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The search for a church that isn't a church

Seeking community isn't always easy.
Andry Ryan
Getty Images
Seeking community isn't always easy.

If you've been following this series, by now you've seen me write about the reason this whole project came about. I don't know what I believe. Don't misunderstand - I am a grown woman who has lived a lot of life at this point and I have learned some things and I have uncovered some deep truths about the world and myself for that matter. But when it comes to questions of faith - I don't have it figured out. The religion my parents brought me up with doesn't fit anymore but I still long for a spiritual community. According to the academic types who study social trends, there's a name for someone like me - a none. As in, when it comes to a religious identity - well, I have none.

According to a study by PRRI from 2022, almost 30 percent of Americans consider themselves to be "unaffiliated" from any religious institution. Compare that 1991 when only 6 percent of respondents said they were religiously unaffiliated.

So there's clearly something going on. America is getting less churchy. But is it getting any less spiritual? I don't think so. I think it just means our faith communities and institutions aren't giving people what they need anymore, which is probably why Perry Bacon's recent column in the Washington Post caught my eye.

Perry and I both grew up in really religious households. Both of our fathers preached at the pulpit on Sundays. And going to church was never an option - it was just what we did - what was expected of us.

But, like me, Perry has grown away from the church he grew up in. His family's Black charismatic church doesn't reflect the totality of his values anymore. He started feeling distant from his faith when he left his home in Louisville, Kentucky to start college at Yale.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Perry Bacon: It was New Haven, Connecticut, so there weren't a lot of Black charismatic churches to go to. So I probably went to church like one of every three Sundays.

Rachel Martin: If you didn't go to church on a Sunday during that time did you feel unmoored in any way or did that time get eaten up real quick?

Bacon: I was always very aware that someone was not quite right, there was some level of guilt. I know where I am supposed to be and I'm not there.

I had internalized that it would be easier when I was back in Louisville, or when I was older. So I thought, let me write off these four years and I'm sure I'll get back to it afterward. And that's actually what ended up happening.

Martin: If we move through time, As a young, successful adult, where was your faith at? Was your spiritual identity still evolving?

Bacon: So in my twenties I moved to D.C. and a few of my high school friends were living there. They had a church and while not being the one I grew up with it was multiracial. It didn't have hymnals, there was a praise band, so I felt very comfortable in that environment actually.

There was also less of a focus on God talking to you personally, I found that part of my childhood religion to be sort of hard. It was more of an optimistic christianity. It felt a little bit like home and I was in a community.

So I felt like that college thing was sort of a weird four year cycle, but this is where I thought I would be.

Martin: It's a slow burn up to this question, but like, what happened, Perry? It sounds like you felt like you belonged, you found a place to express your spiritual self and now you're a "none." What happened?

Bacon: While being Black and having grown up in a Black church, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ideas around that were challenging to me. I had been someone who was kind of taking the Obama-ish route through their career in a certain way. The idea of being palatable enough to the powers that be and not talking about racial issues in a very direct way.

A lot of the ideas that came out of that time were coming from scholars who were not religious. And some of the people I was reading were secular humanists, they thought the Black church actually had some elements that were not very helpful. That the church created a level of acceptance of American society as it is instead of challenging it. So that was part of it.

Martin: You saw a different way to be a Black moral person in America who was concerned with social justice and prioritized those issues.

Bacon: Yes, exactly.

The second thing had to do with an experience I had. The church would have these small groups where people would come to your house during the week and you're supposed to help build a fellowship. So I was hosting one, it was a men's group, a group would come to my house and we would read together and discuss the latest sermon.

This was probably back in 2015, and one of the people who was in my group came up to me and wanted to have lunch. He told me that he wanted to be a small group leader but the church said he couldn't because he's gay. He was told he could be a member but couldn't lead a group unless he wasn't in any kind of same-sex relationship.

When I heard that I was surprised. I honestly hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about the church's policies on gay rights because it was a church that was very pro-immigration, pro-refugee, you know the pastor would talk about how Black Lives Matter is important. So I hadn't really noticed.

Martin: You made an assumption.

Bacon: Yeah. I made an assumption. And I think a lot of non-denominational churches make it hard to figure out their stances on this. I've spent a lot of time looking into this and as I've explored churches in both D.C. and Louisville. At one point I went to go ask another pastor what their views on the issues were, because I had tried to find it on the website and couldn't.

He actually said to me, "Well we're welcoming of everyone but we would not do a same sex wedding. Is that good enough for you?" So he seemed to know exactly what I was asking. He actually said we would not put that on a website. So the goal is obscure.

So I was struggling at church. But we were thinking about moving to Louisville anyway.

Martin: Oh, that was convenient for you.

Bacon: I didn't have to have the church breakup I was headed toward. So then I'm in a new city. Or rather a new old city. I still had other questions and the church I grew up with still exists, so when I got back to Louisville it wasn't like these questions were unresolved.

Mm-hmm. It's smaller, so I had to, so when I get back to Louisville, it wasn't like these questions were unresolved. Right. So even more profound

Martin: Right, they were even more profound in a certain way.

Bacon: And my belief was sort of weak too, I wasn't sure about the Jesus Christ parts of the sermon. So I was struggling with whether I believe this.

Martin: So it wasn't just the politics, you yourself were having existential doubts about the core beliefs of Christianity?

Bacon: Yeah, I was treating being Christian like some people treat being Jewish. I was culturally Christian. Like I was born into this, there's no reason to sort of drop it. Maybe if I was born into a Muslim family I'd be Muslim. And then the pandemic hit.

The first year, 2020, I watched church services online at the start but that year definitely sort of made my separation from church complete.

Martin: You wrote that having your daughter Charlotte is actually one of the reasons you stepped away from organized religion because you don't want to explain to her some of these problematic beliefs versus the tenets that you agree with. And for me it's kind of the opposite.

I grew up in a super religious household and my dad was also like a volunteer assistant pastor. And as a young adult, I fell away from that faith. But having kids, as a parent, I want other people to be involved in talking to my kids about right and wrong and the nature of forgiveness and humility.

From my point of view a church was an easy place to get that. Plus, some organized volunteer activities and you know, coffee hour where you meet your neighbors. It's just like one stop shopping. And so my kids were really the impetus for me to find a church and, and I haven't been able to. But for you, it seems like it was the reason you stepped away.

Bacon: Well, it's both. I want all that stuff too. So if I could find a church, and this may already exist, where the Sunday school is very low on the beliefs of Jesus and very high on the community part, that's what I'm looking for.

I'm guessing if I went to 30 churches in Louisville I could probably find a Sunday school like that, that's focused less on Jesus rising from the dead and more about being compassionate, caring people. Since my piece ran I've been emailed by about 15 churches in Louisville who said, "We're perfect for you."

Martin: I'm sure. Do you think though, to even loosely wear the identity of a cultural Christian, don't you need the resurrection part? Or else it loses its backbone altogether, right?

Bacon: I have not thought through this part in great detail, this is also vexing me.

So there's one version where I can be a cultural Christian. There's another route where I could be the recruiter for the Unitarians in Louisville or something. That's not out of the realm of possibility either.

Martin: Right.

Bacon: I live in a very white liberal environment, my neighborhood his pretty white, so there's a farmer's market that I take my daughter to every Saturday from March to November.

Martin: I love how you caveated that.

Bacon: Well, the reason I say that is because I'm sure I should care about buying fresh vegetables, but I really do not go there to shop at all. I go there because we see the same people almost every week. And therefore we talk to them and I know their kids and they know Charlotte and it ends up serving the same kind of function.

Martin: It's like the farmers market is your church.

Bacon: I'm not gonna repeat that sentence or say yes to it precisely. But it has ended up having some of the sort of community functions that I'm looking for. And I now think of it that way. Like we're going to spend an hour here and we're going to talk to people. I think I'm much more interested in community spaces. I think the sacred spaces thing I haven't totally figured out yet.

Martin: Yeah, it's the community that's really at the heart of it for you. A community of shared values.

Bacon: It is.

Martin: Are you still searching?

Bacon: Yes. Well...

Martin: Oh, unclear?

Bacon: I don't think I'm being unreasonable, but I'm getting close to accepting that the church I want to go to could exist but maybe doesn't exist currently. And rather than invest in a church that I might leave in another 10 years, I think I might take more time thinking about how we build a community of people with shared values.

I'm asking myself, what are the ways to educate Charlotte about those values? And what are the ways to make sure that we're living to those values ourselves? So I'm thinking about answering those questions and I'm open to the idea that the answers might not come through a place that's open from 10 to 12 on a Sunday.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.