| Ex-vangelical |
Coined on social media in 2016, and tagged every since as #exvangelical, is a term describing people who are deconstructing their faith and have already left or are in the process of leaving the evangelical church.
Some are leaving for other denominations, while others are leaving the church (and sometimes their Christian faith) behind altogether.
Their reasons for leaving are vast, ranging from a general disagreement with the Church’s stance on issues from The #MeToo movement, LGBTQIA+ rights, and Black Lives Matter, to the interpretation of Scripture, or the personal wounds (sometimes referred to as spiritual abuse or spiritual trauma) from pastors or church leaders.
The dissonance many are feeling between their personal beliefs and the beliefs of the Church are causing them to ask the question — Is this where I want to be? Do I still believe in what my church claims to stand for?
Is the church I grew up in or came to faith in still demonstrating Christ to my community?
While people have probably always asked these questions, the rise in social media is making the voices of deconstruction louder than ever, allowing many to feel seen and heard in the midst of their questioning.
But what can the church do to support ex-vangelicals as they explore?
How can we love and walk beside them instead of alienating them?
1. Remember that this is normal.
A brief study of Church history shows us that this is not the first time a wave of questions has come to the Church’s doors. Just look at Martin Luther, nailing his ninety-five theses onto an actual church door. This action changed the course of the Church, opening peoples’ eyes and causing them to question things like indulgences.
Throughout history, questions have led to revivals and positive changes in church behavior and operations.
It is Biblical, too. From David questioning God’s intentions in the book of Psalms…
“Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” -Psalm 10:1
“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” -Psalm 13:1-2
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” -Psalm 22:1
“I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'” -Psalm 42:9-10
“Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” -Psalm 44:23-24
“Why have you rejected us forever, God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” -Psalm 74:1
“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” -Psalm 77:7-9
… to Jesus Himself challenging the synagogue leaders…
“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there… Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’… He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” -Mark 3:1-6
“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him… ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’… All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” -Luke 4:16-30
“On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years… When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’… The synagogue leader, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’ The Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?'” -Luke 13:10-17
… it is normal for people to feel some dissonance between their thoughts and feelings and the Church’s practices.
Now, that doesn’t mean every question is a helpful one. And it doesn’t mean we have to accept the premise of every challenge or agree with every dissenting voice. But questions are normal and they don’t have to be as scary as you may feel.
2. Be ready to listen.
One of the greatest frustrations many ex-vangelicals have is the feeling that no one in their church is willing to listen. Conversations turn into arguments or heated debates on both sides.
Questions are swiftly met with distrust and judgment. As a pastor, it is important to lead your church in how to have conversations like these in a humble, open manner. Like Jesus often did, listen fully before responding (John 4:4-26). Try to understand people’s stories and process them, looking at the heart behind them. Many ex-vangelicals feel that the Church has not been a safe or loving place. There is real hurt there.
As you listen and process, ask for the Holy Spirit to allow what you hear to lead you to respond with grace and truth in love.
3. Be open to the gray.
It would be wonderful if Scripture had a clear, clean-cut answer for every question we face, but it doesn’t. Truthfully, the Bible is clear on many things while vague on others. Depending on your personal views, education, or experiences you can probably find a Bible verse loosely supporting what you believe. Just as others can find another verse to support what they believe.
To be clear, there are absolutely essential tenets of our faith.
This is why, for many years, churches recited the Apostles’ Creed or similar declarations. But there are other topics that it is okay to disagree on. There are passionate and genuine Christ-followers on both sides of the ideological, theological, and political landscape. Don’t allow every single disagreement to divide and distract you from your true purpose.
4. Provide a community.
For many, deconstruction can feel like an incredibly lonely process. You are asking questions you may not feel welcome to ask. You are stepping back from a community that has been a significant part of your life. It is scary, and the gap in community can make the experience even scarier.
One of the most profound things you can do for the ex-vangelicals in your community is to provide a space for them – a place where they can be themselves and express their questions freely with people who have walked similar paths. Leaving the church can feel so permanent.
How do you come back? It is up to you to let people know that there is always a place for them, even if they come back changed.
5. Work together towards a better future.
The work of deconstruction might come from a place of pain or frustration, but it can lead to positive change. Ideally, we all have the same goals – to love God and love other people (Matthew 22:36-40). To share God’s love with others.
Our differences don’t have to keep us from running together in the same direction. In fact, they might even be helpful – allowing us to reach a broader spectrum of people.
As you engage with ex-vangelicals, examine your church and ask if any of their questions and concerns might actually help your church love others the way Jesus teaches and commands us to do.
Emily Towns, Staff Writer, Paper Giants