People tell me they’re glad I “stayed in the church.” What does that mean, and why are they glad?
For exactly eleven years now, almost to the day, I’ve been an outspoken critic of the way the white evangelical church does religion. I think it is obsessed with authority—having it and looking for it and evaluating it. In many ways I’d put myself among the Exvangelical crowd, but in a very particular way—a way that’s been giving me a little grief lately.
If the Exvangelicals were together in a cafeteria, they’d sit at different tables. Note: I love ALL of these tables, and visit them frequently. You’d have the classic punk/burnout table with a grunge 90s vibe. Podcasters and YouTubers, they believe a host of different things, but what binds them is schadenfreude and absolute glee in discussing kinks. They would be spray painting memes on the lockers after lunch.
The next table would be the New Fundamentalists. These are the people who have become fundamentalist progressives. They all wear shirts explaining their admirable stance on every issue, and have whistles they blow to call attention to anyone who fails to be as antiracist/affirming/sex positive/body positive/gender neutral as they are. They believe Jesus was absolutely a socialist, and can tell you nine different ways that the main point of the Bible is to care for the poor. They are making protest signs. They’ve cut ties with anyone who voted for a Republican in the last two elections. (Note: I love to hang out here whenever they’ll let me, but this table also makes me super anxious, if I’m being honest. As I went to therapy, I realized how much of my delight in getting to hang out at this table had to do with my perfectionism and wanting to be called “good.”)
Not in the cafeteria at all, but instead having off campus lunch, are the happily unaffiliated. They don’t worry much about defining where they are now religiously, as much as they want to live a beautiful life and be true to themselves. They’re cool, we all like them, and they can get surprisingly vulnerable sometimes during study group or on the bus on the way to an away game. They walked away from organized religion to find peace, and usually found their people elsewhere. If they give a thought to the Bible, they might say the main point is nonjudgment.
The next table are the contemplatives. They are meditating, reading Richard Rohr, and I’m pretty sure one of them is having a psychedelic experience. Everyone wants to sit at this table, but no one has the self-discipline. They describe their faith with more of a vibe than an “ism” and believe that one-ness is the main message of the Bible.
Then there are the nerds. These folks are handling their deconstruction by going back to school somehow. They are completely reprogramming their understanding of the bible through uncovering obscure doctrines of the early church, getting super into science, or some other academic subject that they will use to either hone or continue to deconstruct their religion. Some are atheists. Some are Palagians. Some are religious naturalists. They don’t believe the Bible has a main message because textual criticism.
And then there’s the goody-two-shoes table. This is my table. I have friends at all the other tables. I go to their parties and events. I read their books and blogs. I even sit with them in the cafeteria on occasion. But just like my actual middle school experience, I retreat back to a table with my quirky, straight-A, non-controversial friends when it’s time to sort people into “groups.” We only throw shade when the whole cafeteria is in agreement. We love words like “nuance” and talk a lot about “love” being the main message of the Bible. We still call ourselves Christians. Just plain Christians, and hope that the evangelicals who raised us don’t look too closely at what we mean by that. We haven’t changed much about our lives during deconstruction, because we don’t want *everyone* to know how much we’ve changed.
Staying at that table has kept me safe. It’s allowed me to move quickly past my personal deconstruction as a topic of conversation with anyone who might be concerned. I go to church often enough to tell people I go to church, so that they won’t invite me to church. Mostly, I’m able to constantly reassure people that I’m still a Christian. Nothing has been irreparably lost by an official change in status—as though there were a Bureau of Religious Affiliation we need to file with. So as long as I am not renouncing Christianity, it’s fine that I’ve got notes for the Church—who doesn’t these days, right?
My first book belongs at this table, though it certainly draws amply from the New Fundamentalist table and the nerd table. It includes interviews with people from every table (and a few off campus). But at the end, I added this epilogue about how we did baptize my kids and why we do still want to be somehow part of a church. I stand by every word. That chapter was and is 100 percent true of me and my family. But I don’t think I was prepared for the way that chapter would—more than any other chapter in the book—inform how people relate to me.
My book, Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down, is full of critique and heterodoxy. But at the end of the day, people tell me that they love that I didn’t walk away from Christianity. I’ve learned which podcasts hosts want me to lead with that assurance, and which ones want me to hang out at their cafeteria table and talk a little shit. I love doing both, and there’s always a fun little pas de deux we do as we try to figure out what I’m there to do: critique or encourage. Again, thrilled to do both, but it’s a stark difference.
As I’ve continued to learn and grow and spend time at each of the cafeteria tables, I’ve continued to change my understanding of God and ultimate reality and the person of Christ. If I was still seeking some kind of endorsement or leadership in a church, my doctrinal positions would not pass muster. I am, in many ways, outside the version of Christianity I grew up in. As I’ve said many times, “I still consider myself a Christian, but the number of people who agree with me is probably shrinking.” But so far no one has taken me up on the offer—instead they are reassured to hear me use the word “Christian.”
Some of this desire to hear me profess a faith has to do with my eternal soul. But saying “I’m part of the Christian faith” is not the same as saying you believe all the things certain sects of Christianity preach as necessary for salvation. In fact, learning how heterodox Christianity has been historically, if part of why I still identify with the tradition.
But I believe things that are anathema to the sect I grew up in. I do not agree with them on fundamental doctrines, like the inerrancy of Scripture or the existence of hell. Everyone around me would have gone to the mats for that when I was growing up. Now people just sort of nod and don’t press any further when I suggest that the Bible is a contextually bound expression of people’s understanding of an infinite and ineffable spiritual reality, reflecting several iterations of how this was manifested in community life. That’s heresy, per the doctrines I grew up with. And while it’s tempting to conclude that people just don’t care as much as I think they do…y’all I spent teenage HOURS debating whether humans play any role in their own salvation. I was nearly re-baptized in college because my friends told me my infant baptism didn’t count. I have lived my life majoring on the minors, and now that I’ve scrapped the majors everyone is just like, “It’s great you’re still here.”
Where? Where am I?
In community. In fellowship. In love.
After years of being told our strength was in numbers—numbers of children, numbers of congregants, numbers of worldwide adherents—people who are still in the church have a lot of anxiety about people leaving it. We were raised to see whoever wasn’t with us to be against us. And, frankly, a lot of us who are wounded by Christians do strike back. Every cafeteria table has their stories, and every one of us has gone on the offensive once or twice. But we have not all identified ourselves as enemies. In fact the harshest critics of the church, in many cases love it the most. I really have found that to be true.
The less agonistic parts of the American church are longing to hear those harsh critics say, “it’s not bad enough to burn it down.” Christians really dislike hearing that the beloved institution is corrupt to its core, and surely if the harsh critic is going to a church then she believes the church isn’t all bad…right? But listen, there is nothing less severe about my critique of the institutional church just because I still identify with the same religion. I didn’t stay because I think the current form of the American institutional church is redeemable—I don’t. I’ll never be a member of another church, and I sure as hell am never giving my spiritual authority over myself to another person, especially not a pastor. There are plenty like me, and that’s what’s got folks worried.
Some of this anxious need to hear me call myself a Christian is probably still a numbers game. Reassurance that the church isn’t bleeding out as critically as it is, and a desperate hope that there’s some grey area on holy ground where the angry, disillusioned, and burnt out can stop before they reject a faith that is still very core to the identity of their family and friends.
But my challenge to my fellow Christians is this: The loving desire to stay bound together and in communion with God is the holiest impulse we have. Orthodoxy and religious distinction and doctrine have their place, but their place should not be determining who are our friends and who are our enemies. There has to be room for other understandings of the Mystery. Whether I call me a Christian, or you call me a Christian, or whether one day that designation no longer fits for either of us, we don’t have to be enemies. I still consider myself part of the Church because of the bond of love to God and others, and that won’t change no matter how heterodox I’ve become. I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me.