In 1977 I was homeless. So, disgusted with city-life, I high-tailed it for the mountains and pitched my tiny orange tent in Cottonwood Lake Campground. I dropped out and spent my days hiking, trout fishing, and reading Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Waking as the tent heated from the morning sun and falling asleep with a billion stars shining as my nightlight was freedom defined.
Occasionally my camp-mate and I drove his Plymouth Belvedere to my cousin’s house on Trout Creek. There we sat in stiff wooden chairs around her kitchen table and ate and talked and laughed with incense burning and Pink Floyd playing in the background. Inside her walls lived a different kind of freedom: the freedom of belonging. Her screen door slammed shut on a fearsome loneliness. The summer wore on. We visited my cousin’s home, our home away from homelessness, more frequently.
I was a young, immature, follower of Christ in 1977. I knew less than nothing about God and life. I had no idea that what we were doing around my cousin’s kitchen table was oddly church-like. We sang no hymns, passed no offering plate, and followed no liturgy. We broke bread; we gave thanks; we encouraged one another; we loved one another. We had a sacred fellowship. And God was there, though not invoked, yet gentle, invisible, insistent. God surfaced in nearly every conversation, hung around in every corner.
Everyone needs a place to belong: a community to talk, laugh, cry, and encounter God with.
In 2008 I became a homeless Christian, without a gathered Christian community to encounter God with. At first, like in the summer of 1977, the freedom was exhilarating. Did you know people sleep in, read the comics, and freely hang out in coffee shops on Sunday mornings? Suddenly Sundays became Sabbath, relaxed and unpressurized.
Eventually though, reading the funnies, or even the Bible, in my boxers lost its appeal. I missed the intellectual, social, and spiritual stimulation present in a gathered Christian community. I yearned for encountering God in music, sermons, ancient and modern rites, and most of all, other people. I did not miss, however, the politics, the griping, or the massive weight of trying to speak honestly for God.
While homeless, my spiritual life resembled a slowly receding tide, leaving bleached, empty shells of faith on the beach. My faith became a distant, powerless belief system rather than a vibrant way of life. Now months later, surrounded by a grace-filled Christian community, God is rebuilding my soul.
I am not the only one to experience spiritual homelessness. Disgusted with the real and perceived hypocrisy, ritual, dogma, judgementalism, and general irrelevance of what we now call church, many followers of Christ have dropped out and pitched a tent in their own backyards hoping for the best. Researchers claim only about 20% of Americans attend church. While three quarters of American adults call themselves Christian.
A sizable majority of Christians are homeless, without a gathered community to belong to. You may be one.
The problem is God designed life to be lived with-in a caring, serving, worshiping community called church. Unlike bowling, Christianity is not an individualistic sport. God most often shows up in the spaces (interactions) between people and the more distant those spaces the smaller the interaction and the easier it is to lose sight of God. God loves us as individuals but calls us to live in community. “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging one another, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on . . . .” Hebrews 10:24-25, The Message.
This question is not whether one “can be a Christian while never ‘going’ to church.” Church is a family, if often a dysfunctional one. You may go to your family’s house, but you don’t “go to” family. You are family. You are the church. In Christ we have been adopted and are a part of a family whether we are estranged—homeless—or not. And just as being estranged from our biological families has far-reaching effects, so too, does being estranged from our spiritual families. The plight of homeless Christians is serious and debilitating to us as individuals and to us as the church.
Often it is not laziness or apostasy that keeps us homeless. Very real fear, pain, and past disappointments keep many of us from belonging to a faith family. Jesus knows our pain and estrangement. The Prodigal Son is not just a story about forgiveness, but also about coming home to God and family, pouty older brother and all. Reconnecting is a fearful prospect, I know. But know also that God is waiting for your return and will kill the fatted calf when you do. We might even put on some Pink Floyd.