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The Great Evangelical Break-Up

TL;DR: Post-Evangelicals are one of the most important religious groups that are shaping America today. In many ways, I wish I was one, because I’d like to take part in the conversation. In this piece, I explain my experience as a child of some very early post-Evangelicals who got pushed out of the Evangelical Quaker church. I explore how these experiences might be relevant to the important conversations that post-Evangelicals are currently having about their faith. To all my post-Evangelical peers, I ask: How can I support you in the struggle you’re experiencing?

(Don’t know what post-Evangelicalism is? Check out this interview with Michael Spencer where he explains his view on it, and this blog post by Rachel Held Evans on why it’s so important.)

Dear Post-Evangelicals,

This may sound a kinda weird, but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m a little jealous of you.

Let me explain.

There’s a really vibrant conversation happening right now among those who have grown up in Evangelical churches but who, for a variety of reasons, are distancing themselves from that tradition as they seek a deeper, more authentic walk with Jesus. I believe that this is one of the most important conversations happening in the United States today, one which has the potential to profoundly shape the future of the church. Yet, as much as I want to be part of this mix, I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Why?

This requires some background. I hope you’ll bear with me as I share a bit of my life with you.

Not Quite Evangelical

I don’t really qualify as post-Evangelical, because I was never an Evangelical to begin with. For most of my youth, I didn’t sing the music. I didn’t hear the sermons. I wasn’t immersed in the camps and the culture of mainstream evangelicalism.

This wasn’t on accident. You see, my parents used to be Evangelicals. My parents were Evangelical pastors. My dad grew up in a Quaker denomination that was, at that time, steeped in fundamentalism. When he decided to attend the shockingly liberal seminary, Earlham School of Religion, he was warned that he might not be able to minister in his home region. He would be tainted.

My mom grew up Baptist and attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Apparently, it wasn’t a fundamentalist institution at that time, but it became one shortly after she graduated. Along with many other Southern Baptists, my mom watched her childhood denomination take a hard turn into into rigid legalism. A culture of theological cleansing left the Southern Baptist Convention a much more sterile – and neo-Calvinist – place.

My parents eventually found a home in the more liberal wing of the Evangelical Friends Church. During my early childhood, they served as pastors in Wichita, Kansas. Our church was very chill, and relatively mainline by Evangelical Quaker standards. I think a lot of my post-Evangelical friends would feel comfortable worshiping there.

But by the time I was in grade school, my parents were becoming increasingly convinced that Sunday-morning Evangelicalism just wasn’t enough. No matter how nice the community was, they yearned to be part of a radical fellowship of Christ-followers, learning how to be disciples in their everyday lives. They wanted to live in solidarity with those who are most marginalized in our society. With increasing urgency, they felt that God was calling them to be in relationship with those whom the mainstream culture had taught them to fear.

In a move that surprised many and troubled some in our church, my family joined several other households in starting the Friends of Jesus intentional community. We relocated into what was then considered a rough area of Wichita, where some of our friends were afraid to visit us. It also happened to be where most of the residents were black. Funny how that works.

Dynamic Tension

My parents had hoped to continue serving as pastors. They were both part-time, and they didn’t see any necessary conflict between this new ministry and their work as pastors. But not everyone felt that way. It soon became clear that this new community project made some folks in our church deeply uncomfortable. When we moved, my parents stepped down as pastors.

I know that was really disappointing for my parents, but we made the best of it. The new community met together for worship, house-church style. It was a good experience for me, a lot more participatory than worship with the larger congregation. I liked playing the drum and singing songs out of our community song book.

For a while, we stayed connected to Evangelical Friends. We were still members of our old church, even though in some ways it didn’t feel like home anymore. We didn’t want to burn bridges; we just had a different mission. Few were ready to embrace what the New Monastic movement would later call relocation to the abandoned places of Empire, but that’s what we felt called to.

The Cold Shoulder

Our decision to move into what was then called urban ministry was off-putting, but nobody stopped us. Folks in the wider Quaker community had concerns, but they were whispered. Aren’t you afraid for your children? Do you really want them to grow up in that neighborhood? I lost a lot of friends; their parents wouldn’t let them come over to play anymore. It just wasn’t safe.

I think that’s a fair summary of how the Friends of Jesus intentional community was regarded by most folks: Unsafe. We were headed in an increasingly radical direction, understanding Jesus’ message as having profound, real-life applications that go far beyond the personal savior theologies of mainstream Evangelicalism. We wanted to do more than invite Jesus into our hearts. We wanted to invite him into every aspect of our lives.

The straw that really broke the camel’s back was when a lesbian couple began participating in the community. We didn’t realize they were gay at first. We were Evangelicals in the early 90s, after all. Our gay-dar wasn’t very good. We didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter. We were friends.

But, as we got to know one another better, it did come up. Again, we were Evangelicals in the early 90s, so our new friendship raised some real theological questions for the community. This couple seemed healthy, happy, and filled with the Holy Spirit. And they were gay. This was challenging for many of us.

So, the community took a time out. The adults did an extended study of Scripture, to really consider what the Bible actually says about mutually-committed, gay romantic relationships (spoiler alert: not much!). By the time they were done, they had become convinced that God called us to welcome and affirm our lesbian friends, and other gay people, too. They published a white paper, explaining their conclusions for those who cared to read it.

All Hell Breaks Loose

You can probably already see where this is going. Soon, people back at our old church were hearing that we were promoting homosexuality. Scandalous stuff. Before long, concerned church members reported us to the denomination.

The process of being disciplined by the Evangelical Friends Church was a lot more efficient than you’d think. There was no need for a lot of drawn out meetings, or discussion, or prayer. The elders of the Yearly Meeting (the denomination) met with a few of us. Concerns were expressed. A few days later, they sent us a letter, informing us of their decision: Heresy denounced. Ministerial credentials revoked. Crisis averted. The Friends of Jesus community was cut loose.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

Cast Out

On that day, my whole community became post-Evangelical. I was too young to really understand what was going on at the time, but I could tell that my family was experiencing a lot of trauma. It’s hard to be told by your faith community that you’re a heretic. It had to hurt, being cast off, renounced, revoked, with hardly a conversation. I know that this experience profoundly wounded people in my community, and we’re still doing the work of un-twisting ourselves today.

For the children of our community (or at least for me), the effects of this break were perhaps even more profound. My parents were post-Evangelicals, but what did that make us kids? Post-post-Evangelical?

I love you, post-Evangelicals, because I love my parents. I’ve watched as they’ve struggled with the mainstream Evangelical church. I know how much pain is there, how bad it hurt them to lose fellowship in the search for spiritual integrity and a deeper relationship with God. I know that being post-Evangelical comes at a very real cost.

A Whole New Ball Game

My family and my community was marginalized from Evangelical Quakerism when I was still in grade school. Though they handled it with about as much maturity as I think anyone could muster, there’s no doubt that this was a wounding experience. The generation above me will probably be wrestling with what it all meant for the rest of their lives.

It was different for me. As a grade schooler, I couldn’t help but feel the emotional impact of what my elders were going through, but it wasn’t direct. These were adult struggles, and they spared us kids the worst of it.

Still, the effects of these experiences were profound. I ended up receiving a formation very different from the one that my parents experienced. No more Sunday-morning-as-usual for me. I grew up in a household where a radical critique of mainstream Christianity was everyday conversation. I experienced my parent’s faith as being profoundly rooted in the struggle for peace and economic justice. I experienced first-hand the relocation to the abandoned places of Empire that the new monastics would name as crucial some twenty years later.

Instead of mission trips to foreign countries, I was enlisted in practical work for justice and reconciliation in the neighborhoods of my city where most middle class people were afraid to venture. Rather than the altar call, my spiritual proving ground was the pledge of allegiance. By refusing to stand for it, I learned important lessons in how both peers and authority respond when someone questions the religion of nationalism. While most Christians around me were primarily concerned with personal salvation, I was being trained to participate in the present-tense healing of the nations.

If You’re Skimming, Read This Part

So why did I just tell you all of this? I think it’s easy for any of us to imagine that we are unique, and that we are having our experiences for the first time, ever. But what strikes most me about the post-Evangelical phenomenon is how I’ve seen this before.

I’m really excited about this. It’s a movement whose time has finally come. Back in the 90s, when my parents were being cast out of the Evangelical fold, they were considered extremely radical. Yet today, the ideas and lifestyle that they were exploring is becoming, if not normal, at least increasingly well-known in (post-)Evangelical circles. Radical discipleship is becoming far less alien to the imagination of the mainstream church. It may not be a common choice, but for many it is a live option in a way that it simply wasn’t a mere generation ago.

This is important. We’re in the midst of a tidal wave of change that is fundamentally re-shaping the character of the North American church. Millions of us are discovering the ideas of the radical discipleship movement, and a surprising number are embracing the call to abandon all – our comfort, our wealth, and even the Evangelical subculture – in order to follow Jesus.

I share my story in part because I want you to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a coherent life, community, and shared theology that is available when we come through the ferment of the great Evangelical break-up. The post-Evangelical experience isn’t simply about rejecting the unhealthy aspects of the Evangelical church; it can be a gateway into a much deeper engagement with the profoundly counter-cultural way of Jesus.

The travail that so many of us are experiencing right now isn’t the end, any more than the Protestant Reformation was. We’re at the beginning of something beautiful. We are invited to participate in a raw and vital movement of the Spirit in our own time and place. I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it happen to my parents and our community. It can happen to us, too. Are we ready?

Forward Together

I have a request for those of you who identify as (post-)Evangelical:

I want to be part of this moment with you.

I don’t know quite how I fit in. I didn’t go to the camps or the colleges. I didn’t grow up singing the songs or reading the books. I don’t speak the language. And, to be really honest, I can’t always relate to your experience. I want to, but it’s not always authentic for me.

Still, I hope that I can contribute to this conversation. I want to bring the experience of my community, my family, to this pivotal moment we’re facing. We learned a lot when I was a kid. We had some amazing successes, and some devastating failures. Some of this experience might come in handy today, as many thousands of us are struggling to discover what lies beyond the Sunday morning show.

I want to struggle together with you, despite all the ways that I’m a little bit out of sync. What could this look like? How can we strengthen one another, discovering the ancient-yet-new way of Jesus in our time and generation?

Video:

Related Posts:

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How to Survive the Church-pocalyse

  • My parents were mainline, not evangelicals, but they also wound up outside of this milieu where they had spent all their lives due to their radical understanding of the Gospel. My father was a Methodist pastor, and split with the Church when I was in elementary school. So I have some similarity in experience,

    In my adult life, I was part of the liberal wing of Friends. It is an environment in which radical is not so big an issue, but explicitly following Jesus Christ is. As I increasingly felt the call of Christ on my life, I fit in less and less in my religious environment (although I was not rejected by my Meeting), and began to look elsewhere for spiritual community. So I’m more of a post-liberal.

    But whether we are post-evangelical, post-mainline, post-liberal, post-secular or post some other faith, or whether we’ve been mostly in a radical Christian stream in our lives, we need to listen to Christ and how Christ is working in each other and make a bold commitment to follow. Like your parents, we are going to find ourselves alongside some folks we may not have expected, and need to use such experiences to broaden our understanding of God’s love and grace.

    • Absolutely, Bill. As Rachel Held Evans says, “we’re all post-something.” Especially in our time of great upheaval and change in the religious landscape of America, I think we both sense a call to stay open and faithful to wherever God leads us – even when that leading draws us away from familiar forms and structures.

      • Laurent Delobel

        I’ve intuition that Jesus was a post-nazarene who were probably post-pharesian. He was a post-post. We have always to go outside. To move, like Abraham. May be the greatest example of this exode is the way Jésus went out of godness. In French : la kénose. Incarnation is a post-God attitude. May be the name of all this “post” is Spirit. (sorry for my english, I wrote this coment without translator) 🙂

        • That’s a great thought, Laurent. Lots to contemplate!!

  • Shasta4737

    Thank you for this message, Micah. It is very helpful.

  • Micah, I love what you’re saying here and I love what your parents modeled for you. Would that that were the story for more of us. I’m nervous, however, about how there is so much labeling going on within our faith. What was once short-hand to explain our beliefs and practices has become dividing lines that readily connote an us/them mentality.

    Personally, I’m in a really weird place of feeling alienated from the Church I’ve always loved (which I no-longer have much desire to participate in) while wanting my kids to have that base of faith community experience. But in a way I’m glad for that because it keeps me from abandoning the Church out of my own frustration.

    There’s a lot of talk (at least I see a lot of Facebook re-posts) regarding those who have left the church – i.e. what the church can do to change, how the deserters need to get over themselves, how the church can bring them back. While I identify with much of this, its ubiquity is nauseating. It appears that there is more concern over fortifying the organization than there is for the hearts and lives around us.

    Until we can abandon labeling, siloing, and defending our own kingdoms, we will fail in bringing the true kingdom down to earth. I’m conflicted. I don’t know what to call myself. I’m just a guy who wants to love like Jesus loved and teach my kids to do the same. Sometimes the Church helps to enable that and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not post- whatever, I’m just striving to be beyond that mattering.

    Love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for bringing the conversation.

    • Hey, Ryan! Thanks for this comment.

      Something I’ve realized in the process of writing this piece is that most people don’t seem to really identify with the term “post-Evangelical,” even if that theoretically describes the stream they’re participating in. Some of the church’s public intellectuals are really wrestling with this stuff, but for most of us it’s a lot more muddy, human, day-by-day.

      I agree that the temptation to self-absorption is real. It’s easy to make this whole thing about us and our little fights and identities rather than about being faithful to God and following Jesus. That’s a struggle I’ve personally been through with the Quaker community, and I’ve come to a place where I’m not very interested in debating over Quaker identity politics anymore.

      Whatever the labels, my hope with this post is to reach out to others that I see who are looking for a more authentic relationship with Jesus, and for a faith that engages with our hurting, broken world. I’m glad to be in conversation with you about that! 🙂

      • Now that I vented. I will admit: one of the hardest things for me – living in the South (Texas to be specific) – is finding kindred spirits. I’ve been fortunate to discover a few over the last year and a half, but most everyone here is either still steeped in religious life or has abandoned it and God completely. It’s a place where it seems safer to be godless than to be God-ambiguous (or something along those lines). This is a place where answers are precise and absolute. To find the braves souls willing to question and converse is a serious task.

        • Absolutely, Ryan. I feel you on this. I feel like the simplest path is to fall into either a fundamentalist groove or a skeptical one. But it sounds like you and I have both become convinced that the third way of risky faith is ultimately more rewarding.

  • Paul Ricketts

    “Do you consider yourself a post-Evangelical?”For me the holy spirit is
    central to Quaker faith and practice. This experience informs both our
    way of worship and social testimonies. I’m not sure, where this puts me
    theological or denominational spectrum.

    • Vail Palmer

      My own experience of emerging from the extreme liberal wing of Quakerism, and really being a post-liberal,has led me on a long quest through all sorts of varieties of Quakerism — never feeling really at home in any of them until — now in my 80s I have finally found a home in a small “convergent” Friends Church, and in its connections with other Convergent Friends in our region — and seeing in this a real searching together for a deepening radical Christ-centered, social justice and peace oriented community — with whole bunches of Christian gays and lesbians involved. It’s gotten really exciting at last, even with feeling empathy with nearby churches involved in tensions with their yearly meeting over the gay-marriage, gay/lesbian leadership, etc. issues.
      Vail Palmer

      • charlesburchfield

        vail palmer, are you any relation to parker palmer?

        • Vail Palmer

          to charlesburchfield
          No relation;I”ve never even met Parker Palmer, tho I’ve heard lots of good stuff about thim!
          Vail Palmer

          • charlesburchfield

            yes, he is around 80. i became aware of him while suffering a clinical depression. he suffers from it and has recovered. he speaks deeply from experience & i was encouraged. he and bill moyers did a program together. it was excelent!

  • I think, as a result of having gone through this transformation well ahead of many of us, and at a younger age, and without being as aware of it, you’re going to have some unique and helpful wisdom that will challenge those of us who are now riding the wave your parents rode years ago.

    • That is my hope. I’m looking for ways to connect with the wider community of folks who are experiencing this transition, and seeing how we can support one another!

      • charlesburchfield

        support for one another is a great idea and i am looking forward to some break throughs, inspiration, creativity & new opportunities to have society w/ ‘friends’. I wish there was a forum to actually share the desires of my heart, to pray w/ you, to hear yours also. What practical ways can this be done I wonder?

  • mjcul

    “They published a white paper, explaining their conclusions for those who cared to read it.”

    Micah, would it be possible for me to read a copy of this paper? I am in great personal need of writings like this, being both gay and post-evangelical. Thanks in advance, and also thank you for writing this post.

    • Thank you for this request, mjcul. I’ll be making this white paper available tomorrow. Stay tuned!

  • Duncan Pugh

    “I don’t know quite how I fit in. I didn’t go to the camps or the colleges. I didn’t grow up singing the songs or reading the books. I don’t speak the language. And, to be really honest, I can’t always relate to your experience. I want to, but it’s not always authentic for me.”

    Are you referring to a charismatic/spiritualist strain of speaking in tongues and the like? You know like the lines from the Zappa Beatles Medley: “Picture yourself on your own TV station, and braindead supporters with tears in their eyes …”?

    Here in the UK it is not such a big issue … evangelism doesn’t go down well in any form, Richard Dawkins included, and least of all in Neo-Con Biblical fundamentalist garb.

    As for me raised as a Methodist … probably leaning towards Primitive Methodism in my family as my grandma was born in 1892 and lived to be 101!? Went to London at 20, got sent a Methodist membership card by a friend of my family which I only now appreciate as being a message about how to stay feeling loved being a stranger in a lonely city with what can only be described as amorphous circles of friends. But I was looking for salvation, or perhaps I saw it as enlightenment, in ALL the wrong places … perhaps except for the books I was reading and London itself with its beautiful museums and galleries full of all the wonders of human creativity and tradition. I don’t think I went to a church service once in 5 years of living there.

    There was no church that appealed to me in any way, yet at the same time I came to realise the centrality of Christianity for making sense of the world that I lived in. The blatant hypocrisy of the most prominent Christian denominations, Methodists included, became blazingly apparent. Sanctioning wars, speaking of a heaven and a hell, being so backward on, OK, the gay issue, for example … the list could be endless. Again from a UK perspective I saw American Evangelism, including Billy Graham, as primarily a money making venture which preyed on people’s perceived insecurities by making them feel bad about themselves and then promising a cure that only ‘Jesus’ could supply. How could the message of the allegory of the sheep and the goats have been so perverted?

    I sought fellowship by going to study for a Theology Degree at an Anglican College and it was a worthwhile experience. The department was heavily into issues about gender, sexuality and marriage. I thought these to be dead issues but I also saw the tears of a lecturer who ‘came out’ at the end of a talk on Christian views on sexuality if I needed convincing of how important an issue it was in the C of E.

    The church I attended as a youth is literally dying and it will die. The ministers have never impressed me apart from the one who was a builder by trade and built his own church!

    I cannot find a congregation that i wouldn’t feel contaminated by.

    I don’t think I can say what type of Christian I am. I don’t know if it is right for me to say I am a Christian … I do not think that Jesus ever envisaged Christianity becoming a religion … everything depends upon the practical exposition of his teachings and example for me and I’m not sure that I am up to that.

    “5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

    • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

      The message of Jesus can be summed up in the word ‘LOVE’.

    • I think “I don’t speak the language” means he doesn’t have the lingo common in Evangelical circles. Just like a non-Quaker is going to be lost when we talk about standing aside as meeting for worship for conduct of business discerns the sense of the Meeting or suggests we need another FAP or two for the JYF gathering next First Day, I’m sure Evangelicals have plenty of jargon of their own.

  • charlesburchfield

    Good query! I have just been thinking in terms of being one who leaves the 99 & goes after the 1. Also the ones considered marginal: ‘them’, they can teach by their lives & preach by their suffering. That is ‘they’ are the ones considered already receiving the most the kingdom has to offer & testify to it’s reality I think. I think I am a ‘they’. At times I am more ‘they’ (more marginal) then at other times. I try to be aware of who I’m w/ & carry the presents w/ me in every context. That fact automatic makes me marginal!

  • Laurent Delobel

    Micah, your testimony touches me so much! I just spent several hours to translate but I have not finished. I would end Sunday. Here in France, we have no “post-evangelical” but so many “post-Catholic!” Trauma you describe, I know it well. We will find the strength to create a new way!

    • Thanks, Laurent. J’attends ta traduction avec impatience! 🙂