Why I’m Not an Exvangelical

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Oh my, these are disorienting times. First, the rise in deconstruction, and now a jump in the Exvangelical movement.

You’d have to have your head in the sand to miss the fact that many people are leaving the church, and many of them are deconverting. About 40 million Americans have become de-churched, which is a staggering number. 

Dig only a little deeper, and you soon discover among that number are more than a few pastors who have also either left the faith entirely or are completely rethinking their alliances. 

In the midst of this, we’re witnessing a surge in the Exvangelical movement, an umbrella that a growing number of people (and pastors) are adopting to signal that they are, well, ex-Evangelicals. 

What is the meaning of Exvangelical? Per Wikipedia, “Exvangelical is a social movement of people who have left evangelicalism, especially white evangelical churches in the United States, for atheism, agnosticism, progressive Christianity, or any other religious belief, or lack thereof.”

Someone should revise that article to add that some Exvangelicals are faithfully following Jesus these days too. Not everyone has given up on Christianity.

That said, it’s wise to think through what’s happening right now, and as conflicted as I feel about so much of what I’m going to share, I wanted to share it now before the dust settles so we see where we’re heading and where we might want to head as a church.

To that end, here’s why I’m not an Exvangelical. 

Let’s begin with some nuance.

The Critics are Right About so Much

This is not a slam against anyone who has identified as an Exvangelical. 

They have some very valid criticisms of the Capital C church and the expressions of the church they’re leaving or critiquing. 

I, too, am tired of the abuse, corruption, arrogance, shallow thinking, anti-intellectualism, partisanship, and politicization of the Christian message. I’m done with the racism, toxic culture, and the abuse of power we see again and again. 

I know… that’s a long list. And it’s not even a complete listing of the wrongs committed on our watch. 

Any attempt to pretend that the problems raised by so many who left the church are ‘isolated’ incidents doesn’t ring true. There are widespread issues that need addressing, and something is honestly broken about the way so many of us have done or are doing church. 

In many ways, the critics are right. And we need to hear their voices. There are widespread issues that need addressing, and something is honestly broken about the way so many of us have done or are doing church. In many ways, the critics are right. And we need to hear their voices. CLICK TO TWEET

Still, I am not willing to walk away from thinking of myself as a Jesus follower who is also an evangelical. 

Why? Here are a few reasons for any of us who feel deeply conflicted right now, regardless of the label we might wear or not wear. 

The Term Evangelical Has a Rich History and Doesn’t Belong to a Deluded or Corrupt Fringe

The word “evangelical’ springs from the New Testament itself (a transliteration of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον—pronounced euangelion); it didn’t come to describe Christians until the Reformation.  

Martin Luther referred to his followers as “evangelicals,” emphasizing their focus on the gospel, particularly justification by faith alone.

In the 18th century, the term gained broader use with the Evangelical Revival (or Awakening) in Britain and the United States. Leaders like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards emphasized personal conversion, the authority of the Bible, and active piety. 

This period saw a shift in the term’s usage to indicate a movement within Protestantism that focused on evangelical theology, personal faith, and reform.

The 20th century witnessed further evolution of the term, especially in the United States. By the mid-20th century, evangelical was used to describe a broad coalition within Protestantism that upheld the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and evangelism while often engaging with social issues. 

This era saw the rise of prominent evangelical institutions and leaders who played significant roles in religious and public life.

My point: for centuries, evangelical was primarily a term that united people across the theological spectrum rather than divided us. And, despite its Protestant origins, many Roman Catholics consider themselves Evangelicals. It’s a very broad swath of Christians who have donned that moniker.  

Although the term has now come to be associated with conservative partisan agendas and even been hijacked by non-religious right-wing people as a self-descriptor, does that mean we have to abandon the term entirely? Isn’t Exvangelicalism dividing us further?

And more importantly, can we reclaim a historically good term rather than abandon it to an angry fringe? 

But I’m guessing you’re thinking that labels and terms are both loaded and unnecessary these days. 

Sure, well, let’s talk about that. For centuries, evangelical was primarily a term that united people across the theological spectrum rather than divided us. Exvangelicalism, on the other hand, is dividing us. CLICK TO TWEET

Who Needs Labels Anyway?

I grew up in a post-Christian culture (Canada), so I’m familiar with the stigma associated with certain terms, including calling myself either a Christian or a pastor. 

Both are loaded terms when 90% of people don’t and won’t attend church on any given weekend. 

I remember, as a young pastor in the 1990s, trying to engage a grocery store clerk in conversation. I was coming back from a funeral and in those days (for a very short period) I wore a clerical collar at occasions like funerals or weddings. 

I’m usually pretty friendly, so I tried to strike up a conversation. It not only went nowhere, she refused to talk to me or even make eye-contact after she briefly scanned me. 

I couldn’t figure it out, but as I walked back to the car, I put two and two together. I’m pretty sure it was my collar. Stories of clergy abuse were in the headlines, and I guess she thought I must have been one of them. I shudder to think of what her story might have been. 

I stopped wearing a collar shortly thereafter.  

I also soon learned that telling people I was a pastor when they asked me what I did for a living would also shut down a conversation quickly. 

So, when meeting someone new,  I’d often lead with my background in law, find out more about them,  and, if they really wanted to know what I did, eventually share that I’m a ‘person of faith’ and that these days I worked for a church that had a lot of people who didn’t go to church attending, and kind of ease into the conversation that way.

It worked a lot better. I needed to let them get to know me even a little before they wrote me off as ‘one of those.’

So, back to not wanting to call myself an Exvangelical, still thinking of myself as an Evangelical but not loving what’s happening to that term over the last few years. 

The real question becomes, “So what’s the alternative?” 

And that’s where the bigger problems emerge. 

Evangelicalism is Historically About What We’re FOR, Not What We’re Against

If you look at a lot of the Exvangelical dialogue, it’s a broad canvas of people who have various issues. Many are still solid in their faith. Some want to distance themselves from the radical and partisan way the term Evangelical is used these days. 

Others are reeling from abuse and toxic culture.  Still, others have deconverted and are actively campaigning against churches and Christians. 

Here’s the challenge with the Exvangelical label: it’s a critique that’s more about what’s wrong than what is right. It’s more about hurt in the past (which has to be addressed), but offers little for hope for the future. 

It’s one thing to leave, but the question you have to ask yourself is where you’re going and what you might accomplish.

Often, movements directed toward what they’re against have no unifying cause or cry that directs people to an end greater than their pain. There’s no better alternative, other than ‘not that’.Here’s the challenge with the Exvangelical label: it’s a critique that’s more about what’s wrong than what is right. It is more about hurt in the past (which has to be addressed) but offers little hope for the future. CLICK TO TWEET

And that kind of negative movement doesn’t invite people new to faith into the fold. If anything, it helps the potentially curious outsider to become more cynical. 

I realize there are exceptions to this, but when the overall movement is focused on what’s wrong, it’s hard to move into a future into what can be right. 

So… What Do You Do?

This problem feels a little like an election with only undesirable candidates on the ballot. Which of the least bad options do you choose?

Well, here are a few things to consider. 

The Evangelical Movement May be Flawed, but so is Your New Venture

I understand that the abuses and challenges associated with Evangelicalism over the last few decades are themselves toxic. And to escape the situation you’re in and continue in a healthier communal faith journey is critical.

But wherever you go, there you are.  As much as you’re exiting a flawed community, you’re also entering a new flawed community. 

Perhaps the new reality is healthier (which is fantastic), but the same human flaws that created the situation you left are present in the situation you’re in now. 

And with the predominantly negative, deeply hurt, reactionary tone associated with the Exvangelical dialogue, I’m personally not ready for that alternative yet. 

Communities without a positive vision for the future, at best, face a consensus-less future and, at worst, are fated to further splinter and divide. Communities without a positive vision for the future, at best, face a consensus-less future and, at worst, are fated to further splinter and divide. CLICK TO TWEET

So, remember that as much as you’re exiting a flawed community, you’re also entering a new flawed community. 

There’s Also This: Isolated Individualism is Poisoning Us

Adept commentators, including atheists and agnostics, are concerned about the social breakdown in the West right now. 

The decline of social clubs, communal life, and the church in America and the declining commitment to marriage and family are reasons many think our society is splintering at the seams. The decline of social clubs, communal life, and the church in America and the declining commitment to marriage and family are reasons many think our society is splintering at the seams. CLICK TO TWEET

Combine the growing number of Nones (professing no religious affiliation) and Dones (still believe, just done with church), and the growing Exvangelical movement, and you have more isolated, upset, cynical, and disconnected people than ever. 

When historians look back on the last 50-100 years, one of the narratives will surely be that we went from being a communal culture to a deeply isolated culture, insulated from each other and often pitted against each other. We’re turning in on ourselves. 

Perhaps Exvangelicalism is one more step in that isolated direction.  

When your main devotion is to yourself, to your particular perspectives, and to your list of grievances, things can get dark very quickly. A life devoted to self (and what you’re against) ultimately leaves you alone. A life devoted to self (and what you’re against) ultimately leaves you alone. CLICK TO TWEET

Changing a system from within is harder, but it’s also deeply rewarding and possibly the best strategy if you want to effect change. 

Back to the Original Question

So yes, I’m dismayed by what’s happening in the Evangelical world right now. 

(Related: Tim Keller and I had an in-depth conversation about the rise and fall of the American Evangelical church on my podcast).

2024 is an election year, and I’m entering the months ahead with serious trepidation and prayer, hoping that somehow, the church recovers our historic commitment to sharing the love and hope of Christ with the world. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m not done hoping or working toward that end, either.

In the absence of knowing how else to identify, other than with an idiosyncratic list of personal beliefs, grievances, frustrations, hopes, and dreams, I’m left hoping and clinging to the broad orthodoxy of the Christian faith expressed over many centuries. 

And yes, a faith with an outward focus, believing that others, too, need forgiveness, grace, healing, mercy, and transformation that faith in Christ brings. Which means yes, an Evangelical orientation. 

I’m not ready to give up on the church. Nor am I ready to give up on an honest, truthful, loving, compassionate advance into the world of our friends and neighbors. I’m not ready to give up on the church. Nor am I ready to give up on an honest, truthful, loving, compassionate advance into the world of our friends and neighbors. CLICK TO TWEET

I don’t think God’s quite done with the evangelical posture of a church united around Jesus. 

Perhaps people who think of themselves as Evangelicals, and even some who formerly thought of themselves that way, could band together to forge a better tomorrow.

If ever our culture needed a positive alternative to the madness we see around us, now is the time.

Our culture needs an alternative to itself, not an echo of itself.  And perhaps now is the time for all of us to come to the aid of that cause, more unified and less divided.

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