Surviving the death of the tradition that raised you.
It can be difficult growing up as a Christian, perhaps particularly an evangelical.
But if that’s tricky, for many, worse is yet to come.
For many who are born into an evangelical tradition, or were nurtured through it, a spiritual or existential crisis which eventually propels them out of that tradition is profoundly unsettling.
Often, such is the singular emphasis of evangelicalism, that to be anything ‘other’ than evangelical, is not to be Christian at all. And for an evangelical, to not be a Christian can literally mean a fate worse than death.
But there are more approaches to Christianity than the one enshrined in contemporary evangelicalism. The broader Christian religious and spiritual tradition is one that has spent 2000 years in development, and has a vast array of schools of thought. Some ancient, some modern, some post-modern.
Whatever reason may have propelled the newly ‘ex-evangelical’ from the bosom of the church, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that Christianity as a whole is lost to them forever. And for some people, that’s important: research shows people who no longer identify as Christian, often maintain some of their key beliefs and motivations. The person of Jesus, for instance continues to get enormous respect from a variety of directions, very often people continue to believe in a god of some sort, albeit perhaps not the God they were taught about. Alternatively some continue to believe in the kind of God that evangelicalism taught them about, and they have come to reject that idea of God, often for very good reasons.
While evangelicalism does a number of things very well, it has its weaknesses too, just as every tradition does. For instance, one of its great strengths is that many of the great social reforms have come from evangelicals, and today its often people from that tradition who are actively engaged in issues of social justice. What helps to keep people motivated in engaging in this kind of activity though, is precisely the sort of thing that can cause other problems. There’s a single mindedness that spurs many on to great things, but which doesn’t always handle questions well. A crisis of faith, a period of mental ill health, profound existential angst, questions over gender identity or sexuality, disillusionment with a leader, any of these can prove to be very difficult for an evangelical church to manage, and these are frequently ‘exit points’ for the disenchanted.
And there are other things too, profound moral convictions can come into conflict with the kind of theology expounded in evangelical churches: environmental issues, human sexuality, politics, and many more ideas become flashpoints for those struggling with an evangelical identity.
So what becomes of those, who some describe as ‘ex-vangelicals’? Very often feelings of disillusionment lead to a wholesale rejection of church, and they find themselves removed from the embrace of community altogether. Some find that this suits them, that in fact church had been, or had latterly become, more of a hindrance than a help in the development of their personal spirituality, or corporate involvement in matters of great importance. Others find a new home in another tradition, yet others decide that not just evangelicalism, but all of Christianity has become a toxic brand, and they want no more to do with any of it. They say there’s nothing like an ex-smoker to bemoan the ills of smoking…
But where an interest remains, it can be very difficult for a church leaver to reconnect with Christianity in a meaningful form, years of hearing how ‘other’ traditions are, if not evil, at best only ‘kind of’ Christian, can mean that one is disturbed by the idea of engaging with any of them. Quakerism, for example, which has provided a home for many who have left the evangelical church, is roundly derided in some quarters of the church for its open stance on matters theological and social. Mystical traditions, which actually share a huge amount with charismaticism, are distrusted and seen as being aligned with ‘new age’ thinking – a huge evangelical bug bear. Apophatic or negative theologies are often thought of as ‘atheism lite’, or even atheism writ large. In other words: not Christian. Orthodox and Catholic traditions are often seen as ‘too religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ (because of course, evangelicalism has no idols…) Process theology, which offers (among other things) a new way of looking at the power of God, is considered heresy by conservative evangelicals.
But in all of these traditions and more, there are profound treasures to be discovered, and the ex-vangelical can find in progressive and liberal circles, in Orthodoxy and other traditions cadres of dedicated, engaged, love filled people just like them, who are struggling through life with questions, doubts, sincere commitments, phobias, and querks. As well as all the other usual collection of failures, mess-ups, and disaster zones that constitute the human race.
If you or your friends are struggling with these issues, and want to explore what kind of tradition or theology you could begin to engage with, I’d love to come and talk with you. It’s not about finding something we all agree with, after all, we all have different opinions, and our opinions change over time. That’s kind of the point.
My work and my ongoing research has led me in to contact with a wide range of traditions and theologies which represent something of the breadth of Christianity as we know it. I also identify with, and have a profound sympathy for those who leave, or have left evangelicalism. I now offer ‘house conferences’ which are basically privately hosted talks and discussions, on precisely this subject. If you are interested in hosting a house conference, drop me a line and lets talk.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post a short series of blogs about ideas and places that may be worth you exploring after evangelicalism. I’ll also aim to answer questions as I go, so feel free to tweet me, facebook message me via my page, or bung me an email. I’d love to hear from you.