This Minnesota-based preacher left the church and found God in the woods

A theologian and former pastor, Tony Jones doesn’t go to church anymore. His drifting away from the pews and into the woods is part of a greater migration in modern American life.

Jones, of Edina, is one of the so-called “nones,” those 28% of adults who claim no religious affiliation. They might be atheists or agnostics, but most, like Jones, believe in a higher power. They seek the divine in ways other than attending church, synagogue, mosque or temple. And although they are not praying five times a day or joining Bible study, most are not hostile toward religion, according to Pew Research Center.

For Jones, excursions into the outdoors after a long and heavy personal road transformed him and set him on a new spiritual path. He just authored a memoir about his journey to find meaning in the outdoors, called “The God of Wild Places.” He also in the midst of co-leading a national study that will explore how the religiously unaffiliated are searching for connection.

Here’s an excerpt of my chat with Jones, edited for length and clarity:

Q: What caused you to leave the church?

A: While the church is pretty good at taking care of broken people, the church is decidedly not good at taking care of broken pastors. When my life went ass over teakettle, first in 2008 with my divorce, and then in 2015 with a custody fight for my kids that I eventually won, I was kind of a C-list — maybe at times a B-list — celebrity pastor. I was writing books and flying around the world, preaching at big churches, and getting quoted in the New York Times. But when my life went sideways, a lot of church people completely abandoned me. They had no idea what to do with a pastor who was in a custody fight with his ex-wife. I get the irony of a person in my position and privilege saying this, but as a cis, straight white man who lives in Edina, the church did not feel like a safe place to me.

Q: You decided you wanted to be a minister in the seventh grade. How do you think about that time in your life and what drew you to religion?

The quest for God and truth is so important to adolescence — to try to figure out your place in the universe. God was very real to me. The church also encouraged me in leadership. Edina can be kind of a tough place to grow up if you’re not good-looking and athletic. I was a middle-of-the-road kid. But in church, I was special. They encouraged me to teach Sunday school and plan summer camp. They put wind in my sails.

Q: What changed?

I went on my first duck hunt when I was about 30. The impetus for that was I was full of rage. I was an angry person in a toxic marriage. One night at a youth committee meeting filled with sweet parents who have kids in youth group, I blew up. I just started screaming at them. These two parents walked me to my car, and one of them, Doug, told me he had been through anger management and took me under his wing. He mentored me when I was a young man, a brand-new father and a young pastor at this church. And he invited me to go duck hunting with him.

Q: How did that transform you?

We were way up in the Lake of the Woods in Ontario and ended up getting lost in the storm. It was super-freaking scary. This is pre-cellphone. We didn’t have GPS. We were in a little duck boat with two dogs. He’s running the outboard motor in back. It’s dark, the fog has come in and it’s snowing. But here’s what’s crazy: I had this incredible sense of peace that I didn’t have at home or in church. About 10 years later, at age 40, things were really coming apart. Church was a place of right angles, rights and wrongs, and orderly. When I went outdoors, it was gorgeous, messy and chaotic — just like my life.

Q: Why are so many people leaving organized religion?

Among my kids’ generation, Gen Z, 43% are nones. That’s unprecedented in the history of the United States. Organized religion is dying in a precipitous manner. One reason is obviously science. For the vast majority of human history, everything was enchanted. Why did the tornado rip through Oklahoma the other day? “Well, the gods must be angry with us.” It’s almost silly to tell young people today that they should pray for good weather or to do well on a test next week. They know the world doesn’t work like that. We don’t give credit to angels and demons for stuff that happens to us.

Q: How do scandals such as clergy sexual abuse fit into people’s disillusionment?

People see all the flaws in organized religion because they can’t be hidden anymore. We live in a cynical age where the church falls into yet another big monolithic institution that people are very jaded about.

Q: What do you want to know most about the nones?

We’re surveying 15,000 nones, which will give us unprecedented insight. What we’re really interested in is how are they getting their spiritual needs met when they’re not part of organized religion. I don’t have the data yet, but I assume finding spiritual fulfillment in nature is going to be one of the top responses. I think others will probably be like my wife and say New Age, like tarot cards and meditation. I think there will be others who are finding it in psychedelics.

Q: What would you say to those, like myself, who aren’t yearning for spiritual fulfillment?

It’s not universal. When you’re raising kids and you have a full-time job and a marriage and you’re running soccer games, you’re just trying to get your head above water. But there is a plurality of people who are interested in finding out more. Where do I fit? Is there a bigger force? I’m in my 50s, where I think it’s more natural to be reflective. I buried my dad five years ago, and I read the Sunday obituaries every Sunday. There are always dudes my age in the obituaries, and I know that’s coming for me, too.