The Unorthodox Chapter–The One I Never Wanted {But Got Anyway}

{By Kelli Woodford}


Sometimes we live chapters in our lives we didn’t know we had the courage for.


My church story has been one such chapter.


I grew up in a Midwestern evangelical congregation. The kind with one of those wooden crosses affixed to the street-side of a brick building. That cross was there for every general passersby, yes. But I like to think it was also there for us kids. Because on summer evenings that never seemed to end, when the adults were chatting in animated little clumps with toddlers tripping around their legs, we big kids could be found running and screaming across the grassy church yard, heading for that cross. It was our base, you see. From “Ghost in the Graveyard” to the more traditional “Hide and Seek”, in every game on every balmy evening, with mosquitos thick as the Illinois humidity, you could find us clutching that cross. Because in doing so? We knew we were safe.


And then I became a professional Christian. That is to say, I went to college for ministry and began to build my world within the four walls of the church. Potlucks and youth group trips and volunteer sign-ups. Sunday School curriculum and bake sales, flannel-graphs and WWJD bracelets, arguments about music and discrepancies over baby shower decorations. These were what I knew. But it’s funny how what you know – the language you speak – works its way into parts of you that you don’t expect. Without invitation. How it vines around, those tricky tendrils, influencing things you didn’t anticipate.


Like that place where you form identity.


Identity is a tough thing to question when you’re in your thirties and you finally look up one day only to realize that the road you’re on has more to do with clubs, cliques, control and conformity than it has to do with Jesus. That your job, as a professional Christian, is to tell the ants to keep their heads down and keep marching instead of proclaiming the good news of the beautiful, terrible freedom Jesus promised. And honestly? That’s where I balked. When I saw the church’s faults and I began to understand that God was bigger than the one they preached; when I started to recognize that division between sacred and secular is completely man-made; when I had “unauthorized” experiences of grace and peace welling up within, not contrived from without; when I started to sense the cloud moving on, knowing it would lead me away from those four comfortable walls; I got scared. I mean, not only was my identity wrapped up in this institution, but every warning I’d ever heard of ‘what happens to those who leave the church’ came reverberating back into my ears and fear was the loudest voice of all. Better stated: Fear was the voice behind it all.


But in leaving the church, I was not leaving God. In fact, I realized that in leaving the church, I was following Him. And sometimes when you trust God’s voice instead of fear’s, the road can turn in some pretty unorthodox directions. Ask Abraham. Or Jeremiah. Even Jesus might know a thing or two about it.


God is famous for His thousand winding paths. He lovingly employs these roads to teach us that although the quickest way between two points is a straight line, He is rarely interested in expeditiousness. He’s much more about thorough. About redemption. And that often means that He leads us by the way wild and winding. Misunderstood. Despised, even.


The funny part is that out here, beyond religion’s traditional boundaries, I find my soul often stilled with a message that directly opposes what worked me into a frenzy while within the four safe walls of the church: Do not be afraid. It renews in me the courage I have lacked. Because fear is the very reason I would never have left the church at all, had it been up to me. It is the reason I would have stayed on the “approved” path and stubbornly laid down my pen when it came to this chapter I so vehemently didn’t want to write. Instead these words have become a lifeline. I have held them close when well-meaning friends who don’t understand load me down with bundles of shame; when the mean-spirited threats come; when opposition turns up from the most surprising sources. But I have also needed them when life (and by that, I mean LIFE) has broken through to me by unsanctioned means: tangible grace in the touch of a stranger, peace shining out from my own child’s eyes, hope like indelible golden ink on water at the end of the day. Because sometimes radically trusting God to lead you where you do not want to go is just the thing that’s necessary. It closes the door on well-worn routes of traditional communion with Him and forces open all other options.


To my astonishment and delight, with fear and scarcity cast aside, I find there are many.


And in the quietude of my life without choir practice and canned-food drives, I have learned to listen to eternity anew. Sometimes He even speaks in the song of yesteryear, like those warm nights under a comforting yellow moon in the cornfields, when I ran over and again to the foot of the cross. When I felt its splintering wood under my not-yet-calloused hand. When the security of touching base was enough. Because I knew that I was safe there.


All these years later, even without a brick and mortar structure, I know deep in my bones that I still am.


{photo credit: tammy hendricksmeyer}


kelli bio picKelli Woodford has always had a quirky penchant for collecting quotes. The words she feels at home in most, though, are from Mr. Mark Twain himself, “One must travel to learn.” While she hasn’t hung her hat in every one of the fifty states or abroad, she has been known to travel compulsively in the world of ideas. Kelli considers curiosity a serious expedition and is rarely satisfied with anything remotely status quo. She collects friendships with people as different as they can be and feels all the richer for it, but never experiences “home” so much as when she is with her best friend – who also happens to be her husband. They make their abode in Love, but also in the Midwest with their seven blue-eyed children. Kelli engages us with her writing as part of the writer’s team. You can follow Kelli on her personal blog, or on facebook and twitter.



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35 Comments on “The Unorthodox Chapter–The One I Never Wanted {But Got Anyway}

  1. Kelli, you basically wrote my chapter too! Your gentle voice also shares wisdom here, friend. I have read this post multiple times and there are so many parts I was like “Yes! That right there! Oh my goodness!” Lots of exclamations happening. 🙂

    • Because when you believe in someone like you do, Tams, I think exclamations just naturally flow. And you, my friend, are a BELIEVER. You are a caller-out of good and a drawer-forth of beauty. It’s an honor to write alongside you. Every time. Thank you.

  2. Oh Kelli…how we could have a long deep conversation!!! That winding journey can lead to a sabbath rest in Him. Our 25 yrs outside the brink and mortar … It’s a journey that has led us into deeper freedom and amazed by His scandalous Love !!!!

    • Yes, I’d love to hear more of your story, Ro. From our brief interactions in this blog-crazed world, you seem to be a woman of great wisdom and tenderness – a unique blending of qualities that have their own tales to tell, I’m sure. Thank you for being here and for reading along. You bless me.

  3. Oh gosh, friend. Just, {sigh….}. What else can I say? Do you hear my breath, as it catches on your words-remembering the sting- and releases on the wings of hope that come in the lilting words, the ones that rise on Peace, I am safe. His wings wrapped ’round. I think of songs of yesteryear too… and sometimes he speaks to me so gently and powerfully. My God rides on the water. And he rides on the flood. And there ain’t no power from hell that’s gonna stop God’s wings of love. Oh and I feel the wings of mercy rain from above… because God, he rides on wings of love.

    A song from my deeply inundated charasmatic evangelical years…. one that was comforting in childhood and is still precious to me.

    I’m holding your hand, looking intently into those blues, leaning in and listening. I’m throwing my head back and laughing with you about girlish things, words spoken in the space between us that make the heart pound harder with familiarity, recognition and validation. My heart aches to be with you…. but soon.

    I love, I love, I love you.

  4. That’s supposed to say *winds of mercy* 😉 And I forgot to say one thing… my, how brave you are. Don’t tremble. Don’t be afraid. We’re all holding your sacred story so tenderly and with honor. You’ve shared well and dared greatly.

  5. Kelli, thank you for sharing this chapter with us. This: “He is rarely interested in expeditiousness. He’s much more about thorough. About redemption. And that often means that He leads us by the way wild and winding. Misunderstood. Despised, even.” It resonates so deep right now, especially with the season Stan and I are currently living. Misunderstood. Not expeditious. Wild and winding and way more for the purpose of Him forming Himself more deeply inside us than us meeting any external expectations. You ARE brave and your heart provokes mine. Thank you!

  6. Kelli, you write sheer beauty in brokenness and my own heart swells with pride over your courage as eyes well with shared tears of release and joy over the discoveries found as treasure hidden in darkness. There is much to mull over here and it’s so hard to single out any particular thing. But this especially maybe, “Because sometimes radically trusting God to lead you where you do not want to go is just the thing that’s necessary. It closes the door on well-worn routes of traditional communion with Him and forces open all other options.” Amen, friend!
    It echoes my experience of being outside church and outside the city gates, being on a journey not of my own choosing yet one that yields fruit beyond all expectation. God is with us during every step we take and I am convinced He says well done to you for sharing your pain and profound discoveries so that others could be helped and blessed. Keep on seeking, listening and sharing. This gospel IS wild and won’t be tamed within a rigid framework, building or congregation. God is so much bigger than we often allow Him to be. Blessings, love and deep appreciation to you. I love the way you write! 🙂 xx

    • Joy, you wrote so much beauty I don’t even know where to start. Let me just say “God IS bigger than we allow him to be” — so much truth there. And perhaps for some of us, it takes many winding paths to discover this. Thanks for your love here, my friend.

  7. Kelli,
    So much of what you penned so bravely resonates with me. I have stepped away from organized ministry, but for different reasons. I have questioned the very essence and purpose of evangelical Christianity. Much of what I see and hear troubles me. The church of today, especially in America, is not the church of a Francis Shaeffer from a generation ago or the persecuted church past and present. Before I completely understand your perspective, I need to know more. How do you recognize the need for an organized body of believers? It was the Church which changed the world…sometimes for the worst, but mostly for the better. How do you gather with other followers of Christ as Paul admonishes us to do? Do you miss the four walls even a little? What replaces those very walls today? I am so glad you found freedom in stepping away from what held you back, but am concerned that some may not understand that the church is an institution created by Christ Himself. I agree that it looks very different from what He intended. And, I know that the Church is not a building or an institution, but the body of true believers. I just have more questions than answers which is why I need more of your reasoning behind these words. No shame or quilt being thrown by me, but honest inquiry. Although it may not seem like it, I understand more of the pathos from which you wrote. Blessings to you for sharing. BTW, I love how you described the comfort you receive(d)from that wooden cross on the side of that building.

    • Michael, your comments and questions do not feel like shame or a smothering quilt, but rather like the honest evaluations of a man who THINKS. I find it both encouraging and strangely comforting that you ask yourself why you live the way you do and how that intersects with the story I shared above. I think conversations like this should always be welcomed. And encouraged.

      First let me say that I think many of your questions can be answered by pointing out that this post is not a prescriptive one. I am in no way telling others what paths they ought to walk or what following God looks like for them. If you heard it that way, I am very sorry. That was the farthest thing from my intention. What I hoped to communicate in this post was merely a description. Not saying “how things should be” but rather explaining them for “what they are” – if that makes sense. I find in my quest toward integration (WHOLENESS), that I not only examine my choices and where they are taking me, but I also examine the choices behind me and where they have led me. In short, I need to *own* my story. That’s what this post is about. In sharing it with this community, I hope to spur others on to the same kind of personal reflection about the parts and pieces of their stories, too – no matter how similar or dissimilar they are to mine – that they may accept all the chapters, knowing that nothing is too imperfect or messy for redemption.

      And this story – my story – is not finished. As you know, I am still breathing and so the story goes on. I didn’t/couldn’t tie this post up in a tidy little package and declare that every crisis has found resolution and all the questions have their answer. That’s not reality for me. Sometimes I still struggle with the Church and I wanted to be true to that battle by letting it linger. At the same time, on a more personal level, I have found a church (in a different denomination than before) and (perhaps even more importantly) a new way to think about church involvement that suits me in this season. So yes, I am back in those four walls on Sunday morning. But I find that the spiritual food that nourishes in one segment of life is far different from the kind that fills me in another – BUT both have their place. The things I have learned “outside the four walls” are somehow mysteriously essential in preparing me for this season when I have ventured back in. And in writing this, I wanted to validate that season. For myself. And for others.

      So thank you. I always appreciate your comments because they are generous and yet challenging. In just the right ways. Every blessing.

      • Kelli, I simply cannot let your response pass without comment ! First, I didnt take your post as prescriptive. I didn’t mean for my remarks to imply that. I will state for the record that you have an influence in many lives…how many followers I know not, but by the various comments from a plethora of websites for which you write…you influence. So, perhaps I was a bit hasty in throwing up the Caution Flag.

        Concerning your answers to my inquiries…thank you. You are most gracious, as always.

        None of our stories will be completed until we breathe our last breath so we journey on. I am glad you have found new walls, and I completely understand how different those walls feel and appear. I also get how you are still coming to grips with this organism we call the Church. So am I.

        Your final point about validation and being outside the walls has prepared you for your re-entry was so well stated. Continue to be true, Kelli Woodford.

        As for me, I have so much to learn. And to think, I used to consider myself fairly astute when it came to my faith. Ha! The one thing I do know intimately is His faithfulness, especially in light of my lack of this attribute.

        • This is such a gracious conversation. And Michael, we are there with you, learning right alongside one another. Like you, we are also clinging to the fact that He is faithful and True, despite the twists and turns of our faith journey. All the more reason for us to cling too Christ as we grow, heal, and follow His leading.

          • Tammy, it is a pleasant surprise to read your remarks. Thank you for making the effort to share your heart with us. As you stated, we are clinging and following Him together which is a joy. May His light continue to fully illuminate your path. Grace to you always.

  8. Wow, just wow! These words are life-giving, soul-refreshing, freedom-setting! I am so with you & Jesus walks with us no matter where we go – He’s led us here! This post speaks Truth!

    • Yes. He leads us in many ways we wouldn’t choose, but following in such circumstances is perhaps how we learn trust. Thanks, Paula, for your kind words. Love you much.

  9. those winding roads are where we find Him, right?
    and He holds our hand and walks beside us, guiding ever so gently, quietly
    grace oozing

    love your words Kelli

  10. Kelli, there is such beauty in your story. I love how through it all, your focus is on clinging to that old rugged cross. The only thing that matters. Heart Hugs, Shelly ❤

    • It’s funny how we can find ourselves in strongly opinionated camps about many things that don’t matter nearly as much as clinging to that cross. So glad the message came through this post, Shelly.

  11. I’m so glad I clicked over to read the rest of the story. I didn’t know this was yours. We left the church of our family heritage two years ago to branch out in other places, and have never felt freer or more in love with God. Sometimes we need to step outside traditional boundaries to breathe in deeper of the presence of God. What a blessing that we continue to find him everywhere. I appreciate you sharing this, Kelli. I know not everyone understands, but many, many do.

  12. Pingback: What's in Store for Us, 2014 in Review, & Link Ups - outside the city gate

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