Many of us were raised in families with generations of Christians. We were church leaders, pastors, Bible class teachers, and graduates of Christian colleges. We grew up listening to Christian music and wearing WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”) bracelets and purity rings. We sang Christian devotional songs around the campfire at our church camps and might have married a special person we met there.
But when we came to the door of your sanctuary, many of us felt like foreigners. The words you used were different. The traditions, the vestments, the incense, the jargon…all seemed a little stuffy…and frankly…weird. But despite all that, something drew us to you.
We Evangelicals have diverse backgrounds and many of our stories are a little different. But amidst the differences, we share some commonalities. Vineyard, Baptist, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, and other non-denominational faith backgrounds with varying levels of conservatism. But listen for a bit, and common themes begin to bubble up to the surface. Though stories are shared to knowing nods by our “Exvangelical” comrades (as we former Evangelicals call ourselves…) our narratives are met by gasps of horror and disbelief (and even some dismissal) from many of our “cradle” Episcopalian friends.
This divide between cradle Episcopalians and Exvangelicals is a challenge that plays itself out time after time across the nation as formerly devout Evangelicals are leaving the churches of their youth in droves. Though some have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and left Christianity altogether, many are still deeply in love with the Way of Christ and the teachings of Jesus and are searching for a new spiritual community.
For many, these devoted individuals left behind lifelong friendships, the only support systems they ever knew, and for some, blood relatives. Some left due to “pulling” forces: They were wanting something more or no longer felt fed by their faith community. Or maybe they stumbled upon the Episcopal branch and were attracted by their theology and practice. But far more left their churches as a result of “pushing” forces: Some may have asked the wrong questions or had too many doubts and were asked to leave their roles in leadership. Others may have been ostracized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
So many of these people were the most involved, committed, and devoted. Their devotion led to immersing themselves in the Bible and spiritual teachings so much that, rather than having the luxury of glossing over things that are contradictions or just hard questions, they dove in deeper. And when they dove into those hard questions, if they were trying to be authentic, doubts and harder questions arose.
Many of us have “spoken the same language” and experienced the same Evangelical culture. But it’s important to remember that we are not a monolithic group either. To some, this is a very fresh and raw experience. Others may have left a long time ago and have spent some good time on a therapist’s couch.
We learned very quickly that the Christianity you grew up with is totally different than the Christianity of our youth
Some of us left with our families intact, while for others, these questions are the wedge splitting our marriages and homes. Some of us “came out” for the first time in our Evangelical churches and were kicked out of our support systems. Others were given serious terminal medical diagnoses which disintegrated into existential crises of faith. Others saw our 45th president elected and began to see that things just weren’t fitting together like they used to. Some were “foreign missionaries,” bought-in and sold-out on mission work until they peeked behind the curtain and saw the colonialism, paternalism, corruption and arrogance. They began to see their “Good News” wasn’t really all that great to a Tanzanian dying of AIDS and malnutrition. Some were church leaders, pastors or biblical scholars with seminary educations. Others have always sat on the back pew asking questions.
To those who have grown up in the Episcopal Church, the stories and experiences of the Exvangelicals may seem foreign. We learned very quickly that the Christianity you grew up with is totally different than the Christianity of our youth. The concerns that we had just simply weren’t even a part of your culture. If we’re not careful and mindful of these differences, both Exvangelicals and cradle Episcopalians alike can dismiss each other’s experiences and speak past each other.
So, as many of us learn your new (to us) spiritual language and embrace the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, we’d like to share a little of our experiences with you. We hope these common themes that many of us grew up with will shed light on some of our quirks and idiosyncrasies and help us all be better community for each other. We’re not suggesting or even asking you to change your language. We’re hoping to describe just a little of where we are coming from, and that you at least seek to understand how the Episcopal church looks at many of us joining from Evangelical traditions.
Guilt, fear, and shame
Ask any Exvangelical which emotions were most closely tied to their religious upbringing and there’s a good chance they will quickly name three emotions: Guilt, fear, and shame. These are the hallmarks of much of what Evangelicalism is built upon. They are undercurrents running beneath discussions about substitutionary atonement, purity culture, salvation, evangelism and Bible study. God had to send his son to die because we were so awful.
Many Exvangelicals remember waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried we were going to hell because of some sin we committed (or thought about committing) that day. Our salvation was so delicate and our god so angry, that we constantly questioned our salvation. It led many of us to being “born again” … again and again. Emotion-filled youth rallies or church camp led young children to walk down the aisle to be baptized or confessing the “sinner’s prayer” multiple times. It’s important to start this conversation on the foundation of guilt, fear, and shame. These emotions are so central to our faith that our spiritual lives are nearly inseparable.
Biblical inerrancy and Literalism
Another common theme is how we grew up reading the Bible. The Bible was the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Though we scoffed at Catholics’ view of an infallible Pope, we didn’t blink an eye at the thought of the original writers of the Bible being perfect. For us, the Bible was without error, and every question we could ever want answered was in there, somewhere, just as long as you look hard enough and do enough mental gymnastics to make it all fit. Two creation accounts in Genesis? We have an explanation for that! God calling for genocide? Well, His plans are greater than our plans! Patriarchy and slavery? Stop asking so many questions! The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it!
Unlike the “three-legged stool” that Cradle Episcopalians were raised with, Exvangelicals were raised on a very wobbly one-wheeled unicycle named “Scripture” (“Sola Scriptura”). We got pretty good at riding that unicycle. But when we fell, we fell very hard. Scripture was all we needed. And it worked for a while – until it didn’t.
Many of us remember sitting around the church camp campfire during our young formative years singing songs with lyrics like:
“Can he still feel the nails, every time I fail?
Can he hear the crowd cry ‘Crucify!’ again?
Am I causing him pain, when I know I’ve got to change?
Cause I just can’t bear the thought of hurting him.”
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”
“…Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live…”
When you are raised with the idea that God is an angry, white-bearded man who needs a little blood sacrifice to make him happy, it taints everything. An abusive father-figure-like God creates fearful children who act like abused children. Our religion can be suffocating and our relationships toxic. We view ourselves (and even worse, others) as intrinsically evil and corrupt. We fail to see the Divine in ourselves and others, and it shows.
Heaven, Hell, and Salvation
In many traditions, hell seemed to be talked about more than heaven and constant discussions of who was going to be going to hell (everyone but those of us who are believing and doing the right things, of course) drew lines between “us” and “them”.
For many of us, preaching about heaven, hell, or salvation was a weekly occurrence. Most experienced some “altar call” or as some traditions called it, “an invitation.” This was a time often filled with great emotion and guilt in which the minister would say something like, “If you have not been baptized for the remission of your sins, don’t wait another moment to be saved – tomorrow it may be too late!” Again, closely tied to guilt, shame, and fear, people would be drawn to reflect on their sin and feel the great sense of urgency to make their life right with God.
In many traditions, hell seemed to be talked about more than heaven and constant discussions of who was going to be going to hell (everyone but those of us who are believing and doing the right things, of course) drew lines between “us” and “them”. Many were raised feeling like the group that we would see in heaven were just those in our sect, and only the right group within that sect. The practices such as baptism were not just symbols or outward displays of a commitment to the church or to Christ, but rather an almost magical key that unlocked the door to an eternity with God. The moment before you were baptized you were sentenced to eternal conscious torment. The classic example of dying in a car wreck while on the way to the church to be baptized was the tragic picture commonly drawn for the sinner who tarried too long to “obey the Gospel”.
This is just another example of why so many Exvangelicals struggle with anxiety and get triggered when they hear things like “salvation” or “hell”. Imagine hearing this when you are 13 years old and being told you are old enough to go to hell. Pretty terrifying stuff.
Evangelism and mission work
Rising out of the discussion we just had about hell and heaven, Exvangelicals were told it was our duty to get as many people to heaven as possible and that if we truly believed in God and Jesus, then hell must be real and most of the world was headed straight to it if we didn’t snag them from their rapidly-approaching doom.
This task was tied closely to our own salvation as well. There was a sense that if we weren’t feverishly driving our figurative lifeboat around, rescuing the lost souls, this served as negative points on our own salvation. We weren’t truly following the Great Commission that Jesus charged all of the Believers with right before he was beamed up into heaven. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel…”
And so, we passed out tracts, we knocked on doors, we handed out water bottles at baseball games with Acts 2:38 printed on them. Some even took mission trips to foreign countries for several weeks or even several years. We forced people to hear the “Gospel Message” and pray with us as they sat in plastic chairs, a captive audience waiting to receive medical care at our medical mission clinic. We learned how to quickly “bring someone to Christ” and even baptized some as they were waiting. Never mind many did it out of fear or compulsion or because they thought they might not get that tooth pulled.
We would tally up the number of souls saved each day and email home the stats to make the trip donors feel they were spreading the Gospel through us. Never mind the physical pain or the hunger those people were experiencing. Yes, we were there to help them, but it was only a means to get to the important stuff – saving them from eternal conscious torment. We measured results not just in the number of teeth pulled, but most importantly, how many were led to Christ. It was constantly said to us: “If we provide the very best care and remove that cancerous tumor, yet they still have the cancerous sin taking them to hell, our care is worthless”.
These themes worked for a while. These explanations were black and white. Good and bad. In versus out. Saved versus lost. It made sense when we were young, and quick and easy answers to our questions built our trust in those giving the answers. They knew their Bibles so well that we could trust them and their message. But as we grew and asked more and more difficult questions and began to use that “reason” that we were taught to utilize in every sector of our life but our faith, things began to fall apart.
We went away to college or 9-11 happened. Our marriages fell apart, or we lost loved ones despite fervent prayers. We travelled outside of our bubble and saw that maybe there were really good and loving people who saw the world a little different than us. We began to peek out from under the dark and heavy blanket of guilt, fear, and shame that had been held over us for so many years and for the first time feel the burden lifted and the joy of non-judgement. Freedom.
For so many, the only option was to throw away everything. If the way we were brought up didn’t work or even hurt us, then we must throw it all away. We became atheists and agnostics. We left our churches and sought to heal from the wounds inflicted upon us.
But for some of us, we stumbled into an Episcopal church. For many, we were exposed to a new kind of Christianity – a Christianity many of us didn’t even know existed. The “smells and bells” were admittedly a little off-putting. The liturgies seemed a little ancient and out-of-touch. But for those of us who were able to look past the weird stuff, what is it that pulled us to the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement?
Room for questions
Questions that we dared not ask previously (or that we got quick and simple answers to) were now welcomed and many times left unanswered. Metaphor was spoken of commonly and we didn’t seem to get caught up in the facts. For example, the questions sounded more like, “What does resurrection look like in our own lives?” rather than, “Did or did not the resurrection actually happen – yes or no?” We were given space to stretch and grow and even encouraged to sit with the hard questions. We were encouraged to unite around shared practice, rather than shared belief. Despite our doubts or differing beliefs, we were able to unite around the Eucharist.
Affirming and egalitarian
Coming from worlds where so many lines are drawn, the affirming and egalitarian stances are probably the most refreshing. To see all races, sexual orientations and gender identities represented in leadership was profoundly different from many of our past experiences. Some of the women coming out of Evangelicalism have never been allowed to pray in a worship service, until now. Many who are gay were told they had to check their sexual identity at the door (if it wasn’t heterosexual) and that they must abstain or change if they wanted to avoid the fires of hell. Love, for many of us, truly felt unconditional for the first time in our lives.
Evangelicalism is really good at community. In fact, it might be a little too good. Some of us look back at those times with the realization that those communities were a little more cult-like than we realized. But those communities did support us really well – at least to some extent. We were really good at making hospital visits and showering families with casseroles and potlucks.
If you remove all of the strings attached, most of us miss the community we had when we were a part of the in-crowd. They were our support systems and our greatest friends. Our theology required us to be at the church building whenever the doors were open and convinced us that our church family was the most important thing in our lives. When we left that, we suffered the greatest blow in our support systems. We not only lost our spiritual homes, but we lost our support systems – friendships built over a lifetime.
Often those leaving the Evangelical communities received the gut-punch reality that those friendships were only built on the foundation of shared belief and unified mind. As soon as it was discovered that we thought even the slightest bit differently, many had those relationships ended abruptly, leaving us wondering if those friendships were ever really true friendships.
Though some of us are a bit traumatized and get a little leery when we walk back into a church building, many are seeking to fill that void that was so painfully created when we left our previous communities. There is no doubt that we want it to look a little different this time and many of us don’t even really know what a healthy community could look like anymore. But from what we’ve seen so far, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement seems like a pretty safe place to begin to figure out what a community could be.
This essay was compiled by several people who have found their way to the Episcopal Church through the Noon Service at Christ Church Cathedral. To learn more about the Noon Service, check out https://cincinnaticathedral.com/services/noon-service/