Why Am I Not An Evangelical Anymore?
For as long as I lived as an Evangelical, I lived out of the abundance of the innocence derived from being well treated by and a sense of understanding the ways of each of my churches and church leaders. They were sources of community, support, love, education, credibility, peace, and lots of other words for genuinely good things. These various communities of faith taught me in the ways of the Christian faith and challenged me to welcome ideas that were unfamiliar to me but which intrigued me.
I grew in my faith. I became very familiar with the Bible and became well known among my peers for that familiarity. I stood up against people who were cursing on a youth group retreat. I found more joy in learning about God than in going to any kinds of parties across middle and high school. As teenagers around me became less involved in the church and with their faith, I became more and I grew in friendship with those like me. Because I attended a secular university, it was my highest priority to find a Christian community before I went off to college. I did and I stuck with the same one throughout college and into my years working with them as I dedicated my first few years after college to serving in the mission field of American universities.
What I'm trying to say is that I Evangelically Christianed just about as Evangelical Christianly as one could Evangelically Christian in the context of my life.
And I think that's the experience of a lot of former Evangelicals like me. We lived according to the rules, customs, expectations, and culture of Evangelical Christianity because it was what we were used to, because it brought us joy as we grew in our faith, because it aligned with our convictions, and because we respected and were eager to emulate the adults around us who mentored and nurtured us.
Why am I not an Evangelical anymore?
It was a several year long process that caused me no longer to identify with the Evangelical label. However the core beliefs and perspectives I had that caused me to live according to it are the same that caused me to leave it.
I cared deeply about the Bible when I was younger and I care deeply about the Bible now — I even still like it. However I learned that assumptions that are common among Evangelicals like that the Pentateuch was written by Moses and without historical error or that picking out four verses in Romans was effective for determining whether someone would go to heaven when they died were so absurdly wrong and destructive. I learned those assumptions from people who called themselves Evangelicals and I learned those corrections from people who called themselves Evangelicals, but then the label stopped fitting at some point.
What is it, something like half of the people who leave the church these days cite the church's interaction with the LGBTQ+ community? Yeah, I can see that. But in my life I learned that a part of the church, the very part I had been part of for so long (myself included for a time) was rejecting the LGBTQ+ community of Christians as well as the LGBTQ+ folks in our communities who continue to be harmed by the teachings, practices, and policies that the Evangelical church argues are good. I say "part of the church" because I'm not including the rather large number of LGBTQ+ Christians who exist and the many Christians who deeply support them.
I experienced an emphasis on purity in the forms of rejecting sexual wellbeing and claiming that the consumption of alcohol was somehow a marker of a lesser person. This advocacy for purity went from sounding thoughtful ("some people can handle being a little more physically affectionate" or "some people can drink a little") to bearing destructive fruit (which is how we know it's bad theology). Evangelical perspectives on purity only served to make me feel like I could be part of a special group that could shame others by means of controlling the lifestyle people lived in the name of purity.
When I saw problems in the church, I tried to call them out or learn from them in whatever next step in my life I was taking. When my beliefs caused me to take a different perspective on a topic (like when I came to understand that the universe was more than a few thousand years old in college) I often had Evangelical Christians around me who thought a variety of perspectives on some topics was part of the natural diversity of the church. That worked for me.
When a well respected pastor emotionally abused me across the months I was part of his community, I clung to the people from my past on whom I knew I could depend and I clung to my faith stalwartly and these brought me out of that pain as I continued my faith journey with seminary.
By the time I had completed my Master of Divinity degree in the middle of 2016 from my well known Evangelical seminary (Fuller) I actively struggled to understand how the broad idea "Evangelical" and my own faith and education could possibly align. The disparity that I saw wasn't between what I valued and what Evangelicals claimed to value, but rather with what Evangelicals actually valued. Their values were reified when later that year 81% of white American Evangelicals, a group I thought had been with me as I grew into the adult I had come to be, showed themselves to be so distantly against me as to be unrecognizable. Of course by then I was far less surprised.
It was like they had told me the direction to go and then turned around and went the other way.
What do you do with that?
Where do you go?
I'm not in a position to tell you all of the reasons why I'm so grateful for all the kinds of people who have stuck by me in meaningful and supportive ways. Some stories are not mine to tell and others I am not ready to tell. However hands down other former Evangelicals and people in similar circumstances have kept me from feeling stuck in the despair those two questions could and do bring about.
It is very easy to dismiss the examples of why people leave Evangelicalism by saying we have been caught up in either some kind of false nostalgia about the past or we have drawn an exaggerated caricature of our stories, but that's unloving, lacking honesty, and probably rooted in fear of loss (of power, among other things).
The truth is, our stories are not rooted in some kind of caricature of our past. Our stories tell of us working to grow as we were taught. To tell us we were not taught as such is gaslighting. To tell us we misunderstood (even while we lived it and were often praised for it for years) passes the blame onto victims. We were hurt; we recognize the theological roots of its source; we reject it as unfit. The presumably good intentions that developed the structures that taught us do not justify the problematic nature of that theology.
Evangelicalism is a bad system, so we left. Hear us.