Colby Martin is the co-pastor, along with his wife Kate, of Sojourn Grace Collective. He and his wife also host The Kate and Colby Show, a podcast for progressive Christians. Martin is author of UnClobber and his new book, The Shift, offers a survival guide for those who’ve left (or been kicked out of) their conservative Christian communities and are now moving toward a more open and expansive faith.
Kenneth E. Frantz: Your book is named The Shift. What is “the shift” and why did you think it was important to write about?
Colby Martin: There's a spectrum of religious belief practice between a more conservative faith and a more progressive faith. “The shift” is this process of moving from one to the other. Over the last several years, I've interacted with thousands of people who have gone on or are in the midst of this shift. So many people have these same sorts of experiences in that journey. It can be a scary and lonely journey with lots of confusion and some resentment. The Shift is my attempt to write a sort of survival guide for this process of leaving conservative Christianity and moving toward something that's more progressive.
Frantz: What might encourage somebody to go on this shift?
Martin: Some people do make a choice to go on this shift, but other people have that choice made for them. For the first group of people, they got into a larger world and suddenly they realized that the clothes of conservative Christianity no longer fit. They got limbs sticking out of weird places and they feel scratchy. They just don't know if they can believe [the doctrines they were brought up to believe] anymore.
LGBTQ inclusion is a big factor that causes people to go on their shift. They realize that they got friends and family who identify as LGBTQ or that they identify as LGBTQ. This conservative evangelical church world continues to insist that LGBTQ people are not loved children of God. And that oftentimes will catalyze people to begin to leave their more conservative roots. For some people, they might come out as gay, lesbian, or transgender, so they unceremoniously get shown the door.
Frantz: You mentioned your book is a survival guide for progressive Christians. What makes a survival guide different from a how-to book?
Martin: I try to clarify early on in the book that this is not about how to become a progressive Christian, because that would imply that there’s a single way to be a progressive Christian. Part of the beauty is that there isn't. Progressive Christianity is a multifaceted, diverse movement. If we keep operating as if the most important thing to God is that we have the correct beliefs and we just got to figure out what those beliefs are, we're going to continue to be stuck in this loop that we’re on.
I have four chapters that help people navigate through what happens when their idea of God no longer makes sense; when they start questioning belief in Jesus; when they struggle with how to think about the Bible. Then I have other chapters that address obstacles surrounding relationships. What do you do with your friends and family who don't understand why you're going on this shift? What do you do when your whole world is in this constant state of tension between your old self, which is saying hey, no, we fought hard to get you to this point, so don't abandon all these beliefs right now, and your new self, which is emerging and wanting to expand and grow.
Frantz: You brought up the concept of uncertainty and being comfortable with ambiguity in regard to Jesus, God, and the Bible. Why would becoming more comfortable with ambiguity help someone be a progressive Christian?
Martin: For me, and for many people I’ve interacted with, the thing that we were taught growing up is that God cares the most about what a human being believes. Somewhere along the way, Christianity moved from being a system of love, mercy, and compassion to instead becoming an organization about believing the right thing.
When people start to ask questions, they’re in some real way threatening to undo their standing with God. What I try to suggest is that maybe the most important thing to God is not your beliefs. We have no choice where we are born; who we we’re born to; what culture we we’re born in; what time in history we’re born in; what religion we’re born into. So to say that God cares most that we have the right beliefs is really being unjust and unfair to almost 90 percent of homosapiens whoever walked this earth.
Frantz: You also talk about relationships in the book and why someone might have problems with their old conservative family and friends. What are some of those problems and what advice would you have for people going through those difficulties?
Martin: If one of my fundamental beliefs is that you have to believe the right things in order to be loved by God and not burn forever, then when you start to no longer believe the right things, I'm genuinely scared for you. That makes a ton of sense. When people get scared, they tend to not always act in the best manner. You have situations where families shun people when they start asking questions of their faith. Families will shame people when they no longer believe the right things. In my book I try to offer permission — straight from the story and the teachings of Jesus — to create new and safe boundaries between their old conservative friends and family who will not allow them to be who they are and be on the journey that they are on.
When Jesus sent out his friends to announce the Kingdom of God had arrived, he told them, “It's not going to be super safe out there. You're going to run into people who are going to like what you have to say. If they do, then great. Go into their home and say peace be upon you. If you run into people who reject you, I give you permissions to shake the dust off your feet and move on.”
Frantz: One of the main things you talk about in your book is “the Christ pattern.” If one was to adopt the Christ pattern, what would that look like in community and in everyday life?
Martin: Everything is in constant transformation, and evolution and change and is everywhere. And so when one thing dies, another thing will be born. Matter doesn't go anywhere; it gets moved, transformed, and changed. The Christ pattern is that death is always followed by rebirth.
Sometimes when we go on the shift, what we have to discover is that our own time-sensitive beliefs or religious practices that we used to hold might need to die. Those beliefs might have served their purpose in our lives and they might have to die so that something else can be born. Sometimes relationships will need to die so that some new ones can be born. Life is a constant state of change, movement, transformation, and growth, and that is a good thing.
Frantz: What are some ways some people you’ve talked to have describe the process of dying and then being reborn during the shift?
Martin: One example that comes to mind is a woman who’s a friend of mine. Now this person would clearly identify as a lesbian, and she would say that she’s always known that her sexual orientation is for other women. She was raised in a conservative Christian environment which did not provide space for that. It shamed anyone and excluded anyone who might identify as LGBTQ, and so she did what was expected of her. She found a man to marry and built a family with him, and they did that for close to a decade. Then she found our church, and she found my wife’s and my podcast, and began to ask questions. In order for her to find a life that was characterized by flourishing, wholeness, love, grace, peace, kindness, gentleness, and all the things that Saint Paul said is the fruit of a life that is coming alive, she had to put death to her old life that she had lived. She had to be honest with her family about who she was and had to be honest with herself. That's scary. Yet, on the other side of that death is a person who now, as Glennon Doyle says, is untamed — a person who's unleashed. A person who's no longer held back by the stories that others would put on them.
Frantz: In your book, you can make being a progressive Christian sound really difficult. What would you say to someone who just wanted to leave the faith altogether?
Martin: I certainly don't hope that people take the idea of being a progressive Christian to be hard. What I'm saying is that this journey is in and of itself a difficult one, but part of the beauty [is when] Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, then you can trust that my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” There shouldn't be a heaviness to following Jesus. Even though the journey is hard, once you have gone through it, you realize there's a lightness and a freedom here.
Why wouldn't people just sort of opt out altogether? You know what, a lot of people do, and it makes a ton of sense. Sometimes the pain is too great and sometimes the baggage is too much, so sometimes it's just not feasible for people to continue identifying as a Christian. I get it and I bless it. But if people who still identify as Christian want to continue exploring, but in a more progressive way, that's where I hope The Shift can really be a helpful guide.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.