A Church for Misfits

We Dollars are a family of nerds.

I don’t write that as confession, but simple statement of fact. I don't really consider "nerd" an insult, and have noticed increasing instances of the label being used either as mere description or as a compliment. A college guide notes that a certain Midwestern liberal arts college is a bastion for nerds, and I'm not surprised that my daughter Leah has put that college on her list of potential schools.

Nerds are interested in learning for the sake of learning, often about obscure or unusual topics. Nerds are either oblivious to or suspicious of social norms and trends, more interested in our particular passions—books, computer science, statistics, art, music—than the latest fashions in clothes or cars or interior furnishings. Nerds dislike small talk and aren’t naturally very good at it, though I am proof that we can train ourselves to look comfortable in social situations even when we are so not.

As the offspring of a band geek and one of those people who looked forward to the first day of school more than Christmas, my kids come by their nerdiness naturally. While I occasionally (such as when I’m brushing the knots out of one of my daughter’s hair) wonder about having kids more interested in their appearance than their latest obsession, it’s a lot of fun to raise children who know all of the diseases to which barnyard poultry are susceptible, or who study maps of Europe and Asia at bedtime instead of reading “Captain Underpants” novels.

But while “nerd” is not always a pejorative term, kids who have unusual passions and don’t adhere to their peers’ norms can be isolated, lonely, or outright shunned at school. One reason that we are raising our children in the church—besides that we believe in this Christianity stuff and hope they will too—is that we want our children to belong to more than one community so they don’t become pigeonholed by the particular role they play at school. Wherever they fall on the “nerd” scale (and all kids can have unwieldy passions that make them feel alienated among their peers, even if they’re good at hiding it), kids are often readily pegged at school—as the smart one, the athletic one, the funny one, the sweet one. Even if our kids welcome those labels, we all need room to explore our whole selves, to be welcomed as many-faceted and mysterious, and encouraged to nurture different aspects of our personalities. For my kids—and I hope for others—church is a place where they are accepted just as they are, and where their nerdiness—their tendency to challenge social norms and nurture unconventional loves—is embraced and celebrated. Where else would my eldest daughter’s passion for sacred choral music be so regularly indulged? Where better for my son to understand that his love for things typically associated with girls, like dolls and rainbow-laced shoes, is acceptable to God than at a church where the rector wears pink socks and same-sex couples are an unremarkable presence?

In his coffee hour forum after confirmation last Sunday, Bishop Douglas said that the increasing secularization of America (and the West in general) is not necessarily bad news for the church. For most of its history, the church was firmly aligned with the secular powers that be—with monarchs and rulers, with social elites. Attending church every Sunday was an unquestioned obligation, whereas today, our commitment to church membership sometimes raises eyebrows among our friends who don’t understand why we “give up” leisurely Sunday mornings or our children’s participation in elite sports in favor of church. Bishop Douglas believes that it’s a good thing for Christianity that we are becoming cultural misfits, giving our allegiance to beliefs and institutions that many of our peers see as outdated, quaint, irrational, or downright destructive.

Living into our role as society’s Jesus nerds might be uncomfortable, but it also opens up new possibilities for us to live out the countercultural good news of the Gospels. Jesus and the first disciples, after all, regularly acted in ways that their culture’s elites saw as irrational or downright destructive. Freed from the complacency of being aligned with (and limited by) our culture’s values and norms, we can explore how God is calling us to transform the world from the bottom up and from the edges inward.

[xmas display] from Flickr via Wylio © 2008 pocolover1957, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Being a nerd isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it sure is interesting. As we devote ourselves what is unconventional and weird, to the singular and the odd, we make possible new ways of seeing, doing, and being in the world. As people aligned with a God who promises to do new things among us, to bring about no less than a new heaven and a new earth, we are called to question, to disturb, to explore—not to just quietly accept the status quo, slipping into the neat roles that others insist we fill. We are called to be misfits. Despite its home in trendy West Hartford Center, St. James’s remains, for me, a place where misfits—including me and my nerdy family—belong. The church at large is a place made of and for misfits, and because we all feel like misfits sometimes, it's a place where we are all invited to belong—and to be ourselves. Including, and especially, us nerds.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.