God

Mar 22, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

"Atheists Who Follows Jesus? Sure, They Exist!"

At HelloChristian.com we spoke with Kathy Escobar, co-pastor of The Refuge in Denver, Spiritual Director for people who abandon evangelicalism and fundamentalism, author of Faith Shift, and someone who has experienced the faith shift first-hand. She once was a devoted church member of a conservative Christian church until her faith slowly but inevitably started falling apart. She couldn’t do the Christian “thing” anymore for a long time until she found faith again, but in a radically different way.

Kathy is not the only one. There’s an entire movement afoot. To understand what is going on I just knew I had to ask Kathy Escobar who has written extensively on this phenomenon. Contrary to what some might expect, for someone who has gone through the faith shifting experience, she has lost none of her passion for Jesus or compassion for people who struggle with their faith.

There are many people who address the changes within Christianity in North America. Phyllis Tickle talks about a New Reformation, Brian McLaren advocates a generous orthodoxy, and for a while emergent and emerging churches were the talk of the day. You look at the personal dimension and call it "faith shift.” What’s going on? 
“It’s a really interesting phenomenon. For me personally, my faith started to shift about 10 years ago. Then it felt a lot more covert and you had to really look for people who were deconstructing their faith, but now, even just in the last year, it has grown exponentially. Those of us belonging to the Baby Boomer generation were entrenched for a long time. When I started to shift my faith, change came only incrementally, but the newer generation is not willing to be entrenched; their deconstruction happens a lot faster.”

That really is what faith shift is. It just stops working and one of these things is our faith, the way we practice our faith in church, where we are spending our time, our core-beliefs… All of that sudden it just comes undone. The old you just can’t go back to anymore.

And why do you use the term faith shift? 
“What I say most often is all the things you used to believe and hold on tightly to and made sense start to come apart. That really is what faith shift is. It just stops working and one of these things is our faith, the way we practice our faith in church, where we are spending our time, our core beliefs… All of that suddenly just comes undone. The old you just can’t go back to anymore. A lot of people who experience this end up on the other side at one point and then look back and say: 'Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that is where I used to be'.”

Back in the 80s and before, Christians used to say to such people: “You are falling away from the faith!” So isn’t what is happening some form of apostasy? 
“A lot of people think that because the box we lived in was clearly defined. The notion of truth is hugely important in this because for so many their belief system is based on the methodology of certainty, conformity, and affiliation. This certainty keeps the world spinning. It helps us to make sense of it all. Thus this faith shifting, which I think is a work of the Holy Spirit, is labeled as heresy, blasphemy, or apostasy. In truth, however, it is a deeper longing and, I would say, God stirring people to move to a new place.”

So a faith shifter can look back and say: “What I used to believe is closer to heresy than where I’m now. I used to put God, who is mystery, into a box of human limited understanding.”
“That is how I personally feel. I always say: “Let us redefine what is crazy.” Because if I read the Gospels, it was all about a simple, tangible faith! We have domesticated faith while it was supposed to be wild. But what is sad is when people start this shifting process and things start unraveling that many end up on the outside of everything that they once knew. There’s grief with it, disorientation and there’s a lot of fear, shame and confusion in the process and that is really hard in my opinion because it doesn’t have to be quite so bloody, but it kind of is.”

So for you personally, what does faith look like? How do you believe in God?
 
“When I unraveled, I lost what I had. And where I am I can’t say that I have landed, because if I do, I’m trying to anchor myself again. Then I look for certainty again. Rather, it’s an ongoing transformation. I did try to leave Jesus completely and I did kind of wake up saying to myself: ‘Maybe this is just a big fat sham.’ But Jesus was kind of like bubbling up to the surface for me no matter what I tried. I am just one of those wacky Jesus people who believe that somehow Jesus is at work in this world, restoring, redeeming and reconciling. I also believe that the Bible is our sacred text. It is so confusing to me at times, I can’t make sense of it. It is a mysterious book that challenges me. But it tells us about Jesus in whom God is reflected in human form, in this crazy way of humility and sacrifice. It is the fullest reflection of God incarnate that I can lean into. The other place faith-wise is that we have a responsibility, we participate in community and in Christ and so we are representatives in the world. We don’t just get to have personal faith.”

The biggest critique that pushes back on me is that it’s just too wide. But what I have found is that it’s amazing how people will find God. The more you try to find it or define capital “T” truth the more you push people away.

You are a co-pastor of a church in Denver called The Refuge. What is different about the place? Is it just cosmetics? 
“I have seen a lot of churches “emerging” and emergent churches come and go and I think that is because a lot of people are trying to put new wine in old wineskin. We try to do something genuinely different: new wine in new wineskins. We are trying to reflect the Kingdom and that’s why we have a co-pastoring model, a flat leadership model. Everyone is in on this; everyone brings something to the table. People do not come to the Refuge for the worship, or for the teaching, or because of the kids. They come here because they are part of a healing community. We are dedicated to helping hurting and hungry people find faith, hope, and dignity alongside each other. So, we throw parties, share stories, find hope, and practice faith the way Jesus best say we can.”

What I noticed in your book is how you describe the process of faith shifting. It’s sociological and thus more descriptive that prescriptive. But what about the truth question? What if faith shifting has nothing to do with truth?
 
Yes, that is tricky. The biggest critique that pushes back on me is that it’s just too wide. But what I have found is that it’s amazing how people will find God no matter what. The more you try to define capital “T” truth, the more you push people away. This is very tangible on my part especially because I have lots of friends that “left” the faith in the traditional way. They are finding the Truth outside.

Could you imagine someone whose faith is shifting and who says “I'm an atheist but I’m a follower of Jesus?” 
“Yes, (laughing) there are a lot of people like that and it’s fascinating.”

But if that is possible, what then is the unifying element in your Christian faith? From my experience, some people rediscover their roots in the church fathers and mothers, and others look into liturgy and look to that as the core of their faith. What is the unifying core of your Christian faith? 
“First of all, I center it on a deep longing for the ways of Jesus and the movement of God in our own lives and in the world. I really think that that is what the stirring is all about. So I’d say I am with Jesus on the whole. Indeed, there are even atheists that call themselves followers of Jesus. I know some people are like that right now and I think it is because there is something really compelling about Jesus. Secondly, people are really feeling the stirring toward justice, mercy, and love. The Bible definitely helps us with that but I think the guiding thing is the stirring work of the Spirit and we’re just in the middle of it. I think the Spirit is very convicting and challenging and moving in a very helpful way.”

I’d say you are not crazy, you are not alone. Find ways to talk about it with other safe people and find your way forward. You can’t do it by yourself.

For evangelicals it is always very important to be a follower of Christ. In the faith shift world, are there still followers of Jesus Christ? 
“I have to be careful in speaking for others for everyone’s faith shift looks different and for some people the term Christianity carries a lot of baggage. But for many it really is still about Jesus. Even for those who are completely on the outside, Jesus is still often the motivator behind it all. For many of us on the other side of the faith shift it feels more free and pure because it is coming from a place of freedom. It is not: 'I have to do it because everybody else is doing it or because this leader told me that this is what I needed to do or that the Bible is so clear about this.'”

What is your advice in 3 sentences to people whose faith is shifting?
 "
I’d say you are not crazy, you are not alone. Find ways to talk about it with other safe people and find your way forward. You can’t do it by yourself. That is a little piece, I mean, it’s too agonizing so find some people somehow, someway to process this together." 

Buy Kathy Escobar's book Faith Shift here.



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