They sit quietly in our auditoriums. Numbering in the untold thousands, they border on invisible. Unknown to most, they are the marginalized.
Some are new attendees. Because they are naturally reserved, they have not ventured out beyond their pew. Most of the congregation is content to allow them to be a part of their services, but never make the effort to get acquainted. The new people wait for someone to reach out, and remain disappointed.
Some have been around for years. Most are introverts, and they have long given up waiting for the extroverts to notice them or care. They faithfully attend, but have never found the bond of love they hear about. While they could make more of an effort, they remain shy or intimidated or overwhelmed. They observe the busyness, surrounded by the noise, and wonder if this is all they can expect. Resigned to be taken for granted, they remain on the sidelines.
Some have sought to become more active, craving the opportunity to make a difference. But after being ignored, or belittled, or left feeling unneeded or unappreciated, they have pulled back. Protecting themselves from further hurt, they choose to keep quiet, and remain witnesses from a distance.
They know enough to understand that their loneliness and isolation is not what Christ intended for the church. Yet they continue to attend, despite the rejection, stung by the feeling that they will always be considered second-class members.
There are legions of these believers in our congregations. In many cases, they form the majority. But because they lack clout and choose not to be squeaky wheels, they feel marginalized—and they are.
An Old Problem
In some cases they are the sinners who desperately need the welcoming acceptance modeled by a caring Jesus in Matthew 9:11, 12; Luke 8:36-40; and Luke 18:13, 14. Those in the congregation who regard themselves as privileged, proud of having kept their noses clean (or who have successfully forgotten their worst moments), are more than willing to tolerate the presence of others whose lives might have been messier. But tolerance is no substitute for fellowship.
They may be the hands and feet of 1 Corinthians 12:21-24 who are regarded by eyes and heads as unneeded. Sensing the indifference of those who fill strategic roles within the congregation, these hands and feet choose to withdraw into a self-imposed protective shell. Having already felt rejection outside of the church, they need to protect themselves from further hurt. They know they should do more and be more. Although vitally needed by eyes and heads that have convinced themselves they are already whole, these hands and feet feel they have been demoted to an appendix status within the body of Christ. The pain lingers. The caution remains. Their potential is never realized.
They read in Romans 12:5, “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others,” and struggle with what it might mean. From their solitary pew they witness the weekly reunions between longtime friends who reconnect each Sunday, and wonder if they themselves belong. They need attention and encouragement and love, not just from the good shepherd, but from those who serve in that role today. They crave acceptance that they too are a part of the flock. Too often they remain invisible to those who are called to serve and lead.
Some make the effort to touch these lonely lives. It requires a willingness to venture out beyond our normal social circles. It can be done with a smile, going out of one’s way to talk with them, giving them our undivided attention.
The marginalized need to know that people in the congregation have noticed them. They feel affirmed when others invest the time getting to know them. When they are personally invited to events beyond Sunday morning, and introduced to others sitting in nearby pews, and connected with people within the church whose stories might be similar, they know someone cares. They know they are valued.
There are special souls who make the effort to reach out. Among them you will find those who have themselves been outsiders, and may still feel the loneliness that craves a connection with Jesus and his people. Others have felt deep gratitude for the compassionate acceptance they have received from Jesus, and know the value of extending the sense of worth to others who need that affirmation. Those who can see beyond the stereotypes, tossing aside the clichés of a judgmental world, are able to extend grace as did their Master.
Sadly, these intentional efforts are rare. Most of the marginalized remain feeling like perpetual outsiders. It could be different. Frequently, in thousands of congregations, it is not.
Jesus died for all these people, both insiders and outsiders. And he weeps for both.
He knows the loneliness of the marginalized, and understands their feelings of isolation. He too was ignored by many, dismissed by others, and regarded as out of place and interfering by some. He has felt the sting of social leprosy. Jesus aches when he shares the hollow pain known to those marginalized sons and daughters of God who crave acceptance.
And he also weeps when servants see themselves as royalty. He knows they could be more, able to embrace the lonely, capable of a caring touch that includes all. He aches when he sees the lost potential. This folks are not easily recognizable. They are frequently disguised as old friends, pillars of the church, hard workers, faithful tithers. But Jesus knows them. He knows.
In some cases they are the same “in” crowd that dominated social life in high school. Others, who were left out of the adolescent social elite, finally achieved that long-desired status within our congregations, and feel threatened when they fail to get the attention they believe they deserve.
Among the Jerusalem power structure’s justifications for targeting Jesus as a disruptive influence was his tendency to give the marginalized more attention than he gave to those who saw themselves as privileged.
And today . . .
Dave Soucie lives and serves in Indianapolis, Indiana.