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❌ | 200 episodes of Exvangelical
A brief look at how the show & my relationship to this work has changed in the last six years.
“Hello, and welcome to Exvangelical - a show exploring the world inside & outside the evangelical subculture. I’m your host, Blake Chastain.” I’ve given that introduction, with some variety, almost two hundred times over the last six or so years.
Yes, I’m fudging the numbers. I’m counting re-releases, which are essentially re-runs, but I want to celebrate a little and express my gratitude. The very fact that this project has survived this long is something to celebrate.
This has been an independent project from the very beginning. After we left our last evangelical church on bad terms in 2014, I began bandying the idea for a podcast around with a small group of people (primarily my wife and my friend Steven—who would be the second guest I ever had on the show) that centered around a simple question: “why have we and so many of the people we went to Christian school with left evangelicalism?”
Things would stay in the brainstorming phase for almost two years.
A podcast felt like a more realistic project than a blog. Even in 2014, I figured that no one would want to read 1500-word entries on leaving evangelicalism. Podcasting was also preferable because it would allow people to tell stories in their own words, in their own voices. The show would follow a simple three-act structure: where did you come from (what area, what church setting & experience), what caused you to break from evangelicalism, and where are you now?
I didn’t get around to recording the first episode with my friend Jonathan until 2016. We recorded the first episode using a single Blue Yeti mic set between us (I had no knowledge of audio recording or editing), and we riffed on things. I released it to the public, and shared about it on Facebook during the week of the Republican National Convention.
To my surprise, it found an audience. Folks I had not spoken to since college graduation reached out to tell their stories to me and share them with the world.
Over on Twitter, I had a couple hundred followers. Over the course of a few months, I had met folks like Chrissy Stroop, Emily Joy Allison, Kevin Garcia, and others who had in their own way started to talk about similar topics. All this energy was built off the work that had been done by Rachel Held Evans, David Bazan & Pedro the Lion, Stephanie Drury’s fakedriscoll & Stuff Christian Culture Likes, Laura Polk’s No Shame Movement, podcasters like Pete Holmes and The Liturgists, and many many more.
After Trump’s electoral victory, Twitter became an important place to try and counteract the dominant evangelical narratives and explain to a broader audience why white evangelicals would support a candidate like Trump so broadly, and to voice our own anger and grief over what had become of the faith that formed us. (I will contend that grief is still central to the process of leaving white evangelicalism for a broad swath of people.)
The #exvangelical hashtag was a part of that conversation. At one point, it got over 100,00 impressions per day on Twitter. It would later jump to other networks including Instagram and TikTok, where it would balloon even further (the hashtag has 1.3B views on TikTok as of today; join over 400 people in following me there.) In 2017, I began working with Chrissy and others to build a facebook group to meet an expressed need for more private discussions about exvangelical-related topics. It grew from 70 to 700 to 3,000 to 11,000 today.
It’s hard to remember now, but twitter (lowercase twitter, in my head-canon, has always been the people/communities/publics that gathered there; uppercase Twitter is the company) could be an incredible place to learn and connect with people. Thanks to twitter, I learned an incredible amount just by listening and following others. I learned to be more specific with my language, and say that I was critiquing White evangelicalism in order to distinguish it from other evangelical traditions. I learned about the expansiveness of queer experience and the ways people relate to and express their gender.
I discovered new ways to relate to concepts of faith, and how to hold space for both others and myself when those ideas & relationships changed.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
People eventually started calling this the “exvangelical movement” which was in its way part of the “deconstruction movement.” It got attention; in 2018, I was part of a documentary on it, and was quoted in a Newsweek cover article. This movement, such as it was, was entirely online and bootstrapped by a handful of people making podcasts or Instagram accounts or some other content. It wasn’t funded by donations to Focus on The Family, or underwritten by a major music label, denomination, or parachurch organization; there was no financial infrastructure to speak of, and the cultural norms were being worked out on the fly.
“Exvangelical” spaces were & are prone to the same pitfalls of other online cultures: beefs between various groups or people, disagreements turning into flame wars, and so on—but with the added sting of echoing traumas we felt in our former church contexts. (I am not exempt.) When those things started happening in exvangelical contexts, it was easy to lambast and to opt out.
In 2019, while in the midst of a deep personal offline grief, one of these conflicts broke out on twitter and included me. My wife asked me to stop so I could be more present with my family and I did, putting the show on hiatus. (When your spouse asks you to do something like that, especially when they know how much your work means to you, it is wise to honor that request.) Six months or so later, I would start recording and publishing again, but with a more defined relationship to this part of my work.
Since then I’ve established my own boundaries with social media and have generally avoided online conflict unless it directly involves me. Even my desire to “punch up” on places like twitter has largely waned—and the realities of social media favor conservatives, no matter how much they complain, so there’s no sense in losing a fixed game in an arena that just cares about engagement.
I view the work of this show as providing people who are early on in their process of questioning their relationship to evangelicalism, or reeling from the recent loss of their community, by interviewing people who have gone through similar things. I am ultimately interested in how people changed their minds, and decided to make such a significant decision to upend their lives. To change your mind is no small thing—especially for something like religious belief, practice, and community that takes up such a big part of life.
Other aspects of my work have changed, too. I’m less interested in the theological side of things than when I started; it’s a part of life that’s less accessible to me at the moment, though I remain open to that particular fascination being rekindled. Though theology does not currently pique my interest, I remain fascinated by how our beliefs shape and justify our actions and the way we treat our selves and others. I also interview a lot more authors than when I started out: I love reading and books, and this is a natural evolution.
In 2020, I started this newsletter. That same year, I also started interviewing experts on the more systemic issues of white evangelicalism on my other show, Powers & Principalities. The first season covered white evangelicalism & Christian nationalism, and my guests on that season have had their profiles increase many times over in light of the J6 insurrection and the constant threat & consequences of White Christian nationalism in US politics & society.
2020 was also the year that several creators on TikTok began to build massive followings creating exvangelical content; Abraham Piper’s rapid ascent on the platform was covered in The New York Times. In the years since, TikTok has become the de facto center of the most Extremely Online sector of exvangelicals. The preponderance of people who speak to their own exvangelical experiences, each with their own perspective is a testament to the state of White evangelicalism and its many harms.
In 2021 I helped form the Irreverent Media Group and launched a new model for my work here that included reparative economics, where I donate 25% of net proceeds to groups who serve populations harmed by white evangelicalism. The ambition was to get to 1,000 paid subscribers so that this could be my sole work. I have yet to have more than 70 at a time. But I remain hopeful that my work will remain relevant and helpful.
It’s now 2023. At some point this year, the show will cross 1 million downloads. That is something I am immensely proud of.
“Exvangelical” as a phenomenon, as an audience, as a perspective, is still very new. Because of the hashtag’s popularity and the nature of algorithmic feeds focusing on what you’ve engaged with, it’s easy to get overexposed to the content, which can become exhausting. From the creator perspective, there’s a feedback loop that encourages you to make one particular type of content to maintain engagement; whenever your heart isn’t in it, it leads to burnout and loss of interest, which is both common and understandable (and not limited to exvangelical or deconstruction creators).
I never saw “Exvangelical” as a wholesale replacement for evangelicalism, and saw it more as a means of processing past experience for oneself and signaling to others that (should they be speaking out publicly) their commentary comes from a place of firsthand knowledge. In pluralistic or secular spaces, White evangelicalism benefits from the naïveté and ignorance of others, who do not know what it is like to be part of a group with such inherent dissonances—’exvangelical’ challenges that.
As I’ve said for years, a term like ‘exvangelical’ has both values and limits and it is good to be cognizant of them.
Ex-evangelical projects do have peculiar challenges, to be sure.
In one sense, ‘exvangelical’ is best understood as a robust “counterpublic,” that challenges the still-dominant White evangelical narrative in the broader American society. (For all the evangelical bluster about deconstruction and ‘exvangelical’ becoming popular online, there are no ex-evangelical voices with routine access to The Atlantic and The New Yorker and The New York Times yet, and there is no Exvangelical Coalition to underwrite and support creators.)
On the “community” aspect of things, ex-evangelical spaces are made up of people who have left White or White-led evangelicalism, some spaces can be homogenous, even if there is a commitment to anti-racist values and practices; learning and unlearning the history of racism & white supremacy within White Christianity is a lifelong undertaking, and BIPOC ex-evangelicals have their own needs and desires. For people leaving a high-control religion, there is a strong resistance to falling behind a singular leader; I think this is an asset.
It is also hard to know what is a “community” versus what an internet researcher like danah boyd would call “networked publics.” Are instagram comments under a particular creator’s content a “community?” Is the chaos of Twitter a “community?” Or does a “community” require clearer rules of engagement & boundaries? How do digital communities differ from IRL ones like those we left? And if these are liminal communities intended to foster people to stay for a time before moving on, how does one leave well? Digital ghosting has echoes of the ‘Holy Ghosting’ so many people experience when they leave their church.
These are open questions that I have yet to fully answer, and the answers may change with time. There are the private & personal needs of people seeking solace or belonging or language to give their experience, and there is a need to speak about and discuss these matters in the public sphere, especially in a society where White evangelical power is so deeply established. Each need requires its own response.
I am grateful for whatever part, big or small, I have had in these developments. I have no illusions of originality; this work was being done before me and will be done without me. To quote Caedmon’s call: I come from a long line of leavers.
I am so thankful for all the people I have met through this. I have limited my comments to my own experience, because I do not wish to speak for others, but I am deeply thankful for current and former moderators of the Exvangelical group on facebook, for my supporters here, for my family and friends, and for anyone who has come on the show to share a part of their story.
Challenging something like White evangelicalism is a big task. It requires a lot of work & attention—and so many people have contributed. I am not concerned with preserving the reputation of other forms of evangelicalism, or even of Christianity; they are and will be judged by the fruits of their labors. But despite all the changes I have undergone, despite my disinterest in preserving a Christian society, that old religious impulse to desire a Christlike society (in the most aspirational sense of that word) is still kicking around in my soul.
White evangelicalism does not want to be reformed, so yes, it is being deconstructed. What’s built next is yet to be determined.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back with another interview episode this Thursday.