I see my conservative evangelical friends lamenting the shrinking of their churches and whispering prayer requests for those who aren’t “walking with the Lord” any more. Hashtag “exvangelical” is trending on Twitter. There’s an entire corner of TikTok with videos about deconstructing faith or coming out of fundamentalism. Clearly, this is a hot topic in Christianity right now.
Gradually, over the past decade, I’ve deconstructed and reconstructed my own faith, leaving behind some of the trappings of evangelicalism while holding tightly to Jesus Himself. And I’m not an expert at all; I only know my own experiences. But as I’ve been out of that subculture of conservative evangelical church for a while now, I’ve made some observations from a perspective I didn’t have when I was enmeshed in it.
The evangelical churches I know are trapped in legalism and entangled with Christian Nationalism. Though preaching a gospel of “Christ alone,” they add lists of rules required for sanctification — because salvation might be through faith alone, but evidently sanctification demands great personal effort and discipline. And in spite of the many teachings about world missions, the evangelical god (with a little “g”) seems to love the United States of America just a bit more than any other country, so world missions tend to look a lot like colonizing. And though every evangelical church I’ve been a part of encourages congregants to “not take our word for it; read the Bible for yourself,” when people truly read the Bible and come to different conclusions, they quickly become labeled “troublemakers” or “backsliders” or “heretics.”
All that to say, there is little room for differences of opinion or differences of understanding. One evangelical church I belonged to refused to participate in any activities with believers in other denominations — because that may be ushering in the One World Religion. Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it, but some believers call it – “a preview of Heaven.” But – for real – some of these churches teach that they are the only church preaching the truth, that other churches are leading people straight to Hell, that to be a “real Christian” you have to go to this church.
So these evangelical churches create this tiny box and say, “If you aren’t in this tiny box, then you aren’t really a Christian.”
The tiny box requires attendance multiple times a week at this particular church. The tiny box stipulates what version of the Bible you can read. The tiny box forbids alcohol and somehow, in spite of demanding a very literal translation of the Bible, twists the verses with references to alcohol to say it means Juicy Juice and not Barefoot Cellars. The tiny box fixates on sex and all the rules about sex. The tiny box creates an even tinier nesting box for women with additional rules about what to wear and when to speak and what personal autonomy is permitted. The tiny box (at best) tolerates and (at worst) perpetuates racism. And the tiny box conflates a love of Jesus with a love of the USA and misapplies Bible verses about ancient Israel to modern-day USA, promoting Christian Nationalism.
When people begin reading the Bible and coming to some different conclusions that don’t fit within the tiny box, they begin to question their faith completely. Because if you’re told your entire life, “If you aren’t in this tiny box, you aren’t really a Christian,” and you don’t really fit in that tiny box any more, it only stands to reason that you may begin to wonder if you’re really a Christian.
So here we are — essentially, the church has pushed people out of the church by turning nonessentials into essentials, by adding rules and stipulations and preferences onto the gospel of Jesus. And then the church stands around wringing its hands about all the people who have “turned their backs on the church” or “stopped walking with God.” Parents are weeping over “prodigal” children — but so many of these “prodigals” seem drawn to the life and action and message of Jesus Himself. They just don’t fit in their church’s tiny box any more.
I saw something the other day that said we grew up in a church that prayed for a generation to rise up and bring revival. Well, here we are. Here is a generation of people attempting to take the message of Jesus — relentless mercy and wide-open grace, love for God and love for the world, truly good news for everyone, a welcome shelter for the oppressed and for refugees and for the poor, an upheaval of society’s power structure — and wrestle that message from its entanglement with the idols of nationalism and extreme capitalism and legalism and ploys for political power.
Perhaps this is the revival we’ve prayed for. Perhaps this Exvangelical movement is the revival we need. Perhaps the people who’ve left the tiny box are the ones who are truly walking with the Lord, and it’s time for conservative evangelicals to release the legalism and nationalism and climb out of the box and join us.