The Purple Church at the corner of Hollywood and Van Ness next to the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles.
We received lengthy responses (solicited and unsolicited) from former and current attendees, member and leaders of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church to the story of former Hollywood pastor Ryan Bell's Year Without God, which ended on January 1. The statements below are excerpts from the responses we received.
Cheri Wild Blue - Speech Language Pathologist in the San Marino Unified School District
When Ryan was asked to resign, I personally felt very rejected from the religion that raised me. I am a 4th generation Adventist, in attendance at cradle roll my first weeks of life, the product of 19 years of Adventist education. My husband is also a multi-generation Adventist, the son of a pastor, and the product of 20 years of Adventist education. I say this only to illustrate that we have deep roots in this culture and faith tradition. We are heavily invested, and yet we have questions about some of things going on in the church.
Ryan really helped us become aware of our blind spots and helped us think how we can love our neighbors by acknowledging that we need their help to understand how to love them best, as Jesus did. We were members at Hollywood for not quite two years when Ryan left, really started wondering if there was room for us in a church that rejected Ryan. I think our congregation collectively felt orphaned by the denomination at large. They had asked Ryan to resign, and no one would give us a straight answer of the precise reasons, but we knew at least a large part of it was over theological differences, differences we presumed we probably had too. When our conference rejected Ryan, we felt rejected too.
After Ryan’s departure we did our best to manage the very large task continuing ministry at our church in his glaring absence, negotiating with each other and the conference both about the what the next steps, and keeping day to day operations going. Our church staff--our church administrator, worship leader, custodian, elders, and other leaders--all stepped up and took on a tremendous amount of responsibility to make sure that we were opening our doors every week, and our day-to-day operations continued.
When Ryan rolled out his blog announcement, it really hit me off guard. I personally felt betrayed. I felt twice orphaned--my church had rejected me, and one of my most-trusted spiritual mentors had bailed too. I felt a bit embarrassed and angry because I had publicly defended and advocated for Ryan among my friends and family in the larger Seventh-Day Adventist community. I knew the roll out of Ryan’s new project ‘confirmed’ in the eyes of the church at large that the conference had done the wise and responsible thing by asking him to resign--something I still adamantly disagree with.
My husband had a more healthy reaction to Ryan’s project, instead of stewing in his questions and disappointment; he set up a coffee date with Ryan. While he didn’t come away with clarity and wasn’t in accord with all of Ryan’s lines of thinking, he was reassured to find that Ryan was and is still the same person, seeking truth, seeking understanding. While we no longer relate to Ryan as a spiritual mentor (a loss we’ve deeply grieved), we will always consider him a dear friend.
Some members and leaders left Hollywood after his dismissal. I think some were disenfranchised with the denomination for the reasons I mentioned above, and disenfranchised with the Hollywood congregation for not putting up a bigger fight against the injustice. I think others left because they were drawn to our church because of Ryan’s personal gifts--his intellect, his push for community involvement etc. I feel like most of us stayed in attendance and have done our best to continue the mission of our congregation.
Because Ryan is such a dynamic, charismatic figure, it was easy to think that Hollywood was ‘his’ church, but I have realized over the past 18 months that the purple church is the sum of all of its parts. In the midst of the chaos and exhaustion new ministries have emerged in the time that we didn’t have a regular pastor. One of our members started a young adult ministry called the Underground. It meets on Friday nights and has grown from a few people to 20-30.
Our church administrator, the same member who started the Underground, saw a need with the homeless population that hangs around our church grounds and developed an organized system for letting them shower in our baptistery churches, charge their phones in our outlets, and get a bite to eat. We’ve been blessed to have a new pastor come to our church as of this summer. The leadership at our church has been meeting with him over in the months since he has come to re-visit our community mission and values, and evaluate how we can practically and tangibly bring life to these values. We are in a stage of re-imagination of the how, but the ‘what’ remains the same as it was when Ryan was our pastor.
Dannon Rampton - Musician; Worship Coordinator, Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church
The congregation today is doing well. It seems healthy, perhaps even healthier now than it has been in a few years. Our new pastor is really good at building connections with people, which has helped a lot in rebuilding a strong community. There's a sense of optimism; I think folks are feeling comfortable, and there's a good energy here. After a yearlong pastoral search during which we felt like we were treading water, just keeping it together, we seem to be moving forward again. As I think is the case with any pastoral transition, people who didn't feel a connection with Ryan have returned and become more involved. That provided a nice infusion of life.
I think most folks have moved on. I don't think many find Ryan's "Year without God" experiment to matter that much. I think people are still interested in how he's doing on a personal level; several times over the past year I've been asked, "Have you seen Ryan lately? How's he doing?" But I've hardly heard any discussion of his blog. For our congregation, the big issue was the situation with his resignation: how it was handled by the conference, how abrupt/unexpected it seemed, and how we were sort of left reeling by it. But then when Ryan went in a completely new direction, I think most people simply didn't find it to be that relevant. So for many people here the whole "Year Without God" thing has felt like more of an afterthought to the crises we went through. Now that we have a new pastor and we're growing again as a community, that whole thing is fading more and more into the past.
There are some things that Ryan had a big influence on that are still fundamental parts of our identity - he encouraged an attitude of openness to experimentation, and helped create a space where questions are welcomed. With his leadership we developed a strongly missional sense of purpose, seeking to be unique and relevant in the context of Hollywood. He pushed us to get more involved in social justice. I think Ryan left a good legacy here. These things are definitely still ingrained in our psyche.
I think there may be more people affected by the "Year Without God" outside of our church than within. I've heard from several people outside of our immediate community who have been really inspired by his journey. Some admire his courage in creating conversation around such difficult questions. Others have been prompted to go back and re-examine their own beliefs, and now feel they have stronger belief systems because of it.
Some folks have been hurt by what Ryan has done. For example, a lady whose daughter was baptized by Ryan was really distraught, wondering if the baptism even meant anything anymore.
On a personal level, the whole thing was difficult for me at first. I was upset about the way he spun the media story when he started, setting himself up as a martyr for being too progressive (in an early blog post on Dec. 31, 2013, which was also in Huffington Post), because that wasn't really the case. Since he resigned, our church has "come out," going public with a statement of inclusivity towards all, regardless of age, race, class, or sexual identity. We've begun providing services for the homeless youth living on our street corners, and have taken a leading role in neighborhood-wide conversations on homelessness. We continue to push for equal opportunities for women in pastoral service. Ryan wasn't martyred for these issues. And as his blog continued from there, I simply lost interest in his premise. I was seeing God's spirit move in our community, and Ryan's blog wasn't really speaking to my experience.
Syd Shook - graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, who joined the Adventist Church in 2010; former member and elder at the Hollywood Church.
To be honest, had our local congregation responded differently, I might still be there today. I still care very deeply for all of the people there--they are still my friends, but the way we handled the whole situation deeply concerned me. Many people at Hollywood Church--and the extended Hollywood Church network--were really outraged concerning what happened. It wasn't just that Ryan was let go, but that the decision was made, for the most part without much consulting of our church board, or our elders (of whom I was one), or our local congregation. In fact, we rarely saw anyone from the conference at our church. When I worked at the church as a staff member, we mostly heard from the conference in terms of the debt we owed them, which Ryan, and when we'd done something that they deemed out of line, such as invite a Presbyterian minister to preach on Sabbath, or an Imam for a 9/11 service, or speak out on full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. In all fairness, the conference did supply Ryan's salary, and this was significant because we were church that was always behind in terms of tithes, but there really was not any kind of meaningful relationship other than this between our local church and the conference, and this became really evident when they let Ryan go without engaging with us first. A group of us did go to the conference offices in Glendale--after we requested a meeting with Larry Caviness--and advocate for Ryan's job. We also heard the kinds of questions that were asked of him before a personnel committee who was deciding on his employment future. The most memorable of these exchanges for me was when one committee member asked Ryan, "Do you believe in a 7-day creation?" and Ryan responded, "I'm not really sure about a 7-day creation. What's important to me--and what I teach my members--is that in the beginning God created." This answer didn't seem to cut it.
Our church members and attenders were initially--on the whole--outraged at the situation. To attack Ryan was to attack all of us who had found refuge within the purple walls of Hollywood Adventist--the denominational cast offs, the seekers, the doubters, those from other denominations--like me and my husband David--who had searched far and wide for a church home for many years. The situation was complicated though. There were years worth of tension between Ryan and the conference--so there were some interpersonal issues to consider. Ryan was exhausted from constantly pushing against the grain and trying to hold his family together at the same time. So, it was hard for people to rally for a job that seemed to be affecting his health. At the same time, there was a very real sense of injustice at how the whole thing was handled and most everyone at the time felt it. One of the things that scared me, and ultimately helped me make the decision to leave, was the kind of ultimate deference to the conference that won out. Whether Ryan stayed or went, there were issues that needed to be dealt with--namely, that letting our pastor go was not a valid way to get the more progressive churches in the denomination to tone down their ministry concerning interfaith work, the LGBT community, and the like.
Matthew Burdette, Doctoral Candidate, University of Aberdeen, former attendee of Hollywood Church.
When Ryan first decided to abandon faith for a year, my first thought was that this would hurt people he was associated with, who were doing things similar to what he had done in Hollywood, which were (in Adventism) pretty creative and bold. I now think that this whole episode has been good for those people, because it forces us to ask serious questions about the highly complex constellation of factors that go into faithful ministry: the faith of the minister, the faith of the church, the mission, the intellectual climate of the church and of the society, the process whereby people go into ministry, and so on.
Take the last one as a passing example: For a long time, I have been persuaded that the Adventist church needs a more careful process for the selection of its ministers. This isn’t just about avoiding another Ryan Bell. It’s about naming the fact that there’s hardly a coherent theology of ministry (just look at the ordination debate), a common vision of mission and ministry, and the hiring practices of individual conferences are questionable at best—a mixture of nepotism and showing favoritism to those who play the language game. Everyone knows that the church is weighed down by incompetent ministers, but few are willing to identify what (and who) the problem is, and what can be done to avoid it.
What the church has to ask in regard to Ryan is more difficult than it wants to admit. This is not merely a matter of a person who has lost faith in God, as though “God” was a generic thing that people believe in. We live in a pluralistic society, and few are theists in general. Those who are theists are usually theists in particular; this was certainly true of Ryan. This means that he confessed faith in the God of Jesus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confessed faith in the good news of this Jesus. Christian faith maintains that faith in Christ is not a mere intellectual feat; faith is a gift from God. Those who go into the ministry are expected to have this faith, which means that the church which recognizes a minister’s calling must also recognize the grace of God in this person in their faith in the gospel. I think it’s a bit of a cop out to just say that Ryan had a lapse in faith. This was years in the making, and those of us who know Ryan were not terribly shocked by this, and that should say something. The church shouldn’t just ask itself what it could have done differently to prevent Ryan from losing his faith; it must also ask itself how it can be more careful about not hiring or ordaining people whose faith is not secure. This is no insult to Ryan, but simply a matter of churchly faithfulness.
The church must also, obviously, deal with its own intellectual crisis. Those who pretend there is no intellectual crisis in the church are not to be trusted. The Adventist church, for all of its educational institutions, has a culture of fear that has direct consequences for the life of the mind; and it should be obvious to all by now that a neglected life of the mind breeds a toxic piety that alienates thinking people. I would personally say it this way: Adventist culture still operates with an implicit opposition between the intellect and spiritual life, and that is a false opposition that must be overcome if genuine faith is to thrive. In saying this, I am not saying that Ryan was spiritually negligent or neglected; he was surrounded with bright, faithful people. What I am saying is that it also happens to be the case that the church’s culture provides conditions that make the loss of faith easier than it should be.
Again, I don’t think it would be right or useful for the conversation to be about Ryan. If the church does that, it excuses itself from critical self-examination; and it should be emphasized that critical self-examination does not amount to blaming the community or culture or whatever for Ryan’s atheism. He is an adult, and can speak for and explain himself. My only point is that the church’s conversation shouldn’t be about Ryan, but about it’s own mission and how to be better faithful to that mission in light of the pain of losing a minister.
Longtime Hollywood Adventist Church member who asked not to be named. Like all his predecessors, Ryan has left his legacy and footprint on the church--specifically in the areas of “being/doing” church in a postmodern, “post-Christian” culture, and also in the area of missional leadership and change. The church was Ryan’s “laboratory” while completing his doctoral studies in missional leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. I would like to think much of that “missional DNA,” its language, and its ways of approaching mission and ministry are still alive and deeply embedded in congregational life; but the longer-term legacy will depend on those leaders who were trained under Ryan, their ability, willingness and effectiveness in passing on the missional DNA to the next generation of leaders, and the continued reinforcement of this expression of Adventism from the pulpit, from pastoral leadership and staff, and from the denominational hierarchy.
Another area of growth in the church during Ryan’s leadership was a renewed awareness of older, but perhaps forgotten (or at least under-emphasized), traditions in Adventism and the early Christian church: the denomination’s emergence out of the Millerite movement, the Great Disappointment, Adventists’ historical, prophetic role and posture toward contemporary society and culture: the debates about whether to organize, its willingness to engage in, speak out and make very public stands on contemporary social issues like slavery and abolition, the health message, pacifism and non-combatancy.
The early Adventist church was willing to openly debate these issues internally and in the public sphere. Because their voices and opinions mattered, it inspired and mobilized many young, talented, idealistic leaders into joining a world-changing movement.
One of Hollywood’s ongoing blessings is its apparently unending capacity to attract creative talent and leadership. The name, the location, the church’s architecture, its cultural and socio-economic diversity; its friendliness, acceptance and inclusivity; its openness to experiment and try almost anything at least once, the willingness to take risks, the latitude it gives leaders (including the pastor) to employ whatever skills, talents, spiritual gifts they have to ministry—all these have been ingrained in Hollywood’s congregational culture. Ryan’s contribution of framing all the above in a postmodern, missional context seems to have been a key that unlocked many previously shut doors.
Being reminded that “God has already been on the scene and has been at work in the community long before I showed up”—a key concept of missional engagement, somehow changed the church’s internal dynamic as well as its posture toward the surrounding Hollywood community. The “just-me-and God” and “my mission and God’s mission alone” mentality is modified, and perhaps enriched, when one pauses and asks, “What has God already been doing here the last few months/years; and how do I fit into the larger picture? What is my role in God’s ongoing work in this congregation and in the larger surrounding community?” For many self-motivated, super talented, ego-driven personalities who already have all the answers, slowing down, pausing, actually listening to others, and trying to discern where God has already been at work is a difficult but often necessary step. The “God sent me to Hollywood to save Hollywood from Hollywood complex” is replaced by a more humble, sensitive and discerning approach to ministry, evangelism and sharing the Gospel of Jesus.
The Hollywood SDA church remains as progressive, inclusive, creative and committed as ever to peace and justice, and to serving our community as the body of Christ in Hollywood. We are still an Adventist Peace Fellowship church. We have had our ups and downs (with membership, finances, leadership, etc.) Today’s challenges differ from yesterday’s only in the details. Carrying on with new leadership, initiatives and practices is an ongoing challenge and conversation.
From a leadership transition perspective, Ryan’s experiment has understandably been a huge challenge. How does the leadership of the congregation Ryan left convey to its members and others looking in from the outside that the church’s vision, identity, ministry and values haven’t changed? How does it deal with the potential (and in some cases actual) criticism that its previous eight years’ experience was all an illusion, a lie, or a devil-inspired conspiracy? How does it reassure the denominational leadership that its present direction will not lead others (members or future pastors) into atheism? I believe the Hollywood church leadership (mostly younger, and with very little experience with denominational procedures, policies and processes) has shown incredible commitment, strength, maturity, wisdom, resilience and integrity throughout the transition period.
Ryan was a one-of-a-kind leader who cannot be replaced; but the Hollywood church has its own unique journey to pursue.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6539