If I had to catalogue all the dates that have been noteworthy in my journey of spiritual evolution, December 10, 2017 would definitely be on the list.
At the time, I was the preaching pastor of a church I had served for over seven years, and I was in the middle of a holiday sermon series inspired by traditional Christmas carols. The first two messages had gone over well; everyone was apparently holly and jolly, savoring the spirit of the season. But then December 10 happened. The infamous “Joy to the World” sermon. The fateful morning when I stood in front of several hundred Baptists and told them that “God’s people have an ecological mandate.”
It went over about as well as you would expect.
For several months leading up to that, tensions surrounding my ministry had been building. There were growing differences within the leadership team, and I was aware that my previous decisions to address other social issues (such as racism and economic injustice) were not well received by everyone. I knew that a growing number of factors suggested that I didn’t fit the mold of the church’s culture. And behind the scenes, I had been wrestling with whether or not I still belonged there.
So it wasn’t a big surprise when the hand grenade of environmentalism I lobbed into the pews on December 10 exploded in my face. Just a few days later, two of the church’s other six elders called me to a meeting. They informed me that several members were upset about the direction I was going, and they believed that I was causing people to leave the church by being overly political in my teaching. Personally, I wasn’t sure why these things were particularly problematic. But the meeting provided a clarity that I greatly needed. It was a breakthrough moment. Looking across the table, I knew what I was up against. Not just people who disagreed with me, but an entire ideological structure that lacked the ability to flex or grow. I wasn’t going to change anything in that church. I was just going to keep pissing people off until either they went crazy and left or I did.
Although nothing definitive was decided during that interaction, I’ll never forget the sense of closure I felt while leaving the meeting and walking outside to my car. I knew the end had come. My time in that church was over. I had already been drifting off brand, failing to honor the sacred boundaries of conservative evangelicalism. But advocating for environmental stewardship had apparently proven to be the final, unforgivable sin. A month and a half later, my resignation was formally accepted.
Stepping aside was a difficult — but inevitable — decision. My spiritual evolution had begun in earnest, I was reeling from Donald Trump’s commandeering of the American church, and I was questioning many of the doctrines I was supposed to defend. I believed then, as I believe now, that removing myself from the situation was the healthy, mature, selfless thing to do. I truly thought that by moving on, I was doing everyone a favor.
Which is perhaps why I was so devastated by the events that soon transpired, events that amounted to a bona fide circus of damage control, spiritual manipulation, and institutional protection. I knew my resignation would precipitate many sad goodbyes with people I had grown close to; I wasn’t prepared for those natural and normal heartaches to be overshadowed by the most hurtful and toxic interactions I’ve ever faced within the church.
The details of those circumstances have been made known to the primary parties responsible, and I doubt it would be healthy or productive to trot them out publicly in a venue such as this. But what I will say is that walking through that season felt like a betrayal. I was denied closure. People talked about me instead of to me. And as soon as it became clear that I was no longer of any use, it was time to get me the hell of there with as little disturbance as possible.
Hearing the gossip, seeing the evasions, feeling the door slam shut on my heels: it was an unceremonious end to a sacrificial season of life. As the parts of myself that I had offered up to the church were casually tossed in the garbage, a clear message came ringing through: “You’re disposable. Superfluous. Erasable. What you did here doesn’t really matter.”
In comparison to others, my own experiences were mild. I had the benefit of being a leader with certain privilege and clout in the church, and I think that afforded me a layer of protection that others don’t necessarily have. Just listen to the stories of those who have been publicly shamed for some perceived “sin” they committed, or who have seen their own stories of abuse covered up by church leaders, or who have been disowned because of whom they find attractive. That’s some next level shit entirely, and I have no intention of comparing my story to theirs. Just because someone flicked me in the ear doesn’t mean I can pretend to know what it’s like to be shot in the back.
But this was a church that I had given my life to. A church where all four of my children had been born. A church where our family decided to move and downsize just to be within walking distance of its building. A church where I shared the burdens of desperate people whose lives and relationships were mired in deep suffering, where I gave up regular evenings with my family to attend leadership meetings that often stretched four or five hours into the night, where I got chased through the halls by sweaty youth group teenagers with Nerf guns, where I studied for months at a time to create classes and teaching series from scratch, where I held a woman’s hand as she was removed from life support and watched her die, where I stayed up all night (sometimes literally) writing my heart into sermons for our people, where I planned events that were supposed to make us better Christians, where I officiated the weddings of numerous couples, where I blessed newborn babies and the families who were raising them, where I presided over funerals of people both young and old, where I offered up the majority of my entire adult life up until that time. This was a church where I believed at one point I would remain for the rest of my life.
So in its own small way, what I went through really sucked. It sucked for me, and it sucked for my family. The church was our life. It was where career, family, community, and spirituality converged. With all our proverbial eggs placed in that one proverbial basket, how could we not be affected when they shattered?
If that makes me sound like just another liberal snowflake whining over hurt feelings, then so be it. I’m a millennial. Emotional fragility comes with the territory. But the point in sharing these things isn’t to conjure pity from others, nor is it to blubber about how I’ve been mistreated. Instead, I’m trying to recount and explain why I departed from evangelicalism. And I can’t do that without acknowledging how these disappointments opened the door for me to see my faith tradition from a new perspective and ultimately grow beyond it.
It’s not that I gave up on evangelicalism because of a negative experience. That would be unreasonable and unfair. Instead, the negative experience broke the spell just enough for me to step back and look critically at the foundations of my beliefs for the first time in my life. Getting burned by the church ultimately subverted the allegiance I had unquestionably given it. And once I no longer felt the need to defend and vindicate that particular religious system, I was finally able to start asking how credible the whole thing really was.
Suppose there’s a man who sincerely believes that Chevy trucks are far superior to all other trucks. Since he was old enough to drive, he has never sat behind the wheel of anything else. But then one day, he gets a call at work that his wife has gone into labor. He jumps into his Chevy and tears off toward the hospital. His heart is racing nearly as fast as his truck when all of a sudden, the engine catches on fire, the transmission falls out, and the tires go rolling down the road, unattached to their axles. A few minutes later, his daughter is born. At the hospital. Several miles away. While he sits in loose gravel on the side of the road waiting on an Uber.
Would anyone blame this guy for reevaluating his loyalty after that experience? It’s not just that he’s bitter or angry at his old Chevy. It’s not just that he’s emotional about a negative experience. The man put his faith in something that failed him when he needed it most, and the sane, rational thing to do is to question whether or not that faith was misplaced. Maybe he’ll think it over, decide that it was a fluke, and eventually give Chevy trucks another chance. Who knows. But surely nobody can fault him if he decides to check out some Tundras or F-150s instead.
In case it’s not obvious, I’m that man, and this story isn’t really about trucks.
Having grown up in the church and given my life to serve within it, my spiritual identity in my 20s and early 30s became inextricably linked to my ability to see the church as a healthy, wholesome, trustworthy community. I had seen people leave. I had heard people complain about the church’s tendency toward domineering forms of leadership, its disposition toward manipulative self-protection, its preoccupation with destructive and dehumanizing doctrine, its history of turning on the very people who had helped sustain it. But my devotion to the church demanded that I look the other way. Ignoring and minimizing the shadows that lurked across the evangelical landscape literally paid the bills.
It’s not that I thought the church was perfect. But like a man who refuses to drive anything but a Chevy, my loyalty was fixed.
The problem with this approach is that it only works so long as the shadows don’t get too close. After going through the process of leaving a church ministry position and internalizing unexpected pain along the way, something shifted for me. I started to revisit my assumptions and question my loyalty. What if I had been blind to red flags? What if I had failed to consider other options? What if my reasons for belief were more like rationalizations?
This process of looking beyond evangelicalism for insights and answers wasn’t about being resentful or reactionary. It was about being smart enough to know that if your truck falls apart and leaves you stranded, you don’t just hop right back in the same one as if nothing happened. You ask questions. You dig a little deeper. And you start to open yourself up to possibilities that your own loyalty had cut you off from before.
For me, this loss of fidelity to the evangelical church undermined the obedience it had demanded. And that, in turn, initiated an intense season of earnest exploration. Slowly, I began to realize just how much of my belief system had been constructed not upon rational thought or impartial analysis, but upon a perceived obligation to accept the prescribed answers, abide by the conventional rules, and seek the approval of the appointed gatekeepers. My beliefs weren’t really mine. They were what I had to adhere to if I wanted to maintain credibility and conformity within the religious system I inhabited. In short, my belief system was as tribalistic as those who think their truck is better than the other guys’.
These realizations were painful in some ways, but liberating in others. My mind and spiritual imagination no longer felt bound by the fences of my former faith. I started listening with a new openness to voices and perspectives that had previously been considered off-limits. I entertained ideas and possibilities that I once found appalling. Heck, I even read Richard Rohr without feeling like I should hide myself in the closet. Come to find out, evangelicalism doesn’t have the market cornered on spirituality.
In the years since December 10, 2017 and the mess that followed it, I’ve found myself rethinking my relationship to the Bible, rethinking my view of Christian exclusivity, rethinking my stance on issues of human morality, rethinking my understanding of God’s essence and character — just to name a few really small, insignificant matters.
But it’s important for anyone who wants to understand my journey to realize that I wouldn’t have been able to pursue these paths toward a more expansive spirituality had I not experienced disappointment in my perception of the church. Evangelicalism had to burn me a little before I could break free from its control.
I wish I could say that I’m now perfectly at peace with everything that has happened, that I’ve learned to be thoroughly grateful for the pain that I’ve endured. I’m not. I’m still very much in progress, and serenity is still a distant speck on the horizon.
But what I can say is that I’m encouraged these days by the stories of those who have found more wholesome and enriching expressions of faith on the other side of their experiences of religious harm and disillusionment. Just because the American evangelical church is no longer a compelling option for them doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the road. This gives me hope to keep searching, keep growing, keep believing. Evangelicalism may have changed my faith, but it certainly didn’t steal it.
This was part 3 of my story of faith evolution. See the previous parts below:
Next up in this series: Accepting that the Bible sometimes gets it wrong…sort of.
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