This post was originally published on my personal blog, Bite-Sized Theology, on August 15, 2019.
In light of all the news and social media posts about high profile Evangelical leaders and spokespeople “losing their faith,” I thought it might not be a terrible idea to drop my own thoughts into the hat (since, y'know, I've been accused of the same thing).
There are dozens of different reasons people might feel the need to walk away from the Evangelical or Fundamentalist beliefs they grew up with. (And for those who are quick to distance your particular branch of Christianity from the term “Evangelical” for fear that I’m referring to the political movement, I’d like to point out that your “non-denominational” church is by definition Evangelical, regardless of the political connotations the term has taken on in recent years… In other words, despite your protestations – and I’ve heard plenty – churches like Hillsong, Elevation, Mosaic, Churchome, Resting Place House of Prayer, Liquid Church, Bethel, Emergence, LifeChurch, etc. are all part of the historical movement known as Evangelicalism.)
Our reasons for leaving may include spiritual abuse in our churches, the intellectual dishonesty of Evangelical belief systems, a lack of ethnic and/or sexual diversity in Evangelical congregations, poor representational diversity in leadership at our churches, conversion scare tactics…. The list goes on and on.
I can tell you from both my own experience and the experiences of others I love and trust: our reasons for leaving were not that we didn’t “hold tightly to the preeminence of the Word,” or that we “didn’t have enough faith,” or that we failed to “behold the splendor of Christ.” We tried. Many of us spent multiple decades in these environments. In my 17 years in a Fundamentalist Baptist church, my 4+ years at a Fundamentalist Bible college, my 5+ years working both a part-time job and full-time job as a children's minister at two non-denominational megachurches, and my 2+ years serving as a volunteer leader at Hillsong NYC, I likely had thousands of "deeply worshipful" moments and attempts. But in case you hadn't noticed, none of those moments prevented us from walking away. Instead, we started asking questions that make Evangelicals uncomfortable. We arrived at answers that Evangelicals don't want to accept. And quite frankly, many of those very "beholding-Christ's-glory" moments were probably what led us to those questions and answers.
I can assure you that we weren’t cowardly or weak or afraid. Quite the opposite, in fact. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of bravery, a lot of faith to walk away from the world we knew our entire lives. For some (like Marty Sampson and Michael Gungor), their livelihoods and paychecks depended on them “keeping the faith.” Their families need meals, their bills need to be paid, they need to earn livings. So walking away isn’t “the easy road.”
And we know just how painful it is to walk away. We know that we’ll be judged. We know that we’ll receive threatening messages. We know that our Evangelical friends will talk about us using terms like “backslidden,” “heretic,” “apostate,” and even, for the more active and vocal among us, “false teacher” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” We know because we've done it to those who walked that journey before we did. We threw those labels and accusations at the people we thought were spiritually weak-minded. We implored them to come back by encouraging them to “draw nearer to God's heart.”
And while those of us who are far enough removed from that world will see the silliness in those phrases, those words can still hurt. And so, to those who carved this path ahead of us, we're sorry.
If we could go back to our "spiritual roots" and recant our newfound "heresies," don’t you think we would? If it were as simple as “diving deeper into the Scriptures,” don’t you think we would have figured that out by now? Here’s the thing: year after year, decade after decade, the people who scream at us to “study Scripture with more reverence” or “make time in the Word a priority” make almost no effort to take their own advice and develop further biblical literacy. They’re content to shout at us the same tired interpretations of their favorite Bible passages without ever taking the time to listen to a single voice outside their tiny little echo chamber. We hear them telling us to read the Bible more, and when we do, we discover their own ineptitude and ignorance of the very words found in the text they want to cram down our throats. But none of them are willing to admit that among the best and most prolific biblical scholars, almost none are Evangelical, and quite a few are atheists.
For some, the only honest way to live is to renounce their Christian beliefs entirely. And I applaud them for recognizing the poisonous beliefs in their lives and removing them. In fact, were it not for the safe spaces for intense conversation that the mainline Protestant churches provided or the thought-provoking conversations going on at The Bible for Normal People and Homebrewed Christianity, I'd probably be an atheist. (And who knows? Maybe atheism will suit me at some point. For now, I'm happy without a label, and I'm happy in my mainline church.)
For others (like myself), we’ve found more robust ways to express that faith than what we had in Evangelical fundamentalism. I think of interfaith projects like Brew Theology* that provide space for people of all faiths and no faith to express their thoughts in a safe and open environment. I think of denominations like the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Church that allow for people to journey through spirituality in open and inclusive ways.
To the Evangelicals wondering why we're leaving: your hardline stance is what pushed us away. Your belief that there is only one right way to believe is what fosters atheism in the first place. We need spaces to ask honest questions that can go unanswered. We need to know that our leaders see the same inconsistencies we do and are willing to address them with humility, and not with the same answers that barely satisfy the 4th-grade Sunday School class. We need to know that we are loved, accepted, and truly listened to by our faith communities no matter what we believe or don’t believe. In fact, your insistence on belief as an identifier of who should be able to fully participate in your communities and who isn't permitted is why we have people like Jen Hatmaker, Rob Bell, Pete Enns, and the late Rachel Held Evans. You drew lines in the sand and decided who was in and who was out based on their willingness to perpetually regurgitate the creedal statements you hold far more dear than the relationships you claim to care so deeply about.
If I don’t believe that Jesus was God incarnate but still hold to his teachings and follow as best as I can the way of life he taught, who are you to say that I can’t call myself a Christian? If I think books like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary belong in the canon of Scripture in order to balance the dogma of the Church that says belief in a physical resurrection of Jesus is a prerequisite for entry into a community of faith, who are you to be a gatekeeper for the whole of Christianity? If I call myself a Christian but decide that my ethics and morals are best derived from somewhere other than our sacred texts, who are you to tell me I'm not truly a Christian? If my study of the Bible has led me to different conclusions than you, what gives you the right to tell me that my conclusions are less correct than yours? Who said that your hermeneutic was fool-proof anyway?
People like John Cooper (of Skillet fame, who wrote a Facebook post detailing his problems with people leaving the “faith”) have nothing to lose with their “bold statements” proclaiming further adherence to their “faith.” If anything, they gain more notoriety and more acclaim from the people who already buy their albums or books, attend and donate to their churches, or buy tickets to their concerts. I can’t stress this point enough. It is not courageous to "boldly proclaim" a message your supporters already love. What’s courageous is what Marty Sampson did. Because, and I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, Hillsong isn’t likely to change their beliefs, teachings, or doctrinal positions and affiliations anytime soon. And when someone like Marty steps out and shares his journey, he is risking everything. He’s risking his full-time job as a worship leader at one of the world’s largest Evangelical churches. He’s risking the money he earns as he writes songs for the largest Christian music machine on earth. And most of all, he’s risking the community of friends and family that have been a part of his life since long before his words, songs, and face became the soundtrack for generations of Evangelical Christians.
And lest I fall into the trap of elevating someone like Marty to an unwarranted platform in the ex-Evangelical community, in the interest of highlighting the pervasiveness of these kinds of stories (Marty’s departure from the Hillsong belief system isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last), I want to share a couple personal stories of people who experienced (or are experiencing) the same kind of ostracizing that even a high-profile leader like Sampson is likely experiencing. A friend of mine and her husband attend a small Evangelical church. She and her husband have grown weary of the arrogant assumptions from their church leaders that the narrow, fundamentalist interpretations of Bible passages are the only correct way of reading the Bible. The problem is that her parents are leaders in the church and provide familial support to her, her husband, and her toddler son. And it's been made clear to them that leaving the church means losing that support.
In recent years, I was the recipient of several threatening messages (“You are bringing shame to the Gospel!” “God WILL judge you for how you’re leading His children astray!” “You cannot teach heresy while claiming the name of Christ. Repent!”). I thought I had reached a point where these messages wouldn’t bother me, but from time to time, I find myself wondering if there really is a way back. If somehow “repenting” were truly all it would take to regain the community and sense of family I once had. To rebuild the friendships that once meant the world to me. But you and I both know that’s impossible.
Because these kinds of “fallings away” don’t happen overnight. We don’t wake up one morning and decide to throw away everything we once believed. It starts slowly and builds up over time. For some of us, it started with a question of the reality of hell. We wondered how God could simultaneously be loving and gracious while also sending (or allowing for) people to a place of unending postmortem torture. And, for me at least, studying the word “hell” in the Bible led to the discovery that the term as we know it in Evangelical Christianity doesn’t even exist in our sacred text. And from there it unraveled further (Bishop Carlton Pearson’s story comes to mind).
For others, it was a question of the role of women in leadership at their churches that started their deconstruction process. For even more of us, it was a discovery of the abuse of power that runs all too rampant in our churches.
But the common thread in what keeps us all away is the angry militancy and gatekeeping that characterize the vast majority of Evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Question the senior pastor’s authority? You’re unrepentant. Question the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ+ community? You’re sinful. Question the existence of hell as unending postmortem torture? You’re a heretic. And the only way to continue participating in your faith community is to stop questioning and trust the tired answers that your pastors and elders have been spouting off for decades. And while some churches and leaders might not reject the questions outright, if their “here's-what-the-Bible-says-about-that” answers don't satisfy you, you can bet those accusations are coming soon.
John Cooper’s post was called “What in God’s Name Is Happening in Christianity?” Do you really want to know? If you want the answer to the question, stop assuming you know what we’re thinking and start listening to us. We have responses. And quite frankly, we’ve all heard your “solutions.” Over and over and over, for months, years, and decades. Hell, some of us even spouted off the same kinds of answers to those who walked away before us. Before we took the time to listen, to ask the same questions, and to quit packaging answers that aren’t addressing the real questions. We have actual doubts and concerns that can't be explained away as easily as certainty-obsessed religious leaders would like, and we know you don’t have the answers. If you were just honest about that, some of us wouldn’t have been quite as quick to walk away.
But we know you love having all the right answers, so while I’m hopeful you’ll be willing to listen someday, I’m not holding my breath.