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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?

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