On an uncomfortably cold, rainy December afternoon, a rarity in Los Angeles, I stopped by a large, colorfully-painted concrete complex butted up against the 101 Freeway, about two-and-a-half miles from the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I parked on a side street beside a chain link fence with coils of razor wire on top.
Unsure where to go, I walked around the building a moment before finding an entrance next to a large banner that read “PATH.” The glass door was locked, but a security guard ran to open it. “I’m here to see Ryan Bell,” I told a friendly lady at the desk. She placed a call and told me it would be just a moment.
The last time I saw Ryan had been at a meeting for adjunct religion teachers at Loma Linda University. He’d been teaching online courses, and I had been invited to teach a course as well. I ended up declining the offer ahead of my move to Spectrum, and Ryan, who had recently left pastoral ministry in the Southern California Conference, would soon embark on a Year Without God.
Now the year is up, and things are different. Ryan is the director of community engagement at PATH, a group of agencies working to end homelessness in Los Angeles. Ryan met me in the PATH Mall, a hallway leading to offices providing social services ranging from free medical aid to housing assistance and educational assistance.
A cold, rainy evening at PATH, Los Angeles.
We drove to a cafe nearby to discuss Ryan’s Year Without God and how things have changed because of it.
“If you just read those three words, ‘Year Without God,’ you could say, ‘How could a Christian just up and become an atheist?’” Ryan said after we sat down. “I’ve explained that all year long. And I think people that haven’t followed the blog want to know, ‘How did you come to this point?’ Oh Lord, that is a long story.”
It’s a story he’s told countless times to NPR, the BBC, CNN, and God only knows how many other websites and individuals. The story fascinates people and draws equally strong reactions from the faith community and the skeptic community.
Many who have written about the Year Without God have seemed amused by Ryan’s new relationship with Becca Pratt, who is a Christian. “Is that amusing to you?” I asked. He shrugged.
“It wasn’t really that big of a deal. We originally met for coffee. We shared an office at Azusa Pacific University, but we never got past ‘Hi, how are you?’”
The two had talked briefly, but nothing more until he started his godless year.
“When I started Year Without God she wrote to me and said, ‘I’m really impressed with what you’re doing. I approve,’ kind of thing. And I said ‘Cool, we should get that coffee we’d talked about.’”
Pratt serves as the director for community engagement for Oasis, a Christian nonprofit headquartered in Belgium that works with street children, those with HIV/AIDS, gang members, trafficking victims and schools in disadvantaged areas.
Ryan said that their contrasting faith stances are not a source of grief except when he gets a little snarky.
“There are so many different kinds of Christians. So it’s hard to be too broad-brushed about how all Christians are. But when you read the wider stories in the news about Christians in America, I would say that it’s probably a majority of Christians in America that are really problematic for our democracy, for our freedom and equality, and so it is tempting to get a little snarky and say, ‘Christians are like this…’ And she’s quick to remind me, not all Christians.”
The two serve in similar positions in similar organizations, but ostensibly with different motivations. I wanted to know how Ryan views his colleagues doing the kind of justice work and activism he does, but who draw on the resources of their faith traditions to do it.
“I think we need all kinds of motivations–any motivation, really–to work for the common good,” he said. “I think I would be sensitive to an ulterior motive for people to say, ‘we’re helping you get out of a bad situation, and we want you to come to our Bible study.’”
I pushed a little: “So you feel as though religion in general has a hard time doing that sort of philanthropic work without…”
“…A motivation of…proselytization. Yeah. It’s tough. Phil (Becca’s boss in Belgium) is not like that. They are focused on the work for its own sake, and they have their own religious, spiritual–or not–motivations for doing that work and they partner with people of all sorts of backgrounds and motivations, but its not confused by cross-over. I think that’s great.”
During Ryan’s eight years at the Hollywood Church, he helped to create a culture of advocacy and justice work unparalleled among Adventist congregations. And there never seemed to be an accompanying motivation to “win souls for Christ.”
Ryan Bell in front of PATH, where he serves as director of community engagement.
In a 2008 documentary series produced by the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists called “Stained Glass,” early footage of Ryan at the Hollywood Church portrays a congregation struggling to find a sense of community and purpose. During the course of the film, Ryan creates missional action teams–groups of leaders tasked with identifying and implementing strategic mission for the church. This becomes the basis for the work that defines Ryan’s tenure at Hollywood.
According to a longtime member of the Hollywood Church who asked not to be named for this story, it remains to be seen what portion of that legacy will survive Ryan’s departure.
“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’ 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.”
After a lengthy search process for a new pastor, the Hollywood Church found one, a recent Andrews University seminary grad, Branden Stoltz. In some ways he is the anti-Ryan Bell. While Ryan has spent his last year publicly pursuing a life apart from God, his successor lists books by Ellen White, Arthur Maxwell and C. S. Lewis on his Facebook favorites page. In his profile picture, Stoltz has on a shirt that says “100% Genuine” with a Bible text reference below. The picture is tagged with a link to “SDAshirts.com (Custom Shirt Ministry).”
With a new pastor in place, Hollywood’s worship coordinator, Dannon Rampton, feels as though the church is as healthy now as it has been in recent years. The congregation has moved on from Ryan Bell, Rampton says, but he notes that lot of Ryan’s contributions have stuck.
“[Ryan] 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. And he pushed us to get more involved in social justice. I think Ryan left a good legacy. These things are definitely still ingrained in our psyche.”
Rampton points out that in some respects, Hollywood has gone further down the path of justice in the post Ryan Bell era.
“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.
And people at the Hollywood Church, for the most part, Rampton says, have moved on.
For his part, Ryan has moved on as well, not only from employment in the Adventist denomination, but also from Christianity and from God.
It became clear in his Year Without God blog posts that Ryan felt increasingly at home away from faith. It didn’t come as surprise to most of his online followers that when the year ended on New Year’s Day, Ryan announced he wasn’t going back.
In his year-ending blog post, Ryan wrote, “Now, at the end of this year, I have discovered no evidence that a God exists.” He explained the reasons from science, history, religion and psychology that countered belief, and announced a new project: “Life After God.”
Ironically, Ryan credits his former employer, the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, with his departure from the faith.
“In a way, I think the conference did me a favor. I don’t think on my own I would have stepped down. I thought about it many times.”
“Do you have regrets about how it went down,” I asked him.
He hesitated, thinking for a moment.
“I mean, I think I conducted myself pretty well. I don’t have personal regrets. I have sort of generic regrets…well, I don’t know.”
Tension simply reached a breaking point, he told me. The tension was a result of long-standing differences over doctrine and practice, and the elastic finally snapped.
Cheri Wild Blue was a member of the Hollywood Church at the time, and Ryan’s departure caused her to question her own place in the Adventist Church.
The Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church at the corner of Hollywood and Van Ness in L.A.
“We were members at Hollywood for not quite two years when Ryan left, and we 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.”
It is a sentiment Syd Shook echoes. Syd and her husband left Hollywood about six months after Ryan’s departure. For her, Ryan’s resignation felt like a personal affront.
“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.”
She points out that the situation was complicated.
“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.”
Both Cheri and Syd said that the Year Without God announcement caught them by surprise with its abruptness. For Cheri, the announcement stung.
“When I saw the ‘Year Without God’ project published and going viral, I personally felt betrayed,” she said. “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.”
She said that her husband Nate spent a long time talking with Ryan after the announcement, and over time, they moved from a relationship characterized by spiritual mentorship to friendship.
“It’s interesting who you meet on the other side,” Ryan told me. “I went to Sunday Assembly [a church-like meeting for skeptics and non-believers] and met some people I knew, and it was like, ‘Oh hey, you too! I didn’t realize…’ It’s like going to AA and seeing someone you know.”
There has mostly been a warm reception from people “on the other side” of faith, people like Peter Veitch, a nurse at Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia and moderator of the 980-member “X-SDA’s” Facebook group. Veitch said in a Facebook message, “My five years without God has me at a place where I am more concerned that people are ok. I wanted to cheer Ryan on for team atheism but I was more interested that he make an honest conclusion himself. I wanted him to be…OK.”
Handling the Ryan Bell story has been more difficult for the Adventist denomination, both on the local and global levels. The longtime Hollywood Church member referenced above noted the difficult spot into which Ryan’s story places the congregation:
“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?”
For the broader Adventist denomination the most honest response came from the satirical website “Barely Adventist,” who wrote “Adventists cancel Welcome Back party for Year Without God Ex-Pastor, Ryan Bell.”
Adventism’s flagship journal, the Adventist Review, outsourced its response to Don Mackintosh, a spiritual counselor for the Nedley Depression Program and director of Weimar College’s NEWSTART Global. Ironically, Ryan started his Adventist education at Weimar over twenty years ago. Mackintosh wrote a painful Op-Ed suggesting Ryan Bell might be clinically depressed, talking about a “give me” attitude, and expressing concern for all those who, “like Bell, become confused when they attempt to intellectually grapple with ‘reality’ through the reading of uninspired notions of truth and worldview.”
“I feel so cared for,” Ryan wrote in a Facebook post linking to the Review article.
For Matthew Burdette, a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen who attended services at the Hollywood Church while an undergrad at La Sierra University, the “crisis” of Ryan Bell’s deconversion should serve as a wakeup call to the Adventist Church.
“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) or a common vision of mission and ministry.”
Burdette feels it would be a mistake for the church to focus on Ryan Bell. “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. 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.”
In an email message, Matthew Burdette talked about an intellectual crisis in the Adventist Church that he felt paved the way for Ryan Bell’s ultimate departure. Paradoxically, many conservative Adventists with whom I’ve spoken feel that it is too much “intellectualism” that makes liberal Adventists leave. A stark dividing line between liberal and conservative Adventists is willingness to seriously entertain the idea that God may not exist. For conservatives, even asking the question is anathema because of where it might lead. “Look at Ryan Bell,” I can almost hear someone say.
“Do you think atheism is inevitable,” Ryan asked me. We huddled in the carport beneath the sign reading, “PATH” in large letters on that rainy December evening in L.A. I thought about the skeptical former Adventists who left the faith long before Ryan’s Year Without God. I also thought about my many Adventist colleagues and friends who live the socratic, examined life, willing to consider the possibility that God does not exist, but who have followed a different path.
It’s an interesting question.
You may also be interested in:
At The End of his Year Without God, Ryan Bell Speaks Out, an exclusive, in-depth conversation with Ryan Bell.
Former Adventists Speak About Ryan Bell’s Year Without God, statements from others who have left the Adventist Church.
Current and Former Hollywood Church Attendees Speak About Ryan Bell, extended comments from Ryan Bell’s former parishioners.
Jared Wright is managing editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.