Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 1 Leaving

It has been 18 months since I left the evangelical church. I should probably define what I mean by ‘evangelical’ but that would take a whole article at least. So I’ll simply say that I’m talking about the kind of church where being ‘evangelical’ is important.

If you are reading this you probably either wish you could leave the evangelical church, or think I am crazy or heretical.  This article is aimed mainly at those of you in the first group. I want to reassure you that although you may feel a bit crazy at times, you are in fact completely normal, and almost certainly not heretical (whatever that means…).

Can I leave?

Yes of course you can. It will be hard. You will feel guilty. You will lose friends – but not all your friends. And you will probably be maligned and slandered – but not very often. But you are not alone. Many have left before you, and many will leave after you. You have permission to leave. It is not a mortal sin.

Why do I want to leave?

Of course only you can answer this. But perhaps I can articulate some reasons. Perhaps there are negative factors pushing you away:

  • You are upset about the exclusive ‘them and us’ theology you hear every week.
  • You are angry about a sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic culture.
  • You cringe when you hear about creationism and hostility towards science.
  • You understand that insisting the Bible is inerrant and infallible is untenable, and can be a cause of many toxic thought patterns and behaviours.
  • You are becoming scared of a culture in which agreement and submission are a condition of belonging.
  • You are distressed by the god who needs to be placated by a bloody sacrifice.
  • You are disturbed that this religion condemns 99.99% of humanity to eternal conscious torment.

You may simply have a growing feeling of uneasiness or alienation, but can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

Perhaps your reasons are more positive:

  • You have a seen a more inclusive, expansive gospel that unites rather than divides.
  • You are beginning to see the image of God in every person which is changing the way you view people following different faiths and lifestyles to your own.
  • You are believe that a life of faith does not mean being anti-scientific or anti-academic study.
  • You are becoming convinced that if the gospel is good news for anyone then it must be good news for everyone.

Or perhaps you’re just not sure any more. Not sure that everything you have been told is true. Not sure whether God exists. Not sure what any of this means.

Are these people wrong?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. In my 50+ years in the evangelical church I have rarely met people who were wilfully manipulative or self-seeking. Almost all were people of integrity, well-meaning and sincere. Maybe Spirit is just leading you along a different path.

What should I do?

One thing is sure – once you have seen a glimpse of something different, you cannot un-see it. You may supress it or try to ignore it but ultimately it will not go away. I am not an authority but these suggestions might be helpful.

  • Know that you are not alone. There are many other good, faithful, sane Christians who have gone through and are going through the same as you.
  • Confront the reasons you are uneasy with the evangelical church. It is more comfortable to ignore the niggling doubts, but in the long run this will almost certainly be unhelpful.
  • If you are seeing something new, acknowledge it, and acknowledge it is good. There is a more beautiful gospel. Once you have seen you cannot un-see.
  • Talk about it. If you have friends who are open to talk about your concerns, then great. But if not, find someone to who is. If you don’t know anyone contact me. I would consider it a privilege and an honour to give you a safe and confidential space to talk things through.
  • Realise you may go through a period of months or even years where faith is very hard or impossible for you. This is a normal and positive part of the journey.
  • Be open to different expressions of faith. This evangelical now venerates icons and is the better for it.
  • Follow your instincts. He who is in you will lead you into all truth.

What do you think?

In my faith journey I have had to work through a number of issues. I plan to write about some of these in future. But please let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to address in future articles. I would welcome your feedback in the comments below. Or you can use Twitter to message me directly.

 

Why I Joined the Orthodox Church

Why does a 50 year old protestant, a deeply committed member of the evangelical-charismatic church for 30 years, suddenly go and join the Orthodox Church?

In future I hope to say more about the first part of the story, the leaving part, but I’m going to skip this for now. Suffice to say that I’d been dissatisfied with my church for some years, and slowly came to realise that it wasn’t just ‘my’ church but the charismatic church in general that had become alien to me on many levels. In this post I want to focus on the positive reasons for becoming Orthodox, rather than my dissatisfaction with my former church.

 

The short answer

holy apostlesOne of my children became Orthodox last year. I initially attended one or two services with him, including his joining service (‘chrismation’). While finding the services strange and some of the beliefs challenging, I was drawn back again and again. Over several months my questions and doubts dissolved and my heart was drawn to worship God as part of this faith community.

 

The slightly longer answer

While the explanation above may satisfy some, there is obviously more to this tale. A lot more in fact than can fit in 800 words. However I’d like to highlight here three key aspects: theology, prayer and worship. Forgive me if my treatment of these is superficial and inaccurate. My understanding is limited; moreover this is a personal reflection and space is limited.

The theology of the Orthodox Church emphasises the unity of God and the triumph of God’s love. The Holy Trinity are united in their nature and in all they do. In this framework, Jesus perfectly reveals the Father in every way, and corrects false notions of God evident in the Old Testament scriptures. Redemption is not seen as a legal transaction, where Jesus satisfies an arbitrary notion of divine justice; rather it is a rescue mission where the whole of the Trinity deals decisively with the issue of death-caused-by-sin once and for all. And although not being church dogma, this includes at least the possibility that the work of redemption will somehow be effective for all people. The Orthodox Church permits me to hope that the work of Christ is at least as powerful as the error of Adam. 1

The practices of prayer is central to the Orthodox Christian. This is obviously true for all Christians, however the Orthodox Church provides a great deal more help in making this a reality. There are set prayers to be said when rising from sleep, at 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, 6 pm, evening and before sleep (personally I aim for morning and evening!). Orthodox services are crammed full of prayers. And the prayers are crammed full of scripture and very much centred on God (not me and my needs). 2 Obviously there is room for spontaneous and personal prayer. But the essence of prayer is that done ‘in the name of Jesus’ that is, in accordance with scripture and God’s will. I have found that praying in this way is liberating, freeing me from the whim of personal feelings and distracting thoughts, and it seems to be slowly transforming my mind, bringing my thoughts and feelings in line with scripture. Some may argue that this is possible without set prayers, and that somehow praying prayers penned by others in somehow inauthentic and mere ‘religion’. I have come to believe that to neglect a practice found to be beneficial by generations of Christians over two millennia, and replacing it with whatever I feel I right on the spur of the moment, is both foolish and a little arrogant.

paschaOrthodox worship is where I have experienced the sharpest contrast with the charismatic church. Gone are the amplified music, the projected words, and ‘contemporary’ songs. Gone too are the spontaneous ‘contribution’ where songs and even sermons may be interrupted by a prophetic word or tongue. Orthodox worship is liturgical, with set services for every day. Rituals, processions, incense and icons all play a part. On every Sunday, and on other feast days, the focus is on encountering Christ in the Eucharistic meal. Superficially this looks a world apart from charismatic worship. It is hard to explain how I have transitioned to this world and reconciled the differences, and space does not permit me to try. However my experience has been that Orthodox worship is deeply infused with the presence of God, and the set form of service focuses attention on God in a way that a meeting manipulated by a worship leader seldom achieves. 3 If you want to know more you will have to try it for yourself.

 

If you want to know more, try these links.

  1. Permit me to hope, (Brad Jersak): https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/permit-me-to-hope/
  2. Orthodox daily prayers: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-synekdemos-daily-prayers-for-orthodox-christians
  3. The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: https://youtu.be/OYg5D6gpe98. This recording is in different form and slightly more polished rendering (!) than at my church. It is in two parts, the liturgy of the Word, climaxing in the gospel reading (at about 24 minutes), and the liturgy of the faithful, climaxing in the Eucharist.

Faith Shift


faith-shift-663x1024When once faithful followers begin disturbing the status quo, instead of honouring their spiritual evolution they are often labelled as rebellious, divisive, and even heretical. We attend church less often or leave church altogether. Sometimes we’re asked to leave. The anger and guilt can lead us to disconnect from God. Lost and without a map, many of us end up on the fringes of all we once knew – alone, disorientated, and disillusioned.

Faith Shift – Kathy Escobar

Many Christians encounter what is often described as a crisis of faith. Some supress it and just carry on. Others leave the church and faith entirely. Escobar describes this as a faith shift. In this book (also entitled Faith Shift) she offers a description of the journey many find themselves in and offers hope that this might be a good thing.

She describes the early stages of the Christian life as Fusing. We begin with belief, add to this learning, we work hard for God, and find security in belonging to our tribe. There is security in affiliation, conformity and certainty. Many stay at this stage for all their lives.

But for many this stage is followed by Shifting.  When the foundation of faith begins to crack there are often common ingredients. Disengagement with the worship, the sermon, the church and others. Uncertainty with what seemed so sure. Longing for a more authentic faith, a faith that is bigger than the rules, regulations and certainty of our infancy. A faith that is more about redemption than judgement, more about restoration than condemnation. A faith that is more about this world than the next. At this point do we turn back to safety or push on into uncertainty?

There are many reasons for turning back: we may be concerned about the effect on our family our children, we may miss the inspiration we used to receive, we want to avoid the pain and turmoil of moving forward, we miss the certainty of our old faith. Escobar is clear: it’s OK to go back, and it’s OK to go forward.

For many going back is not an option. The forward path leads to Unravelling. Each unravelling is different. But negative feelings are commonplace, including sadness, anger, confusion, fear, and shame. Escobar offers soul care for the unravelling: expect the unexpected; come to terms with negative emotions; consider the possibility that your soul is not at risk; accept that some relationships will fall away; make time for safe, life-giving friends; try experiencing God in new ways; be selective in what you read and what events you attend; resist the temptation to compare yourself to others; avoid big triggers if possible.

Fortunately there is hope. Unravelling is just a stage in the journey. You can move on to Rebuilding. What seems like an ending can become a beginning.   Drawing on her own personal story and that of dozens of others, Escobar offers compassion, hope and tangible practices for rebuilding a new and authentic faith.

kescobarKathy Escobar co-pastors the Refuge, a Christian community in North Denver. You can learn more about her work and writing at www.kathyescobar.com. Faith Shift is published by Convergent Books.

Benefit of the Doubt

doubtBenefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd is a book for those Christians who are afraid to express doubts, afraid to question the Bible, and afraid to talk to others about these doubts for fear of judgement and condemnation.

It is Boyd’s contention that certainty has become an idol in the church, especially in the evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic wings. For some, unquestioning affirmation of a set of beliefs has become the hallmark of Christian faith. Doubt and questioning have become the enemy, unequivocal allegiance to doctrine is a precondition of fellowship, and certainty is elevated to that of a demigod. The result is the church lacks the tools to grapple with uncertainty and many faithful Christians end up leaving the church through shame and condemnation.

Boyd invites us to embrace a faith that doesn’t strive for certainty but rather for commitment to Christ. He argues that wrestling with God and scripture, ‘screaming at the sky’, and giving up a commitment to certainty are all healthy and necessary parts of our spiritual journey. He contends we can have a rich and fulfilling relationship with Christ even with unresolved questions about the Bible, theology and ethics.

Boyd’s views on the role of doubt are part of his ‘big picture’ in which open theism plays a big part. However there is much that can be gained from this book without having to subscribe to this. I don’t always enjoy his writing style but I’m glad I didn’t stop me completing this thought-provoking and ultimately hopeful book. I read this at a time when many of my long-held ideas about faith were becoming just too heavy to keep carrying round. This book didn’t exactly challenge my faith but did help to articulate some of the thoughts I was having. In brief, subscribing unwaveringly to certain beliefs is not faith; faith is trusting in a loving God, demonstrated through the self-giving sacrifice of Christ, even when you aren’t really sure of anything at all. Following this journey might be unsettling and we may well be misunderstood. But it might just transform us in a way that worshipping at the altar of certainty never can.

Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, St Paul, Minnesota. He blogs at ReKNEW (http://reknew.org/). Benefit of the Doubt is published by Baker Books.

What I’ve Been Reading

img_0009Some readers might be aware I have undergone some changes in my faith recently. To a non-believer these might seem trivial – I still very much identify as a Christian – but from my perspective some of the shifts in my belief have involved a significant realignment. Part of my story has been the influence that reading has had upon the re-forming of my faith. The charismatic network I spent the last 30 years in, with all its wonderful people and vibrant witness to the goodness of God, was nevertheless somewhat of a mono-culture in relation to beliefs. It distinctiveness was for a large part in a set of beliefs, one of which was that these beliefs were the right ones. In such a context questioning and debate is only possible within very narrow limits. Thank God that we live in an age of mass publishing and the internet.

So I present the following five books as a sample of some of the reading I have been doing these past few years, some so called ‘Christian’ books. Just as significant have been the fiction and nature writing that I return to over and over, but those will have to wait for another time. Let’s be clear, these books are not all well-written, not equal in significance, and certainly not the only books that have made a deep impression on me. But they have all challenged my thinking, nourished my soul, fuelled my prayers and left me more awe-inspired and in love with the God who revealed himself as a carpenter from Nazareth.

The books are:

I’m publishing these reviews as separate posts over the next couple of weeks starting off with pure gold from Jersak (click here).

 

A More Christlike God

jersakI’m kicking of this series of posts with a review of A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak. If I were to recommend just one of these books, this would be it. I was immersed in a legal model of salvation from an early age but have done some serious questioning about this in recent years. Jersak articulates much of what I have come to believe.

What if we conceived of God as completely Christlike: the perfect Incarnation of self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love? What if God has always been and forever will be ‘cruciform’ (cross-shaped) in his character and actions?

‘God is like Jesus’ is the simple thesis of this book. Jersak contends that the statement ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Hebrews 1:3) is actually true. Few Christians would disagree. But many beliefs and whole systems of theology held by Christians are actually the antithesis of this statement, and lead to many harmful beliefs and practices.

Jersak begins by discussing ‘What is God really like?’ and examines several un-Christlike images of God, for example, the doting grandfather, the ‘deadbeat’ dad, the punitive judge, and Santa Claus. He examines the fundamental nature of God and concludes he is a God of Love not a God of Will, that is, the will of God does not make a thing loving, rather the love of God finds expression in his will.

Jersak goes on to explore the Word made Flesh, God as revealed in Jesus. He argues that the cross is the ultimate revelation of the love of God. This was not a legal transaction but the self-emptying love of God, absorbing all the sin, hurt and brokenness of humanity. The cross did not pit the Father against the Son, but ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19).

This leads to a conclusion which may be disturbing for some, that where God is portrayed as acting in a way (or sanctioning actions) which Jesus clearly taught or showed were unloving, then this portrayal of God cannot be true. It is God incarnated in the person of Jesus that is the true revelation, not the scriptures whose whole purpose is to point us to Christ.

This ‘unwrathing’ of the cross leads into an unwrathing of God. Jersak dismantles models of atonement and salvation which are characterised by an angry or wrathful God intent on punishing sin, arguing instead that God’s heart from the beginning of the human story has always been to save, to heal and to restore. This all leads to a more ‘Beautiful Gospel’; one that is truly good news for all of humanity, not merely for an elect few. God has not turned his face from sinners, but has come to us in human form and taken on all our sin, suffering and even death itself, in order to restore humanity to loving fellowship with him.

Jersak has succeeded in producing a very readable book which is both thought-provoking and inspiring. I highly recommend it. It might just change the way you think about God,

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC, where he attends Fresh Wind Christian Fellowship and serves as Reader at All Saints of North America (Orthodox) Monastery. You can read more about him at his website www.bradjersak.comA More Christlike God is independently published on CreateSpace and is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.