Exvangelical - A Working Definition
Republishing my March 2019 essay.
This essay was originally published on March 2, 2019 at exvangelicalpodcast.com and is republished below.
Over the past few years, the term “exvangelical” has gained traction on social media, especially through Twitter & Facebook.
One early criticism of “exvangelical” as a term was that it was overly negative. Since many of these conversations happened directly on Twitter, I’ve typically responded there. However, with exvangelical voices gaining more attention in broader cultural discussions, it’s appropriate to provide a more codified definition of the term here.
“Exvangelical” clearly grounds itself in relationship (or, as we’ll see, in prior relationship with evangelicalism. So before I move on to discussing why the term “exvangelical” is useful, it’s important to provide the context for why leaving or being forced out of evangelicalism can be so very painful.
Similar to the way we use terms like “ex-husband” or “ex-girlfriend” to acknowledge a prior relationship that has ended, “exvangelical” acknowledges an individual’s prior place within the evangelical movement and culture that they have since left behind.
“Exvangelical” is an easily accessible shorthand to acknowledge our past experience. It nods to our heritage and how it has shaped us, but does not make any assumptions about what we – individually or collectively – believe now.
The evangelical lifestyle & the high cost of leaving
Being evangelical is an alternative lifestyle. You can (quite literally) attend an evangelical church, have only evangelical friends, listen to evangelical music (it’s usually just called “Christian music” because CCM is inherently evangelical), go to an evangelical college, work for an evangelical organization, marry an evangelical partner, donate to evangelical causes, read only evangelical books, watch only evangelical movies…the list goes on.
Acceptance within evangelicalism is contingent upon your ability or willingness to accept a number of different beliefs and practices:
A “literal” reading of the Bible and a belief that is inerrant.
A belief that women are to be submissive to men. Men are God’s chosen leaders in the home, the church, and all other areas of life. (This is dependent upon a “literal” reading of 1 Timothy and other texts.)
Heterosexuality & heteronormativity are sacrosanct, and homosexuality is a sin. (Again, this is based on a “literal” reading of Romans 1:26 and other texts.)
An assumption that the American way of life is also sacrosanct and – quite nefariously – the best way of life on Earth.
Political and social conservatism is assumed, and has been made manifest over decades through strong identification and partnership with the Republican party in the United States.
If, as time goes on, you learn that you cannot abide some of these beliefs or practices, then you face some difficult decisions. (This is putting it lightly. It also presumes that the decision is yours. For more detailed stories, listen to the podcast.)
Leaving is hard, and feels solitary.
Leaving an evangelical community can feel very isolating. Evangelical culture is all-encompassing. If you are “plugged in” to a local evangelical church, chances are that your entire social support network is dependent upon it. Your closest friends and confidantes are consolidated into a group that is, when push comes to shove, highly prejudicial and judgmental. Your acceptance in the group is conditional: believe and behave a certain way, or you will be ostracized, admonished, excommunicated.
If you decide that you can no longer abide these evangelical beliefs and practices and decide to share your concerns with your community, you may find that they will not be receptive to your feedback. Your commitment to God, your zeal, your very salvation may be questioned. You may be turned away or forced out, or decide to leave for your own health.
Why people leave evangelicalism
Some may leave because their theology became too liberal for the gatekeepers of their church or denomination over issues such as biblical literalism, matters of social justice, institutional racism, or anti-LGBTQ bias.
Some may leave because of incidents of racism.
Some may leave because they are gay, queer, or trans, and they are not accepted as they are.
The reasons are never pat. They are always personal. And leaving evangelicalism has profound consequences for the individual. They may lose family, friends, and even their livelihood. The trauma this causes in the life of the Exvangelical is real.
One especially tragic element of all of these circumstances is that the people who are brave enough to share their true selves within evangelical circles have been encouraged to do so by the very culture that has betrayed them. They took the teachings of evangelical pastors and leaders to heart. They ran after the truth as it was presented to them. And how were they rewarded for their studies, that led them beyond the truth they were taught? Too often they were told they had ventured too far, even if they were still solidly within the Christian tradition. And heaven forfend if they leave the Christian faith altogether!
Now, if I’m being glib here, or if you feel as if I’m glossing over much-needed details, please refer to the body of work in the podcast. It is within those conversations where you’ll find detailed descriptions of the crises of faith, the acts of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, that drive people away from evangelical communities. I’ve even begun building topical playlists to help you navigate the back catalog. This is just a brief summary meant to provide context.
The value of “exvangelical”
The term “exvangelical” is helpful for several reasons. Those are:
It helps to know you aren’t alone.
It is a clear repudiation of evangelicalism.
It acknowledges personal autonomy.
It does not require all of you.
I’ll break each of these points down in detail.
It helps to know you aren’t alone
I had to leave. My family had to leave. My friends have had to leave.
You aren’t alone, and you aren’t crazy if you leave, too.
Evangelicalism is a totalizing mental and social environment. It breeds dependency and requires capitulation. Leaving it behind is disorienting, because your whole life was oriented toward something you no longer believe in.
Before “exvangelical” became a more common term online, it was hard to know if others had experienced this. This is not to say there weren’t voices in the wilderness talking about the threats of evangelicalism for decades. Writers like Frank Schaeffer, Diana Butler Bass, Julie Ingersoll, and many many many others have been speaking out about the ways they were estranged or ostracized from evangelical communities. Now, with “exvangelical” entering the online vernacular, it serves as a way to signal to others that you know where they’re coming from.
One of the most common refrains from people who’ve discovered exvangelical community and content online is “I felt like I was the only one; now I don’t feel so crazy.”
And that is incredibly powerful.
“Exvangelical” is also a repudiation of evangelicalism. It affirms what evangelicalism condemns.
We embrace moral and religious autonomy. We embrace the LGBTQ community fully, are thoroughly feminist, denounce the role of white supremacy in society in general, and white evangelicalism in particular. We seek to be aware of the intersectionality of our work, and build up one another’s individual projects. There’s no requisite theological creed. You will find progressive Christians, atheists, agnostics, wiccans, and other spiritual expressions within this community. And equal respect and understanding is expected, because our shared sociocultural heritage binds us together. We have much in common, and much to learn from one another.
Evangelical leaders and institutions do their best to frame evangelicalism as a scattered, amorphous, and ultimately unaccountable entity. In reality (and this is the reality that millions of evangelicals live in), evangelicalism is a dense network of churches, colleges, radio stations, publishing houses, music labels, movie studios, lobbying groups, and other institutions that work in concert to assert theological, social, and cultural norms at all levels of life.
Because of our experiences within the cultural milieu of evangelicalism, we can speak authoritatively about how these groups function, and how their formational teachings lead to systemic issues of oppression and injustice. Exvangelicals can provide a counterpoint to evangelical messaging in broader cultural discourse, in the media and elsewhere, to bring to light the teachings, practices, and beliefs that evangelicals actively obfuscate in an attempt to appear reasonable when speaking to a broader audience.
Much of this plays out over Twitter. Here are just a couple examples:
One of the common questions that comes up often when people stumble across the term “exvangelical” is: BuT wHaT dO yOU beLiEve nOW?
The answer: each person follows their own convictions.
As stated above, those who leave evangelicalism find many paths out. Some folks have begun using #StillChristian to indicate that they remain within the Christian tradition after leaving evangelicalism. But “exvangelical” is not a new church. It is an honest response to evangelicalism, and one that evangelicalism itself has failed to address. Had evangelicalism properly reckoned with and repented of its ties to white supremacy, the inherent misogyny of complementarianism, its homophobia and transphobia, its assimilation into the GOP, and the literalist interpretation of the Bible that fuels and feeds all of these characteristics – perhaps “exvangelical” would not be necessary.
But evangelicalism pushes out dissenters and would-be reformers. We were often pushed out one by one. But now we are finding one another. And we are building something new.
Exvangelical isn’t totalizing.
I will close this long post with this: “exvangelical” isn’t totalizing. Evangelicalism requires that you submit your entire being to a way of thinking, worshiping, acting, voting, forming relationships–it touches every part of your life. Evangelicalism conflates itself with Christianity, and in doing so mediates your entire reality; evangelicalism takes the quote from Acts, that “in him we live and move and have our being” and centers itself.
If you use the term “exvangelical” – there is no expectation that you should build your life around it. Live your life according to your convictions.
Yes, there are broadly shared values: gender equality, LGBTQ affirmation, and working toward racial justice and equity (and educating ourselves about this) are just a few. But if the term isn’t helpful, or if it is only helpful for a time as you deconstruct/reconstruct your beliefs, that’s fine.
Exvangelical can be a liminal space. It isn’t meant to describe all of you. It never was. But it helps to signal to others: I’m here. I understand where you’re coming from, and I’ll do my best to walk alongside you wherever you’re going next.
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