They are called by different names. David Kinnaman calls them nomads, prodigals, or exiles, depending on their particular flavor. Josh Packard calls them church refugees. Other researchers speak of the de-churched. What they share is a disillusionment with the popular, institutional forms of Christianity. They feel unrepresented by those speaking in Christ’s name in the media, and they carry distrust toward many of the organizations that claim to advance his mission. Not all of the disillusioned have abandoned Christian faith, although that is also happening, but they are searching for a place to belong.
When I meet people who express these qualities, I am probably guilty of projecting my own disillusionment onto them. I think about my own history of institutional frustration. I recall how members of my family have endured racism by Christian organizations, and how the impact of those experiences have negatively influenced generations. I think about how often I have seen godly, well-meaning people restrained by policies, bureaucracies, budgets, or attorneys. I think about Christian ministries making decisions driven by the shadow mission of survival rather than the kingdom mission of God. And about how desperately we need leaders and institutions that will empower a new generation of Christians, but how difficult that is when the funding comes primarily from a generation with different values.
I know I am not alone. I meet more like me every week. Some are young and idealistic, but a surprising number are older. They’ve spent decades in ministry and in the guts of institutional Christianity. I get emails and social media messages almost daily from frustrated pastors or struggling students. The tribe of the disillusioned is growing and the institutional containers we have inherited are struggling to hold us. The cracks are spreading. The containers are leaking. But we stay, for now, because we don’t know where to go. We don’t know who to follow. We don’t know where we belong.
The disillusioned wonder—where are the voices that affirm traditional Christian marriage without condemning our neighbors who do not?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the churches that focus more on loving people in the name of God than using people in the name of mission?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the humble Christians that can discern the difference between a loss of privilege and real persecution?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the leaders who show as much courage admitting the truth as they do defending the truth?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the politicians committed as much to the religious liberty of Muslim-Americans as they are to the religious liberty of their evangelical voters?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the women and men of Christ who celebrate all that is true, and good, and beautiful in the culture and not just what is “safe” within the Christian subculture?
The disillusioned wonder—where are Christian voices in the media calling for the defense of black lives after they are born and not just before?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the pastors willing to preach more than an individualized faith and who are willing to hold a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the prophetic voices in the church that fear God more than they fear the voices on cable news or talk radio?
The disillusioned wonder—where are the Christian leaders who are more focused on faithfulness to their calling than the perpetuity of their institutions?
The disillusioned wonder—where do we go? Who will speak for us?
I know there are good, godly people and organizations that defy the trend, but they lack the critical mass to coalesce into a sustainable identity that offers an identifiable alternative to the ailing evangelicalism we now know. They don’t have the gravitational force to draw the disillusioned together into a new community with a new voice. Without a home and without a voice, the disillusioned Christian faces two temptations.
The first temptation is assimilation. We are tempted to abandon the forms and structures of our faith to assimilate into the broader culture. We recede into the background becoming crypto-Christians holding to a private faith that no one can see, or we abandon what is truly Christian about our faith to join the masses flocking to jellyfish spirituality with no moral or doctrinal backbone. This is jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
The second temptation is anger. We are tempted to lash out at a system that has failed us. We saw an example of this in the last presidential campaign. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both appealed to the disillusioned—those who felt the system had failed them and does not represent them. The zealotry birthed by the two political parties is also gestating within American Christianity. If disillusioned Christians succumb to the temptation of zealotry, we will foolishly turn to angry messiahs and impotent gestures of rebellion for hope.Assimilation and anger are not paths to the kingdom of God.
What are the disillusioned to do? Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” The land, which was all-important to the wellbeing and identity of God’s people at the time, was occupied by the Romans. This humiliating state of affairs led some to despair. They capitulated to Roman occupation; some even joining forces with their pagan overlords. Other became Zealots—armed terrorists who fought the Romans. Jesus affirmed neither of these responses. Instead, he blessed the meek as the rightful heirs of the land.
The meek did not despair and throw in the towel, neither did they trust in power and take up the sword. Instead, as Scot McKnight describes it, “The meek choose to absorb unjust conditions in a form of nonviolent, nonretaliatory resistance that creates a calm, countercultural community of love, justice, and peace.” They stand on the promise of Psalm 37:11, “The meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” In other words, the meek trust God even as they cry out, “How long, O Lord?”
As we watch the inadequacies of the contemporary church in America multiply, as we see the institutions we’ve inherited stumble and fail, and as we wander in the wilderness looking for a place to pitch our tents—we disillusioned must not give into despair nor fall for the empty rhetoric of zealots. We must watch for and resist the temptations of assimilation and anger. Instead, let’s trust in God even as we pray, “How long, O Lord?”
To my disillusioned friends at Christian colleges, and the disillusioned pastors around the country, and the disillusioned Christians who write to me every week—do not lose heart. Blessed are the disillusioned, for they will inherit the land.