Loneliness, Beliefs, and Relationships
Three of the hardest parts about Shift'ing faith
When I posed the question, What has been the hardest part of your shift, you all showed up in some beautiful and vulnerable ways.
Thank you for sharing with me. Thank you for letting me in to that part of your world. I’m honored.
As I read through your responses (here on Substack, and those who emailed, and all the responses over on Instagram) I noticed three big themes:
Many of you named the pain of no longer being connected to a community after you Shifted.
“The fundamentalist church I left was my social and spiritual home.” -John
For many of us, like John, our church family was our family. They were the people we ate with, celebrated holidays with, shared birthdays with. They were there when our kids were born, and we were there when their kids got married. Superbowls, quinceañeras, potlucks, house moving day… all of it happened in the context of our church community.
But then, your beliefs shifted, and you no longer fit (or could no longer in good conscience stay) in your church community, so you left.
Sure, we might’ve tried to hold on to some of the relationships, but those get-togethers were awkward as hell, as everyone is just sorta dancing around the obvious: I don’t go to your church anymore because the pastor thinks my kid is going to hell for being gay... but, um, cool that you’re still going there! Want another hot dog??
“The hardest part is the loneliness, which for me has two parts: being alone with my newfound progressive Christian faith and the loneliness of no longer having a family--either church family or actual family.” -Tiffany
I totally resonate with what Tiffany is saying here. When you shift away from conservative Christianity, it seems 9 times out of 10 there isn’t a new progressive Christian community ready and waiting to welcome you with open arms.
Well, to be clear, there very well might be those communities (and they’re almost always the kind that are welcoming with open arms), it’s just that they’re not easy to find.
When it comes to conservative or evangelical churches, most of us (especially here in America) have so many options it’s ridiculous. But move away from that world, try and find a church with more liberal/progressive theology, and the pickens get slimmer.
Then (especially for us post-evangelicals) the options get even bleaker when we look for a church that is still semi-kinda-sorta like the ones we came from: youth groups, modern style of music, a casual, chill vibe, etc.
Here’s how one reader put it,
“The hardest part of faith shifting has been finding community... I miss home groups and worship styles... I miss God in a corporate sense. I miss the mystical component of my non-denominational and charismatic past.” -Maggie
Not only is it hard to lose the community we used to have, but then it’s equally hard to try and find something new to replace it.
So, yeah, I think Hannu summed it up:
“The loneliness is the worst.” -Hannu
Just behind “loneliness” in the category of “things most often said,” are the challenges associated with beliefs when we Shift.
I like how Hannu put it (btw, Hannu, your comment last week was gold. Thanks for sharing. I mean, I’m sorry for all the pain, obviously.. AND, also, thank you for courageously sharing it with us!)
“the simplistic clarity of everything is gone” -Hannu
Phew, you get that, right?
I mean, even though most of us who’ve Shift’d are now like, “good gravy, how could I have believed those things,” we are also, at the same time feeling, “but it also made so much sense!”
Not as in, “the universe being created in seven literal days makes sense” sort of way. Obviously we ended up challenging a lot of beliefs because they didn’t make sense.
I mean in the way that something can make sense simply by virtue of there existing a larger system in which all the parts fit relatively nicely. Conservative/evangelical Christianity has done a masterful job of creating a tight fitting puzzle where most of the pieces have a decently reasonable sounding place.
There is a structure, a purpose to the beliefs.
There are answers to every question.
There was certainty... you know, that seductive, intoxicating drug many of us miss so dearly.
So yeah, Hannu, I’m with you. There was a simplicity and a clarity that I said goodbye to when I left my conservative roots.
Also challenging, as it relates to beliefs, is trying to liberate ourselves from the oppressive, toxic theology of our conservative background:
“The hardest part was to get to a place of acceptance about my own feelings towards the LGBTQ+ community and overcoming my own internalized homo-/trans-phobias” -Jules
Jules is not alone in this. Coutnless people I’ve talked with who have Shift’d are still trying to sort through the baggage of old ideas lodged inside our brains. Or, more precisely, stuck inside our body.
Our brains might’ve moved on, but our body retains religious ideas like a sponge.
I’ve heard so many variations of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know... God doesn’t condemn me because I’m gay... I totally believe that... but how come I still end up feeling queasy inside whenever I hold my partner’s hand?”
Or maybe we’ve rightly concluded that there is no such thing as an eternal hell of fire awaiting the damned in the afterlife, and yet we might still wake up in the middle of the night terrified that we’re gonna end up there because of our walking away from the Lord.
And then there’s what this reader shared,
“I thought that when you can't sign your name to The List Of Things To Believe As A Christian Because The Bible Says So, you can't be an authentic believer.” -Alex
Can you relate to that?
That feeling like you don’t get to be a Christian or call yourself one anymore because you no longer believe the things your previous church told you you had to believe.
What a messy, clunky, frustrating experience. To long to be who you are, and yet constantly be at war (in your mind) against these old messages.
Finally, the third most common refrain as it relates to the hardest parts of faith Shift’ing has to do with relationships.
The friends we lose.
The family that shuts us out.
The loved ones who won’t leave us alone and continue hurling their phony “concern” for us.
To put it succinctly, the hardest part is:
“Relationship shrapnel.” -Chad
Just typing that out made me sigh real big.
As mentioned above, so many people experience their church as their family, and to lose both your community and your family--all because you’ve changed your mind about some ideas--is brutal, brutal, brutal.
Parents often reflect on how hard it can feel with their kids, too:
“Feeling spiritually homeless for quite a while; angst (and I mean angst) over how this would impact my children” -Daneen
“The hardest part has been a profound uprooted-ness and sense that my daughters have been disinherited of their religious and faith heritage.” -Garrett
While yes, many parents are relieved that their kids no longer have to sit through sunday school lessons filling their minds with horribly harmful ideas about God, also, at the same time, it’s really freaking hard taking that away from our kids!
And many of us don’t know what--if any--to fill those gaps in with.
I have incredible friends now, ones that are closer and dearer to me than ever before.
But that’s only because I’m a solid decade on the other side of my Shift.
Those first few years, though?
Ugh. So lonely. So sad to feel like the black sheep. So hard to swing from “Golden Boy of my College Alum” to, “Uh, who? Colby Martin? Never heard of him.”
Yeah. Relationship shrapnel.
The Shift Might Help
When I wrote The Shift I was trying to envision it as a survival guide for becoming a progressive Christian. In other words, I reflected on not just my own journey but of the many (like the above) who’ve experienced this unique phenomenon, and I tried to think, “What are some of the biggest obstacles we all seem to face?”
As such, I broke my book in to three parts.
The first part is all about re-understanding the idea of Faith. Detaching it from being about “just what you believe,” and helping readers see that ideas and right-beliefs are not what matters most to God.
Then, with that foundation, I spend four chapters looking at some of the biggest obstacles related to beliefs. Specifically, what do we do when our ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and Church, no longer make sense like they used to?
Finally, the book ends with several chapters trying to help people navigate what to do when their friends and family don’t understand why they’ve shifted, and how to handle those moments when your head is filled with the voices of your past Self trying to puuuuull you back toward the familiar.
If you think a book like that might be helpful for you (or a friend), then definitely check out The Shift.
This Week’s Question
Once again, I wonder if you’d be willing to share what comes up for you when I ask:
What has been the most surprising part of your faith Shift?
You can take this any way you’d like... surprising good... surprising hard...
Just tell me what’s something you didn’t see coming when you set out on this Shift’ing journey.
Reminder, you can leave a comment here on the website, or, reply to this email if that’s how you’re reading this and you’d rather keep it private.
Thank you for sharing!
Live Today with Brandan Robertson
As per usual, I’ll go live on YouTube and Facebook today at 2pm PST.
But NOT per usual, this time I’ll have a guest!
Joining me on the show will be author and activist, Brandan Robertson, who will share with us what his faith Shift’ing experience was/is like.
New Short Film
In case you missed it, this week I premiered a new short film I created called, “I’ll be Your Vera: A Love Letter for Former Conservative Christians”
It tells the story behind the making of legendary jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett’s record smashing album, “The Köln Concert,”
and I suggest that this story (which is soooo good, y’all) is a perfect illustration of the journey of the Shift.
I hope you’ll check it out.