Over the past year I’ve noticed there are more and more people who have left church-as-we-know-it, but are still cobbling together lives of meaning. They wrestle with their faith openly. They engage the community in small and humble, yet often weird and remarkable ways. Some of these folks have formed alternative worship gatherings, created online communities, or started up nonprofits and social enterprises. Some are doing art in subversive or provocative ways, while some are advocating for the victimized, exploited, and powerless. Whatever the case, these things have become church for them.
I can think of lots of examples and maybe you can too. Some, like The Refuge or The Lasting Supper or Revolution Church are fairly well known (and deservedly so). But most aren’t. I’m specifically thinking of two friends here in San Diego who walked away from their Southern Baptist church plant because of a significant shift in their faith. Now they’re leveraging everything to move to Africa to work with at-risk teenagers. Or another former pastor friend of mine in Idaho, whose faith was shaken years ago after his church fired him without warning. Now he’s discovered an artistic mission as a photographer whose work revolves around compassion and empathy for those in pain. Another friend here in San Diego gathers his friends in a neighborhood bar for “church”, and yet another couple I know have left their worship-ministry career to start a local business teaching music to kids in our city.
These people are my heroes. They often defy category. Some are still connected to the institution, while others have left it behind. Some say they have more faith than ever, while others openly doubt. To me they all represent a heroic journey beyond the borders of relative comfort into the wilderness of post-Christendom.
The missiology student in me thinks this is what God is doing among post-Christendom people. But with some notable exceptions, these aren’t the stories we read about in popular Christian books and magazines, and these aren’t the people taking center stage on the Christian conference circuit. Their stories are too raw, too unresolved – often too profane – and don’t lend themselves to marketable solutions for the slow sunset of our Christian institutions.
One of my goals for this year is to get back to writing, and these are the stories I want to explore.
I love the weird, experimental, and odd iterations of faith that come about when people challenge convention. They inspire me. I want to get to know them, learn from them, and share their stories when they’ll let me.
Some will say this more of that emerging church bullshit. And in some ways, that’s true. I’ll confess, I still love all that stuff. I have no problem with Brian McLaren, or the Transform Network, or Tony Jones for that matter – although Tony’s a little theologically conservative for my taste : ) I’m grateful for the various streams of the Emerging Church movement. They’re all doing good work.
But the Emerging Church (and it’s spin-off, Missional) quickly became an industry, polarized, in part, to sell books and book conferences. Perhaps unavoidably, it became a battleground for orthodoxy and a place where boundaries were fought over and re-negotiated. That was painful for some, and I know many of the people doing the most exciting and innovative work just quietly slipped under the radar.
Also, something else interesting has happened as a result. Emerging and Missional (again, movements I adore) have each become the de facto in-house renewal movements of Mainline and Evangelical Christianity, respectively. They’re respectable now. For a large portion of American Christianity, being Emerging or Missional is now an acceptable way to behave. That’s a good thing for lots of reasons, but I can’t help feel something has been lost: namely, the willingness to be on the outside. Increasingly, what that means in America is to be among the quietly-yet-rapidly-growing number of people who are walking away from all forms of institutional Christianity – not so we can colonize them, but so we can learn to find God in the places that were never profane to begin with.
Expanding the ideological borders of Christendom by a few feet (or even a few miles) will not entice these people back. Most of those who have emigrated are never coming back and most of those who were born on the other side will never seek to enter. The Empire is dead. I think that’s part of the plan.
At the risk of bludgeoning the metaphor, I’m not interested in re-drawing boundaries. I’m interested in blurring them. I think that’s gospel work, and I think the people who do it are doing Kingdom work, even if they’re not building the institution. Some are saying that only Church work is Kingdom work. I don’t hold to that. I’m interested in telling stories that demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is bigger than anyone imagined (maybe even God) and includes more people than we are comfortable with. I aim to misbehave.
But I would like some help. I prefer doing things with partners. If you or someone you know wants to help tell these stories, let’s connect (email me at jason[at]pastoralia[dot]org). I would like to talk about how we might collaborate, discover, and share these important stories in the coming year.