We Were Spiritual Refugees (Katie Hays) -- A Review

WE WERE SPIRITUAL REFUGEES: A Story to Help You Believe in Church. By Katie Hays. Foreword by Doug Pagitt. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. Xiv + 306 pages.

Is there a place for the church in the twenty-first century? Or, is it a relic of a by-gone era? How we answer will depend on a lot of factors, including our own experiences. There are growing numbers of those known as “nones,” that is, they chose not to state a religious preference. They believe in God, just not religious entities. Others call themselves “dones.” This is a growing group of people who were once active in churches, but for a variety of reasons have left the church (some are clergy who have been beat up by the congregations they once served). Despite the challenges churches face in an increasingly secularized society, there are still those who believe the church has a future, even if it needs to change and evolve. While change is inevitable, the question is what will those changes involve? As we change, will we cast off everything from the past? If evolutionary science tells us anything, we are the product of adaption, that is based on what was, in order to become something new. It’s important to remember that different congregations and traditions will reach different people. This is especially true for those who are spiritual refugees.

One pastor who believes in the church but heard a call to minister among spiritual refugees is the Rev. Katie Hays. Hays is a Disciples of Christ pastor, as am I. Before she became a Disciples pastor, she grew up in, was educated in, and served congregations within the Churches of Christ, which is a traditionally more conservative branch of the movement of which the Disciples are part. While she did find a call to a Church of Christ congregation, she was an outlier as a woman pastor in that community. This is why she eventually became a Disciple pastor. I met Hays nearly a decade back at a ministry conference at a nearby Church of Christ related university, to which she had been invited to serve as the closing preacher. Doug Pagitt, who wrote the foreword was also a participant in that conference, which she makes note of in the book. This was all before she took her current position as a church planter in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, but I can say that I was thoroughly impressed with her as a preacher. Since that first meeting, Hays planted a most unusual congregation. This book tells the story of that church plant and its intended audience.

In her book, We Were Spiritual Refugees, Hays tells the story of her journey as a spiritual refugee herself, serving traditional Disciples congregations (much like my own) to become the planter of a congregation that made spiritual refugees its focus. This is a church that seeks to connect with people who have been hurt by the church, people who come out of what she calls a fundagelical background. While serving what she calls a Now Church, she began to encounter these spiritual refugees who wanted to find a spiritual home but didn’t know where to look. In that context, she began to dream of what she calls a Next Church. This would be a real church, not a podcast or a virtual gathering, but a real in-person community that gathered for worship, studied Scripture, and ministered to the community. What made it different was her missional vision of planting a congregation that would connect with these people she was encountering who felt pushed outside the church. The communities that she had in mind was composed largely of millennials along with the growing the spiritual but not religious group. The group that she and her congregation, as it was planted, embraced was the LGBTQ community, a community that has suffered at the hands of religious communities. Things are changing, but so many have been hurt, which means that sometimes it takes something new to build the bridge.

As Hays tells her story, we encounter a congregation's birth that began as a weekly gathering of people interested in faith, but not interested in a traditional church (like the one she served). They met in pubs, drank beer, and talked theology. Ultimately this led to the idea of planting a different kind of church. That was in 2013. This new fledgling community took the name Galileo—the same Galileo who was declared a heretic by the church—to signal that this would be a church that values science.

We learn that Hays was first approached by the denomination to plant a more traditional congregation. She turned down that invitation, but later brought her new, rather unique, vision to her regional leadership and eventually received financial backing for the project. However, this support would last only two years (it is a common complaint among church planters that they’re not given sufficient support to build a lasting community, which is why so many fail). As you’ll see, despite the challenges, this is a congregation that has survived and thrived. Over the past seven years, after Hays, along with her husband, took a big risk to launch this new venture, the emerging community has met in a variety of sites, with their numbers ebbing and flowing with the times. Few of those who were with them at the beginning are still with them, reminding us that church plants often experience their own forms of change. Again, we are reminded that church planting is difficult, demanding, but if successful, it is rewarding. I should note that my denomination, like many others, doesn't provide a lot of resources for church planters. You have to be an entrepreneur who is willing to put one’s entire life and that of one’s family into the project. Ultimately, must church plants fail, but while Hays' congregation has had its ups and downs, but it seems to be succeeding. Nevertheless, money is still a challenge.

I won't tell the whole story here. You'll have to read the book for yourself to fully understand the dynamics of creating a community like this. However, I will say this, I admire Hays's commitment and determination. But it takes more than commitment and determination to create a community like this. It takes a particular skill set, which Hays clearly has.  Even so, this hasn't been easy for her, her family, or the congregation.

A few words of warning, if you choose to read this book. First, if you are a traditional pastor (that is a pastor of what she calls a Now church), you may get your feelings hurt. She doesn't pull punches with what she says about the church as it currently exists, and how it has treated spiritual refugees. Of course, some of her words shared here are rooted in how her colleagues have treated her (that includes progressive pastors). We can be protective of our territories and not enjoy being challenged. A second warning has to do with "language." I will confess that I was raised not to "cuss." To hear clergy cuss would be outside the bounds of decency. Nevertheless, you will see the "F-Word" prominently displayed in the book. But, in this context, that has proven to be attractive to many. Apparently, she found this to be an opportunity to be liberated from her own inbuilt inhibitions. Mine, I will say, are still rigidly in place, but I’m not Katie Hays! As she notes in the book her freedom to use language normally not heard from the lips of a preacher has made the experience of church real for people who have been marginalized.

Again, Galileo Christian Church is not a traditional church, but it is still a church, a very real church. It may not own a building, but they have structure, meet together, and have worship. This includes preaching—after all Hays is a preacher (a very good preacher at that). They study the Bible— Hays might not be conservative in her theology, but she was raised in a context that takes the Bible very seriously and often very literally—so this is a bible-reading, bible-studying congregation. It's also not a nondenominational church. It belongs to a mainline denomination, and it has been a force in our denomination. It has a strong missional sense of calling, committed to social justice, especially when it comes to issues and concerns relevant to the LGBTQ community. At the same time, this is not a perfect congregation. They've made their share of mistakes. They've lost people. They've gained people. They are a real church, with real people (see 1 Corinthians for a reminder that real churches can have real problems).

I don't know if this is "the" future of the church, but it is one direction that the church might take. I probably wouldn’t find it a good fit. That is, I’m probably not the congregation’s target demographic. Nevertheless, I'm grateful for the ministry and calling of Katie Hays, and others like her, who have committed themselves to creating new communities that welcome the kinds of spiritual refugees she describes in this book. It probably helps that she herself is a spiritual refugee. So, if you would like to see how one preacher had a vision and followed up that vision by planting a church, you will be rewarded by reading this book. We Were Spiritual Refugees is not a how-to manual. There is much to learn from this book, but it's not a ten-step plan to a successful church plant. It’s a narrative, a personal story, that may hold clues for the church as it moves into the next generation, especially as it reaches out to spiritual refugees. I expect that in the coming years we will see many of such persons. .  


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