Some Other Beginning’s End

The end is near. Almost.

After four installments and over 8,000 words, my quest to pull back the curtain on my faith evolution is finally approaching its end. I’ve tried my best to distill a years-long process into a few key turning points. Despite leaving out plenty of details and glossing over numerous issues that deserved more attention, hopefully the overall trajectory of my faith has been accurately conveyed. As a former pastor and somewhat public Christian (albeit in a localized and limited sense), my goal has simply been to explain why I’m no longer part of the world I once helped to lead. I hope this has been an accessible way for both the curious and the concerned to understand my journey more fully.

But before I put a bow on this project and move on, I think a few parting reflections are in order. Unlike Johnny Nash, I still don’t see clearly now, and I’m pretty sure the rain’s not yet gone. But I’m far enough down the road of rethinking my spirituality that a few prevailing lessons have started to emerge. I share them not as an expert, but as a pilgrim. I only know what I have experienced. But perhaps my observations from this unexpected journey will prove useful to someone else, as well.

As I look back on the road I’ve travelled so far, here are a few of the things I’ve started to learn.

It’s impossible to have authenticity without disappointment.

As my spiritual doubts and questions grew over time, the disconnect between my true identity and the version of myself that I presented to others in the church grew along with it. To a certain degree, this was what being a pastor demanded. Even though I was wrestling internally with some of the foundational elements of my belief structure, I had a responsibility to provide spiritual stability to those whom I was expected to lead. I needed to appear more certain than I often was.

At first, this disconnect was manageable. On most issues, I could flip the switch when needed. I could privately question the legitimacy of a male-dominateded worldview while still operating within a conservative, complementarian church. I could entertain doubts about the reality of an eternal hell while still preaching what people expected to hear about salvation. But eventually the internal misgivings became much more extensive, and the external performances became much more forced. Alternating between a world of hidden doubts and a persona of ostensible certainty felt unacceptably disingenuous. I knew I needed to find my way to a place of greater transparency and spiritual coherence.

But here’s the problem that anyone with an evolving faith can relate to: When your primary social connections are upheld by an infrastructure of shared beliefs, to openly doubt or deny those beliefs is to incur a daunting relational cost. It’s impossible not to disappoint the people you care most deeply about. And if you disappoint them, then what?

For a long time, the fear of that disappointment held me back. So many people looked at me as a devout and resolute Christian, a faithful champion of our niche brand of Reformed, biblical Christianity. How could I let those people down? How could I let them see that I had changed? I feared that if I couldn’t live up to that lofty reputation, then there would be few people left in my world who would be able to accept me.

But here’s what I slowly started to see: It’s better to let my real self disappoint others than to let my fake self please them. As difficult as it is, I can live with someone else’s disapproval and disappointment. But what I can’t live with is my own duplicity and deception. 

To be honest with who I am and what I believe is to choose a path of wholeness and integrity. The healthiest version of myself is the most authentic one. And although the disappointment of others still weighs heavily, I know that it’s the cost of being human. Nobody gets through life with a 100 percent approval rating.

The journey is less frightening with companions along the way.

If there’s one thing that seems to be universal about the process of deconstruction, it’s loneliness. Am I the only one crazy enough to have these doubts? Is there anyone else out there skeptical of the status quo? Any story of faith evolution seems to be punctuated by questions like these.

My own story is no different. I’ve felt the acute pang of isolation and loneliness in stepping outside the stream of evangelicalism. But at the same time, I consider myself extremely lucky. As solitary as this process has been at times, I’ve experienced a taste of how transformative a little bit of companionship can be.

In parallel to my path of spiritual evolution, my wife has undergone a similar journey of her own. Although I’ve deliberately tried to avoid telling her story as part of mine, the fact is that our two narratives very much overlap. We both grew up as good, rule-following church kids, we both adapted quickly to the expectations of a ministry family, and we both subsequently shifted in many of the same ways over the last several years, leaving our evangelical identity behind. 

At different times over the last several years, we have taken turns hearing the other person say, “No matter where this journey leads you, even if you no longer consider yourself a Christian, I’m still committed to you and to our relationship.” And when you’re staring in the face of disappointing virtually everyone in your life, it’s greatly reassuring to hear this, to know that there’s at least one person who will stand with you no matter what. We’ve moved forward at different paces (and occasionally in different directions), but to walk into the wilderness alongside another human being is way more empowering than walking into the wilderness alone.

That said, we both find ourselves longing for more. We’re grateful to have each other as companions, but what we lack is a community. Having enjoyed a taste of how just one traveling buddy can transform the journey, we can’t help but wonder: What would it be like if we had two? Or ten? We’ve spent our entire adult lives building friendships that were dependent upon shared membership in a church or my role as a pastor. Unsurprisingly, that has left us relationally bankrupt. We’d love to see that hole filled by people who understand our journey and can help us find our way forward.

For a couple of people who were once confident about knowing almost all the answers, we sure seem to have found ourselves surrounded by a whole lot of questions: How do we make sense of the Bible? How do we reintegrate into a local church? How do we raise kids with spiritual openness? How do we interact with friends and family members who think we’re backsliding? How do we process our past church pain without dwelling on it? How do we decolonize our faith without losing it altogether? These are intimidating questions, and we still hope that we’ll find fellow exiles who can help us make sense of life outside of the church’s walls.

Meaningful progress can’t happen without ambiguity and contradictions.

I’m unapologetically critical of the evangelical church. But at the same time, I’m grateful for it. It was the church that taught me to do hard things, to get my priorities straight, to love my neighbor, to study carefully, to choose virtue over popularity, to recognize God’s beauty in creation. I don’t resent any of these things. In fact, I think I’m better off because of them. Yes, I see flaws throughout the evangelical church, but in a strangely ironic way, evangelicalism gave me the structure and foundation that helped me make my faith my own, even if that meant ultimately growing beyond the expression of faith that got me there.

On top of this, I recognize that the church isn’t full of monsters and villains. There are those who will sell their soul for political power, those who care more about protecting the institution than following Jesus, those who will send you packing at the first hint of dissent. But there are also those who live humbly and honestly, those who are open to other perspectives, those whose convictions lead them to practice mercy and justice in sacrificial ways. I can personally attest to multiple people still firmly within evangelicalism who have shown me kindness, listened to my perspective, and treated me with respect even in departure. They didn’t follow the standard script, and I’m thankful for that.

All of this can be a bit disorienting and confusing. It’s much easier to have good guys who are completely good, bad guys who are completely bad, and things that we can either love or hate with single-minded passion. But life doesn’t work that way. Even in the most harmful places, goodness can exist. Even in leaving something behind, it’s possible to be thankful for it.

Taylor Swift sings about this tension with beautiful clarity in her song “Happiness.” It’s about romance (obviously), but the ideas apply to breaking up with evangelicalism just as well:

There’ll be happiness after you

But there was happiness because of you

Both of these things can be true

There is happiness

Past the blood and bruise

Past the curses and cries

Beyond the terror in the nightfall

Haunted by the look in my eyes

That would’ve loved you for a lifetime

Leave it all behind

And there is happiness

Good and bad. Pain and joy. Health and harm. Affirming the one doesn’t mean negating the other. Looking forward to better days can coexist with acknowledging not all days so far have been bad.

To change is to admit that we’re not who we used to be. That who we once were isn’t who we want to become. But we do so without deleting the past or rewriting it to be less contradictory than it was. We take it as it is. Regret, nostalgia, disappointment, longing, anger, gratitude. All of it’s valid. And as I walk away from the evangelical church, I’m trying to make space for everything I need to feel. Even if those feelings are contradictory. Even if those feelings are strangely ambiguous.

The church’s narrative about deconstruction needs to change.

Pastors and church leaders aren’t shy to share their thoughts about why people leave and shift their spiritual identities. Naturally, they want to craft a narrative that makes sense to those still on the inside, providing a reasonable explanation for why somebody would choose to leave. But in almost every case, those who lead the church completely fail to understand what truly motivates those who leave it.

As someone who’s now experienced both sides of the exit door, I’ve observed that the church relies heavily on two dominant rationalizations of deconstruction.

The first is to place the blame on the wild and dangerous world beyond the church. Some enticing temptation out there must have lured them away from the truth. Their spirituality must have been hijacked by the Sunday morning brunch crowd or the urban liberals with their social justice marches, rainbow flags, and electric cars. Or maybe they were led astray by militant atheists or devious college professors armed with fancy philosophy and crafty arguments. The church is always paranoid about anything and everything outside itself, so it’s easy to blame the world when someone leaves.

The second way the church rationalizes deconstruction is to identify an inherent spiritual flaw within the person who has left. Faithful church folks will say things like, “Well, he must not have been a true believer,” or, “She always had a rebellious streak in her, didn’t she?” Assumptions are rampant about what terrible sins the person wanted to start getting away with. (Usually it’s an affair.) Surely nobody would leave the church unless they were somehow spiritually inferior to all those who stay. The Christian life is a long journey, and those of us who have taken a different path simply didn’t have the stamina to make it the whole way. 

Both tactics are simple, coherent explanations. But they also happen to be convenient and misguided attempts for the church to provide an apologue that clears itself of any responsibility. So long as church leaders can keep the blame elsewhere, they don’t have to engage in the hard work of self-analysis and meaningful change. And as an added bonus, they can generate fear that warns other would-be wanderers against leaving.

Who knows, sometimes these narratives might be right. (Sunday brunch is pretty great.) But the glaring problem with both of these explanations is that they overlook and ignore what former evangelicals are actually saying: We haven’t left evangelicalism because of outside influences or our own lack of spiritual resiliency. We’ve left evangelicalism primarily because of evangelicals. That sounds harsh, but it’s true.

When someone feels mistreated, manipulated, controlled, or demonized by their own community, nobody within that community should be surprised when they leave. If I go around slapping all my friends in the face, it’s my own fault if they decide they’d rather not hang out with me anymore. If I run a company that stifles individuality or potential dissent, it’s my own fault if my employees all find other jobs. And if the church makes a habit of treating doubters and questioners and otherwise nonconforming people like trash, whose fault is it when people vacate the pews? An evangelical exodus is the natural response to evangelical cannibalism. Until the church can understand that, its most self-assured explanations for deconstruction will continue to miss the mark. 

A life of curiosity and beauty is its own reward.

In more tolerant branches of evangelicalism, it’s common to hear Christians talking about the duty to love those leaving and show empathy for those evolving. And it’s a great idea insofar as it goes. I’m all in favor of love and empathy. But the problem is that beneath the surface of this more generous disposition, there’s often a clear evangelistic motivation. It is driven by a definitive goal to win the departed back to some reclaimed form of evangelical faith. As if we’re incomplete human beings whose only hope of spiritual fulfilment is back in the cozy confines of a legalistic and literalistic spirituality.

At one level, I get it. I mean, what is evangelicalism if not evangelistic? The system is built to win converts (even if those converts were once the converted). But what if we don’t want to go back? What if we’ve found something out here in the wilderness worth chasing? Something more captivating than the narrow confines of the churches we came out of?

So much of my evangelical experience was built upon intellectual conformity and blind allegiance. You could be accepted in that world only if you accepted the artificially constructed limitations it imposed upon you. Don’t trust your intuitions. Don’t listen to non-Christians. Don’t ask the wrong things. Don’t push back against what you’ve been told. Don’t get too deep into mystery. Don’t imagine a better way. 

But as disorienting as it has been to walk away from all that, I can’t help but see the value in my newfound ability to be more aware and receptive of the world around me. From my limited perspective, the greatest reward of this entire journey has been the freedom it has brought me to listen, to learn, and to reconsider. I’ve found wisdom in unforeseen places. I’ve made friends with uncomfortable questions. And I’ve experienced the joy of being able to say, “I don’t know.”

In the midst of this uncertainty, God has started showing up in the nooks and crannies of everyday life: in a morning fog over the Wabash River, in a poignant line of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, in the fervent solidarity of a Black Lives Matter march, in the mournful chords of a London Grammar tune, in the deepest stirrings of my own soul. These are unexpected treasures of spiritual discovery, and they’re leading me toward a more expansive faith than I’ve ever had before. It’s as if needing to have all the answers had blinded me to the beauty of the questions.

This spiritual curiosity is something I want to remain open to. I want to stay inquisitive, stay limber, stay aware. I want to learn. I want to grow. I want to keep moving toward the vast and unknown horizon, content to never quite get there.

After many years of slowly dismantling the unhelpful aspects of my faith, my journey is just getting started. I’m not done. The work hasn’t been completed. Deconstructing isn’t the final stage of spirituality any more than knocking out a wall is the final step of a house remodel. It’s only the starting place for a life of spiritual and existential openness. And that’s the life that I’m ready to live.

This was part 5 of my story of faith evolution. See the previous parts below:

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