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Will the last person leaving evangelicalism turn out the lights?
No one wants to be the straggler hanging around when their friends are at the afterparty. So why stay?
The “Boeing bust” began in Seattle in the early 1970s, when the city’s largest employer laid off more than 40,000 workers in a year and the local unemployment rate hovered near 12%. A couple of real estate agents bought an infamous billboard near the airport that read “will the last person leaving SEATTLE Turn out the lights?” The sign may not have been based in reality — plenty of new arrivals swooped in to buy houses any Boeing employees may have sold — but it visually marked an era in my city’s history when things were looking grim.
I can’t help but feel the same way about the evangelical church.
Will the last person leaving evangelicalism turn out the lights?
American evangelicalism is experiencing our own moral failure. The market of white evangelicalism has been sliding into bear territory for decades and is continuing to crash. In a bear market, investors sell, and they sell fast. Stocks are worth less with no confidence.
Millions of Americans identify as evangelical for very different reasons, from true devotion to a cultural expectation in the Bible Belt. Evangelical-adjacent folks were raised in the tradition and are struggling and left wandering. Some of us identify as post-evangelical as we uncover a thick layer of visceral harm from a pastor or Christian mentor and cannot justify staying in a system with parts entangled with white supremacy and abuses of power.
When we say we grew up evangelical, we probably share some common vocabulary, but depending on geography and denomination encountered a different lived experience. I had drinks with a friend last week who is listening to a podcast on the Falwell pool boy scandal. Growing up in evangelical circles in Southern California in the 1990s, she felt like it was learning about a whole other, and largely unfamiliar, subset of southern evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism caught fire in America, yet today, its reach is global: Around 380 million people identify as evangelical, with more than three quarters residing in the global south.
There are measurable declines, for example membership in the Southern Baptist Convention is the lowest it has been in four decades, shedding a million congregants in recent years. Still, pockets of the evangelical church that center more on nationalism than the gospel are growing. Embarrassingly, even more people began to self-identify as evangelical during the Trump presidency.
As Tim Alberta writes in this essential Atlantic piece, “I’ve spent my life watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It’s heartbreaking. So many people who love the Lord, who give their time and money to the poor and the mourning and the persecuted, have been reduced to a caricature.”
When Orphaned Believers releases this January, you can read more about how my own experience coming up in the white evangelical church when in the 80 and 90s delivered a mix of end times culture, consumerism and culture wars have harmed the Church.
Millions of peers have lived through the story of how white supremacy, nationalism, generational differences, and suburbia — some of many factors on a broad scale —blew together to create the perfect storm. It is no wonder that the Church is the last place a lot of us want to be.
In the past few years abuse survivors advocating for reform in the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond have worked through great emotional, physical and spiritual exhaustion to speak out and call for change. The SBC’s major abuse investigation revealed a wide-reaching coverup of sex abuse spanning over decades. Listening to takeaways from this week’s SBC gathering, there are themes of repentance, and for many leaders an openness to reform. Still, as one SBC leader told NPR, “I think our instincts sometimes are about protection of the institution.” That posture — to protect the status quo and existing power structures instead of listening to the abused — is the same stance that caused high priests in the Sanhedrin to not only miss the arrival of the Messiah, but to seek to crucify him.
“What’s the opposite of evangelical?” I googled that question and found antonyms and near antonyms including: nonclerical, secular, temporal.
Temporal means “relating to worldly affairs.”
Many white evangelical leaders have chosen at best the status quo and at worst a cocktail of power, corruption and lies that are much closer aligned to the temporal than the gospel. Evangelical leaders who rub shoulders in the White House are acting as political power brokers trying to influence policy and deliver the vote, just like any non-religious lobbying organization.
Forget the call to be “in and not of this world,” as Jesus taught. Pockets of the evangelical church have become of the world more than the regular world. Popular books like The Benedict Option advocate for evangelicals to no longer be in the world. But we cannot cloister if we have a pulse that beats towards the marginalized. We can no longer remain sequestered in aspirational suburbs out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.
Casting away any personal association with white evangelicalism makes perfect sense when you consider the many areas it has gone wrong, including: racism, abuse, oppression of women and sexual minorities, celebrification of pastors, and generalized power grabs. But evangelicalism is also decentralized and made up of many millions of people. Like any fallen movement, there are clusters of light in the dark. For some of us, that makes our evangelical association complicated.
A Personal Note
Am I an evangelical? How you answer that question depends on how you define the term. If I drew a flowchart on pen and paper: yes. I am an evangelical because I am not Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline protestant. I am still, in this technical way, an evangelical, but I do not talk about it very often. Because it sounds ridiculous, to not boot the evangelical church away, which has veered toward becoming indistinguishable from white supremacy and republicanism.
I am a Christian, which means Christ-follower. I’m not primarily interested in what happens to denominations or power shifts. In truth, evangelicalism did little to shield me from consumerism and the suburbanized malaise of the mall. American evangelical culture has done as much to harm as it has to spiritually form me.
But for some reason I’ve been pushing against for months but cannot shake, I feel a call to be an evangelical straggler willing to work with other stragglers to sift through the beach with a metal detector looking for something precious. Even alongside people who do not believe what I do about politics and cultural matters.
I am interested in the light being shone on all darkness. In caring for and gathering around any victim, anyone who has been othered in the name of Jesus. I am interested in the broken-hearted being bound up. And, maybe like some of you, I feel drawn to do this work from inside the evangelical church.
I’ve also seen how when we join the chorus of those who tear apart, momentum is gained. The snowball rolls down the hill and forms an avalanche. I believe that calling out and speaking against the sickness in evangelicalism can be an act of love. There is no avoidance in love. There is no protection of moral rot, preservation of oppressive power structures, or ambivalence in love.
We’re usually responding to an American cultural problem when we dismiss evangelicalism, but these problems do not disqualify evangelicalism as a whole. It’s important to acknowledge that the hundreds of millions of evangelicals outside of America are experiencing complexities that are not necessarily the same as ours in the West.
When evangelicalism is essentially “all about us,” we’re centering America and discrediting a growing movement largely made up of Latin, Asian, and African people. We’re basically saying we are what matters, and we either don’t know about or want to acknowledge where the church is growing. In an unseen way, I wonder if we are inadvertently centering whiteness.
There’s a Lot We Don’t See
Which is to say ordinary people. My mother-in-law is a Southern Baptist who inspires me in how she centers her life around God. We believe distinctly different things about politics and social issues. But I see how, each week, her faith ignites practical service, from volunteering to “visiting” people at the senior center to showing up at church and singing in choir. It is a social thing, but it is also a choice for her to be loyal and commit and center her life around Jesus. Quiet, faithful folks like my mother-in-law will never be in a news headline, unless it’s Onion-style. “Fidgety, Southern Baptist Makes Casserole After Reading About SBA Abuse.”
No one wants to be the straggler hanging around when their friends are at the afterparty. No one wants to be the librarian with the poly jumpsuit and teased out bun who just stopped refreshing her look after 1977. It looks like the end of a circus, and a few of us are milling around the bleachers with popcorn and soda sticking to the floor. But what if God is asking some of us, politely, “can you hang out and clean up the elephant shit?”
Here is what it boils down to for me. Staying in evangelicalism is not about the institution, with so many cracks in the foundation that chunks of the building are crashing down. It is about the people who remain in the presence of some pretty gnarly enemies.
The Mess We’re In
We want clean platitudes. The truth is the church is broken and it is messy.
Of course, there are people who love Jesus everywhere, including in Southern Baptist churches. I’d argue a lot of these folks have an easier time following authority or at least not questioning power hierarchies because of traditionalism, especially in the American south. Then again, I spoke at a church last month in Florida who self-identified as 90% Trump voters, a heavy military church, an evangelical church. And the pastor is wonderful, the people in the sanctuary curious, gracious and kind.
Instead of being set apart like Jesus taught, identifying as a white American evangelical usually means being indistinguishable from other white middle class Americans in the way we live and spend our money. The main things that have come to distinguish us are the things that make us angry, the single issues that we support, the way our leaders lunge for political power. That is because we have not learned how to be spiritually formed.
Christians serve a God of liberation. A God who always sides with the victim, with any of us marginalized or oppressed for any reason. I believe that Christians are also called to call out. To stand with, hold up, and serve brothers and sisters who have been harmed and marginalized. Especially at the hand of another claiming to work in the name of Jesus.
God’s Name in Vain
Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. We often think that means don’t swear, but it doesn’t mean that at all. “Name” in Hebrew is shem—God’s reputation in the world. The Bible Project has a wonderful overview of this idea, it’s not mine.
God’s covenant to Abraham held that the Jewish people were to be a light to the nations, an example of God’s reputation to everyone else. When God made a covenant to the Jewish people, what we may miss is that God also put his reputation at stake. Israel acting unethically is an arrow to other nations that God is not the true god—or his character is contrary to what has been proclaimed: “If this is what his people are like, he must not be worth taking seriously!”
Think about that today, in the context of the Church. When we call ourselves evangelicals, Christians, Jesus-followers, or fill in the blank _________ and act in a way that damages God’s name, we take God’s name in vain.
God is willing to have his reputation harmed to be close to us — both abusers and abused — sinners and screwups who are trying to be faithful. It’s uncomfortable, but it is true that God is for all of us, even the farthest afield.
Christians misuse Ephesians 4 when we “make every effort to keep the bonds of peace” as a reason to pull punches. Instead, the way of Jesus demands that anyone who can speak speaks out for the marginalized. The way of Jesus is to be with the wounded.
Turn on the Bright Lights
I wonder what Jesus wants for the white evangelical church. Honestly, I don’t think Jesus cares that much about evangelicalism. But for every tender soul, Jesus offers blistering love.
Abuse and culture wars stem from the fact that evangelicalism has not been evangelical enough. Those who have inflicted harm in the name of dominance and seek unbridled power instead of repentance are not true evangelicals.
To proclaim the world is done with protestants who believe the Bible is a true, formative work and not just a myth that has been culturally impactful over the past 2,000 years is not enough for me. I’m less interested in what happens to the tradition, but highly invested in where we go from here. Because there is always hope for a protestant church with a high view of the Bible.
Systemically, the harm inflicted on the name of Jesus and the credibility of the Church under the moniker of white American evangelicalism is indefensible. Those of us left in its wake are orphaned, looking for a better country. That, in the end, is what I can’t let go: there are a lot of people moving towards Jesus with a shared spiritual heritage searching for a home with the lights on.