Unchurched Print E-mail

20210901(San Diego Reader September 1, 2021)

In 2011, Colby Martin, an assistant pastor in a Gilbert, Arizona, evangelical church near Phoenix, was summoned one day to a board meeting of the elders. The concern was a Facebook post Martin shared about President Obama lifting the ban on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military regulation by which an LGBTQ person keeps that fact private. To the post, Martin appended six words: “I’m glad this day finally came.” Martin, who is 39 and met me for breakfast in Del Cerro, possesses a confessional well-being, equal parts vexed and resolute. Rigorously thoughtful, he took his time with my questions, waiting a bagel slathered with cream cheese. For those six words, a storm blew in. Further comments on Facebook hatched his superiors’ suspicions, and he was called on the carpet.

“I was asked, point blank, ‘what’s your theology on sexuality?’ and I shared honestly, ‘I think we’ve got the Bible wrong and I’d be in favor of same-sex marriage.” Anxiety rushed in; he’d lose his livelihood, his home, his ostensible “faith fit.” Quickly, he told the board he was still committed to the church’s leadership, then realized if he said that he’d be lying. “I’m really glad I didn’t [plead for the position] because I needed to get out of there. I needed to get in alignment.” He and his pastorship were soon parted.

Martin and his wife, Kate, sold their home, lost their savings, and moved back to Oregon, staying with relatives. Martin, who goes by Pastor Colby, got a new appointment in San Diego in 2012, from which, a year later, he was also sacked. “Twice in two years,” he said, a bit of polish on the badge. “I call it the gift of spiritual termination.”

Back to the LGBTQ fissure. “The minute you question whether or not gay people can be Christians, the minute you question two same-sex partners can be a loving, committed relationship, you’ll be shown the door.” But this wasn’t a kneejerk decision of his; his core beliefs—and doubts—had been evolving. “Aligning my head and my heart,” he set about evaluating the evangelical Weltanschauung. He took a “deep dive” into how evangelicals exclude people. Shocked, he found more inequality, sexism, and cruelty than most Christians would ever admit.

Common to the journey of religious disaffiliation is the pain of detaching from “family values,” bred blood deep. Martin’s raising, he said, spans the “typical American Christian family—white, middle-class, in church multiple times a week, Sunday morning service, Sunday night choir practice, Wednesday youth group,” Baptist, conservative, “hymns, dress-suits . . . moralism, the most important thing.” At 17, he decided to preach the Gospel, a vocation he has never given up.

Martin’s preaching style—abundantly documented on social media and websites—centers on his enthusiasm, his facile delivery (“sauté that in your mind this week”), his self-examining testimony that peppers evangelical shibboleths with a doubt-curious faith he practices. Or, to put it better, his practice is, as James Baldwin said of art’s purpose, “to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” He has “a love/hate relationship with the Bible”; he’s not “good with prayer”; he calls much fundamentalist belief “toxic”; and he likes to “lean into the tension,” still mushrooming within him, despite his spiritual wanderlust.

Martin was not desperate for an identity but for a cohort to belong to. He needed denominational space, even if self-administered. Staunch organizers, he and Kate had already inspired a group of fellow travelers, so on March 2, 2014, they started Sojourn Grace Collective in their living room. (Sojourn means a “short stay,” the body, the short stay that expresses what some believe is the long-lived soul.) The Martins’ “church service”? A dozen friends, coffee and croissants, communion, kids playing in the yard, songs, maybe ten minutes of a “sound-bite message,” emphasizing the crew’s “radically inclusive and progressive mindset.”

Sunday by Sunday, it grew, he and Kate, co-pastors. Eventually, they found space in the Lutheran church in Pacific Beach. Its missioned purpose was, Martin said, intentionally wide open: “You belong just as you are, you don’t have to believe anything, you don’t have to change anything, you are beloved children of God.” Sojourn’s weekly service swims freely among the secular, the religious, and the therapeutic.

Belonging for Martin replaces the traditional puzzle-piece assembly of “fitting in,” a term of coercion he especially dislikes. “We’re not asking you to believe any particular thing.” That’s first. Second is to enlist in the work “of healing from religious trauma,” which he estimates has hurt 85 percent of Sojourn’s members. The collective, he said, “has become a spiritual hospital, a soft landing, for people who’ve been wounded” by religious conquest. One example Martin cites about himself: As a teen, he wondered, “Why recycle?” Revelation had already predicted the pagans will burn and the faithful will be raptured to Heaven. With that outcome, why save the planet? Such “reasoning” dismays him now.

I couldn’t help but notice a kind scab-picking at the evangelical lesion in Martin’s focus on “toxic fundamentalism,” which, he said, “hijacked the good narrative of Christianity.” No denomination has, admitting to its dark side, disestablished itself. Reform yes, but not existential suicide. Martin believes the Christian story is worth preserving. But in a radically modernized form. I wonder whether the doctrine of God’s love and universal acceptance can still minister to the theologically bereft, though it seems the Sojourn Grace approach offers a necessary refuge—family-safe friendships and absolutely no pressure.

Slow Train Leaving the Station

Among the progressive set of disaffiliated Christians is a methodology called deconstruction. A rascally literary term, deconstruction can simply mean taking apart how we assemble structures of value and power. One of the best podcasts that deconstructs Christianity is The Liturgist. From a mid-20s-ish listener, here’s the kind of deconstructive murk many are mired in. “I’m really grieving that I’m not quite Christian enough for Christians but I’m a little too Christian for people who are not Christians. So it’s lonely. The good is the new person I am and the way I see the world and how much more open and inclusive my world has become. The bad is there are parts of me that I can’t share with people who are part of the world I used to be a part of.”

It seems clear that the United States is no longer a Christian nation; more crucial, when only 26 percent of weddings in 2016 were in a church, religious matters are becoming peripheral to our social and economic life. The latest survey from Gallup shows that since 2000, church membership has fallen from 70 percent to 47 percent, the latter number, a new minority status. (That 70 percent has roughly stayed the same since 1937.) Pastor Colby’s story confirms a surprising stat from the Public Religion Research Institute. The nationwide drop in the number of white Protestant evangelicals is unprecedented: since 2006, from 23 percent to 14 percent. So much for the viable voting bloc.

The upshot is that now the largest single religious group is unaffiliated, nearing 30 percent. (Seems odd to call them “religious,” but it makes sense when Gallup reveals that 87 percent of all Americans believe in God.) My curiosity stems not only from why people leave a church and what lost faith looks like but also with what replaces that energy, particularly if one is alienated from a denomination but despite the estrangement still seeks a spiritually affiliated community.

Could it be that what’s shaping our post-Christian era is that very little—certainly not religion—relieves the malaise younger generations of Americans feel. Ryan Burge, author of The Nones, writes that its “members” believe in “nothing in particular.” Such identity-lessness has its troubles, a consequence of a suborned faith. Burge discovered that Nones are less formally educated, make under $50,000 a year, eschew politics and protest, and are marked by one word, apathy.

If the Nones who’ve left church are apathetic and turn to despair, I wonder how much we can attribute to the church’s cruelty and exploitation that still afflicts them and millions of others: the children who were abused and raped by Catholic clergy; the Scientologists and victims of cults like the Twelve Tribes who remain trapped inside compounds; the women who are born or marry into fundamentalist sects where they are siloed into motherhood; the LGBTQ people who are violently demeaned and beaten; and the millions who remain closeted because coming out may ruin their relationships with family and employers. No wonder ex-church members see more disgrace in religion than honor.

Eric Wells, a program director for the nationwide group, Recovering from Religion, told me how he was raised in a hyperliteralist faith: a vengeful God, sin, resurrection, punishment, Hell, and the promised beyond. His Hell has been the loss of spiritual certainty. When Toby, his beloved dog, got sick and died of bone cancer, “it was very traumatic for me.” Soon after, he realized that “I would no longer see her again. That last little bit of spirituality had disappeared from me, and I knew if I could never see her again, I couldn’t see all the other people I’d lost or will lose—including myself.” He said his “worldview collapsed” with the dog’s demise. He realized that inside the walls of faith his grief had been purposely bricked in, in part, by his own self-deception. He is still grieving the loss, three years on.

Reevaluating God and Faith

About a decade ago, after a lifetime of Southern Baptist “brainwashing,” Anissa Cornelius, a 37-year-old midwifery student, left the church . . . no, revise that: the church’s vice-grip left her. It took a while, seeing as the evangelical flossing started when she was six. Over coffee one recent evening, pleasurably unmasked, her Baptist pains now repurposed through laughter, she detailed her earliest memories. Primarily, she was taught this: “‘If you don’t pray this specific prayer, you’re going to Hell, because you’re an awful person, and you’re a sinner.’”

That message, and its sound-bite rhetoric—sinners lie to their parents, treat their sisters badly, say filthy words—was cemented in. She prayed every night, internalizing the edict that “sin is sin,” whether murder or cheating: “‘You’re the reason,” she said, “Jesus died on the cross.’” “You?” I asked. “Really? At six?” “Yes, you. You are personally responsible. But the good news was, ‘If you believe all the right things, then you don’t have to go to Hell.’ That was my whole childhood and adolescence.”

Fast forward through church twice on Sunday, Wednesday prayer time, Saturday youth group (constantly “memorizing the Bible”), Mira Mesa High School, and the coup de grace, a Purity Ring. She signed a pledge not to have sex until marriage and wore the ring in full view of any young man who “courted me.” (In the ten years she wore it, she took it off once just to see what it felt like. No thunderhead cracked; no ill-wind blew.) At a Baptist College in Riverside, Cornelius was singled out by male Poohbahs for her leadership traits. She further proved herself evangelizing on missions overseas (Kazakhstan, Germany), teaching Bible study to kids, running the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma (“it’s like Christian camp but all year round”), and majoring in “Christian behavioral science.” None of the work was paid. “It was what God wanted.”

Throughout, Cornelius heard putdowns against the “backslidden,” especially anyone outside the Baptist cocoon. Despite her genial nature, she was criticized for “gettin’ above your raisin’” as the Ricky Skaggs song goes. In the Baptist hierarchy, she had plateaued. She heard regularly that she was an unmarried woman, and even if she were hitched, she’d be subordinate. Women aspire in Baptist Land only to be a pastor’s wife.

There was something more hateful, the personal reprimand: “I was told I was too emotional.” Though positive to a fault, a type-A personality, who created her own assignments, she said her independent streak didn’t fit the mold, just as she crossed into “old maid” status at 26. “I went off by myself and cried.”

Soon after she did marry—a Christian man, Benjamin Cornelius—who removed the Purity Ring and buried it in Sedona, Arizona, on their honeymoon. One day he confessed, “I don’t believe in Hell anymore,” a thought which had never occurred to her. OK, she said. Then Benjamin wondered if she was OK with drinking and if he cursed. She said OK to that, too. Anissa had been taught that in the Christian fold one should be “equally yoked” to your spouse. Step by ironic step, they bonded by reevaluating God and faith. Gradually, then suddenly, the pair was “yoked” by the specter of religious doubt.

Not all was risk. She said that when she and Benjamin stopped going to church, “everyone bought the excuse that it was too far for us to drive.” Friends figured they were church-shopping, starting a family, being in love. Lazy rebels, they went, instead, to Sunday brunch. They read books. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, savvy deconstructionists all. Curiosity was born, “a curiosity that may have come up had I not pushed it down when I was growing up.”

Married and pregnant and soon Frankie was born; the couple now has four children. Their daughter’s tiny hands and sardine toes changed everything. (Cornelius, a doula in training, wears a T-shirt imprinted with a fetus inside a womb, surrounded by vined flowers.) “I realized,” she said, “that if someone told Frankie what I’d been taught growing up, I would have none of it. I’d be very upset. If anyone said it to my kid, I’d lose it on them. Especially to my daughter—about being too emotional, too loud, too much.” Reviewing her life, Cornelius recalled the happiness of belonging. “But the things I had to do to belong, I think now, no way. It’s not what I want for my kid.” Tell me more about Frankie, I said. “Her name is Franklin Justice Shalom Cornelius,” she said. “Franklin means freedom. She’s spitfire and magic.”

Bruises born of leaving church still show up. One is that when Baptist friends hear about her straying from Christ, “I’m their new ministry project.” Another shift occurred in her body: the music of church died, and the words to tunes wouldn’t rise in her throat. One other thing: The first day attending Sojourn Grace Collective she felt free enough of the past to recognize that this new “deconstructing church was home; these are my people.” With others like her, she said, “We spend half our lives giving ourselves to this one thing [the religion] that screwed us over until it feels traumatizing as an adult.” Today, she’s an amalgam, “kind of spiritual-ish, on a witch-crafty path, and [studying] midwifery. I watch a lot of babies come earth side. It never gets old.”

The Language of God: They/Them

It’s not hard to imagine that people who are outside the norm of gender assignment and sexual preference struggle with a God-avenging church, which, in the majority, refuse to fly the rainbow flag. Shawn Burgh, a transgender man, grew up in Ventura, north of Los Angeles, his father praying with him every night. In high school, Burgh found the Assembly of God, in which “I had a great time,” the start of a sad/happy story he shared with me one afternoon in Hillcrest, a cross dangling from a silver chain around his neck.

At the Ventura church, “I broadened my relationship with Christ” and, sure enough, “in a big theatrical moment at summer camp, I gave my life to Christ.” Also, in the fellowship, he was thrilled to discover he “identified as lesbian . . . since I was born with female anatomy.” (Burgh said that he has always been male and was “assigned” the wrong gender at birth, misgendered.) No sooner did he meet a girl his age in the Assembly than the pair fell in love. Even during services, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

One Sunday they were spotted and detained: Why all the affection? Burgh confessed, “‘Oh, this is my girlfriend.’” Pastor and youth pastor told them such expression is not allowed; it’s an “insult” to the church and to God. Their rationale, he said, sprinkled the familiar salt, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” Next, the pastors hauled in the parents—for more confrontation, forcing him “to come out. But luckily, they said, ‘Oh, we know.’” And that was that for Burgh, gender and self, severed from the Assembly of God.

When young, Burgh said he knew who he was as a “girl. I was very comfortable being a lesbian, being really, really butch. I wore male clothes, was very masculine.” At UCLA, he started feeling uncomfortable in his body, “having breasts, having hips, the feminine aspects.” It’s called gender dysphoria, an alienation from one’s biological sex. In 2018, at 23, he began therapy and support groups, took male hormones, eventually had the surgery. He added, “I am still advancing my transition emotionally and physically every day.” Today, the Bankers’ Hill law clerk, a graduate of the University of San Diego law school, has grown modest facial hair, much like the freshness of an Amish beard.

In San Diego, Burgh found acceptance in the Bay Park Metropolitan Community Church, which accepted his identity (the pastor is transgender) and which fits his Christ-centered belief to a T. Over time, he has lost the sense of God as male; he and the Met subscribe to an anomalous sensibility of God as “they/them.” He characterizes “them” as “the higher power of love and inclusion.”

What struck me about Burgh was the vigorous support in southern California he’s had from his parents, college mates, the LGBTQ+ community in Hillcrest, a medical establishment that offers reassignment surgery: none of it sounds traumatizing. Is that fair? I asked. His nuanced reply is one I never expected to hear.

“Whenever I go home and drive by the Assembly of God church, I feel the hurt of what they told me. I lost a lot of time because of that church; I lost time during my high school and college years from developing a loving relationship with Jesus. It’s a relationship I work on every day. What [the Assembly of God] told me still comes up in my brain, but I’m learning I was in a bad church. It’s an unlearning from my childhood.”

Burgh’s declaration is profound. The Assemblies of God’s doctrine stresses the following: “Christ does not discriminate in His offer of salvation to humanity” because it was Paul who wrote that salvation is open to “all who believe.” But the church stipulates that “The word all here does not mean every person will be saved regardless of what they believe.” Only one correct belief applies. And yet believe is what Burgh did, always has. Still, the church rejected him. As does his fundamentalist brother Jonathan who, Burgh said, is convinced there’s a hellhound on his trail. “I tell him, look, we both pray to the same God; we read the same Bible; but we get totally different meanings.”

To go back to church is, Burgh said, “a big stigma in the gay community,” and he feels it. The reasoning goes, why would anyone go back to biblical bondage especially after one’s sexual and gender identity has been vehemently disparaged? “Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” Not his church, the Met. “They don’t tell me that I’m a sin.”

The Universe is Not Your Friend

I’m reminded of a biblical prophecy that feels foundational to Christian disaffiliation. It’s 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

One who has suited his desires and fully itched his ears is the picture-framer and atheist, Mickey Maynard, whose dogs, Otis and Ace, cuddle by me on a couch in his very long-lived Sports Arena shop, Crack in the Wall. “I was born,” he said one recent morning, “into the Church of God of Anderson, Indiana,” an evangelical sect identified by place. Jesus arrived when he was 11. “Yes, I felt something” strongly emotional. In the church, he and others “spoke in tongues, cast out demons,” which was a clear sign that he should train for the clergy. (At 68, the memory is hazy for the sect’s skullduggery; he wondered now whether those “possessed” weren’t suffering from schizophrenia.)

Per usual, he began experiencing the delights of a “hormone-raging” young male. Unsurprised, his “sexual focus turned to men.” It was “a conundrum for me; people I confided in said I probably had a demon.” Maynard’s homosexuality did not distance him from the faith. In fact, in college, during a Christian theology class, the science of sex was debated in which, “same-sex attraction” was identified in all species. He decided that if that was so, then “God will have a purpose for it. Eventually I’ll find my niche in His plan.”

His story took a dramatic turn. Drinking heavily in his late teens, he “got involved in the gay scene” where by his late twenties he was shooting crystal meth. Doped and liquored up for way too many years, he says, his faith held. “I still believed God had a plan for me,” though the drugs, “obviously, became a problem.” Not until his forties did Maynard begin recovery. Once in Crystal Meth Anonymous, he heard his fellow addicts talk of a “generic God,” “a God-light version,” which encouraged him to reappraise the tyrannical creator he knew in the Church of God.

The recovery door kicked open other doors. He began mulling questions he hadn’t bothered to ask: Why doesn’t everyone believe as the Christian does? Why do kids get cancer? Why did God create evil? “I did the one thing I was always told not to—listen to atheists. And I was impressed.”

By his late forties, he was fully in recovery and far into the realm of disbelief with the New Atheist movement, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens among others who were proclaiming “the end of faith.” Maynard heard the virulently godless Gore Vidal in a book-tour appearance utter a line whose drollery enthralled him. “The Universe is not your friend.” That quip alone, he told me, launched his “deconversion experience [which] was as noteworthy as my conversion experience was when I accepted Jesus—like the first time you get glasses and you can see again.”

One reorienting sticks with him. Stressed out about something personal, he’d pray, out of long habit. “Help me God, help me, help me. Then I’d stop, and remember, Oh yeah. I don’t do that anymore.” For a time he struggled with the God-focus in the A.A. community where, he says, “people would credit God with everything from parking places to why they’re millionaires.” He reacted differently, “screaming out in my head, ‘You guys did this yourselves. You guys have been sober all this time, and you’re giving God credit? You should be giving us, the group, credit.’”

Maynard switched to another A.A.-based support group, We Agnostics, one drained of its “God dependence.” Such was a better fit for his substance issues. He cherished its brotherliness and warmth and stayed for nine years. One day, he heard someone say, “‘I’m a godless alcoholic,’ and I said, ‘I just love that.’” Such is his “avocation,” a self-directed atheism in groups where he labels himself as the “godless addict or godless tweaker.” In a range of meetups—including the San Diego Humanist Association—he started offering testimony: “You can do every step without God; you’re not alone and you will get better.”

Maynard believes that the lastingness of recovery lies in group association, “where people have connection. There’s a lot of science about the power of connection in healing people from what is technically a brain disorder. For years, people said alcoholism wasn’t a real disease.” A failure of will, a defect in character. “But now with brain imagining, we know about the craving response.”

He said that the best feature of A.A., godless or otherwise, is its “fellowship component. You’re matched with a sponsor to help you learn the steps. I’ve had the same sponsor for 18 years.” With fellowship, addiction is mirrored by others who’ve been where you’ve been. “I go into groups not to advocate for disbelief but to offer companionship to those who already disbelieve.”

Conflicts of Desire

Of course, the irony here is that three of the four people I spoke with who were unchurched are today back in a church. A church of sorts, a recalcitrant stepchild. With this particular “return,” however, I find a particularly nagging Catch-22. To free themselves of the abusive attachments of their religious youth, they need a new likeminded cohort, a new congregation in which to do the psychic and emotional work of liberation. If this story taught me anything, it’s a lesson not about belief, but about belonging.

I admire how the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams measures the roles of belief and desire. He asserts that conflicts of belief are far less burdensome on people than conflicts of desire. Everyone I spoke with was conflicted, to say the least, by their emotional bond to fundamentalist churches and their teachings. After they left, that emotional load did not ease. The liberation was hardly enough to ameliorate their emotional isolation, which, in the years of Sunday companionship, none was used to. Apathy and despair prompted by disaffiliation soon troubled their rebellions.

The lone commonality among Colby Martin, Anissa Cornelius, Shawn Burgh, and Mickey Maynard is the need for fellowship. To be with a group of lost souls who help each other deconstruct the repressive nature of religious fantasy and their emotional wounds is key. One definition of “church” is a group that instills a kind of clubbish belonging to the young, which is unavailable to the hoi polloi. The exclusivity seems to never leave many church members. This sense of mission is an organizing tool of the Sojourn Collective. It advertises that no one has to “believe in anything” to join. Instead, they offer a place where believer and nonbeliever and agnostic may examine—and even celebrate—deeply entrenched misgivings about their religiosity, misgivings which glue a new congregation together. This principle of sociability seems de rigueur to grouping the suddenly ex-religious.

Everyone I talked to had been harmed by religious indoctrination. Everyone wanted to wipe out that indoctrination. But they’ve learned they can’t. They’ve been traumatized, a lasting shock that presents to some, but not all, a lifetime of repair and, perhaps, post-traumatic stress. Still, we can take heart; these people are empowered by their anger, their vulnerability, and their grief to heal with rationality, not faith. If their travails are not fodder for a healing spiritual journey, I don’t know what is—a spiritual path whose momentum involves undoing their pasts and reconstructing their presents, without creating another set of binding oaths, to get better.