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Evangelicals: You’re still not really listening to what exvangelicals are saying

What the exvangelical narratives often reveal is not a lack of biblical literacy among those who leave — it is a lack of agreement with evangelicals around what the Bible means and teaches.

Photo by Edward Cisneros/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In a recent episode of Christianity Today’s “The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, host Mike Cosper spends some time with several guests reflecting on the growing ranks of exvangelicals — those who have left white evangelicalism for a different form of faith or for no faith at all.

Cosper’s tone and that of his guests is sober, grieved: Why have so many left? Why are they so angry at evangelicalism? 

One guest, Baylor professor Matthew Lee Anderson, claims that those who use the term did not experience “the mainstream evangelical experience.” That the “very bad experiences” they had were “sociologically, actually quite marginal experiences inside of white evangelicalism.”

Anderson goes further in his critique of the exvangelical experience and the community that has formed around it: “But that to me seems to be something very different than deep, difficult, self-examination in order to find the truth … that I think gets corrupted once it takes this sort of publicized form.” A form Anderson then calls “deliberately contrarian” in its efforts to “critique and take down the structures” exvangelicals have left behind.

The public and contrarian critiques of the Protestant Reformation notwithstanding, it would seem.

The pace of think-pieces, podcasts, blog posts and Twitter threads by evangelicals about exvangelicals has picked up over the last year or so and appears to be accelerating.

This is hardly surprising: Usage of the #exvangelical hashtag across social media has been persistent since 2016, garnering more than 300 million views on TikTok, 54,000 posts on Instagram and routinely getting more than 100,000 daily impressions on Twitter.

In the span of a few short years, entire cultures, communities and followings have been built around a constellation of related hashtags — #EmptyThePews, #ChurchToo, #SlateSpeak, #Decolonize, #faithfullyLGBT, #exchristian, #exmormon and others — all of them dedicated to talking about what it’s like to grow up in — and leave — your faith of origin. 

Yet, even with this deluge of digital content flowing from multiple perspectives, I could sum up the evangelical reaction to exvangelical perspectives in one word: unsatisfied.

Evangelical leaders are unsatisfied with the personal and theological reasons exvangelicals give for leaving their faith communities. Instead, they assert their own varied theories on the exodus. It is merely “trendy” to leave, they say. Those were never “real” Christians to begin with, they assure themselves. They only left because they wanted to have sex with someone the Bible said they shouldn’t, they opine. The reasons are nearly always cast as personal, moral failings. Or perhaps the seductions of “culture.”

I would like to challenge that. 

To put the hashtag in perspective: #exvangelical is a personal starting point and a social counterpoint. It is also a hashtag whose uses cannot be dictated by any single person. It does give language to the liminal spaces many people find themselves in after questioning the tenets of their faith; it does not make any discrete or particular theological demands on those who use it.

My podcast, itself titled “Exvangelical,” features interviews with people who’ve left white evangelicalism — starting first with how they were raised and their relationship to faith, what led them to question their faith and where they are now. These stories have patterns — earnest struggles with doubt, the physical and emotional burden of purity culture, authoritarian environments — but each plays out in a way unique for the guest.

Here’s how one guest described the loss of their faith community: 

“Things have been tough. I’ve had some people beside me, but not a lot. I’ve been very sad and very alone and sacrificed a lot of money when I did not have it. I’ve learned a whole lot about loneliness and aloneness, and solitude as opposed to aloneness. Some people don’t ever feel these ways; they don’t have a need to. They don’t feel the unrest and are just there. OK. And then there are people who have a lot of unrest and they just give up and say, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

Actually, that’s not true. This quote is from Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Are Leaving the Church, by William D. Hendricks. It was published in 1993. That this is a believable quote in 2021, nearly 30 years later, is a testament to how common (and relatable) a story it is for those who find themselves at odds with their faith community. To paraphrase an old Caedmon’s Call lyric: We come from a long line of leavers. What’s changed is how we connect and communicate. Thanks to social media, these experiences are much more indexable, searchable and shareable

Turning our attention to the substance of these evangelical critiques, they seek to undermine exvangelical credibility through vague dismissals asserting a lack of scriptural literacy, a desire to “jump on trends” and even claims of apostasy. In an Aug. 13 Patheos post, Grayson Gilbert alleged “the deconstruction narrative of exvangelicals … relies upon sheer ignorance to what the Scriptures teach,” and later, that “while deconstruction is the trendy term all the cool kids use to describe the latest fad, the Bible knows this simply as apostasy.” David Jeremiah also made statements about the “apostasy” of exvangelicals in a sermon this June

What the exvangelical narratives often reveal, however, is not a lack of biblical literacy among those who leave — it is a lack of agreement with evangelicals around what the Bible means and teaches. Entire traditions of Christianity practice wholly different methods of biblical hermeneutics and criticism, but such traditions are also equally dismissed by many evangelicals as invalid.

In a moving Twitter thread this February (written in the context of The Gospel Coalition announcing a book on deconstruction), chaplain Caitlin Stout wrote:

“A friend asked the other day what percentage of people I went to youth group with ‘deconstructed’ and what percentage remained evangelical. As I thought about it, I realized that for the most part it was the kids who took their faith the most seriously who eventually walked away. Those of us who tearfully promised that we would follow Jesus anywhere eventually followed him out the door. The Queer kids, more than anyone, learned exactly what it meant to work out our faith with fear and trembling. They told us to read the Bible and take it seriously and then mocked us for becoming ‘social justice warriors.’” 

It is in stories and perspectives like this that those who leave white evangelicalism find resonance and commonality. At or near the center of many deconstruction narratives is a profound sense of grief, anger and lament at a church whose theology justifies and enables abuse, rallies its political might behind immoral and vacuous strongmen and does not protect the vulnerable in their own midst.

In a recent article on “Current,” Jay Green writes:

One finds limited talk of theology among these Exvangelicals apart from repudiating the “rigidity” and “literalness” of evangelical faith. The paradigm shifts they have undergone seem more sociological than theological; more concerned with cultural claims than metaphysical ones … What appears to drive exvangelical passions most are deep frustrations — or, more often, embittered anger — toward the cultural tone, political posturing, moral stances and innumerable hypocrisies they observe in the American evangelical subculture. 

Here again we see a deflection to “limited talk of theology,” as if right belief is the only metric one can use to measure someone’s legitimate concerns or as if belief is not tied to the pursuit of policy and political power.

We live in a country molded by white evangelical power, and the outsized effect of white evangelical politics — and the beliefs that motivate them, the media that propagates them and the communities that inculcate them — is not new. The year 1976, not 2016, was dubbed The Year of the Evangelical. We have lived in its shadow for a long time. 

Exvangelicals and their like are still very new communities and cultures, cultivated in the accelerated medium of the internet, exploring the personal and social impact of a faith movement whose “modern” iteration dates to the late 19th century. Vocabularies change quickly as people learn to articulate their new beliefs and practices in public or as creators continue to refine and refocus their work.

Conflict has and will occur, and inasmuch as these conflicts mirror those seen within white evangelicalism, this is a testament to how deeply white evangelicalism has formed us as people, as communities, as cultures. These new communities can endeavor to learn from their own conflict and shortcomings and also learn from how white evangelicalism has failed to do so.

Yet, white evangelicals should not be so quick to dismiss or deride exvangelical critiques. What should alarm them is the quantity of complaints that find their own traditions hollow, hypocritical and less than ideal. White evangelicals have routinely pushed out or alienated those who sought to reform them from within, and so now exvangelicals levy their perspectives from outside the fold.

To put it bluntly: White evangelicals have long pursued power. They should not be surprised that those harmed by how they wield power have decided to speak truth to it. 

(Blake Chastain is host of the podcasts Exvangelical and Powers & Principalities, and writer of The Post-Evangelical Post newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @brchastain. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)