Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Goodbye, Evangelicalism

Parting thoughts to a church he loves but has left because it doesn't form disciples

Elijah, one of our readers, said the other day on the blog that he had recently decided to leave Evangelicalism. Knowing him from his posts to be a stalwart Protestant Christian (and a good writer), I asked him if he would explain why, offering to publish whatever he wrote. Here it is:

Back in November we stopped going to church. My wife was on a horseback riding trip for a week with friends, and returned home on a Saturday afternoon; when Sunday morning rolled around we were just too tired to get out of bed. We didn’t go the following week, or at Thanksgiving, or the next week. We didn’t attend the Christmas service, either. Several friends in our Evangelical church said they missed us, and I thanked them for their concern.

The pastor of the church, possibly my closest friend, asked if everything was okay with us, and I gave him some tepid reply. How do you tell a good friend that you basically aren’t finding anything meaningful about worship at his church? Mind, we didn’t make a conscious decision to stop going. And we were simultaneously guilty and relieved.
One morning I told my wife “St. Mary Anne’s has a healing service on Wednesday morning. I’m going to check it out.” As it happened, the next two Wednesdays went pear-shaped and we both ended up going on Ash Wednesday. The appearance of the church, the vestments, the liturgy, and the hymns were all so familiar, so comforting (I grew up Lutheran, the LCA, the precursor to the ELCA). Father John placed ashes on my forehead and I walked back to my pew feeling joyful, of all things. I’ve attended services there several times and at a local Anglican church. Both are conservative churches regardless of denomination.
I don’t know if we’ll join either of those churches, but we did make up our minds about one thing: we’re leaving the Evangelical church.
We’ve been there for twelve years, and that church helped our family rediscover and rekindle our faith. They helped us grow as Christians and gave us a lot of opportunities to serve. It is and has been the best church family one could hope for: genuinely supportive, caring, and committed to its brothers and sisters in the faith. Grace Bible Chapel takes the Bible seriously (obviously) and is not at all anti-intellectual. Truth be told, I never wanted to go to church with a bunch of Bible-thumpers, disliked the praise band, and couldn’t believe that any church only celebrated Communion once a month (they also never take offering – there are boxes by the doors). But I found friends and true community – with a few popped-vein-in-the-forehead fundie types – among people who had read Josephus, were doctors and professional people, and were unashamed of the role of their faith in daily life. Those are not small things. There were strong educational opportunities from small children to adults, with several adult Sunday school classes per quarter (I taught several on Apologetics, Colossians, and Worldview).
But Campaign 2016 had a lot to do with things coming apart for me in Evangelicalism. Because of my work as a teacher/principal and youth group leader, I am friends with a broad swath of Christians considerably younger than me. I was amazed at the disparate Christian writers, speakers, and bloggers that were liked, shared, and affirmed (and also mocked) on various social media sites by Christians of my acquaintance. Many of these “influencers” have little or no theological education, they haven’t done any Biblical scholarship, but they have wide audiences because they are perceived as authentic or “write from the heart”. This applies equally to progressive and conservative influencers, I hasten to add. Some of them are very well-expressed, but many of the ideas they share are simply at odds with a Christian worldview. When I asked a few friends about some of the more egregious statements of these influencers that they “liked”, many said “Well, I don’t agree with that opinion. I just take what I need and leave the rest behind.” Several said to me they feel the same way about sermons in church that they don’t agree with: just leave that bit behind. (Ironically, one of the “I take what I need” guys regularly complains about “church hoppers”.)
And what dawned on me was that a great many of these people who had been raised on Scripture, prayer, and Sunday School lacked any kind of cohesive Christian worldview. They knew dozens, maybe hundreds, of Bible verses but could not connect them to larger themes or ideas. The problem is that when ideas about sex or greed or whatever are not grounded in a larger framework, it’s easy to simply discard them. “We don’t practice animal sacrifice as Leviticus tells us, so why should I take what it has to say about sex seriously?” So the minute that a younger Christian faces cultural pressure because of their beliefs, the inclination is to ask “How important is this particular belief?” rather than “Is my entire framework for living going to collapse if I change?” And what I saw was that despite all the Bible study and whatnot, the culture won almost every time.
Even in youth groups, certain kids were held up as role models of what good Christian kids look like, even though the entire county knew those same kids were hammering down beers illegally on Friday night, bragging about stealing, and even discussing sexual adventures on social media. Yet come Sunday they are “walking right with the Lord”. And there seemed to be an invisible but very real pressure among families to present as the Mr. & Mrs. Perfect Christian Family, as if problems don’t exist in truly Christian households.

How is that Biblical? How is it Christian? How do you ‘do’ community with people who declare that they are sinners saved by grace but try to appear as if they have no sin?
Around this same time, The Benedict Option discussion was really heating up on your blog, and what struck me was not just the need for community, or even a community of like-minded believers, but a community of like-minded believers united in practice. My Evangelical church does almost nothing together except sing. We don’t say any common prayers, or creeds; we don’t confess or repent together; even our Communion ritual is centered around “what Jesus did on the Cross for us”. We don’t do any community events, or really even sponsor any organizations – educational, charitable, whatever – in our area, but leave it to the individual congregants to do that.
In a nutshell, we’re a very atomized, even alienated group. We’re supposed to be united in belief, and that’s great, but it doesn’t do much to create lasting bonds between a church and its people. I never agreed, for example, with the Rapture and Tribulation theology of the church, nor did I ever see Communion as simply a memorial meal. Recently a friend posted a bit of a cri du coeur on Facebook about her son, and I texted her, asking if there was anything I could do. There was, and I did it, but I was the only person in the entire church of 800 people who offered to do anything other than pray. The Evangelical emphasis on right belief is in many respects admirable, but it is also stifling: what if I end up helping someone who isn’t an exact theological copy of me? The horror!
(Aside: a few years ago there was a woman in my church who considered anyone who was not a precise theological copy of herself to be less than Christian. She hated Rick Warren, for example, not for his Hawaiian shirts but because he had once invited an eminent Roman Catholic philosopher to speak in his church. I told her Peter Kreeft made Biblical Christianity clearer to me than any Protestant. I was dead to her after that.)
And I think this problem may be unique to Evangelical Christianity: the obsessive focus on ourselves masked with talk about “our Christian walk”. Thomas Merton once commented on this tendency of certain Protestants to be so concerned with the state of their individual faith, they in essence made their faith a work, the very thing they fear in Catholicism. (Bringing up Thomas Merton didn’t win me any friends, either.)
I brought up some of my concerns to my pastor, along with some concrete suggestions of what we might do, and volunteered to do whatever I could to make something happen. Our conversation was very friendly, but he was having none of it. He simply would not believe that young people were drifting off, the political rancor, the unbiblical and un-Christian discussions, that un-orthodox opinions were real, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (I had printed off actual examples). And he considers any practice that is even remotely traditional to be nothing more than the dead hand of the past.

“But some of these practices have been sustaining believers for 2,000 years – shouldn’t we at least consider how we connect current generations to a legacy of Christianity?” I said.

“That’s not the direction we’re moving in,” he replied.

I offered to teach a Sunday School class on The Benedict Option – he heard me out politely, but I could tell from the get-go that the answer was no. Not just because you are Orthodox, formerly Catholic, though that wouldn’t have surprised me; no, the BenOp requires us to look to the past for (at minimum) inspiration, and that’s very uncomfortable for a congregation who is betting everything on contemporary forms.
“Do we really need that?” he asked. Well, we’ve lost 18 legacy members of the church recently, basically the next generation of church leaders, who have all decamped to a newer, slicker church where nobody over the age of 40 is allowed in “public-facing ministry”. How long is that going to last? What happens when they turn 40?

Another group has decamped to an Evangelical church down the road that is advertising a “Swagtacular Easta” and they’re not joking – there’s even a video [really, there is: go to the Facebook page and watch “Rayvon’s Swagtacular Easta” — RD] – do you think our young people don’t see through this kind of crap?

“Well, we would never do that.”

Probably not, but what ARE we doing to ground the faith of our people in a faith that has lasted for millennia? How do we expect people to take the holiest day of the year seriously when we are promoting it with an offensive (even to my tin ears) video that plays on cultural and perhaps even racial stereotypes? (My goodness I sound positively woke.)
“We don’t need rituals.” I’m not so sure about that; I ran a school for kids with learning differences – Asperger’s, ADHD, dyslexia, etc. – and I can tell you people learn differently. That’s not a controversial idea. Sometimes ritual is precisely what we need to help people keep anchored and grounded in an ever-changing world. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” says the psalmist, so why is our church designed to appeal solely to the ears? Besides, we already have rituals: it’s called what we’ve been doing every week for the past 40 years!
What about adding in a hymn or two now and then? I might as well have suggested we roast a puppy for lunch. Why not? “Nobody likes them except the older folks.” Again, my brief and not-at-all comprehensive survey suggests that it’s the 40-60 crowd that likes contemporary praise music; the young people don’t like an awful lot of it because they think it’s “cheesy”, “manipulative”, and “trying too hard”. Said one person: “We know church music is supposed to be different, so why are they trying so hard to sound like pop music?”
I would have liked to suggest we stand united behind a cause or ministry important to the local community as a last ditch, but the church has recently come out with a new vision statement that I think precludes it. The church’s vision is for “the congregation to leave the fingerprints of God on as many people as possible”…so that ultimately the church will find 50 new families to minister to. Can you imagine? And it took two years to come up with that. So our message to the congregation is this: in a world of turmoil and uncertainty, go out and give your time, money, and labor to good causes in the hopes that you can bring forth new butts in the seats. We’re a big rich church – why are we so bloody timid?
I tried once more: our church wants to form disciples. We even changed the name of our small groups from Life Groups to Disciple Groups, and yet our whole church service is focused on the conversion moment, the proverbial altar call. Why not try something new? No, no, and no.
In the end I could not convince him that our church, let alone the Christian culture at large, is facing any kind of problem. And I neither want nor expect the church to change for me, but I do think it’s foolish not to look around and take stock of where the church is and where the culture is headed and think about what we might do better or differently. Some people think the answer is more preaching, especially expository preaching, but if your church is full of people who think “I’ll take what I need and leave the rest behind”, what’s the point?
But leaving your church family is a hard thing. Unlike some who’ve made their exit from Evangelical churches, I harbor nothing but love for mine. They’re good people and good Christians, and I don’t resent them one little bit. We’ve had some disagreements over the years, and they effectively turned off one of my kids to The Church, but I don’t bear them any ill will over it. People make mistakes.
Perhaps my pastor is right and all of my concerns are off-base. Time will tell, I suppose. But for the last six weeks I’ve been attending a liturgical church twice a week and for now, it’s where I will stay.

You’ve mentioned several times how it’s not enough to turn from what’s wrong, you’ve got to turn towards something good. It’s nice to be in a church full of people who believe that they are “sinners saved by grace” but still feel the need to corporately get on their knees and confess their sins then repent together every time they gather. It feels good to pray together as a body – not have someone pray over us, but say the words together. Part of the reason I’ve been going twice weekly to church is that I realized how much I missed and need the Eucharist – how the power of that sacrament has been missing in my life.

Yes, sacrament: there is much more going on than just a memorial meal to celebrate what Christ did 2,000 years ago. As if Christ isn’t alive and active in our lives right now! As if we can’t share in the power and joy of His Resurrection!
I ask you to pray for me and my family in this time of transition.


UPDATE: Mike S writes:

Elijah seems very particular about what is proper in a church. I wish him well in his church search. But, if I were Elijah I might ask myself whether in 2027 I might be writing a lengthy essay like this about the deficiencies of the Orthodox, Catholic, or Lutheran church that I joined in 2017. Sometimes the issue is our own impatience or critical tendency. I know that’s true in my case.

This is a good point. A dear friend — an Evangelical in the Anglican tradition — wrote to say how angry he was at me for posting Elijah’s reflection. He thinks it grossly unfair to Evangelicalism, this piece, which seems to the reader to dismiss an entire tradition because of the flaws of one congregation. I don’t apologize for publishing it, because though I don’t know Elijah personally, I know from his long participation on this blog that he is, or has been, a committed Evangelical Christian. I also know that he has no interest in becoming Roman Catholic or Orthodox. As one of you commenters said, Elijah’s story brings to mind exactly what the Southern Baptist theologian Dr. Al Mohler said to me on his podcast, in which he stated his view that Evangelicalism will only have what it takes to get through this current crisis if it returns in a serious way to its Reformational roots.

I’m interested to know from Evangelicals — former ones, current ones, those in transition like Elijah — what that means.

I would also like to invite testimonials from former Catholics and Orthodox who left their churches and traditions for what you might consider Benedict Option reasons. I’m thinking of a Coptic Christian man I once knew who didn’t formally leave the Coptic Church, but who was taking his children to an Evangelical congregation as well, because in his suburban American Coptic parish, all anybody (including the priests) talked about was Egyptian politics. He wanted them to know Jesus.

I’m thinking also about a friend in New Orleans who was raised Catholic, but who says he encountered Jesus for the first time in Evangelicalism. He is well aware of all the flaws in his current congregation, but he says that the sermons are deep and challenging, and the people there, despite their flaws, are serious about following Christ in a countercultural way.

I’ve seen enough bad things — and enough plain old mediocre things — within both Catholicism and Orthodoxy to have developed a strong internal reaction against triumphalism. True, a bad experience with Father Falafel or Sister Stretchpants does not obviate an entire tradition, any more than Pastor Rayvon the Swagtacular negates all of Evangelicalism. But great movements in culture happen because of individual stories like Elijah’s.

I believe all churches are in need of reform today. I believe in a return to tradition. If you ask me, I would say that I wish everyone would become Orthodox. But back on this planet, I think we would all be better off if Catholics would be more faithful Catholics, if Orthodox would be more faithful Orthodox, and if Evangelicals would be more faithful Evangelicals — which, if Dr. Mohler is right, means a renewal and recovery of the Reformation.

In re-reading Elijah’s testimony, I see a man who did not throw up his hands and leave his church in a huff. He tried hard to work constructively. And he doesn’t leave with bitterness in his heart. But he left, because he no longer believed that he could be formed as a disciple within that particular congregation — and he knows how high the stakes are.

I invite similarly thoughtful and challenging testimonials from readers who have found within Evangelicalism what they did not find in Orthodoxy or Catholicism. I’m not trying to use this space to convert people, and I don’t want y’all arguing back and forth (as distinct from disagreeing in a civil way). I’m genuinely curious about the phenomenon of being Christian in America today, and what it looks like in your own congregation and tradition. What happens when you hit a brick wall? How do you know when it’s time to leave, or to rededicated oneself to hanging on? How do you decide whether or not the problem is just yourself or your congregation, and when the problem is the tradition itself?

For the sake of clarity, let me say this: I don’t believe that ANY tradition has all the answers for how to be fully and faithfully Christian in post-Christian America. I genuinely believe that we all need each other: Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox. That’s not kum-ba-yah, COEXIST sloganeering from me. I’ve spent enough time among believers in all three broad traditions of Christianity to see strengths and weaknesses among all.

I think the rest of the church in America can learn from the Orthodox how to pray and worship more reverently and meaningfully. And it can re-learn ascetic disciplines.

I think that Evangelicals in America can learn from the Catholics how to think more deeply as Christians, and that Orthodox Christians in America can learn from Catholics how to be more small-c catholic in thinking about the Church.

And I think Catholics and Orthodox can learn from Evangelicals how to love the Bible more, how to be more zealous, and how to be more engaged with church fellowship.

These are just a few things. The point is, we all need each other. I firmly believe that. I believe that a lot more strongly now that I’ve written the Benedict Option book than I did going in.

UPDATE.2: Really good words from Mark C.:

As somebody who was brought up in evangelicalism and became Anglican en route to Catholicism, I of course sympathize with your correspondent and can identify with much of what he experienced. But the Benedict Option will not succeed in North America if it is simply about the individual conversion of evangelical Protestants to more liturgical / traditional forms of faith from LCMS Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. It must be a renewal movement within evangelicalism that encourages evangelicals to embrace liturgy, discipline, deeper prayer life, and a more serious approach to the education / formation of youth.

If everybody has to leave their evangelical homes in order to find that, then at best this will result in a blip of earnest, devout converts to Catholicism and Orthodoxy at every Easter vigil (which is not to be shrugged at). And those who are sitting in the pews jiving to the praise band and haven’t thought about these issues will be left in complacency as their children absorb MTD theology or lose their faith altogether. They need pastors and elders Christian brethren who can challenge them to “duc in altum” – put out into the deep. What is needed is a renewal of evangelicalism from within, an equivalent of an evangelical Oxford Movement, or otherwise the most dynamic sector of American Christianity (which is the most dynamic part of Christianity in the developed world) will slowly drift into apostasy or irrelevancy that traditional Catholic, Orthodox or confessional Protestant “creative minorities” are unlikely to be able to replace.

UPDATE.3: CatherineNY, who is a practicing Catholic, writes:

I can think of several friends who left Catholicism for evangelical churches. In one case, the friend found out that her husband and his brothers had been abused by a priest, and not believed by their parents. The husband had issues, and left her alone with a brain-damaged child. She found concrete help and companionship in a megachurch that she had never found in a Catholic parish. Another woman I know started going to her husband’s evangelical church. When the husband committed suicide with a gun, the pastor of the evangelical church came to her house and actually helped clean up the scene. I’m not sure what led the third friend to make the move from Catholicism to evangelicalism, but the first two stories are evidence of something I have observed — Catholic parishes don’t do some things very well. I can’t imagine any of the priests I have known showing up to help clean up a suicide scene. Christian care of this sort can start to make some “vapid” worship services look just fine.

UPDATE.4: Elijah responds in the comments:

Please allow me to thank all of you who took the time to read my reflection and offered me and my family grace and good will. I’m truly thankful.

Please allow me to clarify a few things. First, I did not mean to impugn every Evangelical or evangelical church out there – I apologize if that’s how I came across.

I deleted a whole page about how hard it is to find a new church when you’ve spent 7 years as Christian school principal and know an awful lot more about individual congregations than I care to!

“But, if I were Elijah I might ask myself whether in 2027 I might be writing a lengthy essay like this about the deficiencies of the Orthodox, Catholic, or Lutheran church that I joined in 2017.”

@ Mike S – I’m already wondering the same thing. I hope not, but perfectly fair point.

But to those who think I must be “particular” or am being “self-centered” and the like, there is a disconnect. My wife and I will be perfectly fine if churches on Earth are banned tomorrow. Our core spiritual formation is complete, and our roots are healthy. I am concerned about the next generation(s) who think worship and church are all about relevance and experience; those who are taught the key components of a healthy faith, but are never formed into a solid and stable structure. It’s clear that the moment there is cultural pressure, their beliefs give way, and I am of the opinion that connecting them to 2,000 years of Christian belief and witness might help. Granted, I could be wrong – but as a historian, the moment you discard everything from the past as dead, useless, whatever, you’re going to have trouble.

Again, I am truly thankful for the goodwill, prayers, and blessing so many of you have offered me during this time, including those who are critical.

Have a blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week!