While I’m no stranger to controversy, I don’t seek it out. Thus, I have put off writing this post for years now, as I’ve been a bit timid about saying “out loud” what’s been happening in my head for the past four years. Anytime we talk about Faith, things get messy; it’s easy to be misunderstood. And in the words of one of my favorite professors back in the day, “I hate to be misunderstood.” #ShitBarrettSaid
Exit: The Courage to ask questions
Looking back, I can see that I was heading toward an exit from Evangelicalism for quite a while, certainly from 2010 on, as I was getting fed up with the legalism of the PCA and the general sexism of Evangelicalism in general long before that. I could stand to write detailed discussions of both, but the two posts I cite here are a decent overview of my thinking as it’s progressed.
I was raised in Christian Fundamentalism, meaning that the churches my family attended — when they attended (see the Backstory series on my blog, especially here, for more on how my parents nearly left church entirely after my dad was crucified for marrying a divorced woman) — were very conservative in social mores, adhered to a brutally literal interpretation of Scripture, and valued both individual experience and authoritarian power structures (yes, the irony is apparent to me as well). I went to a Fundamentalist college for undergraduate (BJU) and earned a graduate degree in Bible and theology.
Eventually, I ended up in the PCA for a teaching career (which I enjoyed) and a masters in Ed from Covenant (one of the best things about my life). My participation in PCA churches ended abruptly in 2016 when events unfolded at my church that certainly surprised me.
And so here I am, 4 years on. Where am I now? Glad you asked.
What is “Exvangelical” and why I use the term
I think many people who are still happily nestled in the cozy swaddle of a church tradition misunderstand what #Exvangelical means as a movement (or a hashtag). I hash it because it’s a topic you can follow on Twitter or Facebook . The people who use the label range from folks whose hearts ache for another church home to those who have deconverted entirely.
I think the wide umbrella can lead people still inside the Evangelical bubble to assume the worldview perspective of one member applies to all. Perhaps it is part of the same disease that drives anyone seeking epistemological certainty to assume that all others need the same certainty. We do not.
So please let me define myself clearly: I am a Christian, happily adherent to the historic creeds of the Church, including the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed.
I am Protestant rather than Catholic; I have zero desire to return to Papa’s arms and find the RCC in general to be a problematic organization, though it does a lot of good for people who are poor or marginalized, and Pope Francis in particular has done a lot of good.
What I am not is someone who wants to find a home among Evangelical beliefs. It’s hard to define Evangelicalism but most people go with an adherence to a literal hermeneutic for the Bible, an emphasis on the Gospel and evangelism in general, and a focus on individual experiences of conversation and faith.
Jonathan Merritt, writing in The Atlantic, does a good job of reviewing the standard definitions and settling on the four elements of historian David Bennington’s definition:
- a high regard for the Bible (and I would argue that this needs to include an emphasis on verbal, plenary inspiration);
- putting the death of Christ in the center of the Gospel message (I think this moves out other important ideas, such as the Gospel’s effect on social norms);
- an emphasis on conversion as a necessary experience (me: and one that people can usually remember, unless you’re swimming in one of the Reformed / Presbyterian rivers), and
- political or social action (but I would qualify that this is very selective, as only certain causes are ok to promote).
Jonathan Merritt, Defining Evangelical, The Atlantic 2015
So am I saying I deny the Bible or the centrality of the cross or the need for conversion? No.
My gripe with Evangelicalism is that the movement’s archetypal creed unbalances the architecture of Christian belief on the whole, emphasizing the individual and their experiences so much that the overall community of faith is sacrificed.
Further — The need for certainty among Evangelicals robs them of any ability to grasp nuance or to live within the uneasy tension of uncertainty, to allow some beliefs to be complex or messy.
And my biggest gripe with Evangelicalism arises out of their lust for political power, striving to grip the Republican Party and turn it to their theocratic purpose. A “city on a hill” idol which justifies all manner of sins. *gestures at the entire Trump presidency*
For example, the need to “disprove evolution” for Evangelicals to prove they aren’t irrelevant or ignorant has turned into a crazy-town clown circus of “creation science” that’s resulted in Ken Ham building an ark in Kentucky to teach people that only one scientific interpretation of the fossil record makes sense. Cut to me in 2017 at the Field Museum in Chicago, mouth agape as I saw with my own eyes fossils for creatures that clearly look like someone threw a whale, a porcupine, and a pitchfork into a blender to make a land mammal. The creation “science’ I had been fed for the first 25 years of my life is mostly bullshit, built to protect a small group of preachers’ egos from feeling bruised by “attacks” of evolution science. Look, I think the “billions of years” dating techniques may be a stretch and I roll my eyes at people who build certainty out of scraps. But evolutionary biologists are no crazier than preachers building literal arks in Kentucky to make sure their followers believe the world is only 6,000 years old. And the biologists actually have evidence.
But really, the (literal) elephant in the room here is the Trump presidency. It’s probably not a coincidence that 2016 was both the year he was elected and the year that I just … stopped going to my Evangelical church. I didn’t realize I’d had enough and was “done” at the time, until it happened. Around the same time, Evangelicals turned out in droves to vote for Trump, setting us up for four years of xenophobia, racism, and grifting.
To watch a con-man, a charlatan, a buffoon, a moron (I refuse to believe Trump is skilled or intelligent; his lizard brain keeps his body moving so it can act on his psychopathic narcissism) so capture the hearts and minds of people who claim to follow Christ was….distressing. Depressing. Tragic. Infuriating.
The rear-view mirror offers perspective
After four years out of the fog of the Christian bubble, I’ve noticed that I can see a bit more clearly than I could even then of what a mess Evangelicalism, as its lived out by its churches, has made of the Gospel (as I understand it and as most Christians around the world understand it). The rear-view mirror sometimes gives a perspective we cannot get any other way.
Christianity, at least in the Evangelical stream I’ve been in, is incredibly tribal. You hear only what the tribe hears. You watch the same media, you listen to a lot of the same music or podcasts, you read trendy book by the popular authors on parenting or discipleship or being holy or whatever. It’s a quite narrow slice of human existence, and the bubble makes sure its members never hear marginalized voices.
It also normalizes practices that are just kind of weird. I remember thinking a lot about “worship culture” after attending a Hillsong concert (maybe in 2015?). There was all this social pressure to express worship in a particular way physically and to “feel” moved emotionally. I often have physical and emotional responses during worship, but the whole experience felt like it was crafted to make people do that. It was …manipulative? Now I kind of cringe at Christian media in general; most of it is just demonstrably poor. When your audience is tiny and captive, they don’t realize how cringey it is.
Even when I was happiest in my PCA church, I knew that adult who wasn’t a happily married parent was on the outs. We talked about “the problem” collectively; everybody was happy to “discuss” whether we had enough “singles” to have a “singles ministry” or complain about how childless people never wanted to take nursery duty. (Raises hand in confession: I hated working in the nursery; I am way better with teenagers and really, that’s where I belong. Babies are sweet and adorable, and for that reason, I should not be in charge of them.)
God forbid that someone be gay or queer or bicurious. God forbid they express doubts about dearly held Christian truths. God forbid they be poor, too poor to do the “normal” things that everyone else at church could do, like drop $300 to send their kids to RUF camp each summer or skiing in January. God forbid they be homeless or divorced. God forbid they be a childless woman, as only motherhood raises a woman to her highest status in the Evangelical church.
The intellectual isolation of Evangelical Christianity means that most of them are not only ill-prepared to confront many of our biggest questions as a society (trans rights, climate change, confronting systemic racism), but also the folks in the pew hardly ever have a chance to meet someone who isn’t just like them without defining that person as a mission field to be evangelized rather than a human to be loved.
I have met so many lovely people since I left the bubble, and my life is 100x richer for it. I don’t “agree” with everyone I’m friends with — why is that even a question? (Unless you’re dedicated to misusing that proverb about “iron sharpening iron.”) But I wouldn’t go back to the bubble for anything.
The people who have taken the most care of me and my husband in this hellscape of 2020 are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic. ….Let that sink in for a moment, dear Christian.
I’m not hyperbolizing; I can do the math. Nearly everyone I knew at church interact with me only if they have to — and that’s fine. I didn’t expect anything different. Adult friendships are hard; as soon as your common element evaporates, most adult friendships fall apart as well. Only a rare few will survive time and distance. But … some of those lost friendships do still sting. A few people surprised me with their brittleness, their inability to be in the same square footage as someone like me who — in the grand scheme of things — believes probably 80% of the same things they do, but that other 20% is the kicker, I guess.
The people we spend time around these days were deeply harmed by church and walked away from it. I didn’t seek out a crowd of ex-church people; it’s just happened that way; they are our friends who decided to stick around once the dust settled. The people who are fine with us figuring out what it means to follow God in a complex world are mostly people who themselves have decided that they don’t care what that answer is (for themselves or anyone else).
If that doesn’t expose the rot within the core of Evangelical faith, I don’t know what else does.
About sex, women, and power
I had already been kicking against the misogyny and sexism of Evangelicalism years before I left the movement, but I have been surprised by the clarity I have now when I can look back at my experiences with more perspective.
The Church has a #metoo movement coming, and any Protestant who threw rocks at the Roman Catholic house for priestly pedophilia should put their rocks down and clean up their own messes first. You might want to read the Houston Chronicle series, for example.
The power differentials, the marginalization of women, the abuses of power: they’re so clear now that I’m out. I may have written about this on here already, but I am absolutely convinced now that any place women are excluded from positions of leadership, women are in grave danger of being abused or exploited. It does not matter how well-intentioned the patriarchy is; the patriarchy harms women and men both.
To make this more palatable to any (long suffering) Evangelical reading my post: You don’t have to install a woman as pastor to give women true leadership authority in church. You can begin by allowing them to be elders or deacons; you can invite 50/50 parity in all decision committees; you can give women official positions of responsibility above “Nursery Director” or other “helper” roles which are entirely coded according to traditional gender norms.
The inability of conservative Christianity to offer anything to LGBTQ+ folks beyond “God kinda loves you, I guess, but He sure hates what you might potentially do with your sex organs” generated the first crack in my relationship with Evangelicalism. If you ask someone under 30 why they aren’t in church, I’d bet a dollar they will list either Trump, racism, or intolerance of gay people. They’re not wrong.
I can’t explain how to reconcile the Bible (what the words say on the page) with what I think the Gospel says about how we love God and others, and how the law of love should be enough to anchor LGBTQ+ believers in the Church until we collectively get it sorted out. When I decided I was ok with the cognitive dissonance, it opened the door to me realizing a lot of Christians out there (outside Evangelicalism) haven’t painted themselves into this awful corner.
With clearer vision, I have room in my head and in my heart to learn the lessons I need to learn about cultural competency, about being an anti-racist, about loving my neighbor for real. I can see a holistic connection between the Gospel and social movements working to turn back systemic racism or to help reform American immigration laws (what a mess!).
Evangelicals lost their souls when they turned their energies toward becoming the “moral majority” running America. Every inch toward power has moved them further from what the Gospel actually calls us to do.
Coart said wryly earlier this year, “Perhaps training people to believe in several crucial concepts they cannot actually see because no physical evidence exists may have been a mistake.” Faith should not mean naïveté. But here we are in America at the close of 2020 with Christians screaming that Trump has actually won an election that he lost by millions of votes. And the world laughs.
Where to go from here
I’m speaking personally. I do miss the rituals of church, of worshiping in a space with other believers. I wouldn’t be inside a church right now regardless; this Covid-19 season (I haven’t even talked about that yet!) ought to have us all home, though Christians have earned themselves quite a few black eyes in recent months with complaints about “religious freedom” revealing their lack of love for anyone but themselves. But I digress.
I might look for a church in 2021, or I might not. I don’t want to be the only one of the two of us hauling off on Sunday mornings, so there’s that. Trying to find a church is like the worst of dating with the worst of everything else social; it’s the anxiety of meeting strangers mixed with feeling the social pressure of people being so excited when someone visits that the pressure to come back pushes me away from even starting.
But we’ll see. If I decide to go on the hunt, I’ll start with mainline denominations where I already know they have a reputation for kindness and for doing good work in our community. I’m not joining another “team” lightly.
I don’t have a scintillating conclusion to this post. But it felt good to put some things down where I can read them again later. And perhaps there are others on this path. Keep walking, friend. You will come out ok on the other side. There’s life after you leave a tribe.
People still comment sometimes. 🙂
I can identify with much of what you shared here, as well as the journey to get there: it seems we were both on similar journeys since the last time we interacted, a horizon neither of us knew.
In response to your conclusion, I can only share what I am doing: seeking to gather and form groups of people who have also had an awakening over the last several years. Not a new church in a strip-mall somewhere, or even a “home-based church”, but reaching out to others and asking them if they want to get together to discuss what each is seeing and hearing, and how best to respond to that. Online is a poor substitute for this kind of gathering (unless everyone in your social media group is also located in the same community, and I suspect many will be craving some offline interaction once the storm abates!). Offline interaction involves a more authentic conversation if the tone is set right, and includes numerous physical, mental, and spiritually healthy components, much of which science has yet to properly identify.
In summary, maybe it’s not the institutional gathering you miss so much, but the social interaction with others dedicated to loving God, one that is so vital to our wellbeing? Even if you have this, there are many who do not (in one survey, 50% of respondents did not have even one friend to confide too, and that was before the events of Covid). Just food for thought – thanks for sharing!
I love this, Don. I find myself in a similar situation of trying to connect people who are at points of their journey that might do well to know one another.
I would 10/10 rather have people to meet with and discuss, do life together, whatever than look for a “formal” church at this point. I am blessed with several lovely people in my life who can help me feel connected to humanity. Pandemic living stripped that down to the bones, though.