Post-Evangelicals and Why We Can’t Just Get Over It

It’s strange how the ghosts of your last church haunt the new one. 

You’ll be doing the hard part, the showing up part, and suddenly a word or a song or the presence of a plate of deviled eggs grinning back at in you in the fellowship hall will flood every sense with memory—at once nostalgic and painful, comforting and sad.   You will eye the nearest exit, wondering if the ghosts can follow you out the building, if you’ll ever really shake them for good. 

I remember when I first heard the term “post-evangelical,” how I hated it and loved it at the same time.  Oh, I rolled my eyes at its pretension, its unapologetic smacking of smarter-than-thou. And yet I glommed on to the label, to any label really, because a label means you’re not alone. A label means you can be classified along with species of a similar nature. A label gives you a family, an order, a name. 

“It’s nice to be Episcopalian now and not post-evangelical,” I told Dan on the way home from church one cloudy afternoon, feigning a security I didn’t actually feel. “Who wants to be defined by what they’re not?” 

 “I don’t know,” Dan said, calling my bluff. “Seems like we’re all a little post-something.” 

I’ve been reading articles lately about how people like me need to just get over it already, either suck it up and embrace evangelicalism or pack up and move on.  The writers accuse us of painting with broad brushes (this is often true), of consumerism (this is sometimes true), of abandoning orthodoxy (this is rarely true), of deconstructing just for sport (this is almost never true). Then they charge us with printing up silly, oversimplified labels to slap onto all that we condemn, and I can’t help but recall all the labels I learned from them—feminist, liberal, postmodern, evolutionist, nominal, lukewarm, heretic—and think, where do you think we learned how to do this, folks? 

Sure we tend to over-share. Sure blog posts recounting 10 Ways Evangelicalism Failed Me are a dime a dozen.  But when you grow up believing everyone outside evangelical Christianity is going to get spewed from God’s mouth at best or cooked for eternity in hell at worst, when the people you love most in the world belong to the evangelical community and want you to belong to it too, making a deliberate step out of that tradition is a big deal.  When you grow up believing that your religious worldview contains the key to absolute truth and provides an answer to every question, you never really get over the disappointment of learning that it doesn't. 

It’s a lonely, frightening journey and most of us are limping along as best we can. 

My little evangelical church in Birmingham, Alabama was the first place, outside of my immediate family, where I knew I belonged, where I knew I was loved. It was the community that introduced me to Jesus, that lowered me into a still pool of water and called me child of God. It was evangelicalism that taught me to value the Bible, to give and receive testimony, to totally slay the motions for “Father Abraham,” to make deviled eggs. And it was evangelicalism that first told me that being a woman limited my potential, that science was not to be trusted, that democrats and gay people and Episcopalians were my enemies, that asking questions about these things was wrong. 

It was evangelicalism that told me who I was and it was evangelicalism that told me who I wasn’t.  You don’t just get over that. You don’t just trash it all and walk away

Like it or not, our religious traditions help forge our identities. The great challenge, the one that took me a book to articulate and which I suspect will take me a lifetime to work out, is to hold every piece of my faith experience in love, even the broken bits, even the parts that still cut my hands and make them bleed. 

We are all post-something. 

We are all caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles. 

There’s no just getting over it. There’s no easy moving on.

So I ask for grace—from the communities that now receive me and from the one that first taught me what that word means. 

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5 Ways Progressive Mainline Churches Can Welcome Disenfranchised Evangelicals

I’ve never considered denominationalism a bad thing. I like to think of the various Christians traditions as different facets of a diamond refracting the same light, or as workers tending to a shared garden but with unique tasks, or as a single body made of many interconnected parts (see 1 Corinthians 12). No single group owns the copyright to Truth, and we need one another. 

There is much to love about evangelicalism, but lately I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from disenfranchised evangelicals who, after a break from church, are looking to return. Many hope to find a place in a more progressive tradition, but feel a bit disoriented their first time in an Episcopal Church or at a PCUSA coffee hour.  In addition, when I travel, I meet many progressive ministers who are eager to welcome new people to their churches. So with all that in mind, here are some ideas for helping those evangelical visitors feel more at home: 

1. Update your Web site. 

Disenfranchised evangelicals aren’t looking for a highly-produced show. They aren't looking to be impressed by the latest and greatest technology. (They’ve had enough of all that, trust me.) They are, however, looking for your address. And maybe a belief statement of some sort.  

Millennials in particular tend to start their search for anything—be it a church or an apartment or even a date— on the Internet, so if your site is difficult to navigate and embarrassingly out-of-date, they may not bother to come for a visit. I also appreciate it when a church’s Web site includes information about beliefs, ministries, worship, ministerial staff, educational programs, etc.  And if your church is located in a more conservative area (say, East Tennessee), you might even want to make special note of the fact that you welcome LGBT people and affirm women in ministry. 

Just keep in mind that often our first "visit" to your church is via the Web site. So it might be worth putting some extra time and resources into it. 


2.  Take risks on unconventional church plants. 

In my next book, I feature several unusual church plants that are thriving in their communities, and many are associated with mainline Protestant denominations that were willing to take a risk on unconventional models. One such church is St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn—a small “dinner church” centered around the Eucharist as both a sacred ritual and a meal. St. Lydia's is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. 

Another church that comes to mind is Missiongathering in San Diego, which is associated with the progressive denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but which has a very evangelical “feel” to its worship because it attracts a lot of folks who come from evangelical traditions and enjoy evangelical worship but are looking for a church that welcomes LGBT people. I think too of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, also associated with the ELCA.  

I’m no expert on church planting, but what these churches seem to have in common is a pastor with a vision for ministering in a unique way to a specific group of people in a specific neighborhood, partnering with a denomination that can help with resources and accountability. These days, it’s less about getting people to come to you and more about going out, serving the people, and then letting them build the church together. 
 

3.  Infuse the traditional liturgy and sacraments with some creativity. 

A lot of disenfranchised evangelicals like me are drawn to the beautiful and ancient liturgy of more traditional churches. For us, it’s a refreshing alternative to the highly-produced contemporary worship services we’ve grown used to (conversely, folks who grew up with more traditional worship may love the contemporary worship of an evangelical church). So you don’t have to replace your smells and bells with electric guitars to welcome evangelicals. But it’s nice to see a little creativity infused into the liturgy.  

House for All Sinners and Saints seems to do this beautifully. On their Web site, they explain:

“We follow the ancient liturgy of the church (chanting the Kyrie, readings from scripture, chanting the Psalm, sermon, prayers of the people, Eucharist, benediction, etc.) We also sing the old hymns of the church. So there's lots of ancient tradition at HFASS, but there's also some innovation. We always include poetry and a time called ‘Open Space’ in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community's Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver. We like to say that we are ‘anti-excellence/pro-participation’, meaning that the liturgy is led by the people who show up…”

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco also takes a creative approach to their traditional liturgy. Check out the worship section of their Web site. 

You don’t have to make any radical changes all at once, or go as far as HFASS and Gregory of Nyssa, but doing things differently now and then actually enriches the inherent beauty of the liturgy and reminds both longtime members and newbies why it's so central and so important to the life of your church.  

 
4.   Don’t assume we know why you believe what you believe, or why you do what you do. 

The other day I had a conversation with a young woman who grew up Methodist. She explained to me that when she went to college and began attending a conservative complementarian church with her friends, she felt ill-prepared to explain why she supported women in ministry. “They had all the Bible verses,” she said. “And I had no idea how to respond to them. I guess growing up Methodist I’d always taken women pastors for granted.” She grew up knowing her church affirmed women in ministry, but she never learned why her church affirmed women in ministry.

I also hear from a lot of evangelicals who have begun attending Mainline Protestant churches precisely because they welcome LGBT people, accept science, avoid aligning with a single political party, practice traditional worship, preach from the lectionary, affirm women in ministry, etc. but these new attendees never hear the leadership of the church explain why this is the case.  This need not happen from the pulpit, but perhaps a Sunday school class or Bible study addressing these issues would be helpful, not only for those new to the church but also for those who grew up in the tradition and need a refresher. 

Also, don't assume people know all the nuances of your particular tradition. I can't tell you how often I've spoken at a Baptist church (American or Cooperative) and had readers come up to me and say, "I can't believe they let you speak in a Baptist church!" because they assumed all Baptist churches are like Southern Baptist churches. 

The Episcopal church we’ve been (somewhat sporadically) attending held “Anglicanism 101” classes recently that served as both an introduction to Anglican theology and practice and as confirmation classes. We were unable to attend due to travel, but two of our friends (former evangelicals) did, and they were confirmed this spring. They said many in the class were longtime Episcopalians there for a refresher, and many disenfranchised evangelicals just learning the ropes. 

(Note: If you're an evangelical finding your way to a church in the Anglican tradition, you will love Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert Webber.) 


5.  Create safe places to talk and build relationships. 

We former evangelicals LOVE to talk about our faith and are sometimes surprised by how little opportunity there is to do so in a Mainline Protestant church environment. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems like Mainline Protestant churches are less likely to have “small groups” where members gather together in one another’s homes to simply share life together. (If I’m making an unfair assumption or generalization, let me know.) Obviously, such groups can be problematic when they divide everyone up by age group and marital status, but I’ve also seen them represent what is most powerful about church as members become deeply invested in one another’s lives. Weekday Bible studies can also serve this purpose, or perhaps even certain Sunday school gatherings. I’m convinced that one thing folks from my generation long for is the chance to talk openly and honestly about our faith, our doubts, our questions, our ideas, our struggles, our joys, etc. in the context of a faith community.

 

What else? How can progressive Mainline Protestant churches welcome disenfranchised evangelicals? 

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101 Christian Women Speakers

How NOT to use this list: 

1. Please do not wait to consult this list when you begin planning your next conference! This is not intended to help you find your “token” woman.  This list is intended to introduce just a small portion of the talent, wisdom, expertise, passion, and faith present among women in the church. For better or worse, Christian conferences are a reflection of the Christian culture and so ultimately, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women in the typical conference lineup; the problem is that people planning the conferences aren’t reading, listening to, and following women to begin with.  So read these women’s books.  Add their blogs to your reader. Watch the videos in the links provided. Learn about their ministries and organizations. Subscribe to their podcasts. These are scholars, activists, writers, preachers, church leaders, artists, healers, and world changers. They are already speaking; it’s time to start listening. 

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It’s a miracle any of us survived youth group…

So as I’m writing my next book—a memoir about church— I started reminiscing about youth group and all the crazy games we used to play, chief among them Chubby Bunny—a game in which several “volunteers” cram as many marshmallows as they can into their mouths and attempt to say “chubby bunny” without throwing up or choking to death. I asked on Twitter if you remember playing such games and this is what happened: 

I received more than 200 responses. You can read through my Twitter feed for more. 

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5 Reasons I’m Glad I Was Raised Evangelical

'RSDigby_1553' photo (c) 2010, Robert S. Digby - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my evangelical brothers and sisters when it comes to politics, theology and gender, but there are many reasons I’m glad I was raised in the evangelical tradition. For those of us who wrestle at times with the religious traditions with which we were raised, I think it’s important to remember from time to time the gifts those traditions gave us. These are just a few that come to my mind: 

1.  I know and love the Bible. 

Whether I was slaying the competition in a sword drill or racking up crowns and badges in AWANA, I grew up knowing my way around a Bible. The images, stories, and words of Scripture so permeated my life that they gave meaning and direction to my own story and helped me make sense of things. My evangelical upbringing taught me to love Scripture, to consult it, and to believe it. And to this day, nothing sparks my creative energy more than a difficult passage, a stack of commentaries, and a few hours to dig in. The Bible just keeps on giving; it never disappoints. While I certainly wrestle with the Bible more than I once did, it is the love of Scripture my evangelical upbringing instilled in me that keeps me wrestling,  that keeps me from giving up. I am profoundly grateful for this. 


2.  I have fond memories of being a teenager, primarily because of youth group.

Anyone who grew up in youth group will know exactly why I’ve titled the chapter about it in my next book, “Chubby Bunny.” I was fortunate to have had an amazing youth pastor—Brian Ward—who to this day remains one of my most important mentors, champions, and friends. (And who actually kinda hated Chubby Bunny.) High school can be a disorienting, angsty time, but because of youth group I made lifelong friends, I got to travel, I deepened my faith, I had opportunities to teach and lead and use my gifts, I learned to not take myself so seriously, and I learned exactly how many marshmallows I could cram into my mouth without chocking to death. I am glad so much of my identity was forged in the context of church and in the company of people who really loved me. Not everyone’s memories of youth group or of high school are as happy as mine, so I never want to take that (mostly) wonderful experience for granted. 

3.  I've always had a deeply personal faith. 

It’s often said that evangelicalism is characterized by a personal commitment to faith, and this was certainly true of my experience. The activism, the testimonies, the active prayer life, the hours spent reading the Bible—these things emerged from a deeply experiential and powerful relationship with Jesus and the church that until my young adulthood went almost totally unquestioned. (Check out Evolving in Monkey Town for the story of how things started to unravel.) I know not everyone who was raised evangelical felt that same connection to God growing up, so there may be a personality component involved, but I’ve never been afraid to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” because I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to Jesus already. And I think it was because my faith was so personal, so deeply important to me, that I couldn't just let it go the moment I started having questions and doubts. 

4. Potlucks. 

Evangelicalism introduced me to deviled eggs, macaroni-and-cheese casserole, chili cook-offs, and lemon squares…and to hospitality, and fellowship, and the value of just showing up with a chicken casserole in hand when your neighbor is sick or grieving or lonely. The healing power of a chicken casserole should never be underestimated. 

5. Grace at home. 

I didn’t always experience grace in the church. I saw my fair share of legalism, division, and exclusion there, and, like most people, I’ve been hurt by other Christians. But there was always grace at home. Always. My parents—committed evangelicals—taught me, by example, to be compassionate, empathetic, patient, forgiving, open, inclusive, curious, and kind. They taught me to focus on the most important thing—Jesus—and to hold the rest of my theological and political beliefs with an open hand.  They gave me the space I needed to become my own person with my own faith, and they were never afraid to say, “I don’t know” when that was the truth. No parents are perfect, but mine have been pretty great. And so when I’m at a progressive/liberal Christian conference and people start bashing evangelicals as closed-minded and exclusive, I pipe up and say, “Hey, that’s my mom and dad you’re talking about.” They totally ruined my ability to paint all evangelicals with a broad a brush, and I’m glad. 


Of course, this is not to say these experiences are unique to an evangelical upbringing. Certainly you can find a love for Scripture, personal faith, deviled eggs and Chubby Bunny in other Christian traditions as well. 

So I’d like to open the floor to all—those raised evangelical, those raised Catholic, those raised Presbyterian, those raised Mormon or Jewish or even as secular humanists….

What are you thankful for about the faith with which you were raised? What positive effects did that tradition have on your life? 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

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