I remember learning about Rachel Held Evans years ago but never read one of her books until recently. Her ideas were considered radical in the conservative evangelical Christian world, and growing up, I was taught that thinking outside that box could lead to dangerous ideas. Those ideas were loopholes for the devil himself to slip through. I'm sitting here shaking my head at how ridiculous, self-righteous, and manipulative that sounds now. However, it was truly something I believed.
A lot has changed since I believed those words. I haven't had a church home since 2019. Not because of the pandemic, and not because I moved across the world, but because I don't want one. The wounds from behind-the-scenes of American evangelicalism, privileged conservative church life, purity culture, spiritual abuse, and manipulation caused me to deeply distrust anyone involved in the church community—especially pastors.
Not all my issues with the church came from my most recent experience in 2019. The conservative evangelical culture I grew up in had a lot to do with it. Before I dive in, I should say, not all my experiences within the American evangelical culture were bad. I do have some special memories with wonderful people. However, I am not talking about those. I am talking about the experiences and memories that still haunt me.
Once as a child, I was told to hold anti-abortion signs on the side of the street and yell, "abortion kills!" to the drivers passing by. I was told that bumper stickers reading, "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" would make a difference. I learned to hide any emotional pain under a perfected smile on Sunday mornings. I didn’t feel I could ask questions when my favorite children's director was let go because of her sexual orientation, and I always felt sorry for my friend's little sister who chose to sit in the car rather than come into the church. Rumor had it, she was gay. Both were things we didn’t talk about. When my favorite musical artist Amy Grant released her first secular album, I was told that we should pray for her. I naively accepted the "fact" that there is no way a Democrat could be a real Christian. In fact, I was scared for my grandma’s salvation when I heard she was a registered Democrat (btw, I still haven't told my conservative family and friends that I voted for Obama!). I had massive evangelical-induced guilt as a child. My intrusive thoughts caused me to confess all my sins to my mom as often as I could. Even though I heard my grandpa say "shit" while playing UNO, I re-asked Jesus in my heart repeatedly to ensure that me saying, "pissed" and other "serious sins" would keep me out of Hell. And all this my friends, was just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t have the time (or heart) to dive into the considerable issues with purity culture, bigotry culture, parenting techniques, and commercialization of the church, but for a fascinating read on growing up in this culture, check out this article by Rebekah Drumsta.
Years later, I thought I found my home church when I moved across the US to the east coast. I was thrilled when I was hired full-time as their Family Ministry Director to work with children. While I loved the job itself, and the people I worked with, my distrust deepened even further when I became wrapped up in a web of pathological lies, manipulation, anger, and spiritual abuse at the hands of the narcissistic lead pastor for two years. At the same time, an awful sexual scandal broke out in the very church I grew up in, volunteered in, and served in on the west coast. The pastor, as well as other church leadership, covered it up for years. The associate pastor that was the perpetrator kept getting promoted.
From the beginning, evangelical culture taught me to trust pastors. So, I blindly trusted them because I was told they were someone I could trust. I could trust them because "God chose them" as someone with "spiritual authority". I realize no one is perfect and that no one is immune to sin (including me), but evangelical culture has, for decades, elevated pastors to a higher status and authority that feeds narcissistic personalities. For a closer examination on the how the evangelical culture feeds negative behaviors in leadership, I highly recommend Christianity Today's podcast titled, "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill." Sadly, it took over 30 years of my life for me to realize how incredibly wrong this is. The unfortunate reality for me is, when I look back at my time in the evangelical church, I can say that that majority of pastors I listened to, volunteered for, and worked for caused me to only doubt and question my beliefs.
I'm still working through the emotional damage that was caused and no words could fully articulate what I went through during that time. Perhaps I will save that for another post. All I can say is, thank goodness for professional therapy and counseling.
Some would say since then, I started having a faith crisis - deconstructing, if you will. No, I am not having a crisis of faith, but I did start deconstructing. I started tearing apart the box, rules, and boundaries that I once followed so diligently. I no longer allowed those rules to have dominion over me, and began shedding the guilt, shame, fear, and finger pointing in the name of "love".
The scars from my church days left me reluctant to read Faith Unraveled because I was concerned about it being too preachy. However, the title alone intrigued me enough to buy it, and because of that, my therapist encouraged me to read it. My perspective shifted when she asked me to replace the word preachy with teaching. The idea of someone sitting with me and lovingly teaching me, rather than someone proudly preaching at me, sounded a lot more appealing.
I'm so glad I decided to read it because every word in this book resonated with me. From Rachel's upbringing to her questioning - I felt like I was talking with an old friend. While reading, my heart and mind were intertwined in a deep conversation about theology and faith. The gift of Rachel's words were like a warm blanket to my soul.
The controversial topics that I've been wrestling with since I was young, the ones that are justified and easy to hide in the pretty packaging of "because the Bible says so" or "just have faith," were brought to light. I could finally look my past of blindly believing in the eye. My eyes were opened to a new kind of faith - and love - when my gut instincts, questioning and doubting were validated.
Some would say that despite the abuses and negative experiences, the message remains the same. I disagree. I would say that the American evangelical culture has changed the message by putting it into a box bound tightly with rules, judgement, and bigotry. That box deprives people from the opportunity to think bigger, and love bigger, because it’s created its own exclusive culture. It’s blinding their community from the culture that matters – the real, vastly diverse, divinely beautiful world with a God that cannot be contained. From my own experiences, life outside the American evangelical culture isn't scary or full of dangerous ideas. It is a whole lot bigger, and it is full of radical love and extreme grace.
I certainly have a lot more questions, but so far, outside of that box, I can take a deep breath. Why? Because there is no small print or hidden agendas attached to radical love. Love isn't holding signs at anti-abortion rallies. Instead, it’s embracing the women faced with that choice. Love isn’t displaying an Adam and Steve bumper sticker on your car. Truth is, God did make Steve and loves him unconditionally. Outside the box, love is being with my friend’s sister in the church parking lot and love doesn't care if I'm democrat or republican, liberal or conservative. Beyond the parameters and confines of the American evangelical culture, I find that love has no boarders and it’s extremely freeing.
For the first time since I left the evangelical church, I feel allowed to embrace the wounds I received there and release them with grace. Without those questions and wounds, I wouldn't be right here. Right where I need to be. Broken, joyful, stubborn, and hopeful. Finding comfort outside my comfort zone, and free to be unapologetically me. Brave enough to break out of the box so I can unlearn the old and embrace the new.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts? If the thought of this book scares you, I really encourage you to read it. In fact, I have a copy you can borrow.
P.S. Here are some other books that have helped (and are helping!) me on this journey. Do you have any to add to the list? I'd love to hear from you.