Ex-vangelicals are coming: How will mainline denominations welcome them?

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

After a conversion experience in high school, I practiced evangelical Christianity for almost 20 years. For ten of those years, I served in full-time ministry, first as a missionary and then on staff at a megachurch. Six years ago, I began a long and painful breakup with the tradition that formed me — but I was not alone.

Something is happening to white evangelicalism. Over the decades of the movement’s recent history, it has seen plenty of reform efforts: the birth of the Vineyard Association, the “emerging church” phenomenon, the rise of neo-Calvinist theology, and the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, among others.

But the last few years feel different. It appears that a mass exodus has already begun. While some data (from Pew Research) shows the movement as a whole is alive and well, other data (from MMRI) shows a rapid decline — especially among the young. According to that study, only 7% of Americans between 18 and 29 years old are white evangelicals, while the number is 22% for those 65 and over. The white evangelical demographic skews much older than any other religious group in the study.

Where are the young, white evangelicals going when they leave behind the tradition in which they were raised? While there are surely many answers to this question, among those I’ve met on my own journey, there are two popular paths away from evangelicalism: no religion, and progressive Christianity.

We will return to the “no religion” group, but, for now, let’s consider the ex-evangelicals (known popularly as ex-vangelicals) who pursue progressive Christianity. This is a group of people who long for inclusive and justice-based church community but who have likely never experienced it before in their lives. They are people who have only known individualistic, conversion-based faith rooted in biblical inerrancy — but who know that they need something very different.

I have found that people in this group may or may not be able to connect with a mainline Protestant church experience. For some, like the late beloved author Rachel Held Evans (who found a home in the Episcopal church), a transition to a mainline community is tenable. For others, the culture shock of pipe organs, clerical vestments, passing the peace, and infant baptism might prove to be insurmountable. These non-denominational souls find themselves in a very lonely place. Some, like me, are a jumble of both: I attended a mainline seminary and am pursuing ordination in a denomination, but I will perhaps always feel most at home in independent communities.

In the years to come, it will be crucial for PC(USA) and other mainline churches, pastors, and congregants to love ex-vangelicals in all their varieties: the de-churched, the newly mainline, and the still-Christian-but-not-mainline. The question is — how?

There is surely no silver bullet. In my ministry, however, common themes have emerged that suggest some wise practices:

  1. Do not police people’s faith journeys

The ex-vangelical journey is often described using the term “faith deconstruction” (and sometimes “reconstruction”). There has been significant backlash against deconstruction among the conservative Christian ranks. “I suppose it’s okay for you to deconstruct — as long as the process leaves you closer to [the evangelical vision of] Jesus than when you started. The irony, of course, is that this kind of controlling prescription is one of the many reasons people deconstruct in the first place. Allow people’s journeys to take them wherever they will go, even if their beliefs make you uncomfortable. This is especially true if you form relationships with the no-church former evangelicals; please do not try to re-convert them or pressure them to attend your church!

  1. Learn about spiritual abuse

Sometimes, rarely, a person’s exit from evangelicalism is a simple matter of preference or a desire to try something different. Much more common are horror stories of sexism, racism, homophobia, unhealthy power dynamics, and gaslighting. These sorts of pain in a congregant’s past will always require insight and special care from a minister — and all the more so in the case of a former evangelical parishioner because their wounds were incurred within a church setting. It is almost a miracle that some ex-vangelicals ever step foot in a church again. It will make it much easier for them if the people welcoming them understand some of the common forms of church-related trauma.

  1. Support innovation

Finally, as some of the ex-vangelicals simply will not feel at home in traditional church settings, it is important for denominations and churches to support non-traditional ministry projects. The PC(USA) is already doing this. Its 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative is working hard to raise up leaders to create new and varied forms of churches for our changing culture. I am not Presbyterian but got connected to the 1001 community through the PC(USA) seminary. As a result, I have partnered extensively with 1001 as I learn to lead a post-evangelical church, Harbor Online Community. Experimental projects like this are important because they provide the freedom to explore ministry approaches that tend to resonate with post-evangelicals, such as replacing sermons with dialogue.

Jon Mathieu recently graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is the organizing pastor of Harbor Online Community. He is pursuing ordination within the United Church of Christ and is the community engagement editor for The Christian Century.

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