When church is no longer home
* This post was originally published on Substack in May 2022. To receive this content early and join a community of people discussing issues around faith and community candidly, subscribe to Courage & Candor here.
I never loved the term “orphaned believer” used by writer, Sara Billups. It is a clever term, and I know rings true for many but it never settled well in my spirit. Can God’s people really be orphaned? It wasn’t until recently, after leaving my third church in four years, that “orphaned” became the only way to describe how I felt. The places I hoped to call home, either ceased being home or weren’t home in the first place, making orphaned the only word my heart could muster up. So once again, my husband and I are back to the drawing board of endless options of local churches that quickly become widdled down by fear of simply becoming another warm body in the room. We are tired of feeling disconnected in a space that should be the most welcoming and we are not alone in this feeling.
Though the American church is seemingly aware of the growing disconnection of its members, how is disconnection still the first thing we feel walking through the doors of a church? And we cannot blame it on the pandemic, this has been an ongoing issue. What has to change to eradicate the isolation happening and is seemingly reinforced every Sunday? Yet many will continue to attend Sunday after Sunday because they don’t know any different. For my husband and I, after experiencing eight years of a decentralized, missional-community model, we simply cannot go back.
But then where do we go?
It was over ten years ago when we were first orphaned. We were youth pastors at a local church in Portland reaching out to the neighborhood’s “rebellious spirited youth” (that is a direct quote from the letter they gave to us) when we were fired and kicked out of the church parish. For months after, we spent the majority of our Sundays licking our wounds in the Willamette Valley with a glass of Pinot Noir, sitting amongst the vines. When we finally got the nerve to try another community, we took the risk and showed up at a local church in urban Portland. It was your typical evangelical service with good coffee and decent full-band worship. The awkward “Welcome Center” was well equipped with cozy lighting and couches to make things feel, well, welcoming. But standing in that room with donuts in hand, not a soul said “welcome” to us. So as two extraverts, we began to make our way around the room but once it became clear we weren’t getting past first names and occupations, we made a beeline to the car. This wasn’t the place for us and yet, we are forever grateful for a simple paragraph in their bulletin that led us to Bread & Wine, a church plant we would call home for the next eight years.
The following Sunday, we parked in the industrial section with its boxy grey buildings and colorful graffiti. We quickly made our way through the Portland rain into a warehouse that smelled of old beer and had sticky floors. There were a few small tables scattered around with flyers, a bar covered in cloth holding the morning’s coffee supplies and I’m pretty sure there was a trapeze hanging from the ceiling. It was unpolished, raw, and we welcomed it. Even with a small crowd of people, the noise roared with conversation. A couple made their way to us in moments to welcome us. We quickly made it past first names and dove deep into the purpose of the church and how Bread & Wine was created out of missional communities. We heard the repeated phrase “church doesn’t happen in a building” which resonated with us. Within a few weeks of attending, we joined a small group of leaders in establishing a missional community in SE Portland. Since then, we have either helped support or start other missional communities, experiencing along the way genuine, honest fellowship. We met in homes, shared meals, babysat kids, barbequed with neighbors, and helped buy groceries for those in need. We shared our stories and the story of God, learning to weave the language of the Gospel into our everyday lives. We left this community over two years ago and I still grieve the loss.
Sometimes I feel our experience at Bread & Wine has ruined Christian community for us. Our expectations are vastly and all-encompassingly different. We no longer seek out good music and teaching, those feel secondary to fellowship. The typical evangelical service feels void of the sacraments, as personality and talent remain central. We want community. Real, raw honest community. We also want the Word. Not through some chit-chatty sermon with unrelatable illustrations, just the real, raw Word of God. Am I being unreasonable? Perhaps. But once you’ve experienced community as we did, anything else feels like going backward. Our time at Bread & Wine may have ruined community for us but in the best possible way.
So we are orphaned again but by our own choosing. We could have stayed. We could have bought the mugs, learned the songs, and attempted to ingest the milk of fellowship but in the end, our hunger for more won.
There are a lot of us out here: orphaned by communities of faith for various reasons. Many of us still love the church but are frustrated by it. Many have tried repeatedly to serve, lead, teach, and partner with local communities only to feel sidelined or ignored. Where paychecks are prized, lay ministers are nonexistent and many grow tired of sitting on their hands waiting for change or a chance to serve. Yet when communities of faith put programs over people, buildings over neighborhoods, and words over action, being orphaned is simply a reality. The sad part is most church leaders don’t see the orphans in their own communities because many have resolved themselves to attend each Sunday. These orphans have seen charisma outpace character, comfort outpace mission, and production outpace connection. Yet they will still show up each Sunday because many don’t know anything different. Though some sense in their gut and through the Spirit I believe, there is something different and they are hungry for more.
We didn’t have to experience Bread & Wine before we left that local church many years ago, we just knew. The human soul is created for connection: connection with God and with one another, we should be sensitive to its absence. Being orphans, however, doesn’t mean we are without community. That community just doesn’t live within a 10 to 11:00 (ish) AM box on Sunday mornings. We’ve outgrown the boxes church often resides in, they simply feel too small to fit the largeness of God and his mission in the world. And our willingness to walk away isn’t in protest or rebellion, we’re still just searching for home.