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Where do San Diego’s ex-Christians go?

Sojourn Grace Collective, the Metropolitan Community Church, We Agnostics, San Diego Humanists

“Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” But not Shawn Burgh’s church, the Met. “They don’t tell me that I’m a sin.”
“Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” But not Shawn Burgh’s church, the Met. “They don’t tell me that I’m a sin.”
Sojourn Grace Collective’s Pastor Colby Martin has “a love/hate relationship with the Bible.”

Christianity in America is waning. In 2016, only 26 percent of weddings took place in a church, which seems to suggest that religious matters are becoming more peripheral to our social and economic life. The latest survey from Gallup shows that since 2000, formal membership in a specific church has fallen from 70 percent of the population to 47 percent. (That 70 percent had stayed roughly the same since 1937.) And the Public Religion Research Institute reports that the nationwide drop in the number of white Protestant evangelicals is unprecedented: since 2006, from 23 percent of Americans to 14 percent.

The upshot is that the largest single religious group today is the unaffiliated, nearing 30 percent. (It may seem odd to call these people “religious,” but it makes sense when Gallup reveals that 87 percent of Americans still believe in God.) These dramatic shifts started me wondering: why do people leave a church, and more than that, what replaces the goods that membership once provided, particularly if a person is alienated from a specific denomination but still seeks some kind of spiritually affiliated community?

Difficulties with doctrine

One day in 2011, Colby Martin, an assistant pastor in a Gilbert, Arizona, evangelical church near Phoenix, was summoned to a board meeting of the church’s elders. The concern was a Facebook post Martin had shared about President Obama lifting the ban on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military regulation which allowed LGBTQ people to keep that fact private but also barred openly LGBTQ people from service. To the post, Martin appended six words: “I’m glad this day finally came.” Martin, who is 29, tells me this story over breakfast in Del Cerro; he possesses a confessional well-being, and seems equal parts vexed and resolute. He took his time with my questions, pausing over his bagel slathered with cream cheese. Because of 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?’” he says, “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; would he lose his livelihood, his home, his ostensible “faith fit?” Quickly, he told the board he was still committed to the church’s leadership. Then he realized that 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,” he says. “I needed to get in alignment.” Martin and his pastorship were soon parted. He and his wife Kate sold their home, lost their savings, moved back to Oregon, and stayed 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 says — a bit of polish on the badge. “I call it the gift of spiritual termination.”

Anissa Cornelius had been taught that in the Christian fold, one should be “equally yoked” to one’s 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.

Back to the LGBTQ fissure. “The minute you question whether or not gay people can be Christians, the minute you question whether two same-sex partners can be in a loving, committed relationship, you’ll be shown the door.” Asking those questions hadn’t been a knee-jerk decision; his core beliefs — and doubts — had been evolving for some time. “Aligning my head and my heart,” he set about evaluating the evangelical Weltanschauung. He took a “deep dive” into the way evangelicals exclude people. He was shocked to find more inequality, sexism, and cruelty than he thought most Christians would ever admit existed.

A common aspect of many people’s religious disaffiliation is the pain of detaching from “family values,” bred blood deep. Martin’s raising, he says, was that of “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 — can be characterized by his enthusiasm, his facile delivery (“sauté that in your mind this week”), and his self-examining testimony, which peppers evangelical shibboleths with the doubt-curious faith he practices. James Baldwin said that art’s purpose was “to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers;” the same might be said of Martin’s sermons. He has “a love/hate relationship with the Bible;” he’s not “good with prayer;” he calls much fundamentalist belief “toxic;” he likes to “lean into the tension” still mushrooming within him, that spurs his spiritual wanderlust.

After his “spiritual termination,” Martin was desperate, not for an identity — that much he had already — but for a cohort. He needed denominational space, even if it was self-administered. Staunch organizers, he and Kate had already inspired a group of fellow travelers, and so on March 2, 2014, they started Sojourn Grace Collective in their living room. The Martins’ “church services” consisted of 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 served as co-pastors. Eventually, they found space in the Lutheran church in Pacific Beach. Its particular character, Martin says, was 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.” The talk at Sojourn’s weekly service swims freely among the secular, the religious, and the therapeutic.

Shawn Burgh (right) found acceptance in the Bay Park Metropolitan Community Church, which accepted his identity (the pastor is transgender) and which fit his Christ-centered belief to a T.

For Martin, “belonging” 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 the work of “healing from religious trauma,” which by his estimate affects 85 percent of Sojourn’s members. The collective, he said, “has become a spiritual hospital, a soft landing for people who have been wounded” by their experience of religion. One example Martin cites about himself: as a teen, he wondered, “Why recycle?” Revelation had already predicted the pagans would burn and that the faithful would be raptured to Heaven. Given that, why save the planet? Such reasoning dismays him now.

I couldn’t help but notice a kind scab-picking in Martin’s focus on “toxic fundamentalism,” which, he says, “hijacked the good narrative of Christianity.” No denomination has, in admitting to its dark side, disestablished itself. There has been reform, yes, but not existential suicide. Martin believes the Christian story is worth preserving, but in a radically modernized form. As for me, I wonder whether the doctrine of God’s love and universal acceptance can still minister to the theologically bereft — though it does seem that the Sojourn Grace approach offers a sort of necessary refuge through friendships and a pressure-free environment.

A 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 previously assembled structures of value and power. One of the best podcasts working to deconstruct Christianity is The Liturgist. A mid-20s-ish listener describes the 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 thing 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 thing 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.”

Ryan Burge, author of The Nones, writes that its “members” believe in “nothing in particular.” Such identityless-ness has its troubles: 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. Could it be that what’s shaping our post-Christian era is that very little — certainly not religion — relieves the malaise that younger generations of Americans feel?

Mickey Maynard’s homosexuality did not distance him from the faith. In fact, during a debate on the science of sex in a college Christian theology class, he heard that “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.”

For some Nones and many other disaffiliated, leaving church can produce, post-apathy, an emotionally raw experience of despair. Eric Wells, a program director for the nationwide group Recovering from Religion, told me that he was raised in a “hyperliteralist faith” which included the dogmatic lessons of a vengeful God — sin of thought and deed, Biblical inerrancy, and the promise of a redemptive afterlife.

When Wells quit his religion, one of those lessons took time to unlearn: the promise of heaven and its promise of reunion with loved ones. When his dog Toby died of bone cancer while, he found it traumatic. “I was in my early thirties. It hit me that I would no longer see her again. That last little bit of spirituality had disappeared from me. And I knew that if I couldn’t see her again, then I couldn’t see all the other people I’d lost or would lose — including myself.” When Toby died in his arms, his “whole worldview collapsed.”

With or without a church, his hope of heaven had propped up his emotional core. Disassembling that old structure took much contemplation, as did assembling a new one. Eventually, Wells found confidence in himself, his work, and his associations with “a group of likeminded people I had no idea was out there.” Comparing his loss of faith with that cohort of fellows was, at first, like swimming with sharks.. “I’d been taught how horrible these people were.” But eventually, he developed a therapeutic solidarity with these former believers, and realized, “I’m not alone.”

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’s not surprising to learn that took a while, seeing as how her formation started when she was six. Over coffee one recent evening, 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 the rhetoric that accompanied it — sinners lie to their parents, treat their sisters badly, say filthy words — was cemented in. She prayed every night, and internalized the edict that “sin is sin,” whether murder or cheating. “You learn,” she said, that “you’re the reason 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.” That childhood and adolescence included church twice on Sunday, Wednesday prayer time, Saturday youth group (constantly “memorizing the Bible”), Mira Mesa High School, and 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.” (She wore it for ten years; once, she took it off, 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 proved herself by evangelizing on missions overseas in Kazakhstan and 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 of the “backslidden,” especially anyone outside the Baptist cocoon. And 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. And there were particular, personal criticisms: “I was told I was too emotional.” She was positive to a fault, a Type-A personality who created her own assignments, but she said her independent streak didn’t fit the mold. 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. Then 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 one’s 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. Curiosity was born, “a curiosity that may have come up sooner had I not pushed it down when I was growing up.” When the couple’s first child Frankie was born, her 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 replied. “‘Franklin’ means ‘freedom.’ She’s spitfire and magic.”

Now Cornelius worships at Sojourn Grace Collective. She says that when Baptist friends hear about her straying from Christ, “I’m their new ministry project.” But the music of that church has died for her: the words to the old tunes won’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. We spent half our lives giving ourselves to this one thing 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 earthside. It never gets old.”

The Language of God: They/Them

It’s not hard to imagine that people who are outside the norm when it comes to gender assignment and sexual preference struggle within churches that refuse to fly the rainbow flag. Shawn Burgh, a transgender man, grew up in Ventura, north of Los Angeles. His father prayed with him every night. In high school, Burgh found the Assembly of God. “I had a great time,” he said at 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, “in a big theatrical moment at summer camp, I gave my life to Christ.” At the same time, 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 that such expression was not allowed; it was an “insult” to the church and to God. Their argument, 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 and 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.” But once 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 attending therapy and support groups, took male hormones, and eventually had 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 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 fit 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 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 he’s had from his parents, college mates, the LGBTQ+ community in Hillcrest, and a medical establishment that offers reassignment surgery: none of it sounds traumatizing. Is that a fair assessment? I asked. His nuanced reply was 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 was profound. The Assemblies of God’s doctrine stresses the following: “Christ does not discriminate in His offer of salvation to humanity.” 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.” Burgh believes differently than the church does, so the church rejects 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 have been vehemently disparaged? “Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” But 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 such person 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,” a sect identified by place. Jesus arrived when he was 11. “Yes, I felt something” strongly emotional, he recalled. In the church, he and others “spoke in tongues, cast out demons,” which was to him a clear sign that he should train for the clergy. (At 68, the memory is hazy, but he wonders now whether the “possessed” weren’t actually suffering from schizophrenia.)

Eventually, he began experiencing the yearnings of a “hormone-raging” young male. But he found that his “sexual focus turned to men.” It was, he said, “a conundrum for me; people I confided in said I probably had a demon.” But Maynard’s homosexuality did not distance him from the faith. In fact, during a debate on the science of sex in a college Christian theology class, he heard that “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,” wherein, by his late twenties, he was shooting crystal meth. Though he was doped and liquored up for way too many years, he said, 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 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 before. 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 — I listened 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, Christopher Hitchens, and others who were proclaiming “the end of faith.” Maynard heard the virulently godless Gore Vidal at 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.” Still, old habits die hard. Stressed out about something personal, he’d start to pray. “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 said, “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.” He found it 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.’ I said, ‘I just love that.’” Such is his “avocation,” a self-directed atheist 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.” Instead, they labeled it 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 have 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 are still in some sort of church. It strikes me as a sort of Catch-22. To process the abusive attachments of their religious youth, these people must seek a new cohort of like-minded people, bind themselves to a new congregation, one based around its members’ needs. If this story taught me anything, it was less about belief and more about belonging.

I have always admired how the English 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 talked to was conflicted, to say the least, by their love of, and distress with, fundamentalist churches and their teachings. Everyone used the term “traumatic.” Martin and Cornelius told me of their pain, which was lessened somewhat after children, and which gave rise to a desire for some alternative that did not throw out the ecclesial baby with the toxic bathwater.

But the great commonality among my subjects is the need for fellowship. Sojourn Collective does not require that attendees “believe in anything” in particular. What matters is the desire for togetherness. All four are more comfortable and less anxious after rejecting their initial formation; if anything, their anger, grief, and vulnerability have helped them evolve a new faith, one that is almost carefree. If their lives’ travails are not fodder for a healing spiritual journey, I don’t know what is. They have followed a spiritual path that has helped them undo their pasts and build their presents, a present that lets them repair the soul without creating another set of binding oaths.

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“Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” But not Shawn Burgh’s church, the Met. “They don’t tell me that I’m a sin.”
“Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” But not Shawn Burgh’s church, the Met. “They don’t tell me that I’m a sin.”
Sojourn Grace Collective’s Pastor Colby Martin has “a love/hate relationship with the Bible.”

Christianity in America is waning. In 2016, only 26 percent of weddings took place in a church, which seems to suggest that religious matters are becoming more peripheral to our social and economic life. The latest survey from Gallup shows that since 2000, formal membership in a specific church has fallen from 70 percent of the population to 47 percent. (That 70 percent had stayed roughly the same since 1937.) And the Public Religion Research Institute reports that the nationwide drop in the number of white Protestant evangelicals is unprecedented: since 2006, from 23 percent of Americans to 14 percent.

The upshot is that the largest single religious group today is the unaffiliated, nearing 30 percent. (It may seem odd to call these people “religious,” but it makes sense when Gallup reveals that 87 percent of Americans still believe in God.) These dramatic shifts started me wondering: why do people leave a church, and more than that, what replaces the goods that membership once provided, particularly if a person is alienated from a specific denomination but still seeks some kind of spiritually affiliated community?

Difficulties with doctrine

One day in 2011, Colby Martin, an assistant pastor in a Gilbert, Arizona, evangelical church near Phoenix, was summoned to a board meeting of the church’s elders. The concern was a Facebook post Martin had shared about President Obama lifting the ban on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military regulation which allowed LGBTQ people to keep that fact private but also barred openly LGBTQ people from service. To the post, Martin appended six words: “I’m glad this day finally came.” Martin, who is 29, tells me this story over breakfast in Del Cerro; he possesses a confessional well-being, and seems equal parts vexed and resolute. He took his time with my questions, pausing over his bagel slathered with cream cheese. Because of 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?’” he says, “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; would he lose his livelihood, his home, his ostensible “faith fit?” Quickly, he told the board he was still committed to the church’s leadership. Then he realized that 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,” he says. “I needed to get in alignment.” Martin and his pastorship were soon parted. He and his wife Kate sold their home, lost their savings, moved back to Oregon, and stayed 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 says — a bit of polish on the badge. “I call it the gift of spiritual termination.”

Anissa Cornelius had been taught that in the Christian fold, one should be “equally yoked” to one’s 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.

Back to the LGBTQ fissure. “The minute you question whether or not gay people can be Christians, the minute you question whether two same-sex partners can be in a loving, committed relationship, you’ll be shown the door.” Asking those questions hadn’t been a knee-jerk decision; his core beliefs — and doubts — had been evolving for some time. “Aligning my head and my heart,” he set about evaluating the evangelical Weltanschauung. He took a “deep dive” into the way evangelicals exclude people. He was shocked to find more inequality, sexism, and cruelty than he thought most Christians would ever admit existed.

A common aspect of many people’s religious disaffiliation is the pain of detaching from “family values,” bred blood deep. Martin’s raising, he says, was that of “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 — can be characterized by his enthusiasm, his facile delivery (“sauté that in your mind this week”), and his self-examining testimony, which peppers evangelical shibboleths with the doubt-curious faith he practices. James Baldwin said that art’s purpose was “to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers;” the same might be said of Martin’s sermons. He has “a love/hate relationship with the Bible;” he’s not “good with prayer;” he calls much fundamentalist belief “toxic;” he likes to “lean into the tension” still mushrooming within him, that spurs his spiritual wanderlust.

After his “spiritual termination,” Martin was desperate, not for an identity — that much he had already — but for a cohort. He needed denominational space, even if it was self-administered. Staunch organizers, he and Kate had already inspired a group of fellow travelers, and so on March 2, 2014, they started Sojourn Grace Collective in their living room. The Martins’ “church services” consisted of 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 served as co-pastors. Eventually, they found space in the Lutheran church in Pacific Beach. Its particular character, Martin says, was 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.” The talk at Sojourn’s weekly service swims freely among the secular, the religious, and the therapeutic.

Shawn Burgh (right) found acceptance in the Bay Park Metropolitan Community Church, which accepted his identity (the pastor is transgender) and which fit his Christ-centered belief to a T.

For Martin, “belonging” 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 the work of “healing from religious trauma,” which by his estimate affects 85 percent of Sojourn’s members. The collective, he said, “has become a spiritual hospital, a soft landing for people who have been wounded” by their experience of religion. One example Martin cites about himself: as a teen, he wondered, “Why recycle?” Revelation had already predicted the pagans would burn and that the faithful would be raptured to Heaven. Given that, why save the planet? Such reasoning dismays him now.

I couldn’t help but notice a kind scab-picking in Martin’s focus on “toxic fundamentalism,” which, he says, “hijacked the good narrative of Christianity.” No denomination has, in admitting to its dark side, disestablished itself. There has been reform, yes, but not existential suicide. Martin believes the Christian story is worth preserving, but in a radically modernized form. As for me, I wonder whether the doctrine of God’s love and universal acceptance can still minister to the theologically bereft — though it does seem that the Sojourn Grace approach offers a sort of necessary refuge through friendships and a pressure-free environment.

A 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 previously assembled structures of value and power. One of the best podcasts working to deconstruct Christianity is The Liturgist. A mid-20s-ish listener describes the 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 thing 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 thing 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.”

Ryan Burge, author of The Nones, writes that its “members” believe in “nothing in particular.” Such identityless-ness has its troubles: 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. Could it be that what’s shaping our post-Christian era is that very little — certainly not religion — relieves the malaise that younger generations of Americans feel?

Mickey Maynard’s homosexuality did not distance him from the faith. In fact, during a debate on the science of sex in a college Christian theology class, he heard that “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.”

For some Nones and many other disaffiliated, leaving church can produce, post-apathy, an emotionally raw experience of despair. Eric Wells, a program director for the nationwide group Recovering from Religion, told me that he was raised in a “hyperliteralist faith” which included the dogmatic lessons of a vengeful God — sin of thought and deed, Biblical inerrancy, and the promise of a redemptive afterlife.

When Wells quit his religion, one of those lessons took time to unlearn: the promise of heaven and its promise of reunion with loved ones. When his dog Toby died of bone cancer while, he found it traumatic. “I was in my early thirties. It hit me that I would no longer see her again. That last little bit of spirituality had disappeared from me. And I knew that if I couldn’t see her again, then I couldn’t see all the other people I’d lost or would lose — including myself.” When Toby died in his arms, his “whole worldview collapsed.”

With or without a church, his hope of heaven had propped up his emotional core. Disassembling that old structure took much contemplation, as did assembling a new one. Eventually, Wells found confidence in himself, his work, and his associations with “a group of likeminded people I had no idea was out there.” Comparing his loss of faith with that cohort of fellows was, at first, like swimming with sharks.. “I’d been taught how horrible these people were.” But eventually, he developed a therapeutic solidarity with these former believers, and realized, “I’m not alone.”

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’s not surprising to learn that took a while, seeing as how her formation started when she was six. Over coffee one recent evening, 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 the rhetoric that accompanied it — sinners lie to their parents, treat their sisters badly, say filthy words — was cemented in. She prayed every night, and internalized the edict that “sin is sin,” whether murder or cheating. “You learn,” she said, that “you’re the reason 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.” That childhood and adolescence included church twice on Sunday, Wednesday prayer time, Saturday youth group (constantly “memorizing the Bible”), Mira Mesa High School, and 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.” (She wore it for ten years; once, she took it off, 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 proved herself by evangelizing on missions overseas in Kazakhstan and 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 of the “backslidden,” especially anyone outside the Baptist cocoon. And 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. And there were particular, personal criticisms: “I was told I was too emotional.” She was positive to a fault, a Type-A personality who created her own assignments, but she said her independent streak didn’t fit the mold. 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. Then 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 one’s 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. Curiosity was born, “a curiosity that may have come up sooner had I not pushed it down when I was growing up.” When the couple’s first child Frankie was born, her 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 replied. “‘Franklin’ means ‘freedom.’ She’s spitfire and magic.”

Now Cornelius worships at Sojourn Grace Collective. She says that when Baptist friends hear about her straying from Christ, “I’m their new ministry project.” But the music of that church has died for her: the words to the old tunes won’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. We spent half our lives giving ourselves to this one thing 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 earthside. It never gets old.”

The Language of God: They/Them

It’s not hard to imagine that people who are outside the norm when it comes to gender assignment and sexual preference struggle within churches that refuse to fly the rainbow flag. Shawn Burgh, a transgender man, grew up in Ventura, north of Los Angeles. His father prayed with him every night. In high school, Burgh found the Assembly of God. “I had a great time,” he said at 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, “in a big theatrical moment at summer camp, I gave my life to Christ.” At the same time, 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 that such expression was not allowed; it was an “insult” to the church and to God. Their argument, 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 and 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.” But once 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 attending therapy and support groups, took male hormones, and eventually had 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 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 fit 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 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 he’s had from his parents, college mates, the LGBTQ+ community in Hillcrest, and a medical establishment that offers reassignment surgery: none of it sounds traumatizing. Is that a fair assessment? I asked. His nuanced reply was 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 was profound. The Assemblies of God’s doctrine stresses the following: “Christ does not discriminate in His offer of salvation to humanity.” 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.” Burgh believes differently than the church does, so the church rejects 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 have been vehemently disparaged? “Churches still tell gay people they’re bad.” But 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 such person 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,” a sect identified by place. Jesus arrived when he was 11. “Yes, I felt something” strongly emotional, he recalled. In the church, he and others “spoke in tongues, cast out demons,” which was to him a clear sign that he should train for the clergy. (At 68, the memory is hazy, but he wonders now whether the “possessed” weren’t actually suffering from schizophrenia.)

Eventually, he began experiencing the yearnings of a “hormone-raging” young male. But he found that his “sexual focus turned to men.” It was, he said, “a conundrum for me; people I confided in said I probably had a demon.” But Maynard’s homosexuality did not distance him from the faith. In fact, during a debate on the science of sex in a college Christian theology class, he heard that “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,” wherein, by his late twenties, he was shooting crystal meth. Though he was doped and liquored up for way too many years, he said, 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 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 before. 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 — I listened 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, Christopher Hitchens, and others who were proclaiming “the end of faith.” Maynard heard the virulently godless Gore Vidal at 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.” Still, old habits die hard. Stressed out about something personal, he’d start to pray. “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 said, “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.” He found it 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.’ I said, ‘I just love that.’” Such is his “avocation,” a self-directed atheist 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.” Instead, they labeled it 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 have 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 are still in some sort of church. It strikes me as a sort of Catch-22. To process the abusive attachments of their religious youth, these people must seek a new cohort of like-minded people, bind themselves to a new congregation, one based around its members’ needs. If this story taught me anything, it was less about belief and more about belonging.

I have always admired how the English 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 talked to was conflicted, to say the least, by their love of, and distress with, fundamentalist churches and their teachings. Everyone used the term “traumatic.” Martin and Cornelius told me of their pain, which was lessened somewhat after children, and which gave rise to a desire for some alternative that did not throw out the ecclesial baby with the toxic bathwater.

But the great commonality among my subjects is the need for fellowship. Sojourn Collective does not require that attendees “believe in anything” in particular. What matters is the desire for togetherness. All four are more comfortable and less anxious after rejecting their initial formation; if anything, their anger, grief, and vulnerability have helped them evolve a new faith, one that is almost carefree. If their lives’ travails are not fodder for a healing spiritual journey, I don’t know what is. They have followed a spiritual path that has helped them undo their pasts and build their presents, a present that lets them repair the soul without creating another set of binding oaths.

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