Raised Evangelical: Matthias’ Story

Raised Evangelical: Matthias’ Story October 28, 2012

A post in the Raised Evangelical series.

Section 1: Introduction

Question 1: Please introduce yourself before we get started, providing a brief snapshot of your background an overview of your beliefs today.

I am a 23 year old male currently residing in the “bible belt”. I grew up in a conservative Christian family and church in Colorado and experienced a falling away during and shortly after college. I currently consider myself somewhat of a progressive Christian or “spiritual refugee”. I don’t really know how to categorize my beliefs, as I tend to care more about how I am as a person than what I intellectually do or do not assert. That’s not to say I don’t find religious beliefs interesting, it’s just that I don’t characterize my spirituality as a belief system anymore. I try to make the focus of my religious practice on loving others. I am bi, but currently not out.

Question 2: How did your family and religious community self identify? As evangelicals? As fundamentalists? Or as something else? What did these terms mean to your parents and religious community?

My family probably best identified as “conservative Christian”. Our church was somewhat in-between being fundamentalist and evangelical. We were an “independent Christian Church” from what is called the “Stone-Campbell restoration”. We identified ourselves as “Christians only” whose “only creed is the bible”. Though I think we considered ourselves both evangelical and fundamentalist, we tended to not use those terms of ourselves because “fundamentalist” sounded derogatory to us and “evangelicals” didn’t believe that you needed to be baptized to be saved and therefore they might not be true Christians.

Question 3: How did your parents become evangelicals or fundamentalists? Did they grow up in evangelical or fundamentalist families, or did they convert later?

My mom grew up in the church of Christ/Independent Christian church movement. My dad’s family moved around church’s from Methodist to Southern Baptist to Church of Christ, which was were my dad meet my mom. My dad was never baptized, so technically according to our church he wasn’t a Christian. This lead to me growing up thinking my dad was headed to hell.

Section 2: Theology

Question 1: Briefly describe the church your family attended while you were growing up. What role did the pastor play? How large was it? What sort of programs did it offer? What denomination was it? How many times a week did you attend church? How about Bible study or Bible club?

The church I grew up in was very conservative, and the pastor was (and is) very controlling. Though there was an eldership, the pastor made most decisions, and the pastor also warned people about what books to read and not to read. He also discouraged participating in Halloween, though our family ignored that. We were about 200 in size. We had 2 services, Sunday school, Sunday night prayer, Small groups, a Teen Mops program, Wednesday night youth group, Bible Bowl team and other various outings. I attended a Sunday service, Sunday school, and was actively involved in youth group, which included outings, mission trips, local trips, and small groups. I also lead a bible study at my local school, and was involved in Bible Bowl, a team that went around to other churches and competed against them on bible knowledge. Yes, it was as cheesy as it sounds.

Question 2: When and how were you “saved”? How did your parents and church community respond? Did you have a “relationship with Jesus”? If so, at what age did you form this relationship? Please describe what all it entailed. Or, if you attended a church that was more liturgical and did not emphasize the specific moment of salvation or having a personal relationship with Jesus, what were considered to be most important milestones of a religious upbringing (i.e. confirmation, etc.) and how did you experience them?

In middle school, after reading the Left Behind series, I became increasingly scared about going to hell. I knew I had to be believe, repent, confess, and be baptized to be saved, but I didn’t like be the center of attention of the entire church for a baptism. Eventually one night I told my mom that I wanted to be baptized, and she said she would talk to the pastor and encouraged me to tell God about it in the “Sinner’s prayer”. This prayer actually wasn’t approved by my church and they openly scoffed at the idea because it wasn’t in the bible. I knelt down at my bed that night and “gave my life to Christ”, and was baptized a couple months later after doing a short course handouts from the pastor of randomly proof-texted verses on believing, repenting, confessing, being baptized, and being a good Christian till you die. My mom was very happy I was baptized; as my dad was “not a Christian” and she hoped it would encourage him to be baptized. My dad was supportive of me; he was a very quiet person, especially in church, and I can’t remember ever asking him why he wasn’t baptized when we grew up.  In all honestly, during the actually baptism I was more focused on thinking about my dog that was dying than actually thinking about anything spiritual, though it was pretty cool to feel completely forgiven and free from sin.

Question 3: How did your family and church view the Bible, and what role did it play in your life growing up and in the life of your family and church? How often did you, your siblings, and your parents read the Bible? Were you guided by your parents or pastors in how to interpret the Bible, especially certain passages, or were you generally free to form your own ideas about what the Bible said?

I was taught that the bible was the inerrant Word of God, and that everything, starting with Genesis 1:1, was literally true when it looked like it was reporting history. The bible was a huge deal, and very early on I was immersed in apologetics and creationism. My family (with the exception of my dad) had nightly devotions, and we were encouraged to read the bible daily.  Beginning in middle school, as I tried to fight periods of depression and loneliness, I began reading the bible a lot (and a lot of apologetics). I was certainly guided by my church and creationist literature on how to read the bible. My church was very insistent that you had to be believer immersion baptized to be saved, and spent a great deal of time proof texting why other Christians are wrong on the verses that mention baptism. I was absolutely not free to form my own ideas of what the bible said, because, as they would say “then it could mean anything!”. I was limited to what conservative Christians, creationists, and my church said it said.

Question 4: What role did race play in your church? Were there any black or Hispanic families? Were they treated differently?

Race played a very minor role in the church. Though all the leadership was white rich males, being black or Hispanic wasn’t a problem for being part of the church. There never was anyone who didn’t speak English as their primarily language as a member to my knowledge, and when politics were brought up people would talk about how illegal immigrants should be shipped back to Mexico to stop stealing our jobs. If you were Arab you probably wouldn’t have been welcomed (or welcomed very coldly and distantly), as after 9/11 the church became and still is incredibly islamophic. I remember sitting in an adult Sunday school class were one of the members said he thought we should nuke everyone in the middle east.

Section 3: Gender and Family

Question 1: What did your church teach about gender roles, the family, and marriage?

Men were the leaders, both in the church and in the family. Men were expected to act manly and do manly things, this was a given. Joshua Harris was in the church library, along with “Wild at Heart” and “Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology”. Women were expected to obey the male leaders, both in the church and at home. Women were not allowed to teach adults, lead worship, preach, or be an usher for the communion plates or the offering plates. Marriage was between one man and one woman, and was the only conduct that sex (which should never be talked about) can occur. We never really talked about divorce, though there were some divorced members in our church.

Question 2: Describe your parents’ marriage. Was it complementarian (i.e. “soft” patriarchy), or more openly patriarchal, or in practice egalitarian? Did your family or church use any of these terms?

My family was in practice egalitarian. Since my dad “wasn’t a Christian”, my mom was the spiritual person of the family so I guess that was a legitimate excuse to break the rule. I think my church may have used the term complementarian, though in general they would just say what they mean; that wives should submit to their husbands and husbands should lovingly lead their wives. If you didn’t believe that “Well this is what we believe, if you believe someone else then you can go elsewhere” was the common response.

Question 3: In what ways were boys and girls in your family expected to dress or act differently from each other? Were there certain things it was appropriate for girls to do but not boys, and vice versa?

Well, I was raised in a family with all boys. I did know that girls were suppose to “dress modest”, though I never really figured out exactly what that meant besides not wearing a bikini. I don’t really remember gender roles playing a huge factor for youth; that really seemed to only apply to adults.

Question 4: In what ways were boys and girls in your family raised differently vocationally? Were the girls expected to be stay at home mothers or to hold jobs? Did your mother work, and if so, how was that viewed by your family and church?

Though I was raised in a family with all boys, my mom was raised with the idea that she was expected to settle down be a mom have a family. She instead went and got a bachelors degree and held at least a part time job through most of my childhood. I think in my church women working was generally viewed as ok, though their primary function was raising kids. If they could do that while working, great. More money to give to the church I suppose.

Section 4: Education

Question 1: What sort of education did you have: public school, Christian school, or homeschool? What reasons did your parents give for choosing the method of education for you that they chose?

I went to an evil, secular, public school. My parents choose this because they couldn’t afford private and didn’t want to homeschool. The pastor, however, could afford to send his kids to a charter school. I think my parents also realized that the homeschooled kids in our church were pretty sheltered and didn’t want me going to that extreme.

Question 2: Briefly describe the academic aspect of your educational experience (public school, Christian school, or homeschool), focusing on the role played by religion. If you were public schooled, did your parents try to counteract anything you were learning at school with different teachings at home (i.e. sex education, evolution)? Or, did the public schools in your area find ways to include things like creationism or abstinence only sex education?

My mom introduced me to creationism early (we even went to a creationist camp! Rappelling, camping, and dinosaurs, hooray!) and I fought it all throughout high school biology; writing long refutations on all my papers. My mom was generally ok with sex ed at school because they taught that abstinence was the only option that was 100% safe, even though they mentioned condoms and birth control. My college experience was at a secular college, where I experienced some good Christian groups and some bat ass crazy ones. My friends were in ones that didn’t let woman speak at their main meetings, yelled at people in the plaza, and were those annoying people that would stop and ask you if you had a relationship with Jesus or if you know where your gonna go when you die. There was a particular extreme one that I went on a camping trip with later in college that was utterly obsessed with apologetics and extremist conservative politics (birther, concerned about sharia law type crazy. Made Sarah Palin look normal), and I became utterly disgusted with them and realized I was looking into the mirror of my past.

Question 3: Briefly describe the social aspect of your upbringing, especially as influenced by religion. How did your educational experience (public school, Christian school, or homeschool) affect your socialization? Was your friend group religiously diverse or more homogeneous? If you were public schooled, did your religious background cause you any social problems in school?

This was a big deal. I had a lot of trouble fitting in. I tried to find Christian friends to hand out with, or non-Christian ones I could be a “witness” but I was generally a loser in middle school, and high school got a little better when I got some close friends through band. Being way over the top religiously didn’t help. I tended to be quite and reserve at all times except when talking about my beliefs; then I was very talkative. I had two friend groups, one at church, and another at school. School one was generally diverse, though I usually didn’t get too close to my non-Christian friends. My religious zeal caused me to stand out to others around me, which looking back on it was probably why not a lot of people hung out with me in middle school, which made me more bitter and miserable and even less likely people would want to hang out with me. I went through a stage that it was so bad that my teachers called my parents to tell them I wasn’t sitting with anyone at lunch, and my mom read me books on how to get friends, which I hated. Now I’m sure being religious caused not all of the suckiness of middle school, but when you listen only to Christian praise music and wear shirts with “JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY” written on it; I’m sure it made it harder to get friends and it sure as hell didn’t get any girls.

Question 4: Did you attended Sunday school, youth group, Bible club, or church camp? Please describe your experiences.

Yes to all. I was the kid in Sunday school who got WAY into it. While everyone else gave “Jesus” answers, I really got into it reading the notes in my bible in my free time at home reading what apologists had to say. Youth group during middle school was great because I had an awesome youth minister and we had fun and it was were I could be wild and out of control. Youth group in high school was increasingly difficult for me to fit in as everyone had his or her own “clicks”, and there was no “Not interested in sports on television likes to read bible and apologetics instead” click. I was also part of “Bible Bowl” which was basically what homeschooled Christian kids do for sports. It was actually really fun getting to travel around the state on weekend trips with friends and competing on who memorized the most scripture. And there was usually free food involved. I also went on several mission trips, which were great experiences as I got to go other countries, which was quite adventurous. The mission trips had their own drama though; trying to fit in with the youth group, especially later in high school.

Section 5: Purity

Question 1: What were you taught about physical and emotional purity, and also about modesty? What did your family believe about dating and/or courtship? How was sex education handled?

Physical: No sex till marriage. I’m pretty sure oral and anal were definitely wrong too, as well as mutual masturbation, but those topics were never mentioned.

Neither was masturbation, though in our small groups we all talked about our “struggles” with lust and I’m pretty sure we were all talking about masturbation. Since I’m male, I didn’t have to worry about modesty, I just had to worry about not staring at girls and thinking dirty thoughts, which was just about as easy as jumping in a swimming pool without getting wet. My family never really openly discussed dating, and I was generally too embarrassed or didn’t think I was cool enough to date in high school (I had one girlfriend that lasted a week). What sex education? I was read a book by James Dobson.

Question 2: How did the things you were taught about purity, modesty, and dating/courtship work out for you in practice? Did you date, and at what age? Did you have sex before marriage, and if you did, did you experience guilt? In essence, explain how belief met practice and with what results.

Well, they gave me a ridiculously huge amount of guilt. During puberty, I discovered porn. I also discovered and found that I had desires for boys as well as girls, which freaked me out. I felt extremely shameful that not only was I looking at porn, I was looking at gay porn. I was worried that because I was attracted to young boys my age, that might mean I could become a pedophile. I broke down at a summer conference and confessed to my youth group that “being gay was a choice and I had chosen to look not only at porn, but at gay porn”. My youth pastor talked to me afterwards to make sure “it wasn’t flushing itself out into my actions”, and then acted like nothing happened. The first real relationships I entered were in college, though I haven’t really had a steady, long-term relationship past several months. Religion, politics, and sex were always difficult subjects in my relationships. I lost my virginity sophomore year in college and freaked out. It was also particularly bad because I had not used protection (buying a condom would mean I was planning on having sex, which is of course wrong). I was convinced I was a sex addict and sought help from professional licensed Christian counselors. I probably spent well over 2 grand in counseling over two years. Despite stereotypes, the counseling was really good as we focused more on my family issues of having an overbearing mother and a distant father than on me having a sex drive.

Question 3: How do you feel about your family and church’s purity, modesty, and dating/courtship teachings today? Do you think there are any parts of these teachings that still have value? How do you plan to handle these issues with your own children?

My church didn’t teach me to think ethically about sex, they taught me a bunch of rules and to feel shameful about my sexuality. Though I am not out, I’m definitely bisexual and I definitely wish I hadn’t grown up in the teaching that my desire was sinful and on par with pedophiles.

I do value being respectfully to your partners, thinking of them first, and saving sex for when you’re really ready and being on the same page with your partner about what sex means. I also still value marriage a lot, I think marriage is a big deal and a wonderful life long commitment that should be the goal of serious relationships, and I hope to get married one day. When I have kids I want to teach them how to think. I want them to see sex not as something dirty, but as a beautiful part of human life, but something that is really powerful and sacred. I want to be honest with them about my experiences, and encourage them to wait till after high school, but to always use protection and don’t shame yourself if you make mistakes.

Question 4: Do you feel that the purity, modesty, and dating/courtship teachings you were raised with still have lasting impact on your life today? If so, how? What do you feel is the most detrimental effect of purity teachings?

Yes. It screwed up my dating life all throughout college. The most detrimental effect is the intense amount of shame and guilt that it causes.

Section 6: Politics

Question 1: In his book Broken Words, Jonathan Dudley argues that a fourfold opposition to abortion, homosexuality, evolution, and environmentalism constitute the markers of evangelical tribal identity. What role did opposition to these four issues in your fundamentalist or evangelical upbringing, and would you agree with Dudley?

Absolutely on all four. These were regularly preached about as proof that the world is getting worse so you better get baptized so you don’t go to hell. The biggest deal though is evolution. Evolution was seen as the cause of the rest. Genesis was the beginning of the bible, and the bible stood or fell on whether Genesis was “True” (literal) or not. Abortion=murder, unless it was to save the life of the mother, then it wasn’t called abortion. Environmentalism was a farce made up by the evolutionists, and it really didn’t matter anyone as the world was going to end soon anyway. Homosexuality was a sin, love the sin hate the sinner, if we allow gay marriage then we’ll be marrying dog, etc etc etc I’m so tired hearing it I don’t really want to write about it; it was just repeating what Focus on the Family and other “Family Groups” said.

Question 2: What role did you, your family, or your church community believe Christians should play in politics? What did your family or church hold was the end goal of Christians’ involvement in politics? What were your family and church community’s beliefs about the end times, and how (if any) did these beliefs affect their view of Christians’ role in politics?

Well, America was founded as a Christian nation, abortion was murder, homosexuality a pervasion (imagine how guilty I felt telling other kids in school that), and communism (democrats) was evil. So being a Republican was pretty much par for the course. There was one family that stood out at our church because they were against the Iraq war, but other than that it was pretty much tea party down the line before the tea party even started. I will say that there was not a significant amount of politicking from the pulpit, and they obeyed the law and technically didn’t endorse candidates, but in Sunday school and talking it was generally assumed you were conservative. I actually don’t think there was an end goal in politics; we just had to hold on and fight the good fight till Jesus came back. We did not accept the rapture idea because “it wasn’t biblical”, we believed that Jesus would come back randomly to judge everyone and those who were immersion believer baptized believers would go to heaven and those that weren’t…

Question 3: Were you, your family, or your church community involved in politics? What all did this involvement include? Did your pastor ever preach a political view from the pulpit? Did you ever picket an abortion clinic, attend a “defense of marriage” rally, or participate in any related activities? Describe your experiences.

Yeah I actually went to meet our local congresswomen to thank her for supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Politics from the pulpit were mentioned in passing, either about how bad this world was with its shootin’s and stabbings and homosexuality and abortion, or about praying for President Bush that he is guided in leading this Christian nation. There was also complaining about not praying in schools, which I found odd even then as I lead a bible study that prayed weekly. I did sign the Manhattan Declaration if I remember correctly, and I am still trying to find a way I can unsign it. Never picketed an abortion clinc or attended an anti-gay rally. We were more into the creationist/apologetics conferences. Actually got to see Lee Strobel speak one time.

Question 4: What political issues did you, your parents, and/or your church community see as most important in deciding who to vote for and why?

Abortion. Whoever was pro-life got the vote. That was it.

Section 7: Questioning

Question 1: In what ways did the culture of your family and church differ from “mainstream” American culture? To what extent were you integrated into or isolated from “mainstream” American culture? To what extend do you feel that evangelicalism creates a sort of self-contained culture of its own, with Christian bookstores, Christian music, etc.?

Well, I wasn’t officially allowed to listen to secular music, my movies were censored by my mom’s approval based on focus on the families recommendations, and I was discouraged from reading harry potter and playing violent video games (I was quite rebellious as I did both). I was extremely isolated from cultural references to TV shows, movies, movie stars, and music and I generally had no idea who half the people were that kids were talking about. I also was a little naïve on sex; I remember I asked my mom what a BJ was because no one in school would tell me (she didn’t know either, thank god!). My culture was very self-contained; Christian bookstore, hang out with Christian friends after school, Christian books, Christian music, my life practically permeated Christianese. I remember being made fun of for listening to Christian music in middle school, wearing Christian shirts, going to Christian concerts, Christian Camps, even looked at going to Christian colleges.

Question 2: What first made you question evangelicalism/fundamentalism? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?

I first began questioned whether all Christians who aren’t baptized go to hell in high school, when I was friends with other Christians that didn’t seem like the type God would send to hell for not being dunked right. I probably was more evangelical than fundy after that, and started attending different churches than the one my mom went to. I don’t know what upset her more, that I was going to a different youth group or that I skipped church one time to go to Warped Tour. Then I began questioning whether women should be submissive to men after encountering some strong proponents of Christian egalitarianism at my new youth group. Then during college after learning critical thinking skills, I began to realize that creationism didn’t hold up. I still considered myself an “evangelical” though and tried to hold it even though I accepted evolution, didn’t really think gays were going to hell (I think I still thought they were wrong though) and viewed the bible as “infallible on all matters of faith and doctrine”, but not inerrant. Then my obsessions with biblical studies led me to mainstream scholarly work on the bible, which completely shattered and overturned my world. That the books of the bible were not all written by who they said they were, that there is not a single shred of archeological evidence for the conquest of Canaan, that it is incredibly unlikely that Jesus said everything attributed to him in the gospels (especially the gospel of John) blew my mind. The thing that sucked was that I understood this stuff, and I understand why they said it so I couldn’t just dismiss it as liberals who don’t like the bible. It was at this time too that I really took a step back and saw all the corruption in evangelical Christianity. I looked into what I was taught about homosexuality and found out that a lot of it came from hate groups. I decided after having a confrontation with a pastor that I could no longer call myself evangelical. It has been pretty dramatic to leave that faith tradition, and I’ve only found a couple progressive churches I really like, so most of the time I feel like a “spiritual refugee”, a phrase I got from the naked pastor. I think as I started to develop my own thoughts it was pretty liberating and exciting, though once I realized I was no longer an evangelical it caused me a significant amount of emotion stress.

Question 3: What did you struggle with most when you were in the midst of questioning and leaving evangelicalism/fundamentalism? What was the hardest part?

The hardest part intellectually was coming to terms with the bible. Realizing, slowly but surely, that it is most certainly not inerrant and most certainly a human product turned everything upside down, and I really still trying to sort things out. When something you claim is the foundation of your faith turns out to be quite a bit different than what you’re told, pretty much all the pillars fall down and you gotta start from the ground up. I think the hardest part emotionally though is leaving the “group”. Despite its abuses, I had a place I at least somewhat belonged, and a community. It still sucks not having that community. I sometimes debate pretending to be evangelical and going to the evangelical church in town.

Question 4: Among those you grew up around who were also raised evangelical/fundamentalist, what proportion still hold those beliefs and what proportion have also left them?

Hm, well I never really viewed half the evangelicals I knew as “True Christians”, either because they weren’t baptized right or were too worldly, so its hard to say. Of my initial group of friends at my church, I think I’m really the only one who’s publically jumped ship, though I think a couple others are just half-assing it because their family goes to the church.

Section 8: Relating to Family

Question 1: How did your parents and siblings respond to you questioning/rejecting evangelicalism/fundamentalism? How did the friends you grew up with respond?

Well, my dad always had questions. My relationship with him actually improved because we were able to talk more about frustrations.  Though my relationship with my mom was a little strained as I was going through the process, we still held together and love each other, though I don’t know if she knows how far I have jumped ship, and I’m not out so she certainly doesn’t know I’m bi or that I lost my virginity. My brother started having questions around the same time in his life that I did. I think he still attends a conservative church.

Question 2: Now that you’ve questioned and left evangelicalism/fundamentalism, what is your relationship with your parents and siblings like today? What is your relationship with the friends you grew up with like?

My relationship with my family is significantly better, though my relationship with my friends is slightly strained because I’m now different than them, both politically and religiously.

Question 3: For those who are no longer Christian, are you “out” to your parents or siblings or friends from growing up? If so, how did you do it and how did they respond?

I am out to some friends, and to a degree out to my parents on my religious differences. My mom really doesn’t talk to me about it, and my friends may argue with me a little but other than that we are still friends.

Question 4: Have any of the rest of your family, including parents and siblings, left evangelicalism or fundamentalism? How do you approach the relationships with those who have not?

My brother kind of has, or is still going from the process. I  try not to bring up religion or politics.

Section 9: Coping

Question 1: Does having being raised evangelical or fundamentalist has made you feel “different” from the rest of society, or like you stick out or don’t fit in in some way? Explain.

I have always felt that I stuck out. My greatest wish growing up was to just be normal. To some extent I still feel this way sometimes.

Question 2: What do you think is the biggest way being raised in an evangelical or fundamentalist family and church community has influenced who you are today?

This question is hard. I think the biggest way it has affected me is that I still think about this stuff a lot: The bible, the problems with the church, etc. It has been such a huge part of my life that I feel connected to it whether I want to or not. Sometimes it makes me frustrated that so much of my life was spent on this, and yet I still can’t seem to get away from it all.

Question 3: How did you perceive your childhood and evangelical or fundamentalist religious upbringing at the time compared to how do you see it now?

I perceived it at that time, as I was the problem to our family problems. If I prayed harder, read the bible more, studied more apologetics, then I would find the answer and our family wouldn’t yell at each other. I also thought that if I was a good enough Christian then girls would like me, and when they didn’t I got really frustrated.

Now I see it that I was just a regular family with some goods and some problems, and a religious atmosphere that was continually negative that caused me to have social and emotional problems.

Question 4: What do you think were the most beneficial things about being raised fundamentalist or evangelical? What were the most problematic things?

Benefits again are the community. Potlucks. Church lock-ins. Mission trips to other countries. Being cared about. Having someone to go, things to do, people to talk to.

Problematic things: Treatment of women and GLBT people. Gender roles, sexuality, and finding out you were lied to about practically everything.

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