On Leaving Evangelicalism

Just a little over a year ago, I shared on this blog about one of the moments that shaped the way I see the world. Back in 2003 we invaded Iraq, and the aftermath of that event unravelled everything about how I thought I saw politics. This past couple weeks, another shaping moment happened. It's likely that it was in fact, two moments, (the first being the one in which I became a father), but this post will focus on the second.

But to get to there, we first need to back up close to ten years.

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Towards the end of my time in high school, I began dating a girl whom I quickly decided I was destined to be with forever. I know it's pretty common for high schoolers to think this way, and everybody knows of a handful of "high school sweethearts" who are still together five, ten, or fifty years later, but I think this belief was a bit unrealistic. We held it, though, because marrying young was a highly accepted practice in evangelicalism, and it seemed to be working fine on the later seasons of Boy Meets World too.

The danger in our hope for relationship permanence, though, was in our idiotic desire to see it through the Christian Worldview™ through which we were supposed to see everything. It wasn't long before we convinced ourselves that it was God's will that we be together. I used the word "destined" in the previous paragraph, and I meant it in all of its weight.

It may come as no surprise to anyone reading this, but that high school relationship did not last. It ended, and it ended messily. This is common in young people. It is expected in young people. But when God wills you to be with someone and then they don't love you anymore, it's earth shattering.

This may be a completely juvenile reason to experience a crisis of faith, and so it's not something I've shared widely before, but it's my story. Halfway through my freshman year of college I got dumped by the girl I'd decided God wanted me to spend the rest of my life with and then I tanked my academic career (it still hasn't fully recovered) and abandoned the faith I was raised in. True story.

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Shortly after moving to Cleveland in 2008, I began to feel like I was missing something in that place inside me where my faith had been. I began idly searching online for nearby churches belonging to the denomination in which I was raised, never visiting one. I considered praying again. But not much came of it until I met Melissa and she (nearly immediately) invited me to the big, rockin' worship service at the large seeker-friendly baptist church she'd just begun attending.

I'm intentionally using dismissive language to make a point. The church we attended brought me SPRINTING back to my faith. It was a family to us. It was a center for us. Melissa and I got married there, led a small group there, grew in Christ there, and still have nothing but wonderful things to say about it save for the long drive to get there. I acknowledge that you can find genuine Christian faith in a big, Baptist megachurch because I did.

My running return to faith led me to attend Indiana Wesleyan University (online) in pursuit of a Christian Ministry degree. It led us to travel to Sheffield, UK to study the resurgence in missional style church that began there. But I now held my Christian faith with my eyes wide open. I was unwilling to overlook the ways in which the church appeared hypocritical to me. I was unable to ignore the parts of faith, or perhaps "faith," that I saw as anti-science or anti-reality. As such I hungrily explored theological discussions that diverged from the usual--the work of Peter Rollins & Rob Bell to name a few--and I never really identified with the more conservative of the evangelicals around me.

The Neo-Calvinists seemed to my eyes to be very certain they had all the answers, but I found their answers wanting. I neared despair when I looked deeper into their antagonists, Arminianism, and found them at least as unfulfilling. I have been intrigued by a handful of strains of theological thought but haven't always known best how to comfortably pursue them (and I keep having to work on Sundays, anyway).

I've never really stood up and said "I am an evangelical" because it has never been a label that I've strongly cared for one way or another. Perhaps I was one of Rollins' "Orthodox Heretics" anyway, perhaps I was something else. Perhaps I am an evangelical and just didn't realize that where I fell on matters of theology was inside that camp. It doesn't matter anymore.

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It has been better explained a dozen other places, but to recap as quickly as I can manage: Recently World Vision was forced to give a statement affirming the decision to allow people in homosexual marriages to work for them--depending on your point of view, either a statement of support for gay marriage or a statement of openness to the plurality of orthodox denominations that affirm same-sex marriage--and the evangelical backlash was swift and severe enough to cause them to reverse course to staunch the bleeding. Bleeding to the tune of the reneging on sponsorships for some 10,000 needy children by evangelical sponsors.

This debacle, and evangelical wagon-circling for the likes of Phil Robertson and Dan Cathy and Mark Driscoll and Pat Robertson and many others like them, has convinced me that the label of "evangelical" is one of gatekeeping, of spite, and of theological policing that goes far beyond our faith's sacred creeds, and I want no part in it.

I believe that this kind of behavior has so tarnished the word "evangelical" that it is irredeemable. This should seem absurd to believers in a faith whose entire existence hinges on belief in resurrection, but the label is not our Savior.

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After Melissa and I left the big, Baptist church we started off at for reasons having to do partly with distance and partly with our desire to do something meaningful and missional (another post for another day) we ended up doing some half-hearted church shopping before ending up attending nowhere.

It's not our desire for this to remain so, but we do not currently attend church anywhere. But we can add to the list of House Hunters' like "Must Haves" (Gay affirming, egalitarian views on gender roles, engaged in local mission) a new "Must Not Have:" even a whiff of the kind of "Evangelical" mindset described above. I'm horrified to consider taking my daughter to such a place, and having to de-program her after. I'm tired of considering telling a friend I attend such a place, but "it's okay, I'm not like that."

This World Vision fiasco was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I am severing all ties (none, were you paying attention? there were already essentially no ties) to evangelicalism. I joked in my last post about leaving for Judaism. I love Jesus, and so that was a joke. But I also mentioned Pentecostalism, I assure you I'll be exploring it. We'll look harder at the mainline denominations that hew closer to my values, and hope to find one that doesn't too closely resemble the Catholicism that Melissa fled from. We are going to find a church because we believe doing so is important. And if we fail, I assure you that we will start one.

But I'm hereby tendering my resignation from evangelicalism, effective immediately.


  1. Hope your quest brings you Peace.

  2. Great post, and one that certainly resonates with my own experience. Based on your mention of exploring other options, I have two points of practical advice:

    1. Most American Pentecostalism is entirely overrun by Evangelical theology, only it usually includes a more dramatic doubling-down on ridiculous taboos (like having a beer) than I've seen in mainstream Evangelicalism, it is at the forefront of some of the worst extremes of magical thinking and science denying (i.e. the anti-vaccination propaganda and the outbreaks in Texas that have come of that), and it frequently includes ties to the prosperity gospel ("give your money to the church and God will give you a Rolls Royce"). I know this because my journey away from Evangelicalism began with the journey out of the Pentecostalism that I grew up in. (On the other hand, I have to also add that despite never wanting to go back to it, I do have lots of good memories of growing up Pentecostal, they are extremely sincere, passionate, and loving people, and there are interesting connections between charismatic worship and some of the more interesting mystical approaches to faith throughout various world religions--these are worth exploring. But as far as I'm concerned--been there, done that, used to love it but now...no thank you.)

    2. If you're looking for a church that's open and affirming, egalitarian, and progressive in its missional outreach, two denominations you might find you identify with are the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (the "PC USA" distinction is important, as this is the liberal wing of the Presbyterian church that didn't schism over affirming the LGBT community). One of my best friends from college is now a pastor at a UCC church in North Carolina, and my wife volunteered for a while at a PC USA church in Pennsylvania. My impression of both is very favorable.

    There's a PC USA church in Cleveland Heights that Erin and I have been thinking about going to, but we haven't gotten around to it yet. It's called Forest Hill, and one of the pastors (Clover Beal) is the wife of a rock-star Religious Studies professor at Case (Tim Beal) with whom I've had the pleasure of studying. He's written several books that you would probably like, and he's published some commentary in more public venues like the Huffington Post. I figure if his wife is a pastor there, it must not espouse a theology that makes me tell others, as you aptly put it, "don't worry, I go there but I'm not like that." Hopefully we'll get there soon, and I'd be happy to let you know what I think whenever we do.

    Ray Horton

    1. I really appreciate the comment Ray, and I'm aware that there are serious problems within Pentecostalism that makes it a place where the grass is no greener (add to everything you mentioned, extremely problematic eschatology). My reason for wanting to consider it, stems mostly from the incredibly impressive work I've seen from Pastor Jonathan Martin at Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC. I'm reading (and loving) his book (Prototype) right now, and a recent podcasted sermon series of his is among the most powerful I've ever heard from anyone anywhere (titled "The Peaceable Kingdom"). He was raised in, trained in, and his church is part of the Church of God denomination.
      As for Forest Hills, we visited there once and heard Clover Beal preach! I was pretty much in love with the place after our visit, but Melissa is coming from a very different (and very Catholic) background than I am and was less excited by robes and liturgy.
      SO: Our path forward will be complicated.
      Thanks for the comment! (New post on what's next coming presently...)