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Benjamin Reist, one of my favorite professors in seminary, once quipped that he would “never trust anyone to lead a church unless they had once left the Church.” As a child of the church who left as a young adult myself, his words were balm to my aching soul. And I know I am not alone. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion—or no religion at all” (Pew Research Center, 2008). This anti-church sentiment is amplified in the setting for City of Refuge, United Church of Christ in San Francisco, a culture that is deeply spiritual but with very low religious affiliation: less than 50% or perhaps as few as 10% affiliate formally with a religious group, according to some sources (Bush, T., 2002). Most of our members at City of Refuge are indeed refugees who were raised in the church, left for various reasons, and are now coming back to this congregation with lots of baggage to unpack.

Since the 1980s, the term dechurched has been used to describe those who “once found faith and meaningful religious experience within a church, but have since left due to negative experiences that caused them to leave and/or to experience a loss of faith” (Hammond, 2001, p.1–2). The individual reasons that cause someone to become dechurched are varied and rooted in personal history. Still, broad themes can be identified and congregations can learn to lovingly welcome these lost members home to re-find faith and authentic spiritual community.

Theologian and Episcopal priest Carter Heyward once described the journey of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered) folks in the Christian church as a “journey without maps” (Heyward, 1984, p. 75). Unfortunately many other people raised in churches have also found themselves wandering, trying to find a place to grow the seed of faith given them in childhood. When these dechurched pilgrims come back to church, it is often in the midst of crisis. The need to find a way to reconcile their current life circumstances with the faith of their childhood is acute. A map is needed for these dechurched souls to find their way back to faith and into Christian community.

Crafting strategies to respond to the dechurched can be as simple as taking the time to acknowledge that many of those who sit in our pews have church burns and scars from their previous congregations. Beyond that, learning to understand the dynamics of spiritual abuse and taking it seriously when providing pastoral care will help pastors to address these issues in the congregation. Welcoming the dechurched can also become an evangelism strategy. At its core, the popular God is Still Speaking campaign inaugurated by the United Church of Christ in 2006 was created to bring the dechurched back to faith and church life.

From the beginning, City of Refuge in San Francisco has been committed to serving those left behind by church and society. In the devastating early days of HIV/AIDS, this was an urgent need within the African-American community. Bishop Flunder and the congregation’s founders were tired of burying their dead in shame and secrecy. They wanted to find authentic community. Flunder writes, “when access to existing communities is not available, marginalized people must seek to develop community for and among themselves” (Flunder, 2005, p. 1).

As you enter City of Refuge United Church of Christ (COR) in San Francisco you are greeted by a large banner made of gold and silver lame that proclaims: Prepare to be Amazed. This promise and/or warning is a deliberate echo of Walter Brueggemann’s 1978 book, The Prophetic Imagination. It is a sign that reflects the prophetic calling of this congregation to intentionally welcome the dechurched. This banner signals that this is church unusual, a “just us” church, as Flunder says from her pulpit, that both acknowledges the suffering caused by previous church experiences and offers a place to heal and move forward in faith.

In 1991, COR founding pastor, the Rev. Yvette A. Flunder, and thirteen bold Christians made the decision to create a community that would be a refuge for those outcast by church and society. Like Jeremiah, this small band of faithful followers of Jesus had reached a point of lament and despair as HIV/AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, and homophobia had destroyed so many friends, family, and lovers. While many other same gender loving (Manago, 2006) people opted to remain silent and restrained in churches where these issues could not be openly addressed, this group chose to create a different way of being church (Griffin, 2006, p. 134–135).

Many of the founders of the church, including Flunder, were raised in the heart of the hierarchy of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Flunder is the daughter, granddaughter, and niece of bishops in COGIC. Within the community of African-American churches, the COGIC is the largest Pentecostal church, with five million members. Fiercely conservative in faith and practice, the COGIC maintains a strong hierarchical polity that excludes women from ordination and service in roles beyond teaching and women’s ministries. The COGIC continues to avoid the topic of HIV/AIDS (except for supporting orphans in Africa) and actively condemns homosexuality and same gender loving people (Church of God in Christ.

For Flunder and the founders, the lack of welcome for same-gender loving people and the deathly silence about HIV/AIDS was profoundly disturbing. Like Jeremiah, those first Refugees intensely felt the rising death toll among church musicians, friends, and family and struck out in frustration as the institutional churches that they had grown up in were, at best, silent and, at worst, actively oppressive towards those affected. The institutionalized African-American church was, and in some sense still is, in denial about these losses. That denial was intolerable to the early Refugees who nursed each other through each opportunistic infection and then attended funerals led by institutional leaders that did not ring true.

City of Refuge, UCC, San Francisco was intentionally designed to reach the dechurched. What difference does that make in terms of the ecclesiology of a local church? How can such a church insure that it will be able to provide refuge for those who have been previously burned by church experience? In Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion, Yvette A. Flunder defines the ecclesiology of City of Refuge:

True community—true church—comes when marginalized people take back the right to fully “be.” A people must be encouraged to celebrate not in spite of who they are, but because of who their creator has made them. The balm that heals oppression sickness is the creation of accountable, responsible, visible, celebrating communities on the margin of mainline church and dominant society. (Flunder, 2005, p. xiv.)

In 2011, after 20 years of ministry on the margins, City of Refuge, San Francisco (COR) has shifted, grown, and changed while HIV/AIDS has become a more manageable condition. The current congregation is approximately 80% African-American and 20% Euro-American with a few Asian Americans and Latinos. City of Refuge is diverse in many other ways that are less visible. Most importantly, the congregation has a large economic range that includes homeless street folk, those living on fixed incomes or on disability payments, and an increasing number of professionals, including university professors, lawyers, social workers, nurses, morticians and non-profit professionals. There is nothing new about the church’s economic diversity--it has always been there. In some ways, the economic and educational diversity is much more difficult in the midst of day-to-day ministry than the differing racial identities.

There is also a wide range of religious backgrounds and training. A recent new members class included former Presbyterians (PC(USA)), Baptists (Missionary, Free Will, American, Southern), Methodists (AME and UMC), Pentecostals (COGIC, Church of God, Assemblies of God), a former Jehovah’s Witness, a former Mormon, a Filipina UCC pastor, and perhaps most interestingly, one new member who had never been a part of any church or faith tradition before. Beyond this new members' class, it is easy to find members who are both former and current practicing Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims and worshipers from almost every denomination within the Christian community from Christian Science to Foursquare Gospel. An example of this diversity occurred on Sunday, April 20th, 2008 when the benediction in worship included wishing all a “joyous pesach” in honor of Refuge members celebrating Passover during the week to come.

Soon after I joined the pastoral team of City of Refuge in 2006, I found myself having odd conversations with colleagues in the United Church of Christ and in other Euro-American church contexts. In particular, I remember having a conversation with a student from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University while leading a worship workshop with Wing it! Performance Ensemble at the 2008 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I described my ministry context and she responded, “Well, there are hurting people everywhere—you don’t have to go into the inner city to find them.” We continued to talk about what it means to be marginalized. It is easy to say you are marginalized if you are lesbian, black, female, and fat, or as Flunder would say, “a justice issue with legs.” Many of our members at COR fit the accepted sociological definitions of the marginalized: African-American, poor, under-educated, living with HIV/AIDS, and same-gender loving or transgendered. No one disputes that life is harder for someone in those circumstances.

And yet, so many people I have encountered in churches who do not fit any of those categories are refugees too. They feel that they have been left behind by their churches, even if they are more accepted in mainstream society. The divinity student and I pondered how the gospel that speaks so powerfully in a sociologically-marginalized context can speak with similar power to those who don’t have an acknowledged category of marginalization and yet somehow know that they too feel lost. At the time I did not have a word for this dynamic but I now believe we were talking, at least in part, about the dechurched.

A search for dechurched or de-churched in the Graduate Theological Union library in Berkeley, CA turns up exactly one result: The Church and the Dechurched: Mending a Damaged Faith by Mary Tuomi Hammond. Hammond is co-pastor of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio, and an ordained clergywoman in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She describes the dechurched as “those who have lost a faith that they once valued or have left a body of believers with whom they were once deeply engaged” (Hammond, p. 1–2). Her book further limits this definition to focus on “those who felt damaged and alienated amid this process” (Hammond, p. 1–2).

Searches on Google turn up several primarily evangelical and/or emergent websites that mostly think of the dechurched as:

an exodus of young people to the proclamation (explicitly or implicitly) of a false gospel of “moralistic deism.” This understanding of the Christian life says that if you obey God’s rules he will bless you with what you desire. The problem arises when God’s blessing doesn’t come—or doesn’t come in the form we want. Divorce, illness, poor grades, failed relationship—virtually any hardship has the potential to destroy one’s faith in Christ and the church that represents him. So, according to Chandler (Matt Chandler), people walk away. They enter the ranks of the de-churched. (Jethani, 2010)

Matt Chandler, The Village Church, believes that the dechurched phenomena is generational and rooted in the failure to fully transmit the gospel to the next generation. He proclaims, “the first generation are passionate about the gospel, the second generation assumes the gospel, and the third generation hates the gospel” (Chandler, 2009). Dan Kimball echoes this thesis and amplifies it to include not just anti-church sentiment, but anti-Christian sentiment in a post-christian culture. In his provocatively titled book They Like Jesus, but not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations, Kimball quotes rock singer Bono as saying, “Christians are hard to tolerate; I don’t know how Jesus does it” (Kimball,2007, p. 25).

In some ways trying to describe the dechurched is a bit like asking a bird to describe air: they are so prevalent that they have become invisible. Reading the literature of the emerging church movement is a case in point. It is hard to generalize about this diverse movement, but it might be safe to say that all of them begin their ministry with a critique of the Church. To them, the Church is irrelevant, boring, has bad music, and/or is abusive. Their initiatives seem rooted in backlash against the Church that failed to fully form or continue to nurture their faith. And now that they have gotten free of the Church, they have found faith and a new way of being a faith community. The emerging church movement can easily be described as a response to the large number of people who have been dechurched.

Perhaps it is simply the nature of Christian faith to resist institutionalization. Reform movement after reform movement promises to correct the sins of the Church. Indeed, the Church has much to answer for in its long history, and folks have been dechurched all along. Many now-venerated saints were declared heretics during their earthly life and surely knew the pain of feeling dechurched.

The emerging church, however, might not have addressed all the root causes for what can lead someone to become dechurched. In some cases these communities could be described as the same old toxic theology set to rock music. Ecclesia, for example, an Emergent-style congregation in Houston, maintains the same theology as the established Southern Baptist Convention. It has simply been re-packaged with different music and a style that defies typical Baptist stereotypes. Choosing to locate this congregation in a predominately and somewhat famously LGBT neighborhood is worrisome. On their website they proclaim themselves to be a "called out" people, as in this is a missional church (Ecclesia Houston). But will lesbian and gay folk believe they are welcome and wind up spiritually abused and dechurched again when they discover what this church actually believes? Will a young woman volunteering in their espresso bar sense a call to ministry only to discover that her gifts are not ordainable and/or she cannot ever become an elder?

This and similar emerging churches may appeal to the dechurched at first, but simply changing the interface isn’t enough. A more thorough-going response to dechurched people will also include genuine opportunities for these perennial pilgrims to acknowledge the past, heal current wounds, and learn to integrate their previous experiences into their current faith life. And most importantly, a holistic response to the dechurched would include a sense of honesty about what norms and beliefs the community actually holds and humility about the limits of all faith communities to be places of true refuge.

In the mid-90’s, while serving women living with HIV/AIDS as a community-based chaplain, I companioned a number of women whom I helped to dechurch. In those days there were only a handful of African-American churches across the nation that were willing to acknowledge and/or accept people living with HIV/AIDS. The stigma was staggering for these mostly heterosexual women—many of whom had been infected by unfaithful husbands or boyfriends. And yet they were faithful to the church. When I asked them what would happen if they told their pastor and/or church about their HIV status, the look of fear and terror was palpable. “No, no, no Rev. Melinda. I couldn’t do that—I would lose my church and that is all I have.” As we would talk, I would remind them that it is pretty hard to hide this disease over time and then ask, “Wouldn’t you rather deal with this now as opposed to when you get sick?”

With a precious few of these women, I went to meet with a pastor hoping to establish a cocoon of trust. Others I simply encouraged to leave and join one of the two congregations I knew at the time would welcome them unconditionally: Bishop Walter Hawkins’ Love Center in Oakland or better yet, City of Refuge, UCC in San Francisco where they could also receive services related to their HIV status. Far too many became ill, were subsequently shunned by their pastors and churches at the hour of their greatest need, and then were lost. Spiritually lost and then lost through death without the comfort of a community of faith.

I knew the territory of being dechurched first hand. Like so many others raised in the church, I left during my young adulthood. The reasons were many. The Church was hopelessly patriarchal and I was developing a feminist consciousness. I was in the process of understanding myself as a lesbian and the Church was miserably homophobic. Worse yet, I was working in opera production as a stage manager and despaired at the silence of the Church as literally hundreds of friends and colleagues succumbed to the ravages of HIV/AIDS. I was living through a personal holocaust, and the Church of my childhood faith was complicit in the dying and destruction.

Grief-weary and depressed as I was, a Jewish lesbian feminist therapist told me to go back to the church. “Go back there? You have got to be kidding!,” I wailed. But I went back and wept and wept and wept. I sang the familiar hymns of my childhood and bit by bit the Gospel became Good News again> Especially when preached in a church full of dechurched people like me—refugees from the internal church wars over homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and women’s issues as gathered in little West Hollywood Presbyterian Church. I was re-introduced to the parables of the lost and met Jesus again for a grown-up encounter with a faith that was genuinely steadfast.

Mary Tuomi Hammond asserts that Jesus’ ministry was primarily to the de-synagogued, the dechurched of his time (Hammond, p. 16). Jesus was regularly lambasted by the religious authorities for consorting with those who were not welcome in the temple: sinners, outcasts, lepers, women, and the dreaded tax collectors. In Luke, his parables speak directly to God’s love for these lost people. A shepherd risks everything to find the one lost sheep. A woman obsessively looks for her lost coin. A father provides a spectacular welcome home for a lost son. These stories are balm for those who have been dechurched when they can begin to hear past the spoken and unspoken messages of unwelcome spoken by churches to hear the voice of Jesus again saying, “Welcome home!”

The Gospel of Mark is even more strident in its criticism of religious structures that separate the believer from God. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NIV). Matthew and Luke include the same admonition against those who would damage the faith of a believer.

The restoration of the lost to faith is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Each time Jesus heals someone they are restored to the community and the temple. With every breaking of bread that resists the religious strictures of the time, another soul finds his way back to God. With the two exceptions of the Samaritan woman and the Syrophoenecian (Cannanite) woman, Jesus’ entire ministry is to the lost sheep of Israel.

We have many lost sheep looking for a way home. Can we follow in the steps of Jesus to create a path back to their shepherd and into our communities of faith? Can we turn the church’s stumbling blocks into stepping stones?

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This article made possible in part by a grant from the Lattner Family Foundation.