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November 12, 2014

“How are you doing?” There’s a lot of different ways in which those words can be voiced ranging from a casual aside with no desire for an answer to the way the pastor of the church we’d attended for a year and a half asked it of me. It sounded as though he really wanted to know because he really cared about the state of my soul.

I hesitated for a moment. Could I trust him? I’d worked hard with the help of the Holy Spirit using the gfits and training of an excellent counselor to unpack some of the baggage I’d been carrying from a couple of toxic churches. The bags weren’t gone, but they were significantly lighter in weight than they’d been in years. Me with overstuffed baggage would have kept my mouth shut in response to this question. But the current me, the one now toting this lighter-weight baggage, took a measured risk. I trusted him. I told him a little bit about the challenges I was facing at work. He listened with great empathy, and I was grateful for his quiet assurance that he’d keep me in prayer.

A couple of weeks later, I ran into one of his young adult children as I was on my way to grab a bite to eat in the middle of my workday. A couple of coworkers were within earshot as this young woman called out to me from the bottom of a crowded staircase, “Hey, Michelle! How are you doing? My dad said you were having a hard time with things around here.”

The challenge of icky workplace politics was nothing compared to the realization that the trust I’d been working so hard to regain had just been violated. Again.

* * * * * * *

In my first post in this series, I took a look at some of the kinds of baggage people carry with them from involvement in toxic church cultures. My second post talked about the kinds of patient, prayerful questions that might help a trust-damaged person begin to unpack those suitcases they’re lugging with them.

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about what rebuilding trust might look like. Obviously, it doesn’t look like the way in which this pastor took the information I shared with him in confidence and dished about it with his clan around the proverbial dinner table. He’d been a pastor a long time. He (and his adult child!) should have known better. When I later confronted him about his lack of discretion, he apologized. I forgave him. But I couldn’t trust him after that. It would have been foolish – and would have set me up for possible abuse in his church – to have done so.

The whole incident read like a test. What was I to do with another violation of trust by someone who had the title of spiritual authority?

Earlier abuse of the trust I gave to those claiming to be my spiritual authorities had loaded me down with baggage. I’d carried it with me, even though it was

so.

darn.

heavy.

Though that baggage was full of hurt and pain, I carried it until I found a place of relative safety in which I could begin to unpack it at last. When I did, I learned that broken trust never quite heals into innocence. In the best cases, those shards re-form into a wiser relationship with a new church. Getting reengaged in ministry in a new church will look different because a person wounded by a bad previous church experience is now sporting a fresh set of B.S. sensors. The person isn’t vulnerable to the kind of manipulation or abuse that gave them the baggage in the first place. He or she is able to risk offering themselves and their gifts in freedom.

Because it is a risk. There is a very real temptation for me toward self-protection, of bunkering behind baggage so as not to get hurt by another preditory or foolish church leader ever, ever again. Damaged trust is not the same as unforgiveness, though I daresay there are times when one kind of baggage might function like the other. Damaged trust is the mark of a broken heart, not a hardened one.  The way forward after the spiritual abuse I experienced two decades ago has been to be very intentional about ignoring or minimizing in my mind the positional authority granted by title on an organizational chart to another fallen human being. The more a person in leadership makes sure the rest of us in a church know s/he is the one with the gifts, power and/or importance, the less likely I am to trust him or her. If they tell me from afar what they want me to do to for them for the church (for my own spiritual good, of course) without taking the time to get to know me or hear my story, I am not all that inclined to say yes unless the Holy Spirit specifically urges me to step forward for his purposes. I can report that obedience to his ask is sweet and healing.

I will risk trust in the context of relationship. Even when the risk doesn’t pay off, as in the case of the gossipy pastor, my relationship with the larger body of Christ takes a smaller hit (less or no new baggage) when I view the pastor or leader as a peer, not as my capital “A” Authority.

What do you think? Leaders reading this, does my intentionally flattened approach to church hierarchy sound like potential sedition? Those who’ve survived a lousy church situation and found a home in a new church, how have you learned to trust in new ways?   

November 3, 2014

If you attended a church service this weekend, you may have been sitting in a roomful of suitcases. There’s no way to tell what percentage of people in a given congregation are schlepping baggage from a previous negative church experience, but I suspect the numbers would startle even veteran church leaders. Bad baggage is often eagerly recycled by leaders. This may serve the needs of the organization. It may even be called good pastoral care by some leaders, who rationalize that putting hurting people back into service as quickly as possible will promote healing. In some cases, this may be true. But it is often self-serving expediency at work in this line of thinking.

I would like to suggest that creating an environment where it is safe for people to unpack their baggage is Discipleship 101 in a way that many other church activities packaged under that banner isn’t.

(Click here to read the first post in this series for descriptions of some of the bad baggage people carry with them into new churches.)

In addition to the nearly-invisible backpack (old pain hidden in needy, performance-driven behavior), the damaged-in-transit luggage (a warrior in search of a doctrinally-pure congregation), the steamer trunk (carrying ancient hurts from decades ago), and the invisible tote (the carrier lurking in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed), a couple of other categories were suggested to me:

  • The Louis Vuitton Limited Edition: The kind of baggage the carrier acquires when people in their former church(es) tell him or her the doubts and questions s/he is voicing are completely unique, thus, they are completely weird and probably borderline heretical. It is a lovely parting gift of churches that value lockstep obedience to the doctrinal views and practices of the leaders. It is so lovely, in fact, that when it’s given to a person leaving the church, it comes with the label that its one-of-a-kind. And that label is not meant to be a blessing.
  • The nearly-invisible briefcase: This comes in a print that matches the nearly-invisible backpack. Where the backpack carrier buries his or her hurt in go-getter behavior, the person carrying the nearly-invisible briefcase is completely unaware that there’s anything in his or her hand. “I’m good! It wasn’t a big deal!” the briefcase carrier will say, waving off questions with a loaded briefcase he or she is unable to see, perhaps clobbering inquirers with that baggage.

So what does discipleship look like for people who are carrying baggage? Jesus used different approaches with different people during his years of active ministry: prophetic conversation with the woman at the well, mud daubed twice in a blind man’s eyes, forgiving a paralyzed man before healed him. Caring for someone who is replaying their old war with their former church (the damaged-in-transit luggage, the steamer trunk) requires a different kind of approach than does someone who has been marginalized by others (the Louis Vuitton Limited Edition). Those who either melt into the wallpaper carrying backpack or briefcase or those who run like hamsters might not appear at first glance to be asking for care as they either seem uninterested in the life of the church or fine-just-fine-thank-you.

There’s no single approach that will cover all suitcase styles. Some people’s church baggage has been crafted out of other areas of brokenness in their lives. A troubled childhood can be a perfect set-up that draws an abused person to join an authoritarian church, for instance. That church experience creates new baggage out of family of origin wounds.

Whether we have a title or position of leadership in a local congregation or not, every single one of us who follows Jesus is called to love one another. What does this care look like when a “one another” in our life is carrying some baggage? A good place to start is some empathetic conversation and compassionate prayer, if they’re willing to receive it, with a goal of emphasizing that anything person says can’t and won’t be used against them. A person carrying baggage has had their trust damaged. Even if you see them toting 18 pieces of luggage on a huge cart, you are not the one to demand it be unloaded. You are there to simply point them toward Jesus with gentleness. Unpacking can only begin when the person carrying the luggage discovers that Jesus didn’t load him or her down with this baggage, and in fact big time grieves what has been done by others in his name to the baggage carrier.

Tell me your story if you feel ready to share it. (It’s OK if you don’t!)

What drew you to your previous church? What did you like about it? What were your friends from the church like when times were good? 

When did you first sense something was wrong in the church? What happened after that? 

What was it like to leave? How did other church members treat you after you left? How did this experience change the way you thought about God? That specific congregation? The big C Church? 

What do you regret about the experience? What message do you wish you could give to those who hurt you? 

You as the listener are charged with sharing your story in response. Your own icky previous experiences can be used to encourage others, showing them that they’re not alone – and that a wiser, stronger faith the gift God their Healer will work in their lives as they work through the hurt with his help. If you’re one of the few who has never experienced Christians Behaving Badly, then you must at least dignify the other person’s experience by not shaming them for what’s happened to them, and by praying for them. If the baggage has caused the person to become a member of the Christians Behaving Badly club, which is often the case, all the same rules apply. Recognize that their bullying behavior is a sign that they are “the weaker brother“, no matter how over-loaded they may be with pristine doctrine and all the right answers.

Your efforts toward exercising care may not work. The story may not have a happy ending at this time. The person with the baggage may not be ready to drop it, much less unpack it. Love them anyway. If you use these stories to dismiss, label or turn a hurting person into a project, it time to check and see what kind of baggage you’re lugging around with you.

In my next post in this series, I’ll take a look a look at what rebuilding trust in God and others in a church may or may not look like.

When you’ve run across someone who has been hurt by a previous church experience, what have you found to be helpful in caring for them and walking with them until they’re ready to crack open their baggage? 

 

October 27, 2014

I’ve heard via the always-reliable Interwebz that as many as 7,000 people have left Mars Hill Church in Seattle in recent months. The implosion in a church doesn’t have to be as painfully dramatic and public as the one in Seattle for a person to leave a broken congregation with a lovely parting gift: at least one piece of new baggage.

Sam Surv

What’s inside that baggage? Hurt, anger, sadness, disillusionment, grief, damaged trust, traumatized faith, and fractured relationships. And you know what? Even a small overnight bag can carry its volume in spiritual kryptonite and weigh as much as a broken heart.

Sometimes, people take their suitcases and keep on walking. They check out of participation in the life of a local church. They may maintain connection with some Christian friends, which can function as a form of church in many ways. Or in seeking to get rid of their luggage – because who needs to go through life schlepping a bunch of useless baggage with them? – they may simply hit the “delete” button on any sort of connection with a local church.

Many of us choose to find another congregation. My husband and I have certainly picked up a few pieces of luggage over the years, and carried them with us as we sought refuge and healing in a new church. (This post talks about the gifts some of those new churches have given us. The sad reality is that some of those new churches added to our baggage collection, rather than helping us unpack the suitcases we were already schlepping.) Though the church is a collection of disparate sinners who each have their own set of baggage they’re lugging with them into corporate gatherings, I’ve noticed that those carrying baggage from previous bad church experiences deal with that baggage once they’re in a new church in some unhealthy ways:

The Nearly-Invisible Backpack

 

You need a magnifying glass to see this one. The wearer doesn’t want anyone to notice it, and hides it in a tizzy of people-pleasing. It is a variation of the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” trick. Volunteering for everything and becoming indispensable as quickly as possible in a new congregation is one way to distract people from the need to be needed packed in that little accessory. No one in the new church would ever suspect pain from an earlier church experience is fueling the carrier of the Nearly Invisible Backpack.

The Damaged-In-Transit Luggage

 

The carrier of this beat-up, travel-weary suitcase has zipped and unzipped this beauty more than one time. A zealot for correct doctrine, the road warrior carrying this particular baggage will trot out his or her satchel full of Truth, always on the hunt for a pure church. This person views him/herself as a missionary and is ready to debate anyone who disagrees with her/his particular dogma, doctrine or opinion. Because this person’s rigid anger at an old hurt often masquerades as righteousness (with no connection whatsoever to the emotional wholeness and maturity that would accompany true righteousness), he or she will stick around at a new church just long enough to cause a rift – or worse, s/he’ll be rewarded and end up in charge of a ministry in that new church.

The Steamer Trunk 

 

The person lugging this antique with them has been fighting The Battle Of Their Former Church for years. Or decades. They suffered a near-fatal wound at the hands of an abusive leader, and have been carrying that fight with them everywhere they’ve gone. What happened to them was a crime. The anger over what was taken from them – and the struggle to forgive – are both locked safely in that trunk. In a new church, they may be triggered by things that remind them of the past, and react in the present out of their old, familiar pain. They may even work to try to fix the problems of the old church in the present. I’ve met a couple of people who have gone so far as to attend seminary or Bible school as a form of one-upsmanship in order to show “them”, those ghosts of their old church, that they can do ministry better.

The Invisible Tote 

 

The person carrying this beauty is all about blending into the background in a new church. He or she shows up for services, and leaves when the service is over. At one time, he or she was an active, involved member of a fellowship. But after things went south with those people, the carrier of this neutral satchel comes and goes at his/her new congregation, trying to be unnoticed. It takes a great deal of emotional energy just to show up at a church service. The person carrying the beige camo sack is praying that invisibility will give him/her the space to heal.

* * * * * * *

The last thing any of these people need is some leader in their new church telling these folks to “just drop the baggage” like a middle school P.E. teacher. If they could just snap out of it, they would have done so already. At one time or another, I’ve schlepped some form of at least three of these pieces of luggage. Maybe I’m still carrying a couple of them, though in significantly lighter form.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:36

Quite simply, these people need to experience the love of God again. Even when – especially when – their baggage causes them to act as overachievers, bullies, time-travelers or shadows. In my next posts in this series, I’ll take a look at what pastoral care for the baggage schleppers can look like, who should be doing it (Hint: It takes a village, not just the head honcho), and what the cost is to all of us by ignoring this baggage.

Are there any types of baggage you’d add to my list? 

August 12, 2014

As I shopped for school supplies for my soon-to-be sixth grade grandson at Target last week, I passed by a mom and her daughter doing what looked to be the “stocking the dorm room” shopping trip. The young woman was eagerly scanning the aisles for just the right towels. The mom was pushing the overflowing cart behind her, watching every move her daughter made as she readied for her big launch.

There are lots of nostalgic articles and reflections at this time of year written by parents who are preparing to send their child off to college. Some report hopefulness, as they look forward with anticipation at the adventure and discovery that awaits their child. Others express concern. Will their baby be safe? Will he or she make good choices? Will they flourish? But almost every parent expresses wistfulness, if not high-octane grief, at the way in which this passage marks the end of their years of day-in, day-out parenting. Though we never stop being parents, and may see our launched Millennial need to return to the nest at some point beyond college vacations, we can’t know what the future will hold for our children or ourselves. This is a transition as dramatic for most of us as the day we brought that child home from the hospital a couple of decades earlier.

Embedded in the grieving of this transition for many parents is regret. Life in the day-to-day trenches of parenting doesn’t always afford much time for reflection. But as that phase comes to an end, there is a bit of spiritual space in some parents that’s just waiting to be filled with unfinished business and second-guessed decisions:

  • I shouldn’t have let my son quit piano lessons.
  • I should have paid closer attention when she  ______.
  • I wish we would have spent more time together just having fun. 
  • If only I would have insisted on having her switched to a different classroom teacher that year. 
  • I “majored on the minors” too often during his teen years. I let fear be my filter. 
  • I shouldn’t have been so focused on work/church/community issues. 

In the change of role and identity for both us parents and child as we each move into what’s next for us in our relationship and in life, our regrets about our parenting misfires and sins may exacerbate our grief during this important time of transition. I’d like to suggest that our regrets can make this “good” grief.

Many of you reading this may not have any regrets – or you may have done a great job processing them with the Lord and your children on the fly. I bless you for this, and know that you’re still facing the challenge of change as you prepare to bring your child and your Target purchases to school this month. May you know the nearness of God during this tender time in your family’s life.

Others reading this may be caught in waves of sorrow tinged with regret. The ache of wishing for a re-set of quantity time with our kids, for the ability to somehow bring our sweet vantage point of what we know today that we didn’t know when they were three weeks old or 6, or 13, or 17 back into those parenting trenches of teething and toilet training and braces and friend crises and C-minuses on biology tests. We flinch at our failures. We want to flee from our regrets. But if I could offer a word of wisdom to parents standing on the edge of an emptying nest echoing with regret, it would be: Don’t hide from this discomfort. Stay put, and remember. Your grief can be good grief.

When those regrets appear, they are there as a catalyst to help you make peace with the past so you can begin to develop a new, maturing relationship with your young adult child. Appropriately sharing your parenting regrets with your child gives you an opportunity to seek forgiveness from them (if you haven’t done so already), acknowledge your humanity, and affirm your love and God’s for them. In this context, “appropriately” means not getting all defensive about your choices, nor does it mean asking your child to take care of you emotionally because you can’t forgive yourself for your failures. Appropriately means acknowledging to yourself that you did the best you could with the tools you had at the time, all while building a life and family without an Ikea-clear set of instructions.* It means remembering your regrets.

Again and again in Scripture, God calls his people to remember his faithfulness. (Here, here, here and here, just for starters.) Remembering his faithfulness comes in the context of our own experience with him. The word most often used for “remember” in the Old Testament is zakar. While the word may be used to point at the way in which we recall where we put our car keys, zakar can be a much weightier concept. It is a word used when someone is tabulating the past or creating a memorial. It is an active quest to connect what’s gone before to not only the present, but the future.

At the time each of my children were leaving home for the first time, I was so tender and raw with “Sunrise, Sunset” emotion that remembering – regrets and all – was more than I thought I could handle in the moment. I was the mom who puddled up at inopportune times shopping for dorm stuff at Target. I think remembering seemed a little terrifying to me because I was afraid of being swept away in my own undertow. So if you’re one of those moms who is biting the inside of your cheek while you’re in Target, I get it.

It is scary and more than a little counterintuitive attend to your parenting regrets at a time when you’re in the midst of a transition. The courage to zakar is a gift you can offer your launching child and yourself. They may load the car with all that stuff you bought at Target, a few well-chosen words about those regrets of yours may leave you both with a few less pieces of baggage to carry into the next chapter of your lives.

“…for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” – Ps. 103:14

If you’ve launched a child (or several), what was most surprising to you about your emotions during the process? If you’ve not yet gotten to this point in your parenting journey, what do you anticipate about it? 

 

*The Bible does indeed give us instructions that both shapes the parameters of our lives and fills those parameters with the presence of its Author. But when it comes to whether we should buy a pet gerbil for our 7 year-old, Scripture is silent.

February 26, 2013

When you’ve been all over the Evangelical map, picking up random pieces of mismatched baggage along the way (Where did I score this hideous olive pleather tote bag, anyway?), you have two choices. You and your ugly luggage can head for the nearest exit ramp in hopes you can find a flea market where you can sell the lot of it, hoping to make enough profit to buy yourself a Happy Meal. Or you can recognize the baggage for what it is: the souvenirs of your journey as a pilgrim. Oh, that luggage you’ve been schlepping may have words like “exile”, “wanderer” or “refugee” stamped on every I.D. tag. Those words may be the story of of those individual suitcases, but they’re not your story.

Or mine.

When Jesus invited each one of us to follow him, he brought purpose and dignity to our wandering. Welcome, then, to Pilgrim’s Road Trip. I like to think that arrival at our destination will mean that our ugly luggage will be circling for eternity on a baggage carousel, forever unclaimed. And we’ll be home, pilgrims no more.

My own journey has taken me on the Grand Tour of Evangelicalland, including a few zany borderland excursions, since this Jewish girl found (or was found by) her Messiah. I’ve spent time in flag flyin’ fundamentalist churches, big box mega- and multi-site congregations, wild (!) Charismatic churches, Messianic congregations, staid mainstream congregations – and a heaping helping of “miscellaneous” churches. I’ve home schooled my three kids, served on a church staff, handled communications for a parachurch organization, and worked at a seminary. Among other things, this all means I’ve made more than my fair share of VBS craft projects (cotton balls glued to paper plate = sheep). Though I can wield a glue stick like a ninja if I must, what I really cherish is discussing theological trends, ecclesiology, books and pop culture with you. And I enjoy following Jesus to the places it seems he likes to go best – dangerous, lonely, awkward, messy or unpopular places – maybe because he knows I’ll find great traveling companions there.

I hope that’ll include you. Shalom! 

August 20, 2015

This post is part of the Patheos conversation around the topic of recovery from traumatic church experiences in conjunction with Reba Riley’s just-released memoir, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir Of Humor & Healing. I’m a survivor of spiritual abuse and a veteran of a few churches with epic levels of dysfunction breeding like a supervirus just under their shiny surface. I’ve written a lot about this topic in this space (here, here, and here, for starters). It would have been easier to walk away after the hurt, but like Riley, I’m still here, a part of the Bride.

boundary markerThat isn’t to say I’m here in the same way I once was. The negative experiences have left me with battle scars and some hard-won wisdom. I have four boundary markers in place where I once had wide-open trusting innocence when it came to church life. Those boundaries include:

No more church “membership” – I have no intention of ever again going through a formal membership process in order to join an individual church. In the past, my husband and I have been official members of a couple of different congregations. These covenants have benefitted and protected the organization while giving me nothing in return. In addition, they create a two-tier culture within a church. Those who are members have access to leadership roles and ministry opportunities. Those who are non-members get to exercise their gift of ushering. The New Testament certainly doesn’t describe the church in these terms. Belonging was based on love, belief and relationship – period.

No more guilt as a motivator to “serve” – When a church leader talks constantly about bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse or tells a congregation that it’s our duty to help staff children’s ministry (while never taking a turn in the nursery themselves!), their antics set off my BS detector. There are certainly theological questions related to the way some leaders present tithing as a mandate to the church, but my resistance to the way in which a leader calls me to action has more to do with filtering his or her ambitions from the ask.  An ambitious church leader looking to build his or her little empire may use the right Christian-y words, but there will be a needy, demanding spin on them. It’s one thing to call members to sacrificial giving and service. It’s another thing to guilt them into it.

No more shutting off my brain – or any other part of myself – I’ve done a lot of theological reading and now have 40+ years of experience in a wide variety of churches. Honoring what God has given me means I maintain my critical thinking when I listen to a sermon or participate in a worship service. I want to be found in Christ, but I do not believe this means losing myself in the process. In fact, losing yourself is what happens when you join a cult, right? Author Reba Riley explained why the way in which she’d been taught to find her identity in Christ stripped her of her personhood:

“Placing your identity in Christ” is lingo for church-approved codependence: you allow your church’s brand of Jesus to dictate what you do or don’t wear, eat, read, discuss, watch, and listen to. You let your church’s Jesus pick out your lipstick and your friends, run your bank accounts, and prescribe your wardrobe. Having my identity in Christ was the problem, the entire reason I fell apart when I could no longer believe. When I left my faith, I didn’t have anything of my own.

Though I never lost my faith in my Messiah as a result of some crappy experiences, I realized that I’d sometimes traded who God had made me to be for the “privilege” of being a part of a church. This meant silencing doubts, dialing down my personality (usually unsuccessfully), and playing nice in order to get along. Dying to myself as I follow Jesus does not mean becoming a clone.

No more looking for validation in all the wrong places – Gender roles and spiritual gifts play a part in this boundary marker, as I’ve been a part of strict complementarian and/or cessationist congregations while never buying their silly/fearful theological party line. However, this is a bigger issue than either of those things. I learned the hard way my vocation and gifts didn’t always fit neatly on some church’s org chart – and that org chart was almost never in any way related to the way in which God designed his body to work. I don’t wait for someone’s permission to offer my gifts to another believer or group.

How about you? If you’ve survived a traumatic church experience or three, what boundary markers do you now have that allow you to continue to be a part of the big “C” church and/or a local congregation? 

 

Image via Creative Commons 2.0

July 28, 2015

(This post is part of the Patheos “Why I Am Still An Evangelical” conversation.)

My four decades in the Evangelical world has been a pilgrim’s road trip. I came to faith in 1974 in the waning days of the Jesus Movement, and have since swum laps in a variety of different streams within Evangelicalism: fundamentalist, second- and third-wave Charismatic, conservative and progressive non-denominational congregations, house churches, Messianic Jewish congregations*, and local churches with a strong Evangelical flavor that were part of historic, mainline denominations.

I’ve been burned by a couple of these churches, and burned out by a few others. I know of at least two people who tell me they believe I’m on the verge of crossing the Tiber, and a half-handful of others, empowered by their Comment Section anonymity, who have suggested I might be a borderline heretic.

I don’t quite know how to respond to the why I am still an Evangelical without first clarifying via a couple of questions.

6407683889_358dd4838e_zFirst, what kind of Evangelical am I?

Second, what does the word still infer in this sentence?

I am an Evangelical per historian David Bebbington’s oft-quoted distinctives (found here):

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

I am an Evangelical per the definition the Barna Group used here:

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior…”Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria…plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. 

Evangelicalism as defined above is a highly individualistic expression of faith. These definitions don’t include any reference to baptism, communion, community, or of picking up one’s cross and following him daily; there is no frame of reference for the kingdom of God. I can affirm all these things while simultaneously noting that there is room for nuance in some of them. For example, I recognize that conversion doesn’t always look like a once lost, now found crisis, but may rightly look more like a child growing into mature faith through ongoing discipleship. The right practice of our faith, which might sound a little too much like James and not enough like the Romans Road, is divorced from simply having the right set of beliefs. Please note I’m not negating God’s amazing grace in any way. He has done the all the work of redeeming us, and our salvation is all gift. (Thank you, Lord!) But what I’m saying is that the kind of belief the Bible describes has nothing in common with the cognitive affirmation of the words of a creed – or, more commonly in Evangelicalism, a set of propositions about correct belief has been too often boiled down to “just pray this prayer”. Those words are important boundary markers and discipleship tools, but the words alone don’t make someone a follower of the risen Jesus.

Despite the seeming “just pray this prayer” simplicity of Evangelicalism, my own stumbling block has been in the add-ons – the unwritten expectations that a Real (Evangelical) Christian:

  • Must have “prayed that prayer”, walked the aisle at a Billy Graham crusade, or have a some sort of suitable dramatic salvation story.
  • Speaks in tongues. Or doesn’t.
  • Has clear gender roles. No women pastors or elders.
  • Boycotts Disney movies. Homeschools. Moves to another culture to share the gospel. Votes Republican.
  • Holds to a specific flavor of theology. When I first came to Christ, the Real (Evangelical) Christians were dispensational fundamentalists. Now, some neo-Reformed trumpet their claim to the title.

Depending on the church, there have been lots of other add-ons, too, including not questioning the pastor’s authority, tithing 10% minimum of one’s gross income, mandatory attendance at various church events, or the institutionalized distrust of Christians from other churches or faith streams. These rules and expectations have often become erzatz versions of discipleship. Sadly, those and many more add-ons have marked too much of the Evangelicalism I’ve experienced over the last four decades.

Though I use the term “Evangelical” when I write or speak about our subculture, I’ll confess I dislike the label because it comes with SO MUCH bad baggage. Frankly, I am not sure it can ever be rehabilitated in broader culture. I’m still an Evangelical because I’ve learned and am still learning how to sift the dogmatic opinions of this group or that one from Jesus’ call to follow him. As a result, I’ve discovered it is possible to cherish a variety of non-Evangelical expressions of faith in the risen Christ. In the midst of the noise – and we Evangelicals are a noisy bunch – I can’t mute the sound of his voice, calling me to follow him.

Evangelicalism has been a spiritual launch pad for me and countless others. It is not a destination. Jesus is.

 

* My Messianic Jewish brothers and sisters might chafe at my inclusion of these congregations on a list of Evangelical churches. There is a wide variety of practice within the Messianic Jewish movement. Some congregations are like Evangelical churches with a bit of Jewish flavor, others are distinctly Jewish in liturgy and orientation. I’m including Messianic Judaism on my Evangelical pilgrim’s road trip listing with an asterisk because it was our Evangelical faith in the Jewish Jesus that first led my husband and I to the congregations (3) of which we’ve been a part. These congregations all had their roots in various Evangelical missions to the Jewish people, though two of the three congregations would currently and correctly describe their structure and function as a Jesus-centered Jewish synagogue situated within Judaism rather than as an Evangelical church. 

Image via Creative Commons 2.0 search/Flickr


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