Outside the Camp

Expulsion of Ishmael and His Mother, Dore
Expulsion of Ishmael and His Mother, Dore

What I think I’m looking for and not finding is something that will give me hope.  At this point, I won’t be persuaded by guilt or by empty platitudes.  “You just need to do it because it’s what we all need to do” just isn’t cutting it.  Having people tell me that it’s a broken place and I shouldn’t expect anything else from a group of flawed human beings doesn’t make me want to run for the entrance of the nearest church.

The Other Side of the Donald Miller Post: Church PTSD
Anonymous post on Jesus Creed

 * * *

One of the men who was formative in my spiritual development used to apply Hebrews 13:12-13 to the church of our day:

And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.

He had been a pastor, but found he could not function as he thought he was called to do within the structure of congregational ministry. So he went “outside the camp” and started his own ministry. I remember him emphasizing the theme of “the remnant” a lot in those days. Like a modern day representative of early monasticism, he had come to see the churches as inherently corrupt. Therefore, he sought ministry elsewhere, and often encouraged others to follow him away from the status quo.

Exegetically speaking, I don’t think my friend was on the mark when he used this text to frame his own story and encourage people to leave their congregations. Also, I know far too many examples where this kind of thinking went terribly wrong. Nevertheless, the image of going “outside the camp” is striking, so if one extracts the metaphor from its biblical context and simply uses it on its own, I think it can be useful.

Going “outside the camp” means leaving the community and taking one’s place on the margins. It means being cut off from full participation in that community. It means becoming an outsider and likely having to bear criticism from those who find it hard to understand why anyone would separate from the fellowship. It signifies going into the wilderness, becoming an exile, being cut off from the life of the community.

There are many reasons people find themselves “outside the camp” or, as we like to say here at Internet Monk, “in the wilderness.” The woman quoted above said the way she and her husband were treated in churches where he served left her with something “akin to PTSD.” She has not, up to this point, found anything in church culture to give her hope that she can return and find a safe, healthy place in which to grow and serve. So she remains “outside the camp.”

I’d love to hear what her husband, who served in three church ministry positions, might say on this subject. I’ve had some personal experience here, and out of that I expect he would lament losing at least a portion of his identity. And then there is this question: what does someone who has been affirmed as being “called to ministry” think about the subject of vocation when his experiences in ministry devastate him and his family? It can get awfully confusing. Sometimes it gets desperate, when you need to find gainful employment out there in the wilderness.

I was one of the lucky ones in this regard. When I left the pastorate, a friend recommended me for a hospice chaplain position, and it may very well be that I discovered my true vocational calling outside of congregational ministry. At the same time, however, I have continued to remain confused about what my relationship with the local church should be, how it should look, and in what ways I should participate. In this past decade I have often found myself in the bizarre position of being a minister in my chaplaincy work yet remaining “outside the camp” in my comfort level with regard to a congregation.

Today, I want to encourage those of you who find yourselves in wilderness places, separated in one way or another from active church life. You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not without God and without hope.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:8-21 reminds me that God hears the cries of those who wander in the wilderness “outside the camp.” He has promises for you, too. Don’t give up. Please.

68 thoughts on “Outside the Camp

  1. Wexel where I am at now…many people don’t know who John Piper is. And for me that is refreshing!! 🙂


  2. Acedia; “a sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

    Dorothy Sayers


  3. It makes me think there is more to God’s solicitous love than anyone can possibly imagine, more that is unseen and unheralded and invisible to our eyes, more that he does in secret than our salvation histories could ever encompass. It gives me hope.

    Damn that’s GOOD Robert!


  4. Peggy, it hurts to feel so alone.

    My wife and I have been attending an Episcopal congregation for about 6 months now. Both of us were raised “low church” and had been pretty much in that form all our lives. We grew up with an expectation that one purpose of church is to engender close friendship. Our brief experience of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition has left us somewhat confused about church and friendship. I made an appointment and spoke of this to the Rector with whom I have some history and a certain level of friendship. Essentially, he told me that he understood my concern but that the focus of the tradition does not put “making friends and close personal connections at church” very high on the list.

    That takes some getting used to…


  5. I think I “get” what Steve may be saying. If I’m too far off Steve can correct.

    I have been “in church” all of my life and now, at the cusp of 60 I would say that there is just as much “wilderness” in the church as outside it. I have experience just as much “estrangement” from within as I have from without. Think about it.

    An aspect of that is my realization (“realisation” for Michael Bell ;o) ) that my experience of the wilderness within the church community has a lot to do with my expectations and personal needs that I transfer upon other people. It is easy for us to expect other people to “fill” us with what we think we need. That is the fuel which stokes narcissistic infatuation. As Brian said above; ” It’s just that now I can be real without any agenda other than honesty and love.” I think that as I get to the place where Brian is I’m finding very little in the way of boundaries between within and without. I like exploring the Wilderness. I can even camp out for a while. I don’t find a lot of difference between the inhabitants of the City and those outside.

    The “mission” is much the same.


  6. One persistent theme that (I find) meanders through much of Peterson’s writing is that our Journey takes us into community, yet at the same time our developing Kingdom sensibilities often drive us to the margins. Peterson comes down solidly in the domain of community yet acknowledges that with “home base” intact we’re compelled to travel to the margins and possibly into the Desert to experience solidarity with people there.

    That’s my impression from reading a lot of Peterson.


  7. John,
    It took me awhile to be able to say ‘no’ and not feel guilty about it. Also, the doctrine of Vocation gave me an outlet for my compulsive religious activity without having to be involved in the ‘institution.’ It took a few years and finding the right congregation before I figured out what worked for me.


  8. The whole world clings to illusion. Why do you think books exist, or movies? Or drugs and alcohol? At least my “illusion” offers long-term and eternal hope. All those others are so temporary and/or damaging to the body and mind. And if you don’t cling to any illusion, then you live your life, experience good times, bad times, then die. Yay!


  9. I’m with the other commenters here. I think one problem with theological absolutes is that they come across as “heartless” and that if you don’t believe them there must be something wrong with you. Whenever I hear them from fellow congregants, I cringe and try to offer up some form of outside-the-box counter-point. My go-to verses are pretty much the entire chapter of Matthew 23. I’m probably on the verge of being considered a heretic by some…LOL, but I’d rather be a heretic trying to help people into the Kingdom of God than a dogmatic believer making someone twice as much a child of hell as I am.


  10. Oh, and Wexel, my question(s) aren’t loaded. Truly seeking to understand. I have no pre-planned response. Peace.


  11. Okay, Wexel…let’s ignore the term “hope,” if you’re afraid it is loaded and too religious. I’d ask, “What do you put your faith in,” but you might view faith as too religious, too. Then I might ask, “What do you put your trust in,” but perhaps even that is too religious for you. So please, use whatever non-religious terms you want to use to describe where and who and what you turn to in times of distress, and use whatever non-religious terms you want to use to tell me what you believe in, that might get me to see and believe as you do.


  12. Why wouldn’t I cling to an “illusion,” which has its comforts as well as its rigors, in the absence of anything to replace it with? From what I can tell, you have nothing to replace it with. I’m pleased that you’re reasonably happy with your life. Why then do you want to make sport of undermining other people’s attempts to strain after happiness, whether those attempt involve illusion or not? Would it please you to destroy someone’s faith, and see the house of cards come tumbling down? Why do you waste what you understand to be your very limited time to enjoy “life as it is right now” by trying to shoot fish in the iMonk barrel? Are you sadistic?


  13. Why don’t you join some other religion that is more in line with your beliefs? There must be billions of people who go through life without ever hearing the name of John Piper.


  14. Again, this is loaded religious language. My beliefs are nothing special, although yes, they do include modern science (in reference to Darwin, mentioned above). When you speak of “hope,” it sounds as though you have some specific model of religon in mind. (Perhaps you want me to reassure you that there is an afterlife.) I see this as magical thinking, and prefer to appreciate life as it is right now.


  15. It doesn’t really matter to me what you believe, but why would you want to cling to an illusion? If you feel that you have been left in the wilderness, then Christianity can’t be as comforting as you say.

    As for whether I have “hope,” this is loaded religious language. I assure you that I am reasonably happy with my life. It may be that Jesus will smite me for my wickedness after I die, but then, anything is possible–and anyway, that wouldn’t make him right.


  16. Eagle, rather honoured to have received that compliment from you. Have learnt a lot from reading your comments over the years.

    The funny thing is that while I do believe in theological absolutes given that what we believe as the Gospel is “truth”, it’s the search for truth that is the real thing.

    Case in point, there is nothing objectively heretical about what is usually preached at the church I attend weekly. However, the more I study Scripture, the church fathers, medieval catholic doctors, the magisterial Reformers and even the founder of Methodism, I find what is preached on a weekly basis to be somewhat lacking (given my current fling with confessional Lutheranism after years of totally misunderstanding and cherry picking from Luther, I hear more law in the sermon with only the tiniest hint of gospel). And that is why I basically now politely refuse to engage with Bible studies or lead Bible studies at church because what ends up coming out is a generic evangelical view which doesn’t sit well with me and I don’t want to put the minister-in-charge of the church (a good friend of mine) in trouble by what I would teach in a bible study that ultimately he has to report to the local conference, district conference, bishop and Annual Conference about.

    Dogmatics about the Gospel of Christ (and Jesus ultimately) are beginning to take on an importance that they never did before. In the past doctrine/dogmatics was always relegated to the “it’s not really needed” category. How I reconcile this with the postmodern upbringing I have as an Asian-Australian Christian does my head in at times. Maybe you older folks on here are those I should be learning from more.


  17. Rick Ro.,

    I like your approach. I’d also listen with an open mind to what Wexel has to say to the questions you’ve asked. Come on, Wexel, tell us something of what you believe, apart from how we here at iMonk are all wet.


  18. Amen. It was especially stressful for me as a staffer. I had resolved to quit my job and find a new vocational path. It wasn’t until I turned in my resignation that I received a call from an LCMS congregation willing to give me a shot with no experience on the organ. Sometimes, you wander until you find a home, if ever. Other times, a home finds you, even unexpectedly.


  19. the answer to the question as to which church one should join remains indefinite. There is no authoritative answer that applies to everyone.

    Challenge accepted!

    How about…. “The one you can live with?” Winner?


  20. Very much like this. I got burned by the same dynamic, I think. Every time I got involved in the past in a church, it seemed like I inevitably got burned or enmeshed in some conflict, and the closer I got to leadership the more than was the case. but I haven’t found a place where I could manage what you’ve done in terms of not engaging. Maybe it’s my lack of ability to say no.

    So I’m not in a church and haven’t been for a couple of years, but I would like to be, and I’m not sure what direction I will head from here.


  21. Coincidentally, I’m leading a class through this text in Hebrews. Initially, this appeared to be one of those scriptures written for a specific audience at a specific time in a specific culture. Clearly, this is intended for the Hebrew Christian who must leave their Judaic past and literally leave the temple and go “outside the camp” where Jesus died (literally and symbolically). I find absolutely nothing in it that suggests “outside the camp” means “evangelize,” but rather refers to a necessary separation and removal from a past tradition/belief.

    I usually try to find the “what’s the Christian application today” and was really struggling to come up with one for this text. However, the more I thought and prayed about it, I more I think we can replace “Hebrew” Christian with “21st Century” Christian and then examine what’s going on today in our churches that might make us consider going “outside the camp” where Jesus died (and is). With that in mind, I think it’s whenever we find our church is drifting from the gospel of Jesus Christ; that’s when one must begin examining if these scriptures apply just as they applied to the Hebrew Christian. Some possible examples: has full-immersion baptism become more prominent than the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? Has a prosperity gospel become more prominent? Speaking in tongues? Abstaining from alcohol? Focusing on the sin of homosexuality? Politics or nationalism? Mormonism? Scientology? That only 144,000 will be saved? This text tells me that I can examine the things being done in my church to see if a separation is needed, if I need to move “outside the camp” where Jesus is, since he’s apparently left the building.

    Those are my thoughts. I think many of you here wandering the post-evangelical wilderness are here because something in the church you attended became more prominent than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


  22. I’m going to come back to this and try a different approach.

    Wexel, instead of coming here to iMonk and arguing against the things most of us here believe and find hope in, can you try to describe what YOU have hope in? Come here and share some of your beliefs, instead of attacking ours. Attempt to share where you place your hope, try to convince me that your hope is better than the hope I have in Christ Jesus. Is your hope in a government? Is it in Darwinism? Is it in Scientology? Mormonism? Hinduism? Buddhism? Rand-ism? What is it that helps you through the tough times in life? Where do you turn? Who do you turn to? Try convincing me that your hope is better than mine. I’m ready to listen, if you’re willing to share.


  23. Interesting thought on all this from Pope Francis via Steve Harper on the March 3, 2014 post at


  24. Good post, David. A lot of the generalities resonate with my story, though the details are, of course, very different. I’m no longer “outside the camp,” but I remember those days as the darkest in my life. OTOH, had it not been for my exile/wilderness time I’d not have found my current (I’d like to say ‘true’ or ‘ultimate,’ but that’d be way too presumptuous) call and community.


  25. “I came to the conclusion that I believe in God. But I don’t think in black and white. Does that mean I am a liberal? No…I just don’t think in theological absolutes”

    This is probably the wisest stance. After all, so many contradictory theological absolutes have been built over the years, that when one set falls, they all follow suit.

    Jesus is not a system anyway, but a living Person.

    Thanks for your contributions. I love what you write.


  26. Peggy,

    “That is almost word for word…” What’s funny is that I am about as far to the other end of the spectrum from Anglicanism as I can be.


  27. That is almost word for word my experience with parish #2. I really gave my all only to be rudely awakened one day to realize, as you did, that I was in the wilderness all along. I looked back on 5 years without a single friendship formed. A single ugly incident brought to mind any number of things to which I had turned a blind eye. I very nearly lost my faith and it took me almost a year of the worst spiritual crisis I’ve ever had to even consider going back to another church. But God pulled me back in and He meets me at church #3 every Sunday. That is more than a consolation for whatever human fellowship I am missing.


  28. CM…please forgive me not posting as often or as much. Your post is spot on and I really like Brandon’s contribution above. I think this is a modern day problem due to the modern day culture. I’m involved in an evangelical community but there are times I still struggle with it. I know this would happen. I struggle with the notion of will I be accepted? I like the Pastor, I like my small group…but my thinking is so different.

    I came to the conclusion that I believe in God. But I don’t think in black and white. Does that mean I am a liberal? No…I just don’t think in theological absolutes. For some this is frustrating. I am one who always asks the question, “why?” and always have a different thought. I don’t look at the Bible like I used to, and I find myself on the peripheral edges. This I expected. Despite that I have had a wonderful prayer life, and reach out to people in unique ways. I also realize that being an outsider means that I can show love and grace in a unique way. In a faith system that is not known for deep intellectual thought I can ask and probe intellectually. Some may be miffed but for me I realized its who I am. I’m not always out to be difficult. And I hope people understand, but sometimes I wonder.

    I find myself always on my guard. Researching the latest sermon series, Bible study material, etc… I had more John Piper in a few years than most people process in a lifetime. As such I am looking out for what is being promoted, accepted and pushed. I know where some of the bad theology comes from and I feel like I have to remain vigilant. I will say that I am exhausted….I wish I could just go in and not worry about prosperity theology or hyper-reformed theology crawling in. I wish others would carry this burden also.

    But what is the alternative for me? I believe in God, I’m not an agnostic, yet I struggle to believe. Yet in some ways I feel more alive and more genuine. I could never see myself as the “happy clappy” fundagelical.


  29. Later in my life I have found it helpful to hold church with what one of my Pastors called the ‘dead hand of faith.’ I too have dealt with more than my fair share of disappointment with the Church and it’s people. Many times I have been on the verge of abandoning the whole enterprise, a couple times declaring a ‘church fast’ and not darkening the door of a church for over a year. However, I just can’t shake this whole Jesus thing, nor can I find it in me to reject the Scriptures. So I am stuck. This is how I resolved the dilemma and it has worked for me. I found a congregation where I pretty much agreed with the theology, and the worship and the Pastor didn’t provoke me weekly. ( I felt like I could bring visitors and not be embarrassed..) I do not volunteer in any facet of the ministry, and other than exchanging pleasantries and friendly small talk, have been extremely slow to make friends. I do contribute to the offerings. In the mean time I concentrate on fulfilling my various vocations ( father, husband, businessman etc) as best I can, and I share the gospel when and where appropriate.The doctrine of Vocation has been extremely valuable. It provides an outlet for serving the Lord and my neighbor, outside of official institutional channels and all the crap that can entail. I have personal and family devotions and have a decent social life outside the church. I enjoy and receive sustenance from the worship and Sacrament at church, but at all costs AVOID becoming enmeshed in church drama or politics. I just don’t engage. When approached to volunteer, a polite but firm ‘NO’ without explanation has saved me much grief, and keeps me looking forward to church rather than the festering dread and resentment I have experienced in the past. ,So far this has worked well for me, and maybe in the future things will change. In the past I was obsessed with the Church and ‘ministry’ and believed somehow that they would make me ‘whole’ and heal my wounds. I found out the hard way that the church does not save, Jesus does. The Church is what it is. Your mileage may vary.


  30. Not sure how your comment relates to the post.

    Not sure either. After reading a lot of his comments over the past couple months, they come across more like canned mini-sermons than actual comments on the post. Reminds me of low-key Jesus Jukes more than anything else.


  31. I’m with ya, Robert F. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “I have no hope, so I don’t want anyone else to have any, either.”


  32. The story of how God dealt with Hagar and Ishmael is extraordinarily poignant. It seems to show a facet of the activity of God not normally given in the Bible, his presence among those not in the main narratives, among those outside the camp and seemingly not among the elect, those forgotten, or almost forgotten, by history and sacred lore. It’s a shiny token of God’s care for the invisible and passed over, those ejected by the main thrust of events, those pushed aside and ignored and rejected. It hints at a divine love that refuses to be bound by the narrow passages of holy things and holy people and sacred places; it speaks of Jesus, himself rejected and cursed and abandoned and pushed out of the temple and onto the cross. It makes me think there is more to God’s solicitous love than anyone can possibly imagine, more that is unseen and unheralded and invisible to our eyes, more that he does in secret than our salvation histories could ever encompass. It gives me hope.


  33. Wexel,
    There may be some truth in what you say about those of us with no ecclesial home in which we feel comfortable being casualties “of a far older social reality in which Jesus was a victim, and his image has become the abuser.” What I don’t understand is why you would want to strip us of comforting illusions, if that’s what they are, as if you have none of your own. You may, may, have some truth there, or perhaps not, but you lack the wisdom of compassion.


  34. Church is inherently exclusionary. It could hardly have community (or the pretense of it) if no one were left outside. And wasn’t it Tertullian who said that the souls in heaven take pleasure in the sufferings of the damned in hell? Those of you with no comfortable ecclesiastical home can consider yourselves the casualties, not of Berger’s heretical imperative, but of a far older social reality in which Jesus was a victim, and his image has become the abuser.



    Wobbling and blinking came I from
    the frame of my mother, with my brothers
    and sisters cast forth on the rock the shock
    of the bright and the fright of all things
    awoke me, I rocked to my feet and bleated

    Sweet grass and long days my feet trod
    underfoot, the cool water, the wind, all the
    liquor of life I drank. I knew nothing of the
    treasons, the tiny murders, the myriad
    tart cuts and crushings with which they
    consumed each other.

    My brother was seized, then I, blinking
    but unseeing as he screamed his life
    out on the stone. I licked the iron blood.
    Again they placed their hands on me
    Gentle now, not persistent
    and they murmured,
    and the wind mixed with their words;
    their tears with my brother’s blood

    Think of a greener pasture
    a place of peace, of plenty.
    He did not take me there.
    He turned me loose among the
    choking weeds and burning rocks
    A shadow draws near and I bleat my fear.
    Why have you forsaken me?


  36. I will echo the idea that one can be “in the wilderness” even though being fully “engaged” (as the church defines it) in a church. When all attempts to achieve fellowship fail, when you invite people over and they don’t come, when you attempt to help them and they refuse, when all promises to you are broken, when no matter what you say or do to sharpen others isn’t received, then you’re in the wilderness. And then when you leave, the “shepherd” doesn’t leave the 99 to come after, and nobody ever calls to check up, you confirm that you were in the wilderness all along.


  37. One doesn’t have to be clergy to have this gnawing feeling inside that they are “outside of the camp”. Similar to Robert F above, you’ll find me physically at that Methodist church I attend with my wife on Sundays. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances there however I have always felt like an outsider there (usually because of the fact that my family wasn’t as well-off as those who had founded that church, though that attitude changed temporarily whenever my grandfather as the bishop emeritus arrived to visit my parents and I). As I got older, the differences became even more pronounced as my theological leanings moved away from evangelicalism into what I like to call a catholic evangelicalism (I find myself a strange hybrid of an Anglo-Catholic/confessional Lutheran/Orthodox). So even though I still am the liturgist (or the more mundanely titled “worship leader”), a lector and song leader at times, my heart and mind is elsewhere (for example, this past Sunday it was reading Bo Giertz’s “Hammer of God” and Cardinal Newman’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” throughout the majority of the service after I did my “job” as lector). It becomes more painful every month or combined service where Communion is offered as I cannot in good conscience go up to receive the bread and wine with my wife knowing that the church we both attend doesn’t have a robust catholic understanding of the Eucharist (my wife respects my conscience but she doesn’t have the same concerns as I do, so she goes up and I remain in my seat).

    We can be in “the wilderness” even though one is a member of an established church (for lack of a better phrase). Except that our escape from the wilderness isn’t in the direction of a para-church organization or ministry (or even an outright rejection of corporate worship life). I find myself yearning to “escape” into another established church/denomination. In all of this, the call from The Lord is to live my vocation out while I am still in my desert. Looking inwards won’t solve my restlessness in the wilderness. Only Christ can put my restlessness at ease and it is to him I have to look towards (with my deepest apologies to St. Augustine for mangling his oft quoted line from “Confessions”).


  38. I went back and read the post and comments on Jesus Creed…..”The Other Side of the Donald Miller Post: Church PTSD”.

    I think the Internet Monk community should talk about how “church” ever got to the place where it is in relation to “shooting its wounded”, “Christians are the meanest people”, “in church, you will find to your detriment, who your true friends are”. I interpret into my own language Anglican Peggy’s position that “It’s a sad situation that God’s people doesn’t have a place for everyone….”. I read a book by Neal Punt called “A Theology of Inclusivism” that shook me because I realized how practical it is….”an attitude toward others, no need to be judgmental, no one considered an “outsider”, assurance, a positivism, dealing properly with conflicting positions, a proper self-esteem”. Either inclusivism or exclusivism becomes a very body language and attitude not even realized. Latter, when I read historically of Christians who were known for their theology of inclusivism, it is good company. When Michael Spencer posted on why we should never be good Christians, he gave a paragraph summarizing the theology of today on how God wants others to see just what a Jesus controlled person is all about and those who don’t have this life are dying……Internet Monk knew we are ALL being given over to death. That paragraph, which Michael showed was in line with the Christianity of today, is a good definition of a theology of exclusivism. Very sad we represent God this way.


  39. Brian,

    “….the answer to the question as to which church one should join remains indefinite. There is no authoritative answer that applies to everyone. Again using traditional Protestant language, one might say that ecclesial belonging is a matter of ‘vocation,’ of what one may singularly be called upon to do. Vocations differ. It may be a legitimate Christian vocation to continue in one’s original community, even if that community has become a very unappealing place. It may be equally legitimate to change one’s ecclesial affiliation in a direction that promises less frustration. One may be called to inner emigration and one may also be called (as Simone Weil eloquently argued for herself) to the role of a solitary outsider. Vocations are relative by definition.” From Peter Berger’s “A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity,” Chapter 7: The Problem of Ecclesial Belonging.

    I recommend the above quoted book. It’s one that I have revisited again and again, and been refreshed by again and again.


  40. I think you end up outside the camp when you are placed there by the flow of life or what might just be called the maturation process. It may look, in some cases, like you placed yourself there but however it actually plays out you end up there because you can’t grow anywhere else. It’s where navigating in the dark becomes paramount. It’s where you really fight with God and where you really become friends. No one interested in preserving the status quo will ever find themselves there.


  41. One of the Lutheran pastors I know has a very gracious and understanding heart about where people like you find themselves, Peggy. I’ve heard him say he feels honored if people come to 2 or 3 worship services a month, and he doesn’t expect any more from them than that. I found that so refreshing, because I know many folks like you, who unfortunately find the church culture a burden when it should be liberating.


  42. From what I know EP did his best to pastor a church according to a sound and robust traditional understanding of pastoral theology. He started and stayed at one church during his entire pastoral career, during which he wrote many books, a number of them outlining pastoral themes. He also wrote devotional commentaries on scripture, and The Message actually grew out of his pastoral sensibilities: that people in contemporary America such as his own parishioners needed to understand the earthy and provocative style of the Bible as well as its content. I don’t know what his current church affiliation is, but he has been a prophetic voice for my generation who care about the church and pastoral ministry.


  43. I am a high church Anglican by conviction. That means that I do my best to be in church every Sunday. But I will never be personally comfortable with it. I have never yet found a church where I fit in. Because I am the very definition of socially awkward, I have concluded that there is no place for me in any church. There are church people and then there are non-church people. Church people will never understand me and at best can only tolerate me until they can’t do so anymore. But I still find great comfort and value in attending Mass. It took a lot of painful soul searching to arrive at any kind of peace between the call that I feel to go to church and the reality that it will never be my home outside of worship. The compromise I reached is that I will go as faithfully as possible and do my best to have a kindly attitude towards the other congregants but I keep them at arms length. I am on my third church since my conversion. I have been going there for over a year and I don’t know the names of anyone there except for the clergy. I bear them no one any ill will. I will smile and exchange the peace ie the bare minimum of friendly interaction but no more than that because I know how it will turn out if ever I were to disturb this careful balance. Its a sad situation that God’s people doesn’t have a place for everyone but I’ve worked hard on forgiving them for that. They see me and have expectations of me that I can’t meet. When I can’t meet those expectations its disturbing to them. I don’t think they can help it. So how can I hold it against them? The less I say, the less I interact the better. Church as most people know it is definitely not for everyone.


  44. “Outside the Camp”. This is an almost perfect description of the place in which I have found myself for many years now. From the age of fourteen, I experienced only what I can describe as a “calling” into pastoral, ordained ministry of my denomination. Just how this came to be was a very personal experience, and one that is difficult to describe to others. So, therefore, only a few have been told the entire story.

    Because of a combination of circumstances, revolving around marriage, family, and financial reasons, my entry into fulltime ministry did not happen until my mid-thirties. At times I had almost given up on this, but this pull at my heart, voice, calling, would refuse to release me.

    Eventually however I became a full time pastor. Through seminary and denominational processes, interviews, testing, and votes, one day I knelt before the bishop at annual conference and a large group of people. And toward the end of the liturgy, the bishop, and other colleagues in ministry laid hands on me and the bishop spoke these words:
    “David, take authority as an elder
    to preach the Word of God,
    to administer the Holy Sacraments
    and to order the life of the Church;
    in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    This was an emotional time of affirmation for me, comparable to marriage and the birth of my children.

    During my time as a pastor I felt finally at home leading the worship service, preaching, visiting the sick, and attempting to be true to my calling. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, almost at once conflicts appeared. These were not problems within the church, or anything like church splits. In fact I seemed to have a gift for pulling conflicting factions together, and to keep people talking with each other.

    But family issues started to intrude. These had some complexity of course, but to an extent were woven around a rebellious teenage daughter who took exception to everything that spoke of expectations, tradition, or authority. Neither of us as parents were tyrants. Some church members thought we were lax in exerting parental power, and therefore recommended the writings of the expert, Dr. James Dobson. Years later these same people were experiencing the exact same problems.

    At the same time, denominational authorities were seeing the need to turn around the troubling demographic trends clearly exerting pressure on membership numbers. Church growth experts were enlisted, and a troubling process began that repeated itself almost exactly year after year. Membership and giving was declining. Double down on the same processes and efforts, that in time started to look worn out.

    In my services I preferred the time tested liturgical styles of worship. My preaching was mostly based on the lectionary. I was flexible on modes of music, but it had to be molded into the purpose and structure of the service, and not in the manner of standalone entertainment.

    However, we were told, in order to achieve growth, music had to take on a new style, that of Christian contemporary. We needed a band, speaker systems for amplification, a drop down screen, and power-point worship. Preaching needed to take on a new form of problem solving, meeting the needs of young and restless. Lots of canned sermons could be found for the buying if one did not have time to prepare.

    We could still have another service for those who were too contrary to make the change, and it could follow the old patterns. If we did these things, and had two services, then they promised us, total worship attendance would go up and in time things would be headed upward once again. That was over twenty years ago. The numbers may have evened up just a bit, but to me the demographics still look not so good.

    In time all these forces produced terrible conflict with what I felt was my true calling. It eventually all came to a head, and I decided to take an official “leave of absence” from the ministry I found a job very quickly. After a couple of years denominational officials pressured me to give up the “leave of absence” category, which meant losing my ordination and a chance for a church appointment. In the process I felt alienated from my denominational home, and for some years quit attending church.

    After a few years we started to visit a church of another denomination. In our last church pastoral appointment we had some connections with it and some of its people. However it was a denomination that is somewhat noted for its liberal theology. The thing is, from the very time we entered the church, we felt at home with the people and were accepted with open and loving arms. We once again felt human kindness and kinship at a deep level. I learned that many of them, like us, came from a broken place, a disconnect with their previous church home, and were finding healing. And in spite of the liberal reputation of the church, many of them came from conservative backgrounds, such as Wesleyan, Salvation Army, Baptist, and Catholic. They mostly brought with them the richness of those other traditions.

    Gradually healing has happened. Old wounds have started to heal. New relationships have developed. Joy gradually returned.

    In some ways I am still “outside the camp.” My theology, I feel, is still firmly connected. I have little sympathy for the political advocacy of some of the old liberal theology I hear. In some ways liberal and evangelical theology are connected at the hip of modernism, however leaning in opposite directions. And this is where Internet Monk has assisted in further healing. For here I have been forced to rethink many things. Some I have re-affirmed. Others I have tossed out. Linkages and new friends have, over time, led to new lines of study and consideration. And in these I find renewed hope. The work of Chaplain Mike and the other writers are a great blessing. Michael Bell constantly shows me that the answers are not so simple.Thanks to Robert F. and Brian for your words today I think I totally understand what you are saying.

    I am not sure why, but recently this old call as re-asserted itself. But now I am a much older man. And still somewhat “outside the camp.”

    This piece is too long. I’m not sure how to condense it. Some of it is a rehash. But you are a people, here, that I have learned to love. God has given us this great gift of each other. Thanks.


  45. CM, does Eugene Peterson speak to this? I have not read his writings other than the Message. He seems to self-identify most as a pastor but is apparently retired. I would assume he has found a church community where he lives and may have described how he interacts with it. I would certainly want to hear what David Cornwell had to say as well.


  46. Provocative piece.

    I do understand the sentiment and the desire to head to the “margins” of life and to look for the lost there. They are there, that’s for sure.

    But they are everywhere. In our homes and within our families. At work. At church. In all arenas of life.

    After Jesus healed the demoniac…he sent him…home. To speak of the great things that Jesus did, there.

    “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

    It does seem, however, that the vast majority of us will go just so far…and no farther.

    This is precisely why we need a Savior…and not a cosmic life coach.


  47. OK….you got to me…..I was very close…..

    A long time ago, we saved a Bible that was left in the basement of our church after a tornado. It was many bound black books long( I forget how many), illustrated profusely, no numbered verses. So sorry now that I gave it up in a move. It’s rendition of the Psalms( as poetry mimicking the beating of a human heart) was worth it alone. The painting by George Frederic Watts of “Hope” was in it. That painting is contradictory, not leaving out despair, sometimes hope has only one string left.


  48. This resonates deeply with me. I left pastoral ministry over five years ago, not because of conflict or burnout, but because I had a crisis of conscience. The true values of the church seemed to conflict in so many ways with the values that Jesus taught. Over time my discomfort began to grow exponentially in a wide variety of ways and I simply came to a place where couldn’t continue to pretend or word craft any more. The selfish economics, the leadership hierarchies, the programming exhaustion, the performance expectations, the shallow relationships, the weak discipleship models and the entrenched quasi-cultural theology nearly drowned me.
    It is interesting that I too have always quietly felt ‘outside the camp’ and so I loved Peter Berger’s idea that Robert F paraphrased today “…in our modern situation, perhaps exile and alienation from the structures of the church is itself a vocation with theological warrant for many people.”
    I realized recently that I still have a congregation/church family in the workplace, homes, and coffee shops where I meet with and encourage others. It’s just that now I can be real without any agenda other than honesty and love.
    What is difficult is that many otherwise progressive Christians just can’t seem to drag themselves outside of this box. What is exhilarating is that many do; they realize that God is calling us to more.


  49. Simone Weil was one such who chose to remain “outside the camp.” Although you will find me physically every Sunday morning singing in the choir of the ELCA church where my wife serves as music director, spiritually I will be in inner exile “outside the camp.” Sociologist and sometime theologian Peter Berger has said that, in our modern situation, perhaps exile and alienation from the structures of the church is itself a vocation with theological warrant for many people. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t hurt so damn much sometimes.


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