Q & R: Are we destined to walk around our churches feeling like aliens?

Here’s the Q:

I was raised in a fairly typical conservative evangelical environment – the kind I’m sure you are familiar with. Your phenomenally challenging books, among other sources, have helped me move into a more socially progressive, liberal (for lack of a better word) understanding of Christianity – which to me feels like this big, spacious, beautiful place. Here’s the rub: I feel incredibly lonely in my more conservative faith community. I feel called to be faithful in my commitment to this community, but I constantly feel like everyone is telling me the sky is red while I’m trying to assert that it is in fact blue. I don’t believe I’m any kind of radical but I do believe, for instance, that the Muslims in our community are not our enemies; that God’s redemptive work allows a place for healthy, edifying male-female friendships; that the reckless pursuit of wealth and comfort is corrupting our souls. Do you have any advice for people who embrace a more emerging view of Christianity while still engaged with and committed to other believers who think differently? Are we destined to walk around our churches feeling like aliens?

Here’s the R:

Thanks for this email. I receive so many emails asking this question in various ways, and I expect the problem to get more intense over the next few years – in large part because of a general constriction of conservative circles – evidenced in Republican politics (I doubt Ronald Reagan could get elected by Republicans today) as well as in religious settings.
A few brief thoughts.
1. You don’t have control over how other people respond to you, but you do have some control over how you present yourself to them and how you respond to them.
2. Your behavior will be affected by your assumptions – about what the church should be, how it should respond, and any number of other “shoulds.” So a starting place will be to marginalize your shoulds (what is ideal or preferable) and come to terms with what is actual.
3. In other words, I would encourage you to simply accept that people are where they are and to relieve them of the burden of behaving towards others (including yourself!) the ways you would prefer.
4. Then, you will have to decide how to differ with courage and grace. You have many options- silence, an obscure and intriguing comment (I can’t imagine seeing things that way myself), a question (why do you say that?), a simple statement of difference (I see that issue quite differently).
5. If you reach the point where you feel your presence is problematic, unwanted, or divisive, you’ll have to make additional choices – either for the church’s well-being, your own, or both.
6. If you can find a few friends – an emergent cohort, for example – with whom you feel comfortable and safe and accepted, I think you’ll be able to be less demanding and more gracious to the people in your church.
7. If you have to leave your church at some point, do so with a blessing – it would be better for them to feel sad to lose a kind and gracious Christian, not glad to see a troublemaker gone.
I know none of this is easy … but here’s a thought experiment. Imagine you could go back in time to be a white Christian in a white segregated church in the 1940’s or 1950’s. You know that in 70 years, racist attitudes will have gradually changed. How could you facilitate that change with an appropriate combination of patience and urgency, challenge and understanding, courage and grace?