The Common Good

Meet the Nones: From Pastor to Unaffiliated

Editor's Note: Kevin Gonzaga tells his story of why he's part of the 20 percent of Americans who identify with "no religion in particular." Find more stories (or share your own) HERE. Read about the study HERE.

Pastor collar, Andrejs Zavadskis / Shutterstock.com
Pastor collar, Andrejs Zavadskis / Shutterstock.com

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Three years ago when I arrived at seminary to pursue my calling to fulltime pastoral ministry, one would probably have struggled to find someone in my generation more committed to the ministry and vitality of the local church.

While imperfect, I believed the church was the best hope of the world, and it was better to stay and work toward change than abandon the church and look for greener pastures. A year and a half later, I wrote a blog post explaining that I was no longer a Christian. I fear that this would only deepen the stereotype that seminary is a place where people lose their faith, so I should explain. 

The truth is I am one of growing number of people who choose not to affiliate with any organized religion. I am a “none,” and my journey to “none” started a long before I left for seminary. My disillusionment with, and eventual abandonment of, Christianity did not center around one traumatic event that shattered my faith, but rather it was something that coalesced from numerous experiences over a long time. 

It really started when I began studying the scriptures for myself in college. I was shocked to find many things I had been taught by the Church were wrong, were not in the Bible, or were even contrary to what the scriptures actually taught.

It continued every time I saw a church that claimed to be inclusive and loving, their actual actions and policies later proved that they were not.  

It continued as I became increasingly aware of how Christians had endorsed slavery, genocide, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and a variety of other problems in history. This forced me to question what evils we uncritically endorse today, all the while thinking we are good people.

It continued every time I saw Christians hypocritically judge others, apply double-standards, or misuse the scriptures.

It continued when I saw pastors treated like celebrities. When things are going well, they were idolized and revered, but when they made a mistake, they were thrown under the bus. 

It continued when my Christian friend’s entire Christian family refused to attend his wedding because his wife, also a Christian, had divorced her first husband years before.

It continued when I effectively committed career suicide by questioning the traditional condemnation of homosexuality and — even if one accepted the traditional condemnation of homosexuality — the morality and purpose of legislation like Proposition 8 and Amendment 1. 

It continued as I had time to reflect on the role of unassailable ignorance, group-think, self-deception, and double-speak within Christianity.

It continued in hundreds of encounters that exposed the contradictions within Christianity. There too often are discrepancies between what Christianity professes to be and what it is and the people it calls its followers to be and the people who it actually produces and shapes.

It continued as I spent time in Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Emergent, Conservative, Liberal, Neo-Reformed, and other traditions within Christianity. With each one I hoped to find the Christianity I was supposed to be a part of, a Christianity devoid of many of these issues, but instead found all of these traditions broken in their own unique ways, each presenting in different degrees.

These experiences left me in a place of distress. On one hand I was realistic that the church will never be perfect. My criticisms were tempered with the knowledge of all the good Christianity has done in the world and that many Christians I know are decent people whose faith is their motivation to attempt to do good. On the other hand, the problems in Christianity were so deep and so widespread that I could not bring myself to overlook them anymore. Something was simply fundamentally wrong.

This was all a source of great distress for me. I wanted to stay part of the Church. I wanted my life and faith to be like it was. Fearing I had wasted several years pursuing education for a career I could no longer pursue in good conscience ate at me.

I wanted Christianity to make sense to me again.  

I forced myself to attend church. I even applied to work in a number of churches, hoping that being in a place of responsibility might help me. But it was no use by this point. Every time I tried to attend church — even amazing churches, with great people, loving pastors, and an honest atmosphere — all I would do is sit there for two hours asking myself, “What is it we are doing here, and why the hell am I here?”

While I did not know exactly what was going on, or really articulate what I thought of Christianity, I knew whatever a Christian was, I no longer was one.

I blogged about why I was no longer a Christian. The paradox was, while I was no longer a Christian I believed, and still do, in the Judeo-Christian God, that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel, and that the Bible is revelation from God. However, the whole Christian system that has been built around these beliefs appeared to me to be a machine, perpetually moving and devoid of meaning. 

It appeared the doing of Christianity (the services, the missions trips, the various forms of our worship, the hallmark practices and beliefs of specific sects, etc.) had been confused to be the following of Jesus. It was these practices that Christians appeared most committed to, willing to sacrifice for, and willing to viciously defend if they were attacked. 

I could no longer be part of this. I simply saw no point.

This has been met with mixed reactions. Some of my non-Christian friends think this is semantics game because I am still “too Christian.” Some of my Christian friends do not know how to take me because I am no longer “Christian enough.”

Regardless of what people think of my statement, this has increasingly become a very real aspect of my life and it has continued to cement.

It continued to cement when I removed my religious affiliation from my various online profiles.

It continued to cement when I was asked for my religion in an official form and I marked “None.”

It continued to cement, perhaps poignantly for me, when an acquaintance on Twitter asked me I was “a pastor or something” in regards to my posts on Christian Fundamentalism. 

My response was simply, “I was.”  

And it continues to cement as I fully realize the implications of my use of the past-tense in response to that question and what that means for my life.

Kevin Gonzaga is a recent grad of Fuller Theological Seminary and an aspiring writer. He can be reached on Twitter @speakfaithfully.

Photo: Pastor collar, Andrejs Zavadskis / Shutterstock.com

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