Departures from evangelicalism continue largely over its alliance with a political agenda opposed to truth telling, compassion for those who suffer and equal justice – while excusing or affirming fear-based discrimination and the degradation of people often based on race, ethnicity or religion.
Many wave their goodbye using the social media hashtag #exvangelical. It is just one indicator of the growing dissatisfaction with a religious identity known more for condemnation than proclamation.
The faces of evangelicalism have changed – from evangelist Billy Graham calling throngs to profess faith in Christ to his son, Franklin Graham, calling down judgment on minorities while turning his head to abuses by the powerful.
Both men emboldened immoral political leaders advancing white nationalism, but the graciousness and thoughtful public statements of the elder Graham were not bequeathed.
Graham the Younger, joined by another famous preacher’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., who finds ways to stay in the news for his misdeeds, along with celebrity-seeking pastors and denominational leaders help create the image and reality of evangelicalism that cause many to flee.
Rather than being primarily proclaimers of good news (the literal meaning of the word evangelical), these current bearers of the banner have self-identified as a force eager to gain or protect political power for themselves and their own over all others.
As a result, many who once wore the evangelical label comfortably are now fleeing. But where are they going?
This exodus has no clearly discernable promised land. For many, however, escape is enough at this point.
Wandering feels much better than remaining in captivity to that which seems to be in opposition to everything that attracted them to this version of Christianity in the first place.
Ethicist David Gushee, in his latest book, After Evangelicalism, tackles this topic without detachment. He addresses his own journey away from a deep dive into evangelical Christianity.
The subtitle of the book, however, could easily trip up those scurrying away from what they’ve determined to be an unhealthy, perverted diversion from the Way of Christ: The Path to A New Christianity.
THE path? The path? Not a path – or a possible path? Or one of many paths?
Many on this journey are looking for fellow travelers to help blaze some trails, not an expert guide. Following ecclesiastical Pied Pipers is what led American evangelicals so far off course.
Within the book, Gushee is less prescriptive than the subtitle implies, especially in forming a post-evangelical theology.
“Post-evangelicals have many options for how to move forward theologically,” he writes. “I will offer my path.”
That approach, when applied to the larger wanderings of post-evangelical life, is more appealing than the offering of the path to a new form of Christianity.
For many ex-evangelicals, there is no rush in creating well-crafted doctrinal statements to be embraced and establishing a clearly stated identity or affiliation.
Wandering is the desired destination, at least for now. Clues and companions are welcomed on this journey more than a defined course or a banner-waving leader to be followed.
Deliberate trailblazing is more helpful and hopeful – and less likely to produce another disappointing dead end. There is no “the” path, but divergent trails.
Those making this exodus are not likely looking for boot prints to follow but a wide enough trail to walk – slowly and cautiously – with other uncertain explorers.
Such departures make one rightfully suspicious of institutionalized versions of the faith that, by their nature, breed protection of the institution, allowing for a slow drip toward a watered-down, stated or even intended mission.
Many of us simply want to know if we are committing to something with a primary and lasting commitment to follow Jesus over all other ideologies. If not, we’ll keep exploring different trails.
“What’s next?” is a question many ex-evangelicals feel no pressure to answer immediately and with clarity. They know what and why they left, but they are more likely to pitch a tent for a night or two here and there – to gaze at the stars – than to build a sturdy home on a new site.
This is but one of many questions not in search of a quick and easy answer. Others include: Do we look for familiar blazes or toss the map and compass and explore more wildly? What, if anything, is worth taking along from our old evangelical home?
Clues and clarity may show up around the next bend or on a future adventure. With each possibility – whether institutionalized or informal – there is a testing to see if Jesus’ life and teachings are central or just another disguise of something else.
Gushee offers some good analysis and helpful guidance. He notes the diversity of ex-evangelicals, describing nine types.
He is an advocate for the church – when “properly understood and practiced” – as being “valuable, constructive and even indispensable for following Jesus over the long term.” Not all ex-evangelicals are so sure.
Many ex-evangelicals will resonate with his affirmation that “‘true religion’ is to love God by caring for creation, honoring each person’s life, abiding by moral law, advocating for just societies, liberating the oppressed and even laying down our lives when necessary to do the right thing on earth.”
And, as he states, “this is the path God took in Jesus Christ.”
Gushee’s concept of “Christian humanism” as a version of faith “that is compassionately realistic about the human condition, reflects the best of human knowledge and enables all kinds of human being to truly flourish” is appealing. And his apology for being late to stand up to forms of injustice that he now wholly counters is appreciated.
Gushee’s ethical and theological frameworks offer possible building blocks for a future construct in contrast to the former home built on sand. However, not all ex-evangelicals are eager to go from something to something – at least not yet.
Wandering is indeed not the same as being lost – when aware that a deep, reflective search for truth is itself a worthy destination.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.