Thriving Outside Religion

Thriving Outside Religion June 17, 2024

Thriving Outside Religion

(From our new book, Evolving From Religious Trauma. June 4th)

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I went to church for most of my life. Much of that was in conservative, evangelical congregations. There were some positive aspects of being in a community with loving people. But I also understand that there are deep, systemic problems with religious organizations. In addition to trauma-related issues, organizations struggle with exclusion, othering, fear, and control. The trouble with reform is that organizations prefer to stay the same. It is impossible to change them in any significant way once they have any level of success.

However, surviving spiritually and even thriving outside the organization is also possible. We meet new people each day who are surviving and thriving and have been doing so for years. They still have their spirituality even though they might have given up their religion. Without self-promoting this OF God theory, I think it is because they realize that much of what they were searching for is inside them.

Refer to our book, Out into the Desert, for more detail on this subject. We based much of the second half of that book on the Beatitudes of the Bible. A shorter version follows. Laura reminded me again yesterday how happy and thriving she is outside of organized religion. But it is not just that we are surviving; we are growing and thriving in the “desert.” We have everything we need to succeed.  

Finding community

When I try to discuss the issues of thriving in the desert, the most prominent pushback I get from those attending church is in the community area. They will say to me, “But we need community!” And I will say, “I couldn’t agree more.” But, if we all agree that community is essential, it would be worth our time to go through an assessment and make sure we are all talking about the same thing and understand what a good community looks like.

There are moments I remember quite vividly from over two decades of church work. There was a time, early in my ministry, when I reached out to a family in need and found myself performing the ceremony for a 16-year-old boy who perished in a car wreck. We got even closer that year when his cousin also died in a car wreck. I was instantly a part of their community, not by choice but because of our circumstances. When you step back and analyze those experiences, you only make one assessment, “That was extremely difficult, but it was also vibrant and good and beautiful.”

In 20 years, I have attended at least 20 graduations. I officiated 20 to 30 weddings and at least that many funerals. Especially in my first church, I was there for everything: the fish fries, the community Christmas parties, and the street dance that got me in trouble. At the second church, we cooked breakfast for the campers nearby and experienced a different transient community, but it was community, nonetheless. Our last church was in Nebraska City, where the Applejack Festival was important. So, being a part of that community meant being in parades with the Christian motorcycle group, going to their meetings, and trying to help meth addicts and homeless people get back on their feet. But more than anything, in all the churches, community meant responding to the needs of those who came across the church’s threshold. It is easier in the smaller church, but I do not suppose the mission changes no matter how big the church is.

As I mentioned before, humans are hard-wired for connection. We long for a community that supports and advocates for us. Being a part of something bigger gives us the confidence to face challenges, knowing that someone will be there to help us through struggles. Laura and I are discovering that we are both introverted. Today, I am thrilled to write this manuscript and watch football by myself. But eventually, I need the community to support me in one way or another.

We need connections but do not have to get them through organized religion. While there may be a few advantages to organized religion for a community, such as leveraging resources and group dynamics, these usually do not outweigh some of the dangers of community.

People often take advantage of the loyalty and trust in a group. This happens inside and outside of organized religion, but a typical church or parish is particularly vulnerable because people do not expect abuse there. Most abuse is not intentional, but hurt people sometimes hurt other people. Again, spiritual bypassing and misuse of spiritual terms like forgiveness and unconditional love promote further neglect and abuse.

Sometimes, we use the larger group to blend in and avoid responsibility. We can avoid the part of the community that struggles with people’s inconsistencies. The real need is not community but connection. And connection can only effectively happen when we are present and authentic. People sometimes hide in organizations while claiming to be in a community—I think that is a contradiction. One of the unfortunate draws of the community is what Brené Brown calls “Common Enemy Intimacy.” She explains:

“Common Enemy Intimacy is a counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and a straightforward way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection.”[1]

The community becomes quite simple when we talk about who we do not like. American politics facilitates this “us versus them” mentality. But, as Brené stresses, “hating the same people” is a “counterfeit connection” and not really what we truly need from communities. It may make us feel good but is not a real community. It is easier to talk about what we are against, but it is much more noble to talk about what we are for. Real community is when we do the challenging work of understanding and celebrating our differences.

So, where do we find community? I find it in many places.

About eight years ago, we moved to a small town. For whatever reason, when we are here, we sit together on our porch and do not seek out local connections. But we are equal distances from our two daughters and our grandchildren. We see them occasionally and consider them part of our community. Laura and I have grown to the point where we can speak honestly and vulnerably to each other, and she is the most essential part of my community. I also have fellow authors, podcasters, and online friends. We have people we counsel with and people who counsel with us. Often, I feel like I have too much community.

If we are honest with ourselves, most religious organizations do not provide genuine community. We may visit people superficially, but we do not share deep secrets or intimate details of our lives. The intent is there, but the programming is such that religion does not have time for our grief or trauma. It sometimes creates more issues because it does not have time or programming for our deepest needs.

One of the most common complaints of the church is that people are not genuine. We should find our community where we can be genuine and authentic, even if that place looks nothing like a church. We can even find community when we go inside. I do not have time to explain it here, but it is worth your time to investigate it further.

Finding My Voice

If the place where I do my religion has only one speaker and a select group of teachers, then my voice will always fall silent. I may be able to ask some questions, but from experience, I learned to accept the prescribed teaching. The organization may talk about diversity and openness, but it rarely changes its mind about beliefs and practices. Religion gives the illusion of equality, but the leadership keeps the group loyal to the group’s mission.

I knew I got to speak the most as a pastor, so I assumed I had a voice. But, when Laura and I wrote about finding your voice, I realized even as a pastor, I only said things within a certain range of acceptability. It could seem challenging, but I could only go so far in challenging the accepted norm. It is like when we talk about re-inventing church and religion. I remember how hard it was to move a piece of furniture in the church, much less challenge doctrine or practices that people were accustomed to.

To find our voice, we must find a community that sees us with eyes of grace. The group always tends to protect the group, so allowing people to express their opinions is harder. If I am talking to a friend, I can tell them I can’t entirely agree with them. But, if I disagree with the organization, that is a bigger problem.

Finding the Word

My tradition is Christianity. In this tradition, people attach varying degrees of emphasis to the Bible. Some deem this collection of letters, poetry, and other literature to be the “Word of God,” even though the Bible gives that title to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Some would ignore the Bible completely, but I would agree with Paul (very simply) that the Bible is useful. It is “inspired,” but no evidence suggests it is infallible. Some would suggest that Christianity is like a tree that grows out of the soil of Scripture. Walter Brueggemann characterized Scripture as compost for a new life.[2] The soil and compost are important but only point to the life that grows from them.

I have an evolving relationship with what is the sacred text of my tradition. As of today, it is still helpful. However, there were forty authors during a specific period. Some truth is found there, but it is not everything God has to say. Today, there is one new book published on Amazon every five minutes. It is possible that God still speaks through what someone published a few minutes ago, just like in the first century.

The written word is only one way God speaks to us. Throughout history, we have been trying to understand our origins, the nature of the Divine, and our purpose in creation. The only way to evolve is to keep considering everything, not just one small part of what we consider revelation.

Being OF God means that part of the revelation is even inside us. Someone commented on a chapter in my book Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity. Concerning the chapter, Being with the Divine, they remarked that it almost seemed like I was discovering what I believed about God while writing it. They were exactly right.

Finding Uncertainty

One of the most challenging parts of thriving outside organized religion is our perceived need for certainty. Religion usually has a creed or a belief statement that prescribes what we should agree to. This gives a sense of security because we do not have to search or strive to find the truth. After all, leaders prescribe the acceptable answer to our questions.

The intentions mean to make us feel secure, but they do not always have the desired effect. They make us feel comfortable but do not necessarily lead us to the truth. Once we become more comfortable with uncertainty, we free ourselves to become explorers in search of the truth.

Finding Comfort

The first funeral I remember was for my Grandpa Joe. He was a bridge builder for the county and a farmer of sorts. He had about ten cows, all of whom had names, even though he eventually ate most of them. We got to stay with him and Nanny every year on our birthdays, and we spent most holidays with them. After my grandma died, they put him in a nursing home, which he kept escaping from until he eventually passed away.

They let me recite a poem I wrote for him at the funeral. It was in a gymnasium because he was well-loved by his community. He coached baseball and talked to everyone he saw, no matter where he was. I miss both of my grandpas for distinct reasons.

I started attending funerals a lot more when I started doing them. My first funeral was for a high school kid killed in a tragic auto accident. I did not even know his parents, but when I contacted the family, they asked me to officiate the funeral. Guess what? It was also in a gymnasium because of the circumstances of his death.

When I conduct a funeral, I tell the people, “This is not about you; it is about the person we are honoring.” But I also tell them, “This is not for them; it is for you!”

Over the years, I have slowly been learning that we cannot heal things until we feel them. The beatitude stresses that when we mourn, we will find comfort.

I never understood the celebration type of funeral. It always seemed like we were bypassing the pain we felt from losing a friend. It is hard to find consolation until we feel the weight of the loss. The grief we are supposed to experience keeps resurfacing until we allow ourselves the opportunity to feel what is natural.

I also do not understand the narrative, “Be strong!” This also seems like avoiding what we naturally feel. I remember viewing the body of the young man at my first funeral. It surprised me when I cried over a boy I did not know. Why did I do that? Because it is the natural thing to do. Because I felt it, mourning comforted me, and I was able to console the family.

Being OF God means what we feel allows us to heal truly. Comfort will not come from avoiding the pain, and it will also not come when we deny what we feel. I found comfort outside of organized religion because, for the first time, no leader told me what to feel. Instead, I went inside and asked what I really felt. It was painful—I mourned—and then, I found comfort.

Finding Satisfaction

I know a lot of songs by their tunes, but I cannot tell you who sang them or anything like that. In other words, I never studied or paid attention to the music as much as I liked its rhythm and beauty. So, the only U2 lyrics I remember are, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” This resonates with me because I am adventurous by heart and always looking over the next horizon.

One of the main reasons I was frustrated was that I was always trying to fit in. I felt out of place early in life and tried to fit in through college and my early career. Becoming a pastor worked well for me to blend into the community and become like them. I did not necessarily have an excellent vision for them because they already knew who they were and what they wanted to accomplish. I was a player on their stage, quickly learning what they expected and delivering it. That was until year 20, when I finally told Laura, “I can’t do this anymore.”

When I finally started asking questions like, “What do I really believe?” and “What if I am wrong?” I discovered not only what I believed but also who I genuinely am. Now that I have a better idea of who I really am, I feel more satisfied because I am living more authentically. I do not always do what people expect me to do, but I know what I am looking for, and I am more able to find satisfaction.

It is a mistake to imagine we can be satisfied with every outcome in our lives. We may never get everything we imagine, but we can discover what we are looking for and, more often, find satisfaction.

By being OF God and looking inward, we discover our true selves and authenticity. Being who we are does not mean everyone will accept us, but it will clarify what we seek. When we know what we are looking for, we are more apt to find it and be satisfied.

Finding Mercy

I have talked about mercy since I became a pastor. I always understood mercy as “not getting what we deserve.” When I saw God as retributive, I understood that God wanted to punish us for sin, and we need mercy. Over time, I have learned to see God as restorative. The only reason we would need mercy is if the Divine is retributive. Retribution is a human characteristic that only makes God more immature, not more holy.

But we do need mercy in our dealing with humans. Because we are not perfect, we often tend to retaliate. They did something wrong and deserve what they have coming to them. We know how to get people back for offending us, whether it is actual aggression or passiveness.

Realizing that we are OF God helps us go inside and find the heart of restoration. Retribution only causes further division and does not accomplish anything noble. Hopefully, nations will move away from our retributive nature. It starts with mercy and ends with compassion. However, nations only change once individuals decide not to live with that mindset.

As the beatitude stresses, when we show mercy, we will receive mercy!

Finding Peace

Martin Luther King Jr., a peace advocate, once said, “True peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”[3]

I have always said peace is the presence of God. Peace emerges in the most unpeaceful situations. Throughout history, man has tried to build walls to create peace. If we could block out all the ugly, evil, or noise, we would have peace. History teaches us that often, it is the wall that brings hostility. The most visible example in our time would be when Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and said, “The advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of peace.” He later exclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

We need to make peace with our past when we talk about peace. Often, this takes some arduous work, like encountering and being present with our shadow. These things involve challenging work, but they are worth it because they lead to peace.

We also make peace with ourselves. Marvin Gaye said, “If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.”[4] Sometimes, peace is a decision to stop manipulating situations. When we choose to be content, we are not saying we are against improvement but will be satisfied with where we are.

We also must make peace with our enemies. Brené Brown said, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”[5] I want to be careful with my enemies, and sometimes I must set boundaries, but getting to know people often eliminates them as enemies.

Realizing we are OF God makes peace so much simpler. Peace is not about subduing the external. Peace is about connecting internally with the source of peace. Connecting with the Divine in us should be the most direct and pure source of peace. We can find it instantly and, in any situation, we find ourselves in.  

Be where you are, be who you are, be at peace.

Karl Forehand

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Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Out into the Desert, Leaning Forward, Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart, The Tea Shop, and Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity. He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast and community. He has been married to his wife Laura for 35 years and has one dog named Winston. His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply! You can read more about the author here.






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