How to Not Feel Like an Impostor at Church
When I first started going to church I used to imagine that at any minute, someone would come and tap me on the shoulder — and say something like "Well, you know, we get that you mean well... But... Surely you can understand — we can't have people like you just coming around here... And hanging out, and sitting in with all the respectable, good people... Just as if you're one of us".
After being a Christian for 10 years now, and going to church regularly for that long, I get the impression that a lot of people feel this way. Especially non-Christians, and new believers, and others who may have been Christians for a long time but for one reason or another haven't gone to church much, and some others who've gone to church regularly for years, and even some pastors of churches. In other words, just about anyone can feel like this at times. Or most of the time. Or all of the time.
That is, I think there are a lot of people who feel like they don't really belong in a church because they don't think that they're good enough. Or perhaps because they feel judged there. Or that they're just not like the other people who are there. Or all of the above.
The first thought I had for this page was that the people who are most likely to feel like an impostor are probably the people who make the best Christians. Not that we're supposed to be rating each other about who are the "best Christians". But it does seem true to me — at least most of the time, those people who feel unworthy are also those who are humble. And Jesus tells us that humility is important. Far more important than having a strong, "healthy", ego and thinking that you've got it all figured out.
Seeing the multitudes, he went up onto the mountain. When he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He opened his mouth and taught them, saying, "
Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
When Jesus was on Earth in physical/human form, he was known for being friends with sinners, tax collectors, orphans and widows. Back in those days, in the culture of first century Judea, those groups of people were thought of by general society as the lowest of the low. Jesus was very often criticised for his friendship and acceptance of those who the world rejected as unworthy.
Jesus accepts us all. Everyone. He just wants us to turn to him, and listen, and follow him. That's all. Even though this "all" turns out to be quite a lot, that lot doesn't require us to be more than we're capable of being — if we place Jesus first in our hearts, and minds, and thoughts, and lives.
We don't have to perform for Jesus. Just to believe in him, and love him, and follow him, and genuinely try our best obey him, and be his disciples. That's enough.
Jesus already knows us from the inside out anyway. So it's not like we can pretend to be more than we are.
These "lowest of the low" groups of people, the sinners, tax collectors, orphans, and widows, etc., who Jesus befriended, were social outcasts. Social. Sometimes I feel like a social outcast. I used to feel like one almost all the time.
Now, I remind myself that if I feel like I don't know how to say the right things, or don't have the right look, or just don't feel like I'm the kind of person that other people like and approve of — Jesus came here for everyone. And not only did he come here for everyone, but in the gospel stories in the Bible, the social outcasts are especially the people that Jesus came to minister to. And to love. And to devote himself to, and sacrifice himself for.
The Apostle Paul gives us the same message, that God does not require us to be impressive by the standards of the world — and even prefers it if we are not:
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn't God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn't know God, it was God's good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe.
For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise.
God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God.
But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, "He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord."
Just like how in the medical world, pain is a sign that we're doing (or have done) something wrong with our bodies, which is going to damage them if we keep doing it, sin is a sign that we need to draw ourselves closer to God — not to back further away from him. Sin is an indication that we're not spending enough time close to God. Because it's all the other things of this mortal world, apart from the things of God, that lead us into temptation and sin.
Another name for the Devil is "the Accuser". The Devil wants us to feel like we're not worthy of God's love. The Devil wants us to feel like when we've badly sinned (or even when we've sinned just a little), that we're so bad. Too bad. And we should just give up on trying to follow Christ. Because we're not worthy.
Those kinds of thoughts are not from God, but from the Devil. God wants us to repent and to turn back to him, not turn even further away. Jesus wants us to keep trying to follow him, and never give up.
There's nothing we can do that's too bad for Jesus to forgive. The Apostle Paul (also called Saul, before his conversion) was a chief persecutor of Christians before he became one himself. He was responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and deaths of Christians, just for their crime of being Christians and believing in Jesus. Yet not only did God forgive Paul, but Paul went on to write almost half the books of the New Testament, and become the primary historical figure who spread the good news of Jesus outside of the Jewish world.
So if that degree of sin can be forgiven, and turned around, and made into what Paul became — that also means that lesser sins can be forgiven. It also means that we don't need fancy clothes, or the right hair, or the right look in any respect. It means that it doesn't matter to God if we don't talk the right way in conversations with people at church. Or anywhere else. It doesn't matter how much intellectual knowledge we have, or how much of the Bible we can quote.
The Pharisees of the first century A.D. had all those things, but they did not have humility — and Jesus saw straight through their fakeness and hypocrisy. Jesus just wants us to be humble, and real, and to love him and follow him. And do our best to obey him — whatever that "best" may be at any given moment.
Jesus spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: 'God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.'
But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn't even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
I tell you, this tax collector went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
It doesn't matter if we're sinners, because we're all sinners. That's why Jesus came to Earth — to save us from our sin. We can't save ourselves. None of us is capable of that level of worthiness in the eyes of God. But God still loves us anyway. Jesus said to the sinner who was being crucified next to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise".
What matters is that we're aware of how we're sinners , and pray for forgiveness in Jesus' name. Like the tax collector. And that we seek to improve — never admitting total defeat and giving up trying — but using our defeats as even more reason to follow Jesus, and even more evidence that we need him. By doing this, we grow in our faith and in our closeness to Jesus.
If we become overconfident in our own ability to live right (like the Pharisee in the story above), then we do this less, and start to feel like we can live under our own power and righteousness — rather than under the grace (forgiveness) given to us freely by the gift of Jesus' life and sacrifice for us.
When we really know that we need Jesus, we're more likely to turn to Jesus for our needs.
Later I'll update this page and write about the lack of faith of the apostles. When they walked with Jesus in his physical, human form, the apostles were most definitely not examples of "perfect Christians".
Here are a few more ideas that may help:
- Many people at church don't really feel like their faith is that strong. So if you don't always (or ever) feel like your faith is that strong, you're definitely not the only one at church who feels that way.
- Because of the general idea that Christians are supposed to be good, and faithful, and believe in everything (though the details of the "everything" can vary a huge amount from one church and denomination to another), most people who feel like their faith isn't that strong probably don't talk about it very much. So it's much more common than it seems to be on the surface.
- Even a lot of people who feel that their faith is strong aren't following that closely how Jesus asks us to live — nor are they very concerned about that, nor about really changing their lives to be more like Jesus. So you can feel like you have shallow faith and be more of a "correct" follower of Jesus than people who feel they have stronger faith.
- Jesus' own apostles lacked faith a lot of the time. And did a lot of other very worldly things. Especially before Pentecost (i.e. before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early Christian church, fifty days after Jesus was resurrected).
- Christians are told in the Bible to be radically different from the world. To be aliens and strangers. Our citizenship is not in this world, but in heaven. Therefore, we don't have to be like other people. Therefore, if we aren't 100% socially savvy, it doesn't matter at all. In fact it may be better to be (or just to feel like) somewhat of a social outcast than to feel like we fit in perfectly with what other people are like.
Things You Could Try to Help Feel Like Less of an Impostor at Church
I'll expand on these points (and add more) later also:
- Just go to church anyway. The more you go, the more you'll get used to it.
- Think more about Jesus and less about other people. When you think about other people, think about what you could give to them and how you might help them, not about what they might give to you (in terms of social approval, or anything else). That can help a lot to feel less worried about what other people think of you.
- Imagine Jesus is physically there with you, sitting in the seat or the space next to you. By your side. Since he really is there with you in spirit form.
- Keep going back to the basics, and come to Jesus like a little child.
- Don't get too hung up on the specific meaning of the word "belief". Just be aware that you want to be a Christian and you want to follow Jesus, with your life, as your personal lord and saviour. I used to get really stressed about whether I believed "enough". I don't any more. Now I think that's the whole point of why Jesus came in the first place — to make up for our own human/mortal deficiencies with things like this. All we need to do is consciously accept Jesus, and follow him — and it doesn't matter if some parts of the back recesses of our subconscious minds (or even parts of our conscious minds, or whatever) aren't always 100% on board with this. Remember Jesus' own disciples also were like this too (they didn't "believe" everything, 100% of the time — in fact far from it).
- Try praying more often, and/or reading the Bible more, and/or reading Christian books and/or listening to sermons (e.g. on YouTube). The more Christian things you do in general, the more you'll feel like you have a right to be in church.
- Consider volunteering for something. There are a great many options. From standing at the door handing out leaflets, all the way up to service leading. It was only a very short time after I became a Christian, and started going to church regularly, that there was an announcement they wanted more musicians. Since I can play guitar I offered to do that, and next thing I knew I was playing guitar in the service almost every week. That really helped a lot to feel like I belonged there.
- Consider studying something Christian. There are many courses you can do, a lot of them free. I'll list some soon...
- Consider learning Greek and/or Hebrew, even just a little. If you can read a bit of the original languages of the Bible you may find this helps to feel like less of an impostor, and more of a genuine Christian. If you grew up with the expectation that you need to know a lot of academic things that other people don't know, this will probably help you more than if you didn't.
- Consider what else you can do to deepen your Christian life.
- Pray prayers of repentance — where you ask God to specifically forgive you for anything you feel you shouldn't have done. Since the Bible is very clear that repentant sinners are forgiven, this can perhaps help if you feel like you haven't quite made the grade in terms of how "good" you are.
- Practice forgiving other people, especially those who have wronged you. Or at least trying to forgive them (you have to start somewhere). I think this helped me to feel like less of an impostor at church, even though I don't feel like I'm very good at it yet.
- Think about how going to church, and publicly being a part of God's people, helps other people. Even just by turning up. Church is not a Hollywood A-List party, where you have to look and act and be like one of the "beautiful people". Just being there at all, whatever state you're in, whatever you look like, however shy or inadequate you may feel, is putting out the message to the world that one more person — you — goes to church, as a Christian.
- Spend alone time with God.
- Think about going to church to spend time with God.
- Some churches, especially large historic ones, are open all day, every day. Or at least a lot of the time, when there's no actual church service on. And it's considered normal to come in and sit by yourself, and just sit there, and perhaps pray, or read the Bible. Or just sit there. Doing this can be a great way to feel more comfortable inside churches — without the social experience of a church service, or any of the expectations or pressures that may go along with that.
After Repentance, God Doesn't Judge Your Past
I found it helped me to Read about other Christians who came from less than perfect backgrounds, and then Jesus radically changed their lives. This helped me a lot when I first started going to church (which was when I most felt like an impostor).
For example, I read the book "Run Baby Run" by Nicky Cruz when I was about 8-9 years old (which was too young) — and then I read it again after I became a Christian. It's his autobiography, describing how he goes from a wild, violent street gang leader to a Christian, studying at Bible college. I also read another book by him (I forget the title I'll look it up later... "Soul... [something]", I think (?). Both of them described his first experiences going to church, in a place where everyone knew him as a violent criminal — and about as far from a well-behaved Christian as anyone could be.
These kinds of stories helped me to feel like, if they can go to church, and they have lived worse lives than mine, then it must be okay for me to go also. Even though Jesus loves and accepts all who turn to him, and welcomes us into his house (church), this isn't always obvious (especially when not used to regular church attendance).
These kinds of stories also helped me to feel like less of an impostor in church.