclusivity in our communities. 

6. Show grace to others when we’re not invited (Romans 12:17-18). I find this last one really hard to do, but I’ve learnt that it’s so important. If we can give people the benefit of the doubt when they haven’t invited us, we’ll not only avoid bitterness and insecurity, but we’ll build a community that understands that not everyone can be invited to everything, and that’s okay. 

My church is going back to meeting face-to-face in a few weeks, and honestly? I'm terrified.

There will be people I haven't seen in 8 months. Are we still friends? Do we pretend we've missed each other? Won't it be awkward? Where do I fit?

If you're feeling scared about 'going back to normal', you're not alone. It is scary, and that's okay. We'll figure it out together.

And you know what?

Yes, I'm terrified. But I'm also pretty stoked.

Because I believe we'll come back together as people who are stronger, kinder, and more aware of what it takes to build true community.

And I can't wait to be a part of that. x

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