Tag Archives: Church

Exit: The heart must sing | Music in the Evangelical church

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here


You want to know a secret?

Although I eye-roll rather hard at pretty much all “Christian” media for its moralism and general cheesiness, sometimes when I’m in the car alone I’ll crank up the local praise & worship station and – if I actually recognize anything – sing along.

*gasp* I know right? lol


Music: Let the people sing

People who know me know that I’m really into music. I sing, I play the piano, I pretend to want to put in the work to learn to play the guitar, I listen to music from all genres all the time. But if you ask me what category of musician I am, I have to answer “church musician.” It’s been the heart and soul of my musical career.

Since I was a kid, one of my primary acts of service has been music for worship. As a little fundamentalist, I banged out (too loud) piano solos as offertories or “special music.” I started playing the piano for chapel singing in middle school and never really stopped. I learned to sing in school choirs and sang in church choirs from age 13 until my adult church stopped having choirs when I was in my 30s. (Casualty of the worship wars.)

For over 10 years I was a primary musician at my church, usually at the piano and – if it was the “contemporary worship service,” singing a strong alto line at the same time.  I can reconstruct nearly anything from a string of lyrics and a set of chords.

And this is perhaps the thing I miss most about leaving church.


Nobody sings like Christians

There’s something powerful about corporate worship, something no other sector of Western culture can even begin to approach.

Think about it: Aside from screaming lyrics at a live concert or singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, when do Americans sing together?

I’ll wait.

The art of corporate singing is dead in our culture, aside from formal civic chorales. Our folk culture no longer prioritizes singing together a set of common songs that might unite us across our differences.  Well, aside from Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne.  Even then, people mumble and laugh nervously and get it over with (unless they’re New Years Eve drunk enough not to care).

I’m not saying music is irrelevant — clearly, the American music industry is huge and thriving. (Whether the current pop stuff is good is a totally different argument, but I’ll abstain.)

A lot of the “belt it out with a bunch of other people who know the same song” is gone from American life, and we’re the poorer for it. The people who come together to SING are, primarily, Christians.  And they do it weekly.

Granted, the hard Right within Christianity hates the modern worship music for replacing the complex beauty of hymn text with what they deem to be inferior, repetitive mush.  And the modern worship folks find a lot of hymn tunes to be pretty terrible and hard to sing using amplified instruments (which are almost a requirement in a large hall).  Honestly, I think both sides are right to an extent. And I enjoyed the way my PCA church blended old and new.

I’m afraid I’ll never experience anything like this again.


Did you know you can sing “Softly and Tenderly” to the tune of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?    You can also sing “Angels We Have Heard On High” to “Yellow Submarine,” but it’s such an earworm that I’d never suggest it to anyone lest you hate me forever.


Leading worship: It’s a dance

What’s it like to lead worship rather than participating in it? I can speak only to my own experiences.

Significantly, there was a weight, a deep sense of responsibility about playing well because the music itself was an offering to God. Worship leaders are simultaneously proud of and protective of and touchy about their place in the pecking order of ministers.

Music ministers grab onto that passage in Chronicles where musicians are labeled as part of the priesthood. They cling to the passage in Psalms about singing a new song to the Lord; the Nehemiah passage about God rejoicing over us with singing; the Ephesians 5 verses the command believers to sing to one another.  Good musicians hate bad musicianship (for good reasons), so it’s natural to elevate the role of music in worship, and speak about it in weighty terms.

Looking back, I honor the earnestness of this and recognize the value of taking leadership seriously.  Yet I hesitate to laud the feelings of guilt and responsibility that seemed to drive many worship leaders into constantly doubting their own motives or quality of work. Christianity can be a very guilt-driven place. Who gets to be on stage? Who determines when the worship leaders are spiritual enough?

Those who bear the worst of this guilt are the souls who question their motives at every turn, blazing a hot light into every corner of their heart to find any hidden sin or dirt or ambition or pride. It’s hard to be a church musician in a milieu where acknowledging your talent is seen as sinful and thankless.  It’s even harder when you’ve been trained by the church to feel guilty if you ever do anything but “give God the glory.”

By raising worship to the level of preaching – and I’m not saying this is wrong; I think the exegesis may support it – we force worship leaders into the same toxic patterns that plague Evangelical pastors in general. We made so much of leaders. They had to be “special” (otherwise, why pay a pastor if anyone could do his job?). By definition this comes with a lot of pressure and expectations.

Should we be expecting worship leaders to earn a masters or D.Min. in worship ministry? Should musicians be church-grown instead? I’m honestly asking.  The church runs like a business more than anything else in America, and capitalist theories of management aren’t necessarily congruous with biblical norms.

worship music piano


How the music gets made

The responsibility of worship leading aside, (speaking now of myself) I was always running a series of parallel processes in my brain when I joined the worship band each week for rehearsal and then service. As an ensemble musician, you’re constantly listening for how your sound fits or clashes with the group. (Or you should be.) This ‘meta’ is what differentiates an outstanding worship band from a mediocre one. And at NCC, when we were all “on,” we were REALLY good.  I’m proud of that.

I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like this camaraderie again.

At any given moment on stage, I’d say 50% of my brain was occupied with the physical and mental work of producing the right notes at the right time in the right places. The other 50% was spit between paying attention to the group sound and paying attention to everything else about the experience: the congregation’s response (or lack of it), my own emotions, the joy or passion or beauty of the music itself.

Occasionally, everything just clicked and I floated out of my own body on the waves of sound, on the waves of emotion and joy and Jesus and feels and ….

Was this the Holy Spirit? Was this spiritual ecstasy? Does Lady Gaga feel the same way in the middle of a concert when suddenly every note is right in a way it wasn’t 10 minutes ago?  If I feel a shade of the same tingle when Coldplay’s “Something Like This” comes on the radio, does that mean God inhabits the joy of all music, or that the elusive moment of ecstasy I experienced on stage from time to time is merely an outcome of playing music live?

I don’t know. I just know that I really miss it. With my whole heart.


The CCM elephant

Look, I fully acknowledge that Christian music has a serious problem. Well, several.  For one, many of the CCM tunes are just shit. They really are.  Four chords, that’s it. Teach someone D A G Bm on a guitar and they can immediately play pretty much anything on the radio right now.   Simplest cadences in the world.  Too much of that in one service, and I’d have to bang my head on the piano lid till the pain gave me something to keep me interested.

Despite all that simplicity, many of the worship song melodies are nearly unsingable by the average person. The verse (so-called) wanders around using a few notes in a dull chant-like way, or leaps like a frightened rabbit around the scale. The songs always follow the same damn form: Intro / Verse 1 /  Chorus / Verse 2 / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outro.  You hear it on the radio every day, in any pop music genre. I get it, the format works. But let’s be honest: at best, people might learn to sing the chorus. The verse is always a mumble-fest.

My guilty pleasure might be scanning our 3 CCM stations for tunes when I’m driving alone, but that doesn’t mean I find things I want to sing along with very often. When I had a 30 minute commute, I used to put in an earbud and play some of my favorites off my iPhone so I could sing along.

Christianity is keeping corporate singing alive, and at times they’re doing it with heart and soul and skill.  Depending on your personal music tastes, you can find something to sing with.  But there’s also a sea of mediocrity out there — of knock-off pop boy bands, of wanna-be Demi Levatos crooning while wearing more modest blouses to avoid alienating their audience, of 30-somethings trying desperately to be hip, of indie musicians squeezing so much earnest belief into their songs that it makes my teeth hurt.

Sing a new song

To prove that I’m not just an ass, here’s a short list of recent worship songs I think nearly anyone can get behind. They’re good arrangements that sing well, tunes that anyone can learn to sing.

Look, the music  you listen to in the car or at your picnic probably isn’t the same music that’s going to work for a worship service. At NCC we built these songs out with a full band and gave them a lot of energy without being obnoxious. But they’re also good with a single piano or guitar. The tunes themselves are very singable and I can lift my voice and sing happily anytime I hear them.

If you’re hip and cool with the CCM charts, you’ll laugh at how old these are. But I believe most songs ned a few years under their belts before we’ll know for sure they can stick.

I hate that one’s hymnody is an outgrowth of one’s tribe. If you’re from a different tribe than me, chances are we’ll have only a very few songs in common: Amazing Grace, the doxology.  Maybe Heaven has huge singalongs and everyone somehow loves all the songs chosen. Or maybe in heaven, with sinless hearts, we will enjoy music as the simple offering that it is, instead of some deep theological / political statement about Big Important Things. We’ll simply love it for the beauty that it provides, a channel for worship.


If we can pray to God, we can sing to God

I don’t know how many Protestants realize that we owe much to John Calvin for making sure that hymnody stayed in the hands of the congregation. As debates raged about what God does or doesn’t permit in worship, church leaders in the nascent Protestant movement were taking a pretty hard line (at least in Calvin’s circles; Luther was waaaay more chill about some of these things) about not allowing anything into worship that God Himself hadn’t expressly commanded.

Calvin famously derived that the Scripture celebrates believers praying to God in their own words. To him, singing to God fell into the same category. Thus, if prayers were ok, congregational singing had to be ok too.  *whew*  I can’t even imagine how much I would’ve hated church if there had been no corporate singing.  I’m going to give Calvin a huge hug in heaven if I see him. I’m not sure how that works. Can I get a punch list or something?

Calvin even hired a guy to write some fantastic, fun, syncopated tunes for his psalter (hymn texts drawn from the psalms). He wasn’t so much into letting people sing just anything, mind you, but he wanted the psalms sung with joy and beauty.  If you think hymn tunes are boring, don’t blame Calvin or Luther (who happily took pop tunes for his poetry, having none of Calvin’s qualms about any of this).  Blame the English Protestants, who had to make sure no one was having any fun ever. Who ironed out all the great syncopation in the Geneva tunes? The English. *sigh*   Would you believe the “doxology” (tune: Old Hundreth) was originally gloriously bouncy and happy?  Yup.  All the way back to the 16th century…. until the English church got hold of it, stripped it down, and then shipped it to America with the Puritans or Pilgrims.

I’m simplifying here, so don’t come at me if you’re a hymnologist. But my Church Hymnody course in undergrad was one of the best in my program, and I’ve thanked Calvin ever since for helping me get through every church service ever.

church music women
Photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash

Confession:  I just can’t do a church with poor music. I don’t mean “small church, zero talent, so Martha plays on Sundays and we’re thankful for her.”  You go, Martha. I don’t want to attend your church, honestly, but I appreciate your service.

No, I’m talking big churches with the means to do music well, but it’s boring. Or badly skilled. But mostly just….dull.  Trying too hard to be either hip or traditional.  *sighs*  That goes for the megachurch concert approach too. Dude. If I wanted someone to blast my ears with big power chords and soaring tunes, I’d follow U2 around for their world tours and throw in a few shows from every other famous band ever.

Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t know.

It’s my curse. I know it’s possible to do joyful, energetic, interesting worship services that invites everyone to sing, and I’ve got zero interest in doing church without it.

But honestly, one of the things that’s kept me from heading out on a scouting expedition to find a new church is that I can’t bring myself to mumble through a pile of songs I’ve never heard accompanied by a wailing guitar, an earnest 25-year-old on an acoustic, or a somber organ.

The music thing hits really close to home for me, and I’m going to be a recovering church musician for a long, long time.


Confessions of a recovering church musician

  • I stayed at my Evangelical church way longer than I “fit” there because I truly enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow musicians. We played well together. They were my band peeps, and I loved them for it. Genuinely.  I miss them right now, and writing this post makes me sad.  Giving my music to the church week after week helped keep me connected to the community of faith.
  • I’m also sad because, when the end came, it came because I wasn’t welcome back to their stage.  I don’t blame them, since I think by that point everyone could tell I wasn’t in that camp anymore. But it’s a painfully Evangelical thing to rob someone of a gift they love to give because the Evangelical no longer agrees with the gift-giver.
  • When I can’t handle the suffocating blanket of organized religion, I can sing to God. I can give Him my songs.  I can play for Him. I can play TO Him.
  • America really ought to get back into the corporate music thing. I guess we’re going to need something newer than Stephen Foster songs. Are the Beatles enough?
  • I haven’t touched a piano since July 2016, the last time I played for corporate worship at NCC. Not even to play for weddings. Like everything else in Evangelicalism, that too is tribal. When you’re out, you’re really and fully out.
  • I sense how this is deeply and personally tragic, like someone knocked me out and amputated a limb without asking first. But now that it’s gone, I cannot drum up any interest in going back to the grind of rehearsals and early Sunday mornings. I have zero desire to hire on as an underpaid musician at a church of any flavor.  And believe me, they are ALL underpaid.
  • If you’re in a church somewhere, and you’re reading this, and your church musician(s) are good at what they do, please make sure they get compensated somehow. Please. Give them a Christmas bonus. Argue for them to get a monthly stipend or a quarterly perk. Church musicians are hardworking people, and music is expensive.

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here

Exit: Get used to change

*Part of a series that started here*

I don’t know that my journey makes a lot of sense apart from a bit of context, so let me chronicle the “leavings” and upheavals that have marked my journey through Christianity.  Skim down to the conclusion at the bottom if you lose interest in the details. 

When I was still in single digits, my parents went through a messy exit from the first church I’d known, the one with the soft green pew fabric but hard linoleum floor. (Always fascinates me what elements “stick” in a memory. I’ve always got color.)  Western PA had a large number of non-Baptist Independent Fundamental churches.  I’m going to write a side note about that in a minute.

My first church had a cool name (The Church of the Open Door) and a pretty, simple building with a traditional steeple and a basement for Sunday School classes and one of those attendance/offering boards at the front.  It was the church my mom landed in when, tired and angry after divorcing her cheating husband in the late 1950s and striking out as a single mom long before that was ok to do, she found Jesus and got some IFnonB religion. (IFB = Independent Fundamental Baptist, the most common “flavor” of Fundy church out there, except that my church wasn’t Baptist, as I’ll get to in a minute).

I’ve written about this all before, so I will just summarize here. Because IFB teaching+American social mores aligned in the mutual condemnation of divorce, my parents were in trouble as soon as they tied the knot. My dad spent the remainder of his life angry and hurt that his brand new faith was immediately squashed by his pastor calling him an adulterer for marrying a divorced woman. The church folk banged on our door every Tuesday night as part of “weekly visitation” to try to get him to come to church. We used to turn off the lights and hide until they went away.  Social condemnation does weird things to people.

My parents finally said “Nope” and left that church when they realized that the condemnation would extend to me too. Conveniently in IFB churches, as long as you can put juuuuust enough distance between your old church and your new one, you can sort of start over at the new one. So we ended up at Mt Carmel Community Church, the church which also housed the Christian school I attended.

My dad rarely went. He felt judged and unwelcome. My mom went because I think she found a lot of good in it, and we got to do a few things together.  I have good memories of that church, overall.  I got married there. My dad walked me down the aisle, though I know he felt awkward about being thrust back into that world. My mom was dead (cancer) so I don’t know how she would have felt. But the Mt Carmel people were very kind to my parents when she was ill and dying, and I will always be thankful for that.

*****

About IFB and IFnonB: The history of Fundamentalism in America is complex and one’s mileage definitely varies based on the particular stream they landed in.  By the time I left Fundamentalism (around 2002), the Baptist stream had won pretty much everywhere except in a few pockets. Ohio had a strong non-denominational tradition among their “Bible” churches, for example, which managed to hold out against the Baptist juggxrnaut   Much more I could say, but that’ll have to be a post for a different day. 

Why does it matter?  Well, before the Internet, your experience of Christianity was very much mediated through your church and pastor. If your circle of Jesus said divorce was the ultra evil, that rock music was African sex beat trash, and that no self-respecting woman would be caught dead in pants — that circumscribed your experience. The Baptist flavor of Fundamentalism is 95% the same as non-Baptist Fundamentalism, but in my experience, there were a few critical differences. 

First, Independent Fundamental Baptist churches tended to follow a rigidly authoritarian and usually abusive structure of church leadership. An IFB pastor was an unassailable bulwark of unchallenged power….until he wasn’t. It was really feudal. The deacons could throw wrenches in a pastor’s “rule” over the church; a scandal could push him out; acrimony could lead to a congregation telling their pastor to move on.  I saw all of those things, either in my own church or in nearby churches.  But the non-Baptist IF churches included Bible Methodists, Bible Presbyterians and Free Presbyterians, “Bible” churches (independent and Fundamental churches who are NOT Baptist), and others.  They tended to be joined to loose affiliations that provided some counterbalance to a pastor’s monarchy, and some (like the Presbyterians) persisted in following elder-rule despite that being anathema to the Baptists.  Other differences: Baptist churches required baptism by immersion, usually by that church’s pastor, for church membership, and tended to beat a Baptist history (usually unfounded bullshit) drum so hard it gives me a headache just to think of it. Oh, and suffocating, rampant God-and-countryism. The whole pile of beliefs is laughable, folks. If you need a list, this one will do:  I heard every single thing on that list at some point.  

Second, I wasn’t raised with the typical IFB, completely narrow-minded intellectual straightjacket thanks to being in a non-Baptist church. I had exposure to different mini-views within our wider circle of churches.  We had preachers from across the Fundy landscape visit our church monthly, more than was typical for most IFB churches.  I didn’t know that IFB churches were so nasty about being closed-minded until I went to college and saw how some of my classmates reacted when I espoused a slightly different view. 

All that to say: I wasn’t raised Baptist, and I refused to call myself one when I attended a truly IFB church in Greenville. My husband told me that was totally illogical to be a member of a Baptist church and refuse the label, but I didn’t budge. The IFB people were a level of crazy I couldn’t be part of.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I wasn’t willing to go that far. I attended Bob Jones University, which is officially non-denominational but practically 99% Baptist. But still — not in the name or the creed–not until I was leaving around 2002.

*****

My shift to a new church and world came with college. It took me a few years to find my place, but I genuinely loved college life and everything it brought to me intellectually and socially.

Bob Jones University is a complex topic for me. I’ll make that a separate post entirely. I’m gonna need time to unpack all that.

Sticking with a theme of churches and CHANGE…  I finally landed at Mt Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, headed by Dr. Mark Minnick.  For the IFB world, MCBC did me a lot of good:

  • MCBC made the earth-shattering decision to use the NASB Bible translation in public worship and for preaching. I can’t even begin to explain to non-Fundy people the rancor and hatred around the King James Version debates. It was worse than the American political discourse, if that tells you anything. MCBC could shift away from the KJV only because it was such a large and notable church in the BJU camp, and because Minnick had so much personal credibility.  It took him years to inch the church to this point. I learned a lot from that.
  • Minnick is a careful expositor. I can see now how there’s a downside to parsing single Greek verbs for 40 minutes and calling it a sermon. But it punched a button in my seminary-trained brain for precision, and I’m genuinely thankful for what I learned.
  • I’ve never seen a more careful and joyful building campaign / fundraising campaign.
  • MCBC proudly follows a more presbyterian structure for church leadership. It was still 100% male, but at least it’s run by a group not a single man.
  • The founding pastor’s wife was invited to the pulpit to speak to the wife of a ministerial candidate at his ordination. I can’t emphasize enough how shocking it was in the IFB to see any woman allowed to speak from the pulpit, and that offered me a tiny ray of hope as a woman that I might be allowed to use my brain and think my own thoughts.

Mt Calvary was a massive, formative influence in my intellectual life. But the dream shattered for me around 2000 — it’s a long story and involves the personal lives of some of my friends at the time, so I won’t share it on my blog. But I watched MCBC leadership make decisions that may have been well-intentioned, and fit within the logical paradigm of Fundamentalism, but they were wrong, and they hurt people I cared about.  The glass shattered, and I started to question everything. How can godly men be so blind to the harmful effects of their teaching or decisions? 

*****

Our move to Presbyterianism shocked me, honestly.  I was sitting at Sunday lunch with my husband, who was finishing up the coursework portion of his PhD in Old Testament Theology at the BJU seminary.  To put it mildly, experiencing IFB theology as a future minister is a whole other world of batshit crazy.  And Coart has zero tolerance for bullshit. He just does not bend to anyone’s strong feelings about things; he has to be convinced through good argumentation, verifiable facts, and evidence of good motives.

So I was a bit stunned when he said to me, “Lori, I think I might be a Presbyterian.”

At that time, we’d been married a couple years. The only things more shocking to come from his mouth would have been “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t want to be married to you anymore” or “I’m gay.”  Nothing less.

I remember being scared, wondering if we were about to lose everything and make a horrible mistake. See, I mentioned above that American Fundamentalism is overwhelmingly Baptist. And they aren’t kidding. If you aren’t in the Baptist club, you lose access to the halls of power nearly everywhere. There are a few exceptions (in parachurch organizations like mission boards, rescue missions, camps, and colleges), but Presbyterianism is barely a sliver among the IFB.  For Coart to tell me, in essence, I can’t play by the Baptist rules meant his ministry career would be either relegated to the absolute margins of an already marginalized group, or non-existent.

We spent much of that year on a “walkabout” to visit a wide variety of churches, both Evangelical and beyond.  It was healthy and invigorating. I recommend that everyone do this at least once every decade — go visit every other flavor of church in your town. It’s good to see what the Body of Christ looks like, whether you agree with those people or not. 

I think, looking back, that Coart had already seen the cracks in the IFB theology and the mental backflips required by his seminary professors to keep the house of cards standing. The Bible just doesn’t back up the Dispensational, Fundamentalist viewpoints.  He was being slowly convinced through his Bible study that the correct approach was Reformed theology.  And the IFB folks *hate* Reformed theology.

That moment over Sunday dinner was the beginning of the end of our days in Fundamentalism. Within a year, we were wondering when it would be time to leave. By the fall of 2001, we got our answer.

*****

We came to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) because a friend asked us to come teach in his school.  Really. That’s how I ended up in the classroom for 10 years — probably the most influential decision I ever made. And how we ended up at our church, where I was an integral part of the music team for more than a decade. Of all the things I left at NCC, the music ministry is the thing I miss the absolute most. It’s left a gaping hole. I haven’t touched a piano in 2 years.

Deciding to leave Fundamentalism and deciding to join the PCA were two equally grueling decisions.  Leaving the Fundy world meant all of our networking contacts would be irrelevant. You can’t play for the other team in any way and expect to be part of the Fundy world.  I still have the letter Minnick wrote Coart, personally, to express how disappointed he was in Coart to abandon his faith. Within a year, Bob Jones was on the verge of expelling him from his PhD program (he was in the dissertation stage) because we were no longer Fundamentalists. So he walked away from 90 credit hours of coursework.  (BJU was unaccredited, so…. not really a loss once we got into the “real world” and realized unaccredited degrees were worth absolutely nothing outside of the bubble of Fundamentalism. Still hurt a bit though.)

But the didn’t mean the PCA was right for us.  We came to the PCA because it was Reformed, because it followed the presbyterian structure for church government (we’d seen enough horror stories of the IFB authoritarianism), and because it is quite conservative in faith and practice.  I still had to go through a lot of soul-searching to be ok with paedobaptism, Reformed soteriology, and drums in worship music.

In other words, we were willing to join the PCA because it wasn’t all that big a step to the left from Fundamentalism…..but it was big enough to break all of our connections to Fundamentalism, for sure.

Now, to be fair: The PCA “gets” Grace much more than the IFB churches do.  It’s where I read Michael Horton’s wonderful book Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, which helped rescue me from the guilt-driven Christianity I’d learned growing up and had reinforced at Bob Jones.

But the PCA is still very much bound up into propositional truth > heart and belief; it’s tribal as hell with plenty of nasty infighting; it worships its theological definitions and Reformed theology in ways that I find deeply troubling.  A lot of what is wrong about Fundamentalism and about Evangelicalism in general is embodied in my PCA experience.  But if I’d joined a Southern Baptist church or a Sovereign Grace congregation or NewSpring or any other mainline Evangelical church, I’d be writing a lot of the same words.  All I’m trying to do is explain what I’ve walked through, so maybe others can hear their own journey echoed here, and we can mourn together what we’ve lost. 

We joined our PCA church in 2002 and slipped out the door for good in 2016. Seismic changes during those 14 years.. That’s why I’m writing this series. And why I have no clue where to find a church home in 2018.

Catalysts for change

I think it’s fair to the readers who don’t know me to understand a few moments in my spiritual journey that serve as key waypoints. If you know me, then none of these will be a surprise.

1986, summer camp:  After hearing a week of preaching by a missionary to Spain, I felt called to full-time missions. Went home and told my parents, and broke their hearts. They’d always wanted me to be a doctor.  I was a Christian Missions major instead, and went to BJU instead of staying in PA to attend Pitt or Penn State or one of the many little liberal arts colleges up there.

1998, marriage:  I’m not exaggerating when I say that Coart, my husband, is a remarkable man of both heart and intellect. My journey is bound up with his. He somehow knows how to bash up against my hard head yet let me come to my own conclusions. Somehow he’s been doing it since we first met.

1999: I mentioned above a deep disillusionment with our church leadership at MCBC. That broke a spell over me about not wanting to even consider any other viewpoints, and in many ways it was the beginning of the end of our time within Fundamentalism.

2002, teaching:  I can’t possibly give teaching enough of its due as a critical formation tool for my conscience, spiritual understanding, maturity, and career arc. Best decision I ever made, hardest job I’ve ever had. Nothing else has been as rewarding.  Combined with my MEd degree from Covenant College (earned 2003-2006), teaching has been the #1 thing God used to shape my understanding of how He works in this world.  Since I’m not a parent, this is as close as I can get to parenting-as-sanctification.

2005, the year from hell:  Uh, I don’t want to put this stuff out in public. Let’s just say there was a lot going on in our own lives and in the lives of our students. We learned some critical lessons about how to care for others, and the inadequacy of things like “Christian counseling” for mental illness.   (I’ll summarize the worst day of 2005: Within a 24-hour period, I talked someone out of suicide, had to tell that person’s loved one how they had almost committed suicide so I could make sure they got help, and got a call from my pastor asking me to take over a big chunk of music duties at the church because of a “scandal” involving our minister of worship, triggering many questions from my students who’d had him as a teacher. It was a pretty horrible day.)

2005 was the year I learned that Grace always costs the giver.

2007: I watched a lesbian live a more truly righteous life than nearly any other person in her group of friends/colleagues, and it upended pretty much everything I thought I knew about Love, Grace, and the church’s attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks.

2011: Heard about Paolo Freire’s writing on education for the first time. World-changing. Why hadn’t I been told to read this before?  Critical pedagogy and all that.

2016: When the bulk of Christians I knew happily voted for Trump to get SCOTUS votes against Roe v Wade, I knew my sojourn in Evangelicalism was over.

What’s the point of all this?

Just this:  People who leave a religion or cult or close-knit community of  any kind are walking away from multiple things at once: from your network, from your friends and social circle, from a sense of personal history and identity, from your safety net, sometimes from your job and/or education, from a hard-earned reputation or respect.  It can be staggering to be thrust into decisions about your faith, your career, your identity, and your friendships all at the exact same time. (And I’m not even a parent — it’s got to be 100x harder when kids are involved.) 

It’s important to acknowledge the good that you found in those places, even if there were bad things too, because that’s honest.  It’s good to recognize the people who genuinely cared for you, even if others were abusive dicks. It’s important to mourn what you have lost.

 

I feel like this was a dull post.  If you read this far, well, you’re a saint ….or committed…..or bored. lol

I’ll keep writing. Thanks for reading.

Exit: The Courage to ask questions

Yesterday, I staked the claim that I’ll be writing a series about why I left Evangelicalism.  Now I’m staring at the screen wondering if I have the courage to put these words out where anyone can read them.

Questions, Questions

I’ve been asking questions since I could talk. My husband deserves sainthood for not telling me “ask Google, why don’t you?” 300x a day.  In the working world, my skillset would be defined as The Clarifier: the person who asks a lot of questions like, “Have you tried it this other way?” “Why do you think this process is breaking down?” “Wait, what if that isn’t the reason and it’s actually this other thing?”  People tell me I’m a good listener, but I think what they actually mean is that I’m a good questioner, and people like talking about themselves and their own ideas.

I grew up in Fundamentalism…. if you don’t know me or what that means, then read this post and also this series.  And be thankful.

Anyway, Fundamentalism is, well, it’s a whole bunch of adjectives: Oppressive.  Well-intentioned. Fearful. Patriarchal. Legalistic. Self-righteous. Afraid. Religious. Tradition-bound. Limited. Simplistic. Naive. Rule-focused. Damaging. Tribal. Ignorant.  Spiritually abusive. Terrified of questions.

Yeah. It’s hard to be a Clarifier in a religiously fundamentalist world.

I need to clarify right here at the outset two contradictory truths: First, I had a pretty gentle journey through Funds-Land. Bob Jones University isn’t the worst of that crowd by a long shot, and I have many good memories of my family, my home churches, my Christian school, and my college years.

At the same time, BJU and the entire sphere of Fundamentalism that raised me was absolutely (and, I believe, unwittingly and unintentionally) twisted and spiritually abusive. I was lucky to escape without a lot of obvious wounds….but new scars keep showing up in my emotions, spiritual practices, sexuality, relationships, intellectual assumptions, personal identity, womanhood, and understanding of God and His ways.  I vastly under-estimated the genuine damage in my soul, heart, mind, and body from being raised in such a toxic culture. And as I began to explain in this post, my decade in the PCA started the healing process but then stunted it. The PCA suffers from many of the same flaws as Fundamentalism, primarily because its theological underpinnings give allegiance to a very similar core of legalism.

There’s a reason we tend to call ourselves “recovering Fundamentalists.”  The “Exvangelical” moniker is accomplishing a similar purpose.

What’s “certainty” going to cost me?

Ask any student of mine from my teaching days what my mantras were.  Hopefully they’ll list this one first: “A good kid isn’t a kid who stays out of trouble and follows all the rules. A good kid is one who DOES good.” (That, to me, is the core of understanding what biblical righteousness is all about, and it bingos the central error of legalism.)

But secondly, Never be afraid to ask The Truth a hard question. If it’s really The Truth, it can stand up to your questions.

I know my first crises of faith, when I was in single digits, came from worrying about whether I was “really saved.” That’s one pile of bullshit that a covenantal view of children and salvation does away with, and if we had kids, I would have happily gone through with infant baptism. But that’s a long post for another day.

My second, and much more valuable crisis of faith, came when I was around 13. It was fall and I was in 8th grade, probably my least-favorite grade until my sophomore year of college (likely for similar reasons).  A lot of things were shifting in my life and I had some questions.  I remember staring at my Bible, daring to say aloud (inside my head), “How do I even know this is true?”

Believe me, I was shook.

Within the entire swath of Evangelical theology (despite the sputtering that would ensue from the Fundy crowd, I’m going to lump them into the Evangelical camp for purposes of this series, because they’re merely the fanatic fringe of a single theological perspective), the Bible stands as THE FOUNDATION of thought and practice.

The reasoning is simple:  God gave us the Bible to explain to us who He is and what He does. Therefore, you establish that the Bible is verbally inspired in every part, and binding for faith and practice, and then move on from there to understand God, sin, Jesus, salvation, whatever.

How do we know the Bible is true?  Well, there are lots of books on this within Evangelical culture, but the answers always boil down to this:

a)  we feel that it’s true (i.e.: the Holy Spirit makes us feel that it’s true in our hearts, or something like that), or
b)  we give intellectual value to a pile of certain facts about its authorship and textual transmission, combined with awe at the miraculous nature of its textual preservation, or
c)  God said it was true (and ignore the obvious circular reasoning thing going on there).

Hello, Modernism, my old friend

I’m not here to debate biblical inspiration.  From what little I’ve read of Karl Barth (thanks to an outstanding course at an Evangelical seminary a few years ago), I think he’s got a better starting point in seeing Jesus as The Word, and the prophets and the Bible as equal Witnesses to the Word.  Barth opens his huge Church Dogmatics with theology proper (who God is), not with a section on inspiration. That subtle shift taught me a lot about why I was becoming deeply unsatisfied with Evangelicalism as a belief system.

A lot of this whole mess is driven by the fact that Evangelicalism (and especially American Fundamentalism) was birthed at the height of Rationalist, Modernist thinking. Everybody — religious or no — was drunk on the idea of reason, logic, and/or science having all the answers.  Cross that with the invention of digital tools like computer processors, and it was easy to believe that a large enough computer could predict the weather weeks into the future. (Spoiler: it couldn’t.)

In American Christianity, this punch-drunk fascination with intellectual-above-all gave us acerbic creation/evolution debates, stifling legalism based on biblical literalism, and insufferable evidence-based apologetics (combined with door-to-door evangelism and street preaching).  Suddenly, American Evangelicalism had a whole lot to lose if people started asking questions

I know it sounds counter-intuitive that the same Christians who are central to the target demographic of Fox News (all feels, not facts) were hoodwinked by intellectual Modernism, but hear me out.  Yes, Evangelicals are happy to ignore facts for the sake of faith (evolution being a good example of this). But the very foundation of Evangelical theology is a Modernist understanding of texts, of inspiration, of parsing language to extract precise meanings.

This hermeneutic is stunted, incapable of wrestling with genre nuances and verbal ambiguity or acknowledge story-truth as a category beyond literal fact. It’s like literary criticism done by a 4th grader. (“But Mommy, why did they make her wear an A on her chest? Doesn’t that mean our neighbor should have an A on her chest too? She’s not married either!”)  And it works itself out in Evangelicalism via spiritual practices that feel like someone left a toddler in charge of the house rules — rigidity of interpretation coupled with emotional immaturity when confronted with opposition.  My word, if that isn’t an analogy for conservative Christian political discourse in the past 20 years…..

If you go all-in on a Modernist view of how the world works, then you fall prey to a closed-mindedness that runs facts through a fine sieve to make sure nothing gets through that will upset the system (again, biological or cosmic evolution are great examples here) and you lock yourself into a paradigm of biblical interpretation that cannot admit when it’s wrong.  See also: women in church leadership, husband/wife roles, finding a place for LGBTQ+ folks to be practicing, communing believers.

I’m not saying Postmodernists get a pass here; a relativistic approach to “truth” also breaks down, leaving us living parallel realities with no agreed common truths (again, see 2016-2018 as a great example). But it’s not an accident that Evangelicalism starts its entire system with a Modernist view of biblical inspiration.  Then, the Reformed folks add idolization of propositional truth over anything that isn’t happening in one’s intellect, and the straightjacket is buckled on pretty tight.

Side note: that Barth class was one of the most amazing intellectual experiences in my educational life – thank you Dr. Richard Burnett for introducing me to a much kinder understanding of a vital theologian who’s been unfairly smeared in America, partly because we didn’t understand him but mostly because his stuff wasn’t even translated into English until decades after it was published. Burnett is one of the premier American scholars on Barth (Amazon), and he’s a committed, faithful believer. He’s currently working to provide rich theological resources for laymen at Theology Matters

A great related reading, if you’re interested, on Barth, Evangelicalism, and inspiration:  Vanhoozer, Barth on Scripture (PDF)

TL;DR on inspiration: If you stop believing in the strictest definition of verbal, plenary inspiration, your whole religious world may not implode around you.

*****

I realize I left you hanging there in my personal story: so what did I do, when at 13 it occurred to me that there are no observable, external proofs for the Bible’s inspiration?

First, I panicked a bit. It was a terrifying thought. What if my entire faith collapses?

This horror was an ever present warning in my young life: sermon illustrations, Christian literature, explicit teaching all told me that the path to Hell was paved with asking questions.

I calmed down and decided I should probably read the Bible and see for myself.  (I’m proud of myself, in retrospect.)  So I did. I started somewhere like Genesis or Matthew and “did my devotions faithfully” for a few weeks. (I’ll need a whole other post to delve into THAT.)

And….that was it.  A few weeks later, the fear and anxiety were gone.  I’m not saying that like we’re in a church service and you should now shout “Jeee-zus!” and raise your hands in worship.  At the time, I considered it a gracious answer to prayer and the result of the work of the Spirit.  Now, after a whole lot more education and life experience, I don’t know whether it was the work of the Spirit or a simple change in adolescent brain chemistry from “anxious” to “safe.”  Probably some of both.

Do I think the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Sure, yeah.  Do I mean “inspired” like you mean inspired? I dunno. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s the wrong question.  If you push me for a more specific answer: I think Barth offers a better understanding of inspiration than the Evangelicals do (read the PDF I posted above for a thorough look).

If you need the Bible to be a book of magic words in order to believe in God, your faith may not survive. 

Ask and you shall receive

Stop being afraid to ask questions about your faith. About whether God is good, about the problems of evil in the world, about the genocide of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, about people dying in countries where they’ve never heard the name of Jesus and being sent to hell.

Do I have answers?  Hell, no.  But you’re either going to ask those questions burning in your heart or you’ll bury them where they fester and poke you and make you afraid or angry.

Either God exists or He doesn’t.  I believe that He does, but I can’t prove Him to you. I firmly believe that isn’t my job anyway. He can speak for Himself, He can act for Himself, He can explain Himself.

Jesus said (I’m paraphrasing Luke and Matthew here) that God isn’t like some dickhead father who gives his kids a rock when they ask him for bread. He hears and answers. So ask.

Are you angry at God? Tell Him. It’s not like He doesn’t know already. And it’s not like we don’t have multiple examples in Scripture — especially the Psalms, but also the Prophets — of people telling God what they think. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes there’s silence.  I’m not a divine being. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.

But I encourage you to face up to your questions and fears, and to ask them honestly. Say them out loud.  Search for answers. Search within community (a great read on this in Relevant Magazine recently).

If you’re in a congregation where such questions are suppressed, then get out — if you can. (Be safe!)  If you can’t leave, look online for people with similar questions and find community there.  But don’t stop asking questions.  It’s the sign of a healthy heart and mind.

Faith rests on the courage to ask questions, not on the fear that doubts will unravel your faith.

You might find these posts helpful:

Waking up to questions you didn’t know you had

Quotable: Faith Isn’t About Finding Answers | RELEVANT Magazine

A Taxonomy of Doubt

Questions, Faith, and Doubt: Why all the fuss about Rachel Held Evans?

Unintentional #Exvangelical

Exit: An Intro

A pair of inciting incidents this weekend have convinced me that there might be value in writing about why I no longer consider myself an Evangelical. My journey is hardly unique, but Christian culture is insular and people outside the orbit of “normal faith experience” often find themselves isolated and marginalized.  Perhaps my words can help you clarify yours.

A couple clarifications to start:

First, I am deeply committed to the belief in God and to historic Christianity as stated in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. If you’re here with popcorn hoping for a deconversion story, you’re going to be disappointed.

Second, and I realize this is hard to reconcile but hear me out, my critiques of Evangelicalism are not meant to blame or shame anyone who’s still happily in that tribe. You do you.  I fully trust the Spirit to do His job of leading Christians into full sanctification.

*****

I’ve written occasionally about the #Exvangelical movement, and if you find yourself wanting more, you may run into some helpful people on Twitter under that hashtag. It’s a broad swath of people, some who are still religious and many who are not, who walked away from Evangelicalism, often in the past few years.  I ran across them earlier this year, so I wouldn’t call that group formative in my thinking. But if you’re looking for more people who are trying to pick up the pieces of spiritual life in the wake of 2018, it’s a place to start.

*****

One of the inciting incidents was this convo on Twitter, which I read last night:

*****

I don’t know where all this series will go, but I think it’s going to cover how my thinking has shifted in the past decade and why. About why it’s so hard to pull the trigger on searching for a new church. About why I find myself in my 40s angry at the ringing injustices of the world in a way that wouldn’t even  have made sense to me in my 20s.

I will try to bang it out this month in short order, but we’ll see.

Unintentional #Exvangelical

I often read about social movements on Twitter long before they hit any sort of mainstream discussion. If you can put in the time to curate your Twitter following, you can find quite a world of stimulating (and sometimes asinine) discussion.

One subset of people I follow happen to be Christians or ex-Christians who are trying to shine the light of #metoo on sexual abuse in the church. Some of these folks have coined the hashtag #Exvangelical to describe their abandonment of Evangelicalism, especially in the wake of the 2016 election and its aftermath.  This started with #emptythepews and #churchtoo, a couple hashtag discussions about unchallenged rape and sexual abuse in Christian circles that hasn’t yet forced much of a behavior change or policy changes. But the community grew to include thousands of Tweeps who flocked (haha) to share their stories of abandoning a faith they were raised in.

I didn’t mean to become an #Exvangelical…. until one day, I realized I was already there.  

This is going to get messy if I try to write a post about it. Let me do a Frequently Asked Questions instead – I can probably hit all the salient points, reassure some fears, generate others, and keep it shorter.

Q. So, if you’re an #Exvangelical, does that mean you’re no longer a Christian?

A.  Not at all. I’m 100% committed to the Gospel and to faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. I affirm the historic creeds of Christendom.  I’m not here to tell anyone else how they should feel about their church affiliation.

What I’ve abandoned is Evangelicalism: that particularly American, individualistic strain of Christianity which prioritizes a personal conversion experience above all else, tends toward extreme biblical literalism, and is currently lusting after political power and a “win” in the “culture wars.”

Q. Wait, you can’t have it both ways. If you aren’t an Evangelical anymore, then you are left with only apostate, liberal, compromised churches for fellowship, right? And not all Evangelical churches are power-hungry or harboring Tea Party conventions. 

A. Way to be judgmental? Also, I’m not sure you asked a question.

Ok, this is a critical point, and I understand why people who’ve been thoroughly taught that there are only two options — in the tribe of the True Believers or standing outside in the wrong –struggle to see alternate pathways for genuine Christian belief.  It would take me weeks of blog posts to untangle this point. If you care that much, either Google till you find others who’re writing about their faith journeys, or have a cuppa with me and we’ll talk it out.

The short response to your query is this: the world isn’t a simple “you’re in or you’re out” with regards to Evangelicalism being the only right way to be a Christin. If you genuinely believe that, then we probably aren’t going to do anything except disagree over fundamental assumptions.

The Church is larger than I was led to believe. This has happened to me twice in my life: first, when I was in Fundamentalism and left it for the PCA.  I remember how betrayed yet happy I felt to discover that Evangelicals didn’t worship Satan’s devil music, and they were pretty great people.  And now, I’ve learned that Evangelicalism never had a lock on being “right.”  There are good, faithful believers in many faith traditions.  Romans 14 speaks to this pretty strongly, IMO, and I recommend reading it and taking a deep breath if this post is making you angry or anxious.

Q. So what’s changed for you? How are you different than you were, say, 5 years ago?

A. This will be easier as succinct bullet points. Again, I’m not inviting you to come argue with me over the bullet points. They’re here for reference, not as an invitation for argument.

  • I believe the study of theology should begin with an understanding of God and His Ways, and then move to a discussion of the inspiration of Scripture.  Karl Barth explains this way better than I can, and before you burn his Church Dogmatics, you might consider reading it.  His view of inspiration is far more vigorous than anything I found in Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism, and it avoids the bible-olatry that continues to plague the American conservative church. Christ is The Word. The Bible witnesses to Him. He is the center, the beginning and ending.
  • I reject the individualism that plagues American Evangelical Christianity, including the excesses of revivalism and dispensationalism.  I think we were created for community, and prioritizing the experience of the individual above the powerful voice of the Church through all her ages and expressions is dangerous.
  • I reject the dominating narrative of the American culture wars.  I reject the assertion that American Christians are a persecuted minority.  I reject the combative personality by which Evangelicalism is known, especially after the 2016 election. The battle line between good and evil runs through, and not around, every single human movement or institution or idea or group. “Us” vs “them” tribalism is toxic.  White Evangelicals have bought hook, line, sinker into a racist, xenophobic vision of America, and I’m just not ok with it anymore.  And the culture war’s main fronts – the creation/evolution battle and the anti-abortion movement – are generally doing more harm than good. Why are people walking away from the Church in droves? Because they have the frikkin Internet and can read science articles for themselves.
  • I condemn Donald Trump as a pathetic human whose morality is in the sewer. Watching “Christians” like Dobson fall all over themselves to paint Trump as a believer, rather than defending the victims of his abuse and rebuking his lechery and misogyny and greed and corruption, is what broke Evangelicalism for good, for me.
  • I cannot in good conscience be part of denominations where the only functionally acceptable political position is to be a Republican or a libertarian. You’re welcome to be part of those camps, but to assert that no good Christian could be a Democrat is ignorant and unwise — and just plain wrong.  Good Christians have historically fallen across the entire political spectrum.  Again, I’m somewhat stunned this is even a point of contention among people who claim that we should be reading our Bibles every day in order to be good people…    (Sorry. This is an area that makes me rather angry these days.)
  • My LGBTQ+ friends have never been welcome in Evangelicalism.  I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that a loving sovereign God has created humans who are wired from birth to love the same gender, or humans who experience such gender dysphoria that they cannot identify as the person their body parts would suggest that they be.  I don’t disagree that a literal reading of the Bible would suggest that LGBTQ+ are, in a word, “born wrong.”  But I can no longer deny a place within the church to my gay Christian brothers and lesbian sisters and transgender friends who’ve been beaten down by the church again and again.  God’s going to have to sort this mess out Himself. Till I get a chance to ask Him in person, I’d prefer that we accept LGBTQ+ Christians as full citizens of the kingdom.  Even if they’re wrong. Especially if we’re wrong about them being wrong.
  • If I had a daughter, I’d be angry that she would never see a woman in a legitimate position of authority within 99% of Evangelical churches. (Small exception for a few ARP churches that ordain women and the AMIA Anglican congregations who hold to conservative theology but make room on their platforms for women to teach and preach.)  You’re welcome to bar women from being a preacher if you want, but to bar them from every single position of church leadership except running the nursery or children’s Sunday school seems ….well, blatantly misogynistic.  I don’t think the New Testament was trying to define church leadership primary by who does/doesn’t have a penis, and I certainly don’t think male-only leadership makes for healthy organizations.  A whole lot of sexual abuse by powerful men might have been avoided if women had been given a voice – any kind of voice – and genuine power within the church.  Conservative Christianity has been sleeping with abusive patriarchy for a long time. This one is an easy fix, folks: women as deacons, women as ruling elders, women as equal teaching partners per those obscure little sentences in I Corinthians 13 that nobody wants to talk about (“a woman, when she prays or prophesies, must cover her head”). Just….start somewhere…..

Q. I think you’re dead wrong. 

A.  You know what?  I sometimes wonder that myself.  Like, how do we know anything about anything?

One of the worst things about any Fundamentalist system – and Evangelicalism has a whole lot of Fundamentalism in its DNA, despite its rock worship bands and willingness to let megachurch pastors say “shit” in a sermon or talk about masturbation — One of the worst things about this system is the way it stifles doubt.

The opposite of doubt isn’t faith. It’s certainty. And certainty can be dead wrong. Faith is hopeful; it can co-exist with doubt because faith IN God means I’m ok with letting Him catch these details I can’t make sense of myself.

I’d be a fool if I were so arrogant as to think my little mind can contain the universe, the whole of God’s will toward mankind, the order of events of salvation – ha! what hubris!

When you let the world get perfectly quiet all around you, what do you hear?  Do you hear little tiny questions creeping into your mind? “What if I”m wrong? What if, once I die, I’m just….dead?  What if there isn’t a God? What if the Hindus or the Jews or the Muslims are actually right?”

I’m not saying you have to doubt to be a good Christian; that seems a bit backward. But good Christians can –must!–be honest about their epistemic uncertainty.

I left Evangelicalism because I’m tired of people telling me they have The Answer. You don’t.  You and I are in the same place: we seek wisdom in the Word to see God for who He is.  And we shake our heads at the ugliness in this world.   And those two ideas conflict in uncomfortable ways.  Can’t we be honest about that for just a minute?

And once we’ve got this honesty train going, how about we be honest about a few more things we shouldn’t claim certainty about…. like whether life actually begins at conception, or how exactly this world came to be and the processes of creation, or pretending like every issue has a clear-cut moral answer just waiting out there along the side of the road carrying a big ol’ “I AM THE RIGHT ANSWER” sign. 

Q. So where are you going to church these days?

A. You aren’t going to like this….but truth is, I haven’t been to church in a while. I didn’t mean to leave…. it just….happened.  I stepped away from music ministry in 2016 because of a job change, and when I tried to come back, all I got from the guys in charge was crickets. :/   So …I left.

I want to find a new church home, I really do. I miss the sacraments and how they shape our understanding of what really matters in this world.

But I also needed to detox from the grind of the “Christian lifestyle,” where everything is matchy-matchy and sorted out.  I’d been uncomfortable about that for years, but I genuinely enjoyed the worship ministry team and the fellowship I found among my fellow musicians. It’s a special thing to lead a congregation in praise, and I was honored to do it for as long as I did.

Aside from the bond I had with my fellow musicians, I have very little in common with women my age in an Evangelical church.  I never had kids (wasn’t on purpose; just never happened) so my #1 function as a woman in the PCA went completely bust. I don’t enjoy babies or little kids. I don’t have endless stories about diaper poops and elementary escapades to link me to these women whose lives are so different from mine.  I hold two masters’ degrees and am married to a man who’s practically earned two PhD’s.  I love video games, science fiction, and progressive metal.  I can read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew, and — if I’m being truly honest here — am more qualified (if we’re talking about education) to teach the Bible than nearly all of the male elders at the churches where I’ve been a member. (Except I don’t have a penis, so…. )   Making “small talk” with adults at any church function will always be a struggle, unless there’s a gamer/metalhead church out there somewhere I haven’t found.

It wears me out to think of jumping into the church dating scene again – I mean “finding a church.” Because that’s what it is, right?  A bad dating game.  A church is a collection of people, and honestly, it’s the camaraderie and community that differentiate two congregations.  The trappings and faith statements and liturgy have their own effects, but the day-in, day-out experience of being a member of a particular church rests entirely on the group of people who meet there.  The only way to find a new one, unless you’re going to go all Fundamentalist and filter out all but a couple based on their statements of faith, is to visit around and smile politely and be the weird stranger and listen to people constantly tell you how much they SO HOPE YOU’LL KEEP COMING.

Gah, the sheet awkwardness of it gives me hives.

And, to be frank, I don’t know where I belong. Where we belong.  I want a church where Grace is central (and not just talked about, but lived out as Grace); where sermons are short yet meaningful;  where people are open about their struggles; where Christian lingo isn’t so pervasive that people from outside are turned off; where the prevailing theme isn’t “how to do the right things this week so God will love me more.”

With kickass music.

Q. Last question: Aren’t you afraid people are going to be disappointed in you? What about all your former students? You could tear them down too!

A.  If my students are willing to throw out their entire belief system because of what they see me do (or don’t do), then I failed as a teacher. I never wanted robots, or students who would accept what I said as THE right answer.  I pushed my students to wrestle, reason, challenge, think for themselves. So I’m 99% sure they’re going to be ok, and I’m also sure the Holy Spirit is in charge of bringing people to faith and holding onto them.  If you think my actions are going to overwhelm His work, well, that’s the disagreement right there.

Are people disappointed in us for leaving the PCA?  Hell if I know. I’m not sure anyone really cares.  If you’re a committed Evangelical, then good for you. Please, for the love of all that’s holy, question the connection between your faith and your politics, your power systems, your views on social injustice and the culture.  But have at it.  (See: what I just said about the Holy Spirit, above.)

I wrote this post because I know thousands of people– mostly Millennials–have left the Church in the wake of the 2016 election.  You’re not alone, friends, and please don’t throw out your own relationship with God just because you’re not happy with how things are going in the American Church.

I don’t think Evangelicals really grasp how UGLY this power-grab has been.  You have sold the Gospel for a pot of beans. Actually, Esau got a WAY better deal than you did on Trump and the Tea Party, because at least his mess of beans filled his belly for one night. This whole moral-majority nonsense has cost you pretty much everyone under the age of 40…..and people like me who didn’t sign up to ride this crazy train all the way to the final destination.  American Evangelicalism is nearly all white. And as the cultural influence of white people (especially white men) wanes in the face of America’s changing demographics, it’d be nice if you didn’t drag Jesus down with you as you howl in despair at your loss of power and influence.

Jesus TOLD Y’ALL THIS.  He TOLD YOU that following Him means picking up a cross and dying.  Y’all.  What part of “a corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die” made you think you’d get to run America?  What makes you think worshiping guns and libertarianism and America and military might and “family values” is the equivalent of “taking up your cross” and following Jesus?

*raises hands*  Peace.  I’m done.  I’m not trying to start a fight.  We could go have a beer instead.

I’m an #Exvangelical because I love God and the Gospel. You may disagree with me, but at least you know where I stand.

 

Throw out the “Billy Graham” rule and grow up

A while back, Mike Pence publicly referenced that he abides by the Billy Graham Rule, which is to never eat a meal alone with any woman who is not his wife. I wrote about the fiasco and said this about fundamentalists,

“…what frustrates me most about the BG rule used by grown ups is that living by rules is still the framework that dictates ethical living. I often feel as if evangelical adults do not move past the developmental phase of differentiating.”

Scaffolding is an educational term that can be used to apply to parenting. It basically means providing a structure to help children function as they are developing their capabilities. But the purpose of scaffolding is to be dismantled once the child reaches maturity and no longer needs the prop. 

I think of rules functioning as scaffolding. When our children are developing cognitive and intuitive skills to make wise discernment choices for their own lives, we can provide some rules to help them—to keep them safe from devastating consequences and give guidance for their own maturity. But the rules should fall away and autonomy extended so our children learn to independently forge their own paths. 

In this and other ways, I find that fundamentalists never grow up. They never acquire the skills necessary for mature, adult-appropriate behaviors. These immaturities result in dysfunctional relationship patterns which they then pass on to their children, causing harm to themselves, the children, and to the world.

via 6 Ways Fundamentalists Need to Grow up – Unfundamentalist Parenting

I do think the author paints with a rather broad brush, supporting points with anecdotes and some argumentation rather than research and supporting facts. But my experience growing up in Fundyland doesn’t contradict the author’s applications. And that opening section (above) nails it.

Fundamentalism (and legalism in general) stunts the growth of people’s faculties to reason and to discern.  That’s not horrific when somebody is 6 or 14, but it gets uglier and more dysfunctional as the person grows into adulthood without the coping skills needed to function in the world as it is.

It’s also worth noting that the downsides of Fundamentalist legalism are alive and well within Evangelicalism too. Reading Cindy’s post, I found myself nodding along as the PCA provided many examples of her points. Despite the irony of offering the same broad-brush statements supported by anecdotal evidence, here I go….

  1. Dependence on authority – this is the very backbone of the PCA’s leadership structures. Rule by a group of elders is far, far better than the one man dictatorship of the IFB churches I grew up around, but that doesn’t mean the leadership team exhibits much diversity in the PCA – it’s white, male, solidly middle class (or higher), and WASPy. Many subgroups within the PCA celebrate a view of masculinity that’s very one-sided: husband, gun-toting hunter, manly-man drinking and pipe-smoking, virile father of many children. I certainly heard plenty of PCA parents teaching their kids that obedience means “obey me right away without delay.”  If you start listening to the subtexts of the PCA conversations about parenting and Christian living, you hear a lot of the same legalism that I left Fundamentalism to escape. Squashing questions, dissent, or challenge delays those problems till later, when they’re much bigger in a kid’s mind.
  2. Lack of emotional boundaries – a lot of nouthetic counseling and weird crap has crept into conservative Evangelicalism.  Many PCA folks are just as resistant to the idea of eschewing spanking as the average Southern Baptist. Telling people they can pray away their depression or follow a 10-step Scripture program to restore their marriage is unhealthy and unrealistic. I saw a lot of bad boundaries in my sojourn through the PCA.
  3. Naivete about the world – while Reformed teaching is a better basis for living than crackpot dispensational pre-millennialism, it can easily fall prey to a creeping fear that generates just as many rules as Bob Jones had in its rule book when I was there. Fear of sex. Fear of “weird” music. Fear of pop culture. Fear of losing power within the American political system. Fear of non-white cultures when they’re expressed outside of White boundaries. And (most damning of all, IMO) a simplistic, knee-jerk-Republican view of economic systems, injustice, and systemic oppression. The denomination would rather bicker over whether it should pass a code of conduct to prevent sexual abuse in its churches or acknowledge its racist founding in the civil-rights-era South. Even better is the theological pin-dancing over minutiae while blindly wondering why more Black people never bother to visit.  Or why almost no one who’s poor and not-college-educated bothers to attend a second time.
  4. Incomplete sexual education – ever try to convince a Christian school community that someone besides the parents might should teach some sex ed to kids of any age? It’s a blast of a discussion, let me tell ya.  Purity culture is dangerous, no matter how you package it. If you worship virginity, you’re going to break the faith of a lot of kids once they go off to a party in high school or college, get shitfaced drunk, and wake up in bed with a guy they barely remember. That’s a hell of an introduction to sexuality, but it’s not uncommon for kids whose primary sex education has been simply “don’t do it” and a video on the basics of their anatomy.  And girls bear the brunt of the shame once it happens.
  5. Anti-intellectualism – the PCA prides itself on its high standards of education for ministers, demanding post-graduate education that’s expensive and exclusive. So we could talk about the inherent racism expressed in the way most conservative Presbyterians choose to fight anti-intellectualism. But I think it’s important to note how few adults in any church are willing to confront their own doubts or assumptions. I think that’s why doubting people struggle so much in the PCA, where intellectual argumentation forms the core of faith.  James KA Smith has done a good job pushing back against this, asserting that our loves run deeper than our beliefs or worldview. I’m surprised an angry mob of Presbyterians haven’t burned down his house yet.
  6. Lack of healthy conflict resolution – This may have as much to do with upbringing as denomination, honestly. But there is a lot of weirdness in relationships within conservative religion. If you’re a woman working for a man, you’re always trying to suss out the boundaries of authority and appropriate behavior. The politeness codes and morality codes are also unwritten yet brutal in their consequences if you break them.  The few times I’ve worked for non-religious organizations (as I am now), I’ve seen far less organizational dysfunction. People “out in the world” seem to have a better grasp on how to interact with their fellow humans.

I fully admit that my examples hold no more weight than curiosity or fodder for discussion or disagreement.  But my central thesis is this: conservative Presbyterianism suffers from a deep-set legalism that’s just as insidious and damaging as what they decry among Fundamentalists.  Our hearts crave the surety and simplicity of a rulebook rather than a relationship with the Creator.

 

Newspring without Perry

Last night, Newspring Church met offline with its congregants to discuss the future of the church without the rockstar fallen from grace Perry Noble. I haven’t kept up with the church’s pastoral drama in the past year, but I stumbled across a Twitter live-blog last night of the meeting, and it’s worth noting a few things.

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 11.04.18 AM

First, it’s notable to me that Perry crashed and burned as hard as he did.  I wouldn’t say that every megachurch pastor will meet this fate, but Francis Chan articulated recently the way that power and fame begin to chew away at the foundation of your soul. (I recommend reading his remarks.) When 100,000 people are watching your hologram preach on Sunday, you are being tempted by Power. And Tolkien taught us well that only the most humble can carry such Power without it corrupting them – and even then, the burden of it leaves wounds that may never heal.  I’m genuinely sad for Perry Noble’s fall from grace; I hope that he finds peace, healing, and restoration.

Second, I’m glad to see a humbler Newspring tone from the leadership, based on this reporter’s observations of the meeting. Pride doesn’t look good on anybody, especially a church, and Newspring always had a chip on its shoulder about being the biggest and the mold-breaker.  Humbling itself to follow the wisdom of more experienced church leaders wasn’t their strong suit.  They were happy to be the outlier.  Problem is, lone wolves get eaten — and that’s just as true for a church as it is for a person.  This was a very fundamentalist streak within the Newspring culture (I’m not saying they’re fundamentalist – they aren’t), for Southern Baptists in general tend to have that “you can’t tell us what to do” streak of American individualism in their DNA.

 

The pastors who spoke mentioned that they are moving to a group leadership model — or as we Presbyterians call it, “rule by a plurality of elders,” a much stronger and healthier church leadership approach. It sounds like the leadership are trying to move forward together, slow their roll a bit, and trade growth in numbers and dollars for actual development. This is good. They want to see shepherding group growth over butts in the seats — also a much-needed change in emphasis. Having Perry Noble as the hood ornament of a giant machine was never a good idea. I’m glad his departure didn’t wreck more than it did (though there’s been quite a bit of damage).

 

I’m not saying everything here is 100% comforting – there’s still some of the rally feel (like when they talk about how much money they gave to community projects last year), but that’s true of every church.  Also, I’m not certain they’re theologically grounded enough to provide more than the barest surface-level preaching.  Newspring’s model has been “get your friends here and we’ll introduce them to Jesus,” and they’ve been effective at that (though the sacerdotal smell of it makes me cringe). But the model worked well for what it was intended to do: get people to church. That was Newspring’s mission: get people saved, not necessarily do the hard work of discipling them (IMO). Hopefully that will change.

Probably the biggest red flag to me continues to be Newspring’s disparaging of theological education (another Southern, fundamentalist characteristic in their culture). Did you catch the comment that moving to a  group of preaching pastors reinforces the idea that preachers don’t have to go to seminary to be able to preach?  Interesting remark given that preaching pastor Clayton King is an adjunct faculty member at Anderson University’s nascent divinity school.  Ignorance and good motives can carry a man only so far in the pulpit. At some point, people need to be taught Bible content, theological frameworks, and pastoral care.

I wonder about the future of Newspring College.  Newspring has spent years now discouraging young people from getting a seminary education and jumping into ministry after a year of training on their campus. The NS College website notes that students will carry a heavy load  in the Newspring services, including the big Christmas Eve and Easter productions. This bothers me. It looks like a farm for unpaid labor that will produce a lot of really young, really underprepared 20-somethings to throw into ministries around the world.  But I’m willing to live in peace with Newspring on this point. Formal education has never been a critical element of the Gospel, and for some minority groups, it’s a discriminatory practice that bars them from leadership positions (see: PCA). There are far worse things a 19 year old can do with a year of his life.

I haven’t been to a Newspring service in a long time. I still appreciate the energy they put into their services, their heart-felt intensity. I understand why so many “churched” people fled their churches to join the Newspring movement in the mid 2000s. Most churches aren’t feeding their congregations much in the way of biblical content, and when “church” boils down to being a social club, it’s easy to get bored with the one you’re in and leave for the one that’s got better facilities, a great show, and fun leadership. But church was never supposed to be about those things…. I think the New Testament model is much more about “doing life together” around the Word and sacraments and prayer.  You can’t do that via a once a week meeting; doesn’t matter how big or small the operation is.

Newspring is an arm of The Church, and though I’ve often disagreed with their emphasis and practices, I have seen them preach the Gospel to people who need it and love many types of folks who would never be willing to step foot in traditional Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals can learn from that. For this reason, I defend Newspring’s right to exist, to muck around and make mistakes just like all churches and denominations do. Have they “done damage” to the “cause of Christ”? Well, in the minds of some, they certainly have. But show me a church or denomination who hasn’t.  Much of the Newspring hate around here seeps out of old wounds, back when a very arrogant fast-growing church sucked thousands of people out of other churches’ pews.  Doesn’t mean I’m not going to recognize Newspring for what they are: fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ.

So I wish Newspring well and hope that this painful year bears good fruit in bringing their leadership to greater wisdom and maturity.