This is an excellent article on why so many people like me are leaving evangelicalism.
Since this whole spiritual re-awakening thing started a few weeks back, I’ve been slowly adding back the spiritual practices that were so meaningful to me in my “post new wineskins” period around 2006/2007. One of those is what I will call a contemplative walk, although I honestly can’t remember the real name for this practice. I took one today.
My goal on this walk through the woods by our house was simply to be present. I focused on my breathing. The steps I took along the trail. The sound of the stream as it flowed. And, for part of the walk, the music I was listening to. My mind wandered, certainly, and I wasn’t overly concerned with that. But when it did wander, I would redirect it back to being present.
Toward the end of the walk, I really started to notice that it was winter. The trees were barren, there was no one else on the trails, and I could feel the cold against my skin. And then something mystical happened.
Richard Rohr talks about the “cruciform shape to reality”. The fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the model for all of life. And while intellectually, I could kind of follow the logic, I never really understood it.
I thought of the patterns of the seasons. New life in the spring yields to maturity during the summer, then a decline in the fall before nature goes to sleep for the winter. And then, the next spring, resurrection!
And then, I thought about our human lives, defined by a spring of birth and youth, a summer of striving and establishing, a fall of physical decline before winter comes and we go to sleep. But Christ’s promise is that we, too, will follow the cruciform pattern and be resurrected.
And then I thought to the very universe itself. The Big Bang and the hyperinflation of its spring. The stable universe we know today with galaxies and stars and solar systems. Its eventual decline either in a big crush, or based on what is now reasonably widely accepted due to the measurements of dark matter in the universe, more likely a big freeze as everything flies apart at faster and faster speeds. Now, science can’t tell us much about what comes before, nor about what comes after, but the cruciform pattern can still be seen (and, pro tip – there are some stories in the Bible which hint at the non-scientifically observable parts of the story).
And so it is with life. To quote Richard Rohr, “Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form.’ This is the big fly in the cosmic ointment!”
There is mystery in the fact that the way of the cross appears to be baked into the entire fabric of the universe. We are constantly seeing new incarnations which ultimately die and are resurrected. The only question is will we still ourselves long enough so that we can see it and be transformed by it?
Faith has never been easy for me.
I was raised in a home without any religion whatsoever, and basically considered myself agnostic through High School, although for some reason I never considered myself an atheist. Even though I was never taught much about religion, I would still from time to time pray to God/whatever. And I LOVED Christmas. I remember being little and looking for the Star in the sky on Christmas Eve, being too ignorant of the Bible and of science to know that it was a one time event two thousand years ago. But perhaps I was a budding mystic even then. That was basically the extent of it for me. And to counter any religious stirrings I might have had, we had the original Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right, people telling me I was going to hell, and all those “wonderful” things about conservative American Christianity in the 1980s.
So in college I met some Christians who didn’t seem like that. They didn’t judge me, they all seemed to like being around each other, and so I went to their Bible Studies. And I fell in love with the real, historical Jesus. The Jesus who was nothing like the Religious Right. The Jesus who would not condemn those that society was quick to condemn. The Jesus who was on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The Jesus who exposed the hypocrisy of the Religious Right of his day. And so I decided to follow him.
But, still, faith didn’t come easy to me. I remember struggling with the idea that my High School friend who had probably kept me from committing suicide during a really dark period in my life and had later committed suicide himself could possibly be in hell for it. I struggled when the evangelical prayer toolbox left me feeling like my prayers were bouncing off of the ceiling. For a time, I had to excuse myself from a house church I was a part of because of the pastor’s interpretation of the Revelation of John (eschatology is hard). I had weird thoughts that God would punish me physically if I sinned.
As I continued in the evangelical world, the tensions increased. The concept of the Bible being inerrant made no sense to me since there were obvious contractions between accounts of the same story. The need to make the Bible literal, especially with regard to the Creation narratives, made me come to the conclusion that either the literalists were wrong about the earth being six thousand years old, or God was evil to make the universe look billions of years old.
And then there was homosexuality. I could never reconcile the idea that the same Bible that told of a God of infinite compassion, love, and forgiveness could condemn people to hell because of who they are or who they love. It came to a head when I was serving as the “Social Concern representative” for my church and that denomination decided that it needed to come out publicly in favor of a political initiative to officially outlaw gay marriage, and it fell to me to stand in front of the church in support of this so-called “Social Concern.” By the grace of God, I was able to express my opposition to the pastors, even though they went ahead without my involvement. I resigned my position shortly thereafter, and while I would like to say that I heroically left that church because of that moment, I did stay around for awhile before leaving because of this and other issues. Always a work in progress, sadly.
But about this same time, God gave me new wineskins. In the gospels (Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5), Jesus talks about not being able to put new wine in old wineskins because the old wineskins had become rigid and would burst as the new wine continued its fermentation process and expanded. I went to a conference in Pasadena, CA called Politics and Spirituality with Jim Wallis, Anne Lamott, and Richard Rohr as its keynote speakers. And suddenly, it clicked.
It was wonderful learning in a community of believers who saw Christianity as primarily an expression of the love of God for all people and not an exclusive clique providing fire insurance for the “elect” few. It all felt very subversive coming from a reasonably conservative evangelical environment (although this being California, not nearly as conservative as in other parts of the country). No offense to Jim Wallis, but Anne Lamott and Richard Rohr stole the show for me. I loved the way Anne Lamott told stories about kindness and the love of God. One of her stories that stays with me to this day was about how she would call out to kids in her Sunday School class who were wearing certain shirts and then hug them and tell them that they were so loved and so chosen. Being a father of really small kids at the time, it spoke to me about the love of Christ for all people.
And then there was Richard Rohr.
I had never heard anyone speak the way he spoke. The concept of “how you see determines what you see” was transformative. The introduction to the ideas that the dualistic mind of the Western church is not the way the early church and the great mystics saw reality and the fact that we needed to have a “non-dual” mindset in order to truly grasp the nature of God reoriented my prayer life forever. And learning contemplative practices at the feet of probably the greatest contemplative of my lifetime was truly an honor. It absolutely transformed my faith.
I left that conference and devoured everything off of the evangelical “safe and approved” list. Brian McLaren. Rob Bell. More Richard Rohr. Anne Lamott. The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, who sadly passed well before his time several years back. Robert Farrar Capon. And many others.
I finally had an intellectual construct for what I had intuitively felt my entire Christian life. I didn’t have to subscribe to the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture because the scripture itself doesn’t claim to be inerrant, and in fact is a conversation among the people of God that God uses to point us to Christ. I didn’t have to believe that everyone not in my tribe was going to hell, because the arc of the scriptures points to a God who has generated a “tidal wave of grace” that will eventually “soak everyone,” to paraphrase Michael Spencer. And I didn’t have to believe that my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters were not a part of this story because the dissonant voices in scripture used to justify their exclusion were outside of the narrative arc of what God is trying to communicate to us through word and tradition.
And I learned to love the historic church, contemplation, and mystery.
But I was still evangelical, despite my non-evangelical beliefs. Or at least attending evangelical churches.
After a few years of tremendous spiritual growth, I think I just kind of settled into life. I wasn’t happy in evangelical churches and generally felt like an “other” who couldn’t speak up about what I really believed. If they only knew, they would kick me out for sure. But I also didn’t really want to rock the boat and so I just kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, and tuned out the things I didn’t agree with.
But that’s changing. God has awakened me again. The funny thing about contemplative prayer is sometimes God shows up. And when he shows up, things change. It’s changing again.
Apparently I’m not completely free, because I still have more to say about evangelicals. It’s a process, y’all.
Previously I’ve talked about how the election of Trump was a watershed moment for my faith with respect to evangelicalism, but I’m only now able to put into words why that is.
You see, evangelicals voted for Trump not in spite of their beliefs, but because of them. At its core, evangelicalism is really just fundamentalism with a pretty face. It is the direct descendant of the modernist need to create a dualistic alternative to science. The whole concept of inerrancy is a reaction to Biblical criticism and scientific fact. Well, once you jettison the tradition of the church, and the Patristic teachings, and you put the Bible in a straightjacket of inerrancy and literalism, funny things happen.
This is how you end up with complementarianism, with its corollary “no women in leadership.” This is how you end up cherry picking a few verses in scripture outside of the entire context of the revealed character of Christ, and saying that some people are going to hell just because of who they love or who they are. This is how you create a militaristic God to support your country’s foreign adventures. This is how you support a culture of incarceration (primarily of the race you are not) because of a need to submit to authority. And this is how you end up with health and wealth theology that has more in common with magic than with the teachings of Jesus.
Because if everything in the Bible is perfect, you have to take the most out-of-context scriptures seriously and come up with some sort of zany theology to match it.
Which leads us back to Trump. When evangelicals looked at Trump and Hillary through the lens of their theology, there really was no choice for them. Hillary was a woman, so she can’t lead the country because complementarianism. And Mike Pence was the kind of guy who will really put the “homosexual agenda” in its place. And Trump waves the flag and promises to protect us from the infidels. And “All Lives Matter,” after all, and the people going to jail really deserve it anyway, and Trump says he’s going to get tough with them. And the Republicans are really God’s party because they acknowledge that the really rich are blessed by God and those who aren’t are just poor slackers who deserve what they get. And Trump is super rich, so he must be super blessed.
And one more thing. Fundamentalism is at its core a deeply insecure belief system. It basically says that the Christian faith is not strong enough to weather the challenges of modernity, and so we must build a “wall around the law” like the Pharisees did to keep people inside. And this insecurity encourages racism, because it encourages a fear of people different than yourself. It encourages misogyny, because once you empower women, what’s next? It encourages homophobia, because that’s one “sin” most evangelicals don’t feel is relevant to them so it’s easy for them to cast the first stone.
So, long story short, the 2016 election was really a clarifying moment for me. It allowed me to see that not only did I not really believe evangelical theology on many key points, but in fact the consequences of adhering to that theology are in fact, dangerous to my relationship with God.
2016 was a watershed moment for my faith. After years of trying to hold onto the tension between my obviously non-evangelical theological views and my desire to stay within the evangelical tradition I belonged to my entire Christian life, the election forced me to jump completely off that train. But it wasn’t until this week that I finally viewed myself as being fully outside of the tent of evangelicalism.
And I have to tell you, I feel free.
I really don’t know WHAT I am yet, and perhaps a label is just reductive and should be avoided anyway. But it ain’t evangelical. And it feels great.
I no longer have to care what evangelicals think of my theology. I no longer have to just go with the flow in a church where the majority of the people I see on Sunday somehow think that it’s okay to vote for white supremacy because abortion or Hillary or lols or whatever. I no longer have to keep looking for an evangelical church that will support me as I am in my spiritual journey because I’ve realized that construct is the mythical unicorn.
Maybe I will end up in a mainline church, or maybe I will find a group of like-minded people and start something new. But the days of pretending and worrying are over.
After reading back my previous post, I feel like there are a couple things that need to be clarified, for myself.
1. This is not a church that’s against anybody. It’s a church for people. Mainline, Catholics, Orthodox, and yes, even evangelicals are still our brothers and sisters, even though we would prefer to worship in an environment different from all of those. And of course, we are more than happy to reach across doctrinal boundaries to advance God’s reign.
2. It’s political but not partisan. The way of Jesus is by its very nature political. When you assert that you are a part of the vanguard of a new reign, you are necessarily political. When you come to bring justice for the oppressed, to raise up the poor, and to break down barriers based on race and gender; you are inherently political. But Jesus never sided with the Zealots, or the Saducees, or the Herodians, or Caesar. Because his reign judges all of those things. For 1700 years the church has been held captive by Christendom. And evangelicals are the latest to cozy up to power and its institutions of oppression in a drastic attempt to hold onto Christendom. And while we may be Republican or (more likely) Democrats politically, we must always be a prophetic voice to both parties and all other centers of power, and must never seek to impose our theological perspective on others through abuse of that power. We may march for black lives, but we shouldn’t lobby or desire access to the politicians themselves.
At what point does a re-imaged successor to evangelicalism just become a mainline church?
Let me back up a bit first before I get to that question.
After becoming a Christian in college and being for the most-part a standard issue evangelical (albeit with a liberal political bent), around 2006 God made me some new wineskins. With the help of a faith-altering message by Richard Rohr, the brutal honesty of the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, and a bit of toe-dipping into the emerging church, God showed me that my faith to that point could not be trusted to hold the new wine that he was about to pour into me.
Now, assuming there are any readers of this blog (which is not an assumption I will make), I’m just going to assert what some of those readers are probably thinking. Yes, I know you think I’m a heretic. Yes, I understand you think I’m going straight to hell. No, I don’t really care what you think. Trolls go away. This isn’t for you. Enjoy whatever church you belong to.
So, fast forward twelve years. Life happened, the fire died down from that initial rush of contemplation/joining with the historic church in its traditions/voraciously devouring all of the books outside of the evangelical safe and approved list. In the midst of all of this smoldering faith, I grumbled.
You see, 2016 had done it for me. Evangelicalism had sold its soul for political power and elected perhaps the worst human being to ever hold the office of the Presidency. I was done with it. A church that does not believe that black lives matter, that casts off all compassion toward immigrants, and that is casually accepting of white supremacy is not the church for me. Yes, I understand that not all or even most evangelicals believe these things. But they do. Their actions speak louder than their professed beliefs.
So, anyway, I’m out. I never really was on board with the inerrancy thing, or the whole eternal conscious punishment thing, or the fact that it has to be PENAL substitutionary atonement. But I was willing to kind of stick around because there are a lot of things about evangelicalism that I will miss if I leave. But I can’t abide the racism, even though evangelicals deny they are racist. But they are. They had no problem voting for an openly racist, misogynist, I will stop now because of the Thumper rule.
But there are things about evangelicalism that I will really miss. I actually like good evangelical worship. And while most of it is quite bad, when done well, not as entertainment but as the work of the people, it can really draw us closer to God. And while I’m big on not making the Bible into our idol and respecting the democracy of the dead of church tradition, I really like the evangelical focus on scripture. Also, while I’m not really a charismatic, God has used charismatic experiences to strengthen my faith in ways that could not have been done otherwise.
So back to my original question. Let’s say we start something new. Something that looks like this:
1. The statement of faith simply references the historic creeds and nothing else. That’s all you need in order to sign on the dotted line and become a member.
2. Mercy and justice. Stand in solidarity with the marginalized, be compassionate to those in need, and advocate for a just transformation of the power structure.
3. Communion. Every week. Being open to the idea that maybe Christ is really present in the elements in some way, but being okay with people believing that it’s just a symbol too. Oh, and it’s open. Jesus shared meals with everyone, including a first communion with the one who had already chosen to betray him. Why shouldn’t we?
4. Read the scripture in church. Maybe three of them. And say things like “A reading from…”, “The word of the Lord…” and “Thanks be to God…” Oh, and stand for the reading of the word.
5. Preaching from the lectionary is great.
6. Liturgy! Maybe not Anglican/Lutheran/Catholic levels of liturgy, but worship songs shouldn’t be the only work of the people.
7. Everybody who is willing to put up with us is welcome. Yes, everybody. In case that isn’t clear enough, that means especially LGBT people. Oh, and did I say they can take communion?
8. Back to communion. No plastic cups, and everyone comes up to the front to take it. We don’t have to drink from the same chalice – lets just dip it, because hygiene and microbial science, but still. And did I say it should be every week?
9. Contemplatives welcome! Lets learn from the historic practices of the church so we can grow deeper in our relationship with Christ, which is really what this is all about, right? And you’re welcome to make the sign of the cross, bring your rosaries, kiss icons, and kneel at the foot of the cross as needed.
10. Hymns! A lot of hymns. Much better theology than in most contemporary praise music.
But along with off this “new” old stuff, lets keep:
1. Good, creedal, contemporary worship songs.
2. An extremely high view of the scripture. Again, we’re not talking that we make everyone believe the Bible is inerrant/infallible/whatever. But we should probably accept that the Bible is the one that God gave us, so there’s probably a reason for that. And we can keep the “inspired” part.
3. Bible studies. Lots of bible studies. But maybe also lets mix in some church fathers and church tradition teaching too. We can even study systematic theology as well, but lets not hit each other over the head with it. It’s pretty rigid.
4. And hey, lets still be the church outside of our walls. Everyone can’t be welcome if we have no one to welcome.
5. A reasonable length, gospel-based message. I can never get enough of the gospel. It wasn’t called the “good news” for nothing!
So, back to the original question. Is this just a mainline church? Is this just Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox? Or is there something in this formulation that could be the starting point of a new movement of the church?
I know what you’re thinking. “You damn Protestants, always need to come up with something new.” And I get that. But what if the reason the church has so many different facets is because God is really creative and created a whole bunch of different people? And maybe, just maybe, rather than pushing millennials (and don’t forget post-millennials) and people of color, and people who just are tired of all the culture wars and heresy hunting out of the existing church, it’s time for a new expression of the church?