Raised Evangelical: April’s Story

Raised Evangelical: April’s Story February 10, 2013

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.

My name is April. I’m 30 years old, college-educated, married to a former Christian, and the mother of a beautiful 3-year-old boy. I grew up in the Bible Belt, living mostly in Florida and Tennessee. My father was a pastor in the Assemblies of God for much of my childhood, and I remember (literally) cutting my teeth on a church pew. Even though I’ve abandoned fundamentalism, I’m still a believer in Christ and blog passionately about matters of faith.

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 community identified mostly as Pentecostals, a term taken from the day of Pentecost (the arrival of the Holy Spirit) mentioned in Acts 2. We wore the term like a badge of honor.

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 father grew up in that culture. His father started out as a preacher, but turned to alcoholism after serving in the military. His mother was extremely conservative; she thought pierced ears were a sin even for women.

My mother converted as a young woman, mostly after marrying my father. The fundamentalist culture didn’t suit her well, which may explain why I was spared some of the more destructive experiences others have had in the fundamentalism movement.

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?

Most of the churches I attended were small (under 80 members) and Assembly of God. We had Sunday School for about an hour, then morning and evening worship on Sunday; a Wednesday night service; and occasional revival services lasting anywhere from three nights to two weeks. In addition, the church offered a Missionettes program–similar to Girl Scouts, but with a significant scripture memorization requirement. The church also had its own ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) school. As a teen, I attended summer youth conferences and Acquire the Fire events.

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?

I accepted Jesus as savior at 5 years old, led to salvation by my kindergarten teacher during class at a local Baptist school. I had a relationship in which I prayed privately to Jesus even without my parents’ prompting. At around 10, I asked to receive water baptism, which was full immersion. I remember both experiences being absolutely joyous and full of ecstasy, as opposed to everything else in my fundamentalist life.

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?

The Bible was viewed as the inerrant Word of God, to be taken as literally as possible. Being in Missionettes, ACE and church, scripture (especially the memorization of it) was part of my daily existence. In addition, my family had its own Bible studies, and we read the Christmas story from Luke before we opened our presents on Christmas day. My mom sometimes hung little verses on the walls or bathroom mirror to drive home a particular principle she thought was important that day/week/month.

My parents and other spiritual leaders seemed open to questions about the Bible as long as they were the “right” ones. If you were judged as challenging the wisdom of your leaders, you were shot down real quick. The rapture was a fact, eternal hell for the wicked was a fact, six-day creation was a fact, speaking in tongues was a fact, male headship was a fact, and there was no room for discussion.

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

The churches I grew up in were white-only. Hispanics didn’t exist in our world, and blacks were viewed as particularly sinful people. Some people in my denomination wouldn’t even let their children watch TV shows that starred black actors and actresses. (Family Matters was my favorite show at the time.) My parents weren’t that racist (thank God), but in my younger years they occasionally made comments that I definitely did not like. I was taught not to date or marry outside of my race. Their views softened significantly after befriending a black minister and his wife.

Section 3: Gender and Family

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

Male headship was definitely emphasized. Men were to be the spiritual leaders of the home, the wife humble and submissive. Marriage was a permanent commitment; divorce was taboo and remarriage an abomination. It wasn’t enough to marry someone who shared your religion; they were expected to share your denominational beliefs, too. Women were discouraged from cutting their hair or acting tomboyish, but also instructed to not wear heavy makeup or jewelry.

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 parents’ marriage was interesting to say the least. My dad possessed a gentle, sensitive personality by nature. My mom was decisive and headstrong. Patriarchal teachings caused them endless grief. My mom so desperately wanted to be accepted by this culture, but couldn’t get her marriage to look the part. Behind closed doors, she screamed at my dad for failing to take the lead in their relationship. I think, deep down, my dad preferred an almost matriarchal type of arrangement. He was so easygoing and struggling with his own self-esteem issues (due to childhood abuse) that he couldn’t handle the pressure of being the sole decision-maker. Fundamentalism probably hurt them far more than it ever hurt me.

I don’t think my church ever used the terms “complementarian” or “egalitarian.” Too many syllables.

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?

Fundamentalism puts tremendous pressure on girls to be modest, submissive and sexually pure. It’s always the girl’s responsibility to do and say the right thing. When boys act out, it’s just “boys being boys.” When a girl acts out, she is in violation of God’s expectations for her and requires correction. In fundamentalism, women keep the men’s pants zipped, women set the tone for the household (even though they have little to no authority in it), women ensure their husbands’ faithfulness, and women obey without objection.

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?

My mom worked out of necessity, and so did other women in the church. It was made clear that women couldn’t be pastors, deacons or preachers, but most other vocations seemed acceptable.

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 spent most of my education attending my church’s ACE school. Surprisingly, my parents allowed me to have a say in the matter. I chose to attend public school in second grade, but returned to private school the next year due to a negative experience. I didn’t attend public school full-time until I reached the 8th grade.

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?

ACE schools are very isolating. Children sit in divided cubicles all day and work out of booklets chosen for their grade level and ability. There is no group work, creative projects, audio/visual aids, general instruction by teachers or any kind of socialization beyond lunch and break time. The English lessons were very thorough, but math and science was a joke. The science curriculum taught creationism, and scripture memorization was a requirement in every booklet. My math skills were so poor when I entered public school that one teacher claimed I had a learning disability.

My public high school managed to provide a fairly comprehensive education in science and health without getting too deep into evolution or contraception. Condoms were mentioned, but abstinence was encouraged. Biology included heredity, gene theory and cell theory, which my church didn’t seem to mind.

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?

Most of my childhood friends attended the same church and school I did, so they were fairly uniform in belief. Meeting someone who subverted authority or held different beliefs was like receiving an electric shock. When I finally got to public school, I had a tough time fitting in. After spending years trapped in a cubicle, I just didn’t know how to interact with people my age. I eventually learned, but it took a while. In some ways, I’m still learning.

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

Church camp, despite the modesty issues, was a fairly positive experience for me, as was Sunday School and Missionettes. Youth group was another matter. The group I attended as a young adult became heavily involved in emotionalism. We had to be “on fire” for God all the time, always jumping up and down and raising hands during worship. Whenever anyone hesitated to join in the hype, the youth pastor said we were apathetic and God was going to vomit us out of His mouth. I came to despise Luke 9:26 and Revelation 3:16, because they were crammed down our throats at every service to justify the hype. The roller coaster of guilt and ecstasy I experienced in these services made me emotionally sick.

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?

Thankfully, I wasn’t exposed much to the Purity Movement as a child. My particular church community was convinced that Christ was going to return at any second, so urging people to marry and have lots of kids was a moot point. The whole family values/courtship mindset didn’t come into the church until I was a young adult and my father was no longer pastoring. I had already started dating by that time and wasn’t about to give it up just because some weirdo wrote a book about it (I Kissed Dating Goodbye being the book).

My parents allowed me to start dating at 16, but they gave me hell about kissing, being home on time, and dating guys outside our denomination. They believed dating was for finding a spouse, not for having a good time, which probably explains why I got engaged at 16. Therefore, I needed to know not only my boyfriend’s religious beliefs and plans for the future, but also the beliefs and attitudes of his parents. After all, they were going to be my in-laws. Not bad advice, really. (Fortunately, that early engagement didn’t last.)

My sex education was surprisingly thorough despite abstinence being so heavily stressed. My mom taught me about menstruation and conception at 9 years old, even drawing an accurate diagram to illustrate the concept. When I became a teen, she talked to me about sex and various birth control methods—which were to be used after marriage, of course. I was attending a public high school by then and learned about the different types of sex and the STIs that could result. My dad even talked to me about how kissing and petting gets guys worked up and pushy for sex.

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.

Modesty was a giant pain for me, especially at a young age. Long skirts were required for school and church, which made playing sports at school difficult. Shorts had to be knee-length; culottes were preferred. We weren’t allowed to go to the beach if we knew it was going to be crowded, because swimming with the opposite sex was forbidden. I remember wearing shorts and a t-shirt to the pool at Bible camp because I couldn’t find a swimsuit that met my parents’ standards for modesty—even though guys and girls had separate swim times, and the pool was in the middle of a field and surrounded by a privacy fence. I was 12 before my parents allowed me to pierce my ears, experiment with makeup or shave my legs, which mortified me because I was mercilessly teased for my hairy legs. My stomach still knots at the memories.

I did have sex before marriage, but managed to save my virginity for the man I married. I didn’t have much guilt about having sex with my fiance; I loved him fiercely and our intimate times were very comforting to me. (I was a senior in college by this time.) However, I did have other sexual experiences with different guys as a teen, and I wish I hadn’t. I wish I could have just dated people without the pressure to be physical, even though such pressure sometimes came from me. It stressed me out and left me feeling dirty and empty.

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?

I definitely think some of these teachings have value, abstinence in particular. I don’t see a reason why 5-year-olds should wear makeup and mini-skirts. However, I dislike the idea of courtship. I think young people need time alone together to express their true personality, because it’s too easy for people to put on a show when they know they’re being supervised. Fathers can express an opinion about the men his daughters choose to court, but daddy has no business picking grooms. Marriage without love is a miserable business.

Young people can’t make wise decisions without accurate information and honest perspectives. Yelling, nagging and manipulation doesn’t work. Helicopter parenting doesn’t work. Forcing a child to endure humiliating situations for the sake of “pleasing God” doesn’t work. With my own child, I plan on setting some boundaries (curfew, etc.) and then providing him with information (both practical and spiritual) that he can use to make good decisions on his own.

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?

In my experience, purity teachings are manipulative, shaming, sexist and unbiblical. Every object lesson on sexual purity I witnessed was directed at women. It was always the woman shown giving away her sexual purity to multiple guys; the men were just there to receive, completely without responsibility. A few friends and I once signed purity pledge cards at a True Love Waits rally only tofind the cards staked, without our consent, on the front lawn of our public high school the next morning for the world to see. (I thought I was making a private commitment.)

I know many women who suffer extreme guilt and feelings of worthlessness because they lost their virginity before marriage. It’s wrong for the church to make women feel this way, especially women who were violated against their will. The Bible says there is no condemnation in Christ—a fact many ministers fail to mention when they’re calling girls sluts. Thank goodness such teachings don’t impact my life much today. I have been forgiven for my past mistakes by God, my husband and myself, so I no longer see myself as damaged goods.

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?

For the most part, yes. Although in my particular church, a focus on rapture and end times dominated all other discussion. Abortion and homosexuality were simply things we did not do (or support), and evolution was something we did not believe. The “culture war” approach to these issues came later.

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?

Politics didn’t play an overt role in my church’s religion until I was in my late teens. We were encouraged to support pro-Christian values at the voting booth, but I don’t recall hearing any sermons as a child telling us who specifically to vote for. Our beliefs in end time events were similar to those expressed in the Left Behind series: rapture, mark of the beast, tribulation, Armageddon and so forth. Pretty much any liberal president elected to office (Carter, Clinton, Obama) was pitched as a possible Anti-Christ.

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.

The church I attended as a young adult regularly prayed for Israel and encouraged political support for the state. Some members carried support signs and held little Israel state flags during these corporate prayers. Some Jewish practices also made their way into our services, including blowing the Shofar and wearing prayer shawls.

Politics was occasionally preached from the pulpit. We were strongly encouraged to vote against gay marriage and any relaxation of abortion laws. Spirituality got tangled up in civic responsibility; if you weren’t voting on these issues, you weren’t fulling your duty to God. I remember my church doing a couple of public protests in town, but I did not participate. However, I did vote.

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 and gay marriage definitely topped the list of issues, as well as unconditional support for Israel. Democrats were not to be trusted, ever. If you weren’t voting straight-down-the-ticket Republican, you were essentially consigning the country (and yourself) to hell.

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 extent do you feel that evangelicalism creates a sort of self-contained culture of its own, with Christian bookstores, Christian music, etc.?

Fundamentalism is mostly about the restriction of free thought. It begins by identifying biblically stated sins and giving advice on how one should avoid them. The advice then turns to rules that must be obeyed. After a while, it becomes easy to convince people to immediately form a negative opinion about anything simply by labeling it a sin. Unrelated scriptures get cobbled together to justify the label. Step out of line, and your eternal soul becomes jeopardized. The Christian books and music only reinforce the boundaries by creating “safe havens” for “escape.”

For many years, I was not allowed to go to movie theaters or public pools. I wasn’t allowed to wear spaghetti-strap shirts or dresses. I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair above shoulder length, watch cartoons with magical characters, listen to music that even sounded like rock, dance, or make a decision without my parents’ input. It was extremely isolating, because people outside fundamentalism couldn’t understand why I behaved in certain ways. As a result, friendships with outsiders were awkward and usually didn’t last long. And I was forbidden to discuss personal matters with friends inside the church.

My parents were isolated as well. Despite being in the ministry, they were never fully accepted by members of their own church. My mom was a northerner who came from a rough and broken family, and she was viewed as “not good enough” to marry my dad. Because of their desperation to hide their “headship issues” and be viewed as holy, they felt they couldn’t establish close friendships with any lay people. It was a shallow and lonely life for all of us.

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

It’s hard to put a finger on when I first started to question it. In many ways, I think I questioned it all along. As a child, I was a curious, avid reader with a photographic memory who studied scripture daily. It was pretty easy to spot some of the loopholes and contradictions in the church’s doctrines. For me, the questioning was mostly liberating; I was sick of being jerked around in the name of Jesus just to inflate somebody else’s ego.

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?

Two things: nearly losing my faith altogether and exploring the Bible’s true position on eternal damnation. I’m still struggling with the second one.

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?

I think most of my childhood friends have abandoned fundamentalism, though many remain Christians. My brother and husband became agnostic.

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?

Most people, including my parents, seem really supportive of my questioning. Everyone else just avoids the subject.

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 relationships are great. In fact, I think my relationship with my parents has become stronger since rejecting fundamentalism. My friendships also have a new depth that was lacking before, probably because we can express ourselves honestly without condemning.

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?


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?

I think my parents are in the process of abandoning their fundamentalist beliefs, though I’m sure they’ll remain Christians. My brother is now agnostic and very critical of religion, which makes our relationship uncomfortable at times, but we’re coping well. As for those who are still fundamentalist, we simply don’t communicate much.

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. 

It did in the beginning since I wasn’t allowed to live as other people, but not so much anymore. I’ve overcome a bit of my social awkwardness and am learning how to communicate normally with other people.

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?

I’m somewhat introverted by nature, but I think my fundamentalist upbringing made isolation my comfort zone. I have difficulty developing and maintaining close relationships with people outside of my home, though it is getting easier.

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’m not sure I view it much differently from when I was a child. The experiences that were positive and negative for me then are still positive and negative in my mind now.

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

The most beneficial thing was the practical wisdom that came out of it. Encountering the Bible’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 literally saved me from an emotionally abusivedating relationship. The teachings on abstinence probably kept me from becoming an unwed teen mother, though it’s hard to say for sure.

One problematic thing was too much focus on holiness and the rapture. For years, I never felt secure in my relationship with Christ; I questioned my salvation constantly with an unhealthy paranoia of being tormented forever. I had terrible nightmares as a child and went into a panic if I found myself alone in my family’s house, thinking I had been left behind.

There was also fear of openness in my denomination, which proved problematic as well. No one wanted to confess their sins “one to another,” because doing so would earn him/her the judgment and condemnation of his/her peers and decrease his/her standing with the church. As a result, many destructive attitudes and behaviors lay beneath the surface of people, untouched and festering. This resulted in me being sexually molested at 8 years old. I’ve come to realize that sexual abuse is systemic in most hardline religions for this very reason. The more condemning, the more corrupt.

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