I grew up Evangelical. There I said it.
I actually went to a church called __________ Evangelical church. The label was pretty much die-cast into my being from a child. My parents had been to and then escaped brethren roots. So, I was evangelical in identity, but in a way, aside from a continual statement that it meant a ‘belief in the Bible’ it was difficult to pinpoint what actually being evangelical meant, as I was, as they say, ‘growing up evangelical’. I was part of its culture, from festivals, language, ceremonies, adherence and regularity of church going, bible reading, prayer and rites like baptism, this was my world growing up. Being part of church meant, and only meant being ‘evangelical’ traditions were to be followed, or others derided, being kind of right was important. But discussion about what couldn’t be right didn’t happen, it was just what other people thought, and they weren’t right. However.
Sociologically theres a few challenges the church, especially the evangelical one needs to consider. For, what it has a tendency of doing is using language as a powerful force to have the twin ability of on one hand talking down the faith/beliefs of another church, in the hope that this builds up and strengthens their own. Ive heard it often, like in small groups when someone says of another church in the town; ‘they dont really believe in the Virgin Birth at that church’, as one example. It reinforces a rightness within the group, a security, a group dynamic, and shuts down potential discussion of beliefs, in order that only one is deemed right. Ok this is a little extreme, but i hope you get the point. But leaving it accompanies with it the rejection of those claimed truths.
The tragedy with this is that people then within the tradition become less able to hold in tension a variety of theological opinions, or cope when questions about such held opinions are put to them, like for example stuff about the validity of Jonah, ethical dilemmas, leadership, sexuality to name just a few. Now, that’s not to say that these discussions arent had over social media, via articles and blogs, they are, but do they happen in the local church in open forums to discuss them? and with young people who might be asking the questions…
A few months ago I was working with a young person within a well known evangelical organisation across the UK, the young person was struggling, but was being supported by their church and others around them in quite a difficult pastoral situation. What was quite interesting was that the opinion in the prayer of the youth organisation was that the person needed to be prayed for so that (and i quote) ‘they didnt lose their faith’ . I found this an odd thing at the time, and only now have begun to reflect on this. Because the person had in a way no intention of losing their faith, their ministry and calling – just that an evangelical organisation was not able to continue to facilitate it. So – what was communicated was more well intentioned that i am suggesting here, but there was something in the sentiment that leaving the ‘evangelical’ world of a ministry could mean losing their faith completely, and there were prayers that this wouldnt happen. What was implied by this was interesting. Can a person be rejected by the ‘evangelical’ tradition and not have to have a complete faith overhaul? or was something else implied…
Maybe leaving the evangelical arm of the church – might only result in a dramatic cliff jump to certain liberalised death splatter below… or does it…? After all, from within it the dagger of liberalism get pointed at those from within whove now apparently turned ( Steve Chalke, Rob Bell to name but two)
In a conversation with a fellow youth worker recently, we discussed what it was like to fall off the evangelical cliff.
Or more to the point, to know what resources there are for maintaining faith when you think that you’re falling off it, what rungs there might be on the cliff face, or platforms half way down.
What it feels like at times to have different aspects of your life trying to gravitationally pull you back to the cliff and to the green grass at the top.
In a way the same resources are there for surviving in faith when falling off the cliff, as they are before. God is still God, but the safety of the box he might have been in has changed. And so, this still includes prayer, and ritual, and reading the bible from a different perspective, church feels different (but i am still there most weeks) but people who have been through the same will be friends. Its hard not to be bitter, really hard, actually it is so easy. The same other resources include reading theology, and philosophy, sociology and politics, as The Bible often demand not just a spiritual response, but is all of those other things as well, not to mention drama and literature. God is in all of these things. There can be many clinging on times though.
As importantly, the key resource is that you are not alone, many others before have began to reflect on the evangelical culture of their faith and, not just especially now due to the perception of evangelicalism in 2016 as Trump voting & immigrant hating, but because of a number of other things.
The easiest thing also is for the evangelical world to label you, you successful cliff leaper who didnt lose their faith. You’re now a ‘liberal’ or a ‘socialist’ or ‘not as Biblical’ and the trick here is that is that it does that thing of earlier, maintains their own deemed strong position whilst negating your own, and any argument you put forward if you try to is discredited, being from the ‘fringe’. Or that your faith is in some way inferior. What is failed to see is that because of having to maintain faith outside the evangelical culture, faith might actually be stronger because it has gone broad, or deep.
I write this because the two different conversations or incidents recently highlight what has been a personal journey for me, and countless others. Maybe in my 20’s and 30’s I had to find an ‘owned’ faith ( as James Fowler would say) or that faith in God continually is changing. For the more I delve deeper into theology, into knowledge, into different practices of rituals the more I deepen not just in knowledge of God but experience God communicating and worship him in challenging new ways, the simpleness of a complex God doesnt add up anymore. Discipleship involves learning and having to learn from different positions.
In a way what I would think I was now is being more evangelical than i was then, as this belief in the truth of the Bible means that this includes acts of Social justice, the dramatic acts of God communicating to his people, a belief in God who gives Human freedom, God that asks people to follow his way authentically, a Kingdom that is near, graspable and far, is now and also to be sought. An evangelical that acknowledges that knowledge of God might not actually be God, a graspable God might not be God in majesty at all. I still believe in a God that transforms societies and individuals, who Loves unconditionally and gives. Actually what I still believe looks like the creeds of old. Falling off the evangelical cliff means shifting the how of the faith, but not necessarily losing the heart, soul and spirit of that faith, and searching continually for God who finds us on our search in the craziest of places.
Losing my evangelical faith, or faith in practices of evangelicalism is more accurate.
Regardless, Being a disciple from within or outside the evangelical borders involves as Vanhoozer suggests : ‘becoming christlike and doing more than learning lines, disciples must develop their characters, disciples must do more than go through the external motions of saints, they must also be sanctified, sanctification is ultimately Gods work, yet God works not simply ‘on’ but ‘with’ his saints’ (Vanhoozer, Faith, Speaking and Understanding, 2014)
Even having fallen off the evangelical cliff, christlike sanctified discipleship is a possibility as a response to Gods ongoing call and direction.
(Examples used with grateful permission)