Leaving Church: Guest Post by Kelli Woodford

by | Dec 13, 2012 | Uncategorized


We’re exploring the question, “How do we walk out our faith in the midst of pain, suffering, disappointment, and loneliness,” with a book club discussion on Thursdays about Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. Today’s post from Kelli Woodford is inspired by Chapters 14-16. Kelli is a cherished sojourner on my pilgrimage of faith, a kind and generous word-weaver of truth that makes my soul say, “ahhhh”.

Somewhere Between the Lost and the Found

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We started out right in the center of the map.

My husband preached every week. I led worship, taught Bible lessons to children, shined my slow cooker for the potluck, welcomed visitors, and touched people’s hands ever-so-gently when they shared something emotional. We washed windows and scrubbed sacred toilets on Saturday so every expectation would be met with a sparkle on Sunday morning. Even our kids never missed a sermon or prayer meeting. You see, we weren’t just there every time the church doors were open — we were the ones with the keys.

And then, somewhere, we got a bit lost.

Seeking remedy, we moved to another church in a different state. This one didn’t need a preacher and their ‘first lady’ was as sweet as her iced tea. We’ll sit in the pew awhile, we thought. We’ll just love people and be fed and support God’s Kingdom by getting our hands dirty in the daily grind of this local church.

Then we’ll be found again.

But after awhile, the familiar gnaw began to re-surface and mystery’s faded colors once again replaced certainty’s bold hues. We found we were hungry for something that couldn’t be defined. Famished, actually. For something. All we knew is that those who had all the answers were more suspect than ever. And we found ourselves edging out of the center. Wondering where this road would lead.

So here we are. Somewhere between the lost and the found.

Somewhere on the edge of the map.

Our wilderness doesn’t look like manna for breakfast, but more like an isolated house in the middle of a million cornfields. That lonely island of living, throbbing, breaking humanity surrounded by naked earth.

And somewhere there is a map that contains even this place.

The lines of my earth look so much like this ancient farmhouse, starkly erect in the vacancy of winter’s lonely fields. And my mother (who knows me) asks me gentle if I feel lonely, too. Do I miss the people always in and out and the calendar-ful of activities? But the truth is that I have long been alone in spirit, so I have found myself more complete by being alone in fact.

For this is my wilderness season.

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I look out my windows and inhale years of dirt turned over, black as midnight sky, so that something can grow in this place that seems a hundred miles from nowhere. This is, at the same time, both emptiness and fertility. There is no church here that we have come to lead, or to start, or even to join. No, we have come as rogue pilgrims. We, for once, have not said, “If we build it, they will come,” but rather, “If we come, He will build us.”

Oh, and He must.

For isn’t this what the empty fields scream at me, day and night? That to be filled, one must first be empty? Because nothing can stand in all this upturned humble earth and not feel the growth begin. Not feel the groping of the roots, the yearning and the stretch.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the geography of this uncharted place, known as the wilderness. The simultaneity of the island’s isolation paired curiously with the sweet respite of being alone. She says that everyone on the map is professing the same faith, holding up our hearts to the same God, but those in the center of the map look vastly different from those who find themselves at the edge. In the center, a clear vision has been cast and it works its way into the hearts of those within the four safe walls of the church. Those faithful to be led by a human shepherd and content to build what they consider the Kingdom of God on earth right there, found and kept safe in their building programs, communion trays, and choir robes. These are the people that give weight to the map and keep it from blowing away.

And then there are others.

They find their communion is over cheez-its and tall, frothy Heineken in each others’ living rooms. They wonder in unison what you do when no church seems big enough to hold all that you know to be true about God. They relent their questions as they look in the eyes of children, who seem to lead them somehow. No sermon-security-blanket with three points and a poem is needed, there, on the edge of the map. For the things that seem so vital and real in the center are up for grabs in the wilderness. The sermon is brought by a free wind blowing in a big sky and sound systems pale next to love resonating strong from camaraderie’s listening ear. And the risk and adventure of the edge are often too frightening for those holding down the map. Too unscheduled. For their songs echo a bit too savage and their language slices perhaps more fierce. Because the God of the wilderness is a God who can hardly be defined, much less confined to a dusty theology or the docile kitten that stands in for the Lion of Judah. And all the refined words we ever used in preaching and teaching ring a bit hollow, not because they are untrue, but because someone else’s surety means less to us now than it ever has.

Now we must discover Him for ourselves.

And that, I think, is the real blade’s edge of the wilderness:

“The unscripted encounter with an undomesticated God.” (Taylor, p.171)

For “while the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happened.” (Taylor, p.177)

So here, where the mystery is bright and the windswept land my teacher, I will stand with the brave of the past. The ones who know the geography of this land between the lost and the found. Many whose stories we know, but also the unsung heroes who have shown themselves Abraham’s true seed,

not knowing whence they go,

only firm on this one thing: the destination is in the journey itself.


Q: J.R.R. Tolkien is famously quoted in these words: “All who wander are not lost.” Can you relate to that? How does the landscape of your wilderness season compare with the description in the post?

Q: In the past, what has been your perception of those who do not regularly attend church, but who still consider themselves part of the Bride? How has that perception been changed or challenged?

12-12-2012 047Kelli Woodford is in the middle of the the most surprising paradigm shift of her faith journey. She is daily discovering Presence in the sacredness of common moments, Jesus in all the junkies, and that being found often arrives close on the heels of her willingness to become lost. It’s a wild ride. Which maybe shouldn’t surprise her . . . after all, He’s not a tame Lion.

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  1. Mary

    What great depth of reality!!!!

    • kelliwoodford

      Real and deep. Two words I love.
      Thanks, Mary, for this kindness.

      • Paula

        Wow! I totally relate! So glad God leads us to the Wilderness & helps us to see that He is a Lion, not to be tamed. It is a great adventure! I love you Kelli. Your faith does inspire courage in me!

  2. Lori Lang McClure

    Wow. Never has anyone made me feel more comfortable with being on the edge than you, dear Kelli. Thank you. I have struggled with wondering if our different is good enough since leaving the ministry. There is much to love here. This is perfect and beautiful and I’m sharing it 🙂

    • kelliwoodford

      More than anything, Lori, I want to inspire courage with my words. So glad this resonated with you.

  3. pastordt

    Beautifully done, Kelli. Just gorgeous, in fact. May you find rich blessing out there on the edge and may you find community that is real and heart-to-heart for you and for your children.

    • kelliwoodford

      Thank you, Diana.
      We are finding more than we ever dreamed.
      Bless you for reading.

  4. wynnegraceappears

    Kelli, more later to you one day about the why’s of exactly why this sings. But it does. You have wrapped your heart up in the folds of words in a way that leaves me breathless. Like a flame of heat makes beautiful bubbles in the boil of water, this has strength and heat and power cloaked in grace. More later friend. But this…sigh. Artful punch to the spirit. All good grace.

    • kelliwoodford

      Taking a rain check for that “one day” conversation, Elizabeth. Thanks for such generous words, friend.

  5. Alicia

    Oh, life on the edge- this makes me yearn for more of HIM. And you have captured the journey so incredibly through those raw and redemptive words of yours. Beautiful, Kelli. Thanks for sharing! Thanks for DARING to follow the LION.

    • kelliwoodford

      Yes, quite a journey it is. And raw and redemptive pair well together, don’t they?
      Bedfellows, I think. Glad to see you here, Alicia.

  6. Sheila at Longings End

    He is sooo not a tame lion! God is not in a box, or corporate church going through the motions yet not being Velveteen real. Thanks for sharing, Kelli. Visiting today from Imperfect Prose.

    • kelliwoodford

      Sheila, right on. Velveteen real, yes.

  7. Kathy Owens

    So glad for your journey, Kelli. ALL of it! For it is in ALL of it that He is revealed as the One Who REDEEMS!!
    Thank you for the compliment (that I know you) but truly, it is only by His grace that I know you even the little bit. I love you. And may I echo Diana’s prayer — and may you find the “Something ” that is more than we can even think or imagine!

    • kelliwoodford

      I feel the love and acceptance in your knowing of me, Mom. Thank you for being a safe place. I love you, too.

  8. Danelle

    I remember that Cheezits post so well. And this. I don’t know what to say. I just read your words here and they resonate so deeply. I can’t help thinking how brave and spirit filled your family is for boldly jumping into the wide open spaces to find Him in a deeper way than you’ve experienced so far. You have experienced His Love both inside and outside the church doors, and you aren’t afraid to move.
    That is bold faith in action.
    We must discover Him for ourselves. Yes.
    Have I told you lately that I love you? This was a masterpiece my friend. Truly. So honored to have a friend who lives on the “edge” and shines so brightly there.

      • kelliwoodford

        You both know how to humble a girl.
        One of these days I’m gonna get to wrap my arms around you — each of you — and let our skin touch the way our hearts have.

  9. Jillie

    Kelli…I thoroughly enjoyed your post! You really covered the ‘centre’ and the ‘edge’ of the ‘church map’ well, and your writing is beautiful! I admit, I wasn’t entirely sure about this book in the beginning chapters, but I now see where Barbara Brown Taylor is going with this. She has struck a cord with me in her words about the ‘wilderness’, as have you.
    “…those at the centre of the map look vastly different from those who find themselves on the edge. In the centre, a clear vision has been cast and it works its way into the hearts of those within the four SAFE walls of the church…..found and kept safe in their building programs, communion trays and choir robes…And then there are others…there on the edge of the map…where the God of the wilderness is a God who can hardly be DEfined, much less CONfined to a dusty theology or a docile kitten that stands in for the Lion of Judah.” Wow! Do I relate to this. When still in the church, I began to question certain practices and protocol. I still believe in those crucial and immovable truths of Scripture, but I got so used to reading Scripture through the eyes of my denominational teachings, that I was no longer looking deeper into passages or asking any questions. I thought ‘we’ had all the answers. I also saw so little passion in my church—I want to know the Lion of Judah—I’m uninspired by the docile kitten I was hearing about. Now that I’ve left church–for how long I don’t know–I am trying to discover Him for myself. And, as BBT writes, (pg. 175), “If I’ve developed a complaint during my time in the wilderness, it is that [mother] Church lavishes so much more attention on those at the centre than on those on the edge.”
    As to your questions at the end of your post, I certainly agree with Tolkien’s words. I am wandering right now, but I am certainly not lost. I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.
    For those I know who have also ‘left church’—I used to worry and wonder why they left. Now I understand better. They are still true believers—they may have just felt they couldn’t stay any longer in the ‘cookie-cutter mold’ the church works so hard to maintain. I know I couldn’t. I was dying there.

    • kelliwoodford

      Wow, what an honest reply, Jillie. Thank you for sharing so much of your story (and your heart) here. A beautiful, radiant hope you hold. Blessings on your journey.

  10. jmw

    I am always encouraged by you. My favorite part is the thought that though the center of the map preserves the stories of faith, the edge is where they originally happened.


    • kelliwoodford

      Thanks, jmw.
      Loving the ones living it with me. (wink)

  11. Emily Wierenga

    oh, i love this kelli. i definitely fall in the cheez-its and Heineken category 🙂 may God meet you fully, in the wilderness, friend.

    • kelliwoodford

      Glad you stopped in, Emily.

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