I’m sitting in Starbucks in downtown Franklin, TN, talking to a new friend. He was once a well known Christian musician and songwriter, now he plays for a legendary artist in the secular music industry. He tells me early in the conversation that he doesn’t go to church anymore and there are lots of people just like him in Nashville.
“We’re ‘legion’,” he says, laughing.
“Why’d you leave church?” I asked.
It’s a question I probably could have answered myself. I’ve heard the same story over and over from friends all around the US and Europe. I’ve heard it more in Nashville than just about anywhere else.
“Our church became an echo chamber where the only voices or opinions we could hear were our own. People who questioned our brand of Christianity were considered suspect or dangerous. One day I went off the reservation and started reading books by thinkers I’d been told to watch out for. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Stanley Hauerwas were some that blew me away.
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“One Sunday I walked out of church and never went back,” he said. “I want spiritual community, I just don’t think the church as it is right now is where I’m going to find it.”
Most of the people I meet who are leaving church aren’t young. They’re in their forties and fifties. After years of reading off the same theological script they began yearning for deeper, more open conversations about faith that included considering diverse perspectives and conversations that widened rather than narrowed their souls. Their churches were either threatened by these folks or unprepared for their emergence.
My friend shared other reasons why people are leaving. They were edgier.
“Some of us began meeting gay people in committed relationships, and we couldn’t square what we were taught about human sexuality at church, with who we knew our gay friends were in real life. Others had neighbors who were raised in other religious traditions who lived out the values of the kingdom more consistently than we did.
One day I asked myself, “Isn’t it strange to tell these people that Jesus wants us to love our enemies and forgive seventy times seventy, but then he sends people to hell for not receiving him as their Lord? I kept asking friends and pastors at church what they thought about this stuff because it troubled me, but no one really wanted to talk deeply. They just went right to the scripted answers.”
“So you left church because you had too many questions?” I asked.
“I left my church because it didn’t honor my questions. I got pegged as having gone rogue,” he said, swallowing the last of his coffee and glancing at his watch.
“I’ve got to pick my kid up. Let’s hang again, OK?” he asked.
“Sure. I’ll call you,” I said.
After my friend left, I thought back to what I learned about the word ‘pilgrim’ when I wrote Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale. In Latin it literally means , “a person wandering the earth in exile, someone in search of a spiritual homeland.”
I keep meeting exiles from the church searching for a new spiritual homeland. My friend Ben Dubow calls it, “Christians in the diaspora” (see his comment below). Something in me feels hopeful like Ben, like God is up to something wonderful.