affiliation, certainty & conformity to freedom, diversity & mystery

every day people are straying away from church

i am in the thick of it writing the first manuscript of faith shift: hope for spiritual refugees, church burnouts and freedom seekers. i’ve had all 5 kids at home, all kinds of never-ending refuge craziness, on top of may being the busiest month of the year. of course i waste time i don’t have asking myself “what in the %(#&@%!^!!^ was i thinking, saying yes to this project?!?”

but it’s too late now, and as i much as i like to complain, it is fun pulling it all together. and just when i think it doesn’t matter, i get an email or have a conversation in real life where i am reminded how many of us are in the midst–or on the other side–of a radical faith shift and how crazy &  lonely & freaky it can feel.

when it’s all said and done, faith shifting involves a huge amount of grief. we lose so much, all kinds of things that seemed to hold us together for so long. what was once crystal clear becomes muddy.  what felt comfortable now feels foreign. what worked, now doesn’t.

i believe that one of the central parts of a faith shift is moving away from the core values of affiliation, certainty, and conformity that are embedded into much of contemporary christianity and moving toward a faith that values freedom, diversity, and mystery.

it’s crazy to me that this process is often perceived as radical or sinful or rebellious, but we can’t escape the fact that most of our traditional church systems–especially conservative or fundamentalist ones–are built firmly and solidly upon the core values of affiliation, certainty, and conformity.  they keep a lot of wheels spinning round; they are reliable, clear, predictable and make groups work.

here’s the short version of what they mean to me:

affiliation –  a sense of being part of a team or club or something bigger than us.  if you’re like me, it felt awesome to be adopted into a new “family” in the early years of my faith and i related to the feeling of being connected to other christians not only in my church but in the wider world, too.  knowing which team we’re on is powerful.

certainty – black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak, godly or ungodly.  much of life before a faith shift is built on certainty about what God means, feels, thinks, expects.  part of our certainty includes helping other people be clear on what’s right and wrong, too.

conformity – groups have norms and behaviors that we as humans have a natural aptitude for adapting to. we learn what it takes to be part and we do it.  we learn by watching and joining in.  some of it is conscious and some of it is far more unconscious, building on our desire to somehow belong.

as i look at these three values of my early faith it’s easy to dismiss them as all bad. while i now disagree with many  methodologies behind them, i respect that part of healing and moving forward to new places requires making peace with the past.

affiliation, certainty, and conformity used to be big deals to me. they meant everything. they guided the way i thought, talked, behaved, and connected with God.

then they stopped working.  they outlasted their usefulness. they no longer resonate.  i won’t do anything to be part, my certainty faded away years ago, and any demands for conformity make me into a crazy person.

i’m trying not to look back with disdain but instead embrace my deep desire to keep walking toward three compelling & worth-pursuing values on the other side of a faith shift–freedom, diversity, and mystery.

freedom – instead of people pleasing and doing what everything we can do to conform to be part of the group, freedom is  finding our voice and passion and feeling free to lead, grow, learn, experience, practice, try without asking for permission.  freedom also helps us let go of trying to control or convince others and accept people just as they are (and ourselves, too). it’s a deep and strong security in who we are apart from a group or label.

diversity – homogeneous groups make me nuts now.  once you’ve tasted diversity and are around a wide range of beliefs, theologies, and life experiences, we can never go back. living in the tension of diversity and what it means to love each other despite our differences is so glorious (and way harder, too!)

mystery – embracing a bigger God that surpasses what we can get our head around, “i don’t know’s”, and far more expansive ways to connect with God beyond only the Bible. some people are really scared of this word, but those who have unraveled certainty value the magnetic beauty of mystery and the healing, hope, and challenge it brings.

freedom, diversity, and mystery do not need to be feared.

and we don’t necessarily have to leave church completely to find them (although i respect sometimes it’s necessary); we just might have to leave “church-as-we-knew-it” and find some new forms that we would have never before considered as a possibility.

many systems fear freedom, diversity, and mystery because they cannot be controlled or contained. affiliation, certainty, and conformity are fairly easy tasks and create a uniformity that is far simpler to manage. letting faith out of the box and giving people freedom jacks with an industry and man’s ability to manage God for other people.

but when i read the gospels, i can’t see how affiliation, certainty & conformity in the ways we’ve made them out to be was what Jesus had in mind.

yeah, we long for freedom, diversity, and mystery for a good reason–it’s far more consistent with “faith.”

peace, hope and courage to us all as we slowly & bravely move from affiliation, certainty & conformity to freedom, diversity & mystery. it’s a bumpy, beautiful, often terrifying path but so worth it because it all points toward love. 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

20 Comments

  • Thank you for taking on this project ! Thank you for writing. And my response to your post ? YES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  • O My My My! U hit the nail right on my lopsided head! I wish you lived on my street so we could Chat over coffee or a coke or something and I would be willing to bake muffins too! Love ur Heart of Freedom!

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  • oh lots of food for some deep savoring here, my friend … ‘it is for freedom that Christ has set us free …’

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  • We think very much alike, Kathy. I never accepted the demand for conformity and had little need for affiliation, but like many wanted some degree of certainty. Often I heard that stated as “You must believe every word of the Bible, interpreted as I interpret it or as the group interprets it.” Somehow that always ended up meaning that the speaker was right, in control and I’d better do what they said. It also meant certain people were “out, wrong and not accepted”.

    My certainty is in Jesus and I hope that always remains.

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  • Really good stuff. Could not be more excited about the book. For me, the strongest one at one time was affiliation. I am so grateful that I am a part of a community where my ability to obtain love is not conditional upon my ability to regurgitate theolgical principles. 🙂

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  • I found this very encouraging today. New developments in my denomination are tending toward the affiliation-certainty-conformity end of the spectrum, and this has depressed me, but I find myself dreaming of how things could be different. I still long for some affiliation (for the purpose of accountability and support), for some certainty (or things to hope and place faith in) and for some conformity (so that something makes us cohere as a group), but I definitely agree that the gospels and the early church swing toward the freedom-mystery-diversity end of the spectrum, and that’s where I want to swing, too.

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    • hi beth, oh that is hard. i probably didn’t do the best job in this post sharing that there’s nothing inherently wrong with some degrees of each of these–affiliation, certainty, and conformity. they are just part of our development and really do have their place. every group does have certain ways of being and that’s not a bad thing. the problem to me is that we greatly limit the parameters & we stop there and build everything around them, squeezing out what could be by making things more manageable than was ever the idea. dreaming with you from colorado.

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  • Really interesting analysis, Kathy. Not sure I agree that these pairs are mutually exclusive, however. Affiliation, at least in its broader interpretation, is not necessarily a bad thing, is it? We are better together than as Lone Rangers, seems to me – so some sort of community is needed and affiliation is often the way into community. The conformity piece is a difficult one and I appreciate your putting mystery as its opposite. . . I think. Seems like maybe mystery is more comfortably opposite certainty? But maybe I’m reading this wrong – and you’re not putting these into 3 pairs of opposites?

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    • thanks diana, for your insights, they help me a lot because i want to keep fleshing these out in a way that aren’t black or white, good or bad, or opposites. affiliation & belonging is not a bad thing at all, it’s part of being connected together and i of course am a huge proponent of community & not-being-lone-rangers, but i think what can happen is that we limit affiliation, certainty, and conformity to very small parameters because it makes it more manageable. (this is what a christian is, this is what we believe, this is what it takes to be part, period). i think if i was pairing them i would say affiliation & freedom, conformity & diversity, and certainty & mystery. but i’m not really saying they are one for one, more that they are core values that change over time. i think one of the reasons so many people “leave” faith is that those definitions are so narrow and they outlast their usefulness and so there’s a feeling of needing to separate completely from all-things-church because so many churches don’t quite know what to do about freedom, diversity and mystery. that’s my morning ramble…sure wish we could process this in real life together!

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  • Diversity is the word that scares me. But it is also most critical. It scares me because I am so unaccepting of those that aren’t “like” me. But I also know that we are meant to love one another and it is only through diversity that true love shows forth.

    Mystery is sort of easy for me. I am so frustrated by everyone who puts God in a box. “We don’t need miracles, tongues, etc. now because we have Scripture.” “Angels worked in the Testament times, but now we have Jesus.” Sheesh!

    I look forward to your book….

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    • thanks jean, yeah, diversity is freaky! it’s really easy to talk about and then in real life it’s messy but so good, too, because we learn so much that we can never learn when we are with people just like us. sheesh is right.

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