Post-Evangelical Life

Back in December, I wrote here and at Patheos about how I was having a hard time attending my evangelical church after the election. That piece struck a nerve. To date it has almost 7,500 Facebook shares, making it the most read post that I have ever written, by far. This tells me that lots of other people are feeling the same way and struggling with the same things that I was in the wake of November 8th.

I wanted to tell the rest of the story – what happened after we left that evangelical church and started going to a “mainline” one. It’s not the story of theologically weak/watered down preaching that I thought it would be. For my fellow dissatisfied evangelicals who aren’t sure about leaving: there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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image via Pixabay.com
My family is now attending a Presbyterian church (USA) about five minutes from our house. I had always thought of the PCUSAs as the “liberal” Presbyterians, and they are, in a sense. This is the first mainline church that I have personally ever attended, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was probably not alone in having a mental picture of mainline churches as being kind of like this: wishy-washy, unfamiliar, lukewarm.

But…surprise: that’s not what I found at all. Our new church feels surprisingly similar to the traditional Baptist church of my early childhood: pews, hymnals, a full choir. All the children coming to the front for a children’s message.

There are some welcome differences, however – the associate pastor, music minister and youth minister are all women, in addition to other roles that are traditionally filled by women in evangelical churches, such as the children’s minister.

The church is unapologetically formal – hymns only, from an actual hymnal, no projection screen. A pipe organ. People up on stage wearing robes. This formality has taken a little getting used to, as I have attended contemporary churches since I was eight years old. It’s growing on me. I appreciate that they don’t try to thread the needle between traditional and contemporary, as many churches do, with the awful “praise team” approach that no one ends up actually liking. While I miss singing my favorite praise choruses I’m gaining an appreciation for the deep theology in the lyrics to the old hymns.

The main thing I was worried about was that a mainline church wouldn’t actually preach the Bible. I have found this not to be true at all. The sermons are very similar to the sermons at the evangelical churches I have attended all my life.

What makes our church special is that even though my family is new, and the church is large, the pastoral staff went out of their way to make us feel welcome immediately. I mean, really: Jonah and I went to one service in early December and talked to staff members briefly on the way out the door. The following week, I got a card in the mail from the pastor, Jonah got a postcard from the children’s minister, and the pastor added me as a friend on Facebook and Instagram. On our next visit, staff members somehow remembered my name, and Jonah’s name. That’s the way it’s done, folks. I have never felt as welcome anywhere.

By way of comparison, at the last church we were visiting, the pastoral staff and their families had a special section to sit in during the service. (Maybe it’s not nice to link and put them on blast – but I think they should know how they came across, amirite?) Unless someone outside of the section went up to them, I never saw them interact with anyone besides other staff members. No staff member other than the children’s minister ever even looked at me, let alone spoke to me. Not once, over the course of three months.

Regular readers will recall that I was looking for a church that wasn’t filled with Trump voters and that would speak against him. The first Sunday we visited our new church happened to be the first Sunday of advent. The pastor spoke about the difference between happiness and joy, and mentioned that attendees might not be feeling very happy this Christmas season. Though he wasn’t explicit, I took this to be a tacit reference to the election. I’ll never forget it. I knew I was home.

Everything has not been perfect on this point. This previous Sunday I just felt sure that the pastor would mention the Muslim/refugee ban from the pulpit. When he didn’t, I was pretty disappointed. There was talk about divisions in the country and reaching out and spending time with someone whose life is radically different than yours, and a prayer for justice and against oppression, but nothing explicit.

But here’s what’s different from the past: even though I’m not a member and haven’t been there long, I felt comfortable enough to message the pastor and ask him about it. So I did. He was very thoughtful and transparent in a way that I am not used to ministers being, saying that he is attempting to minister to a diverse group of people, and while most members feel like he and I do, not everyone does. I’m going to quote him directly, as I appreciated his thoughtful response, and because this is anonymous:

“I probably missed an opportunity yesterday and I’ve struggled with that. I’m still processing the faithful response, in our community, to these days of chaos and outright hatred. I won’t always get it right, so I’m grateful for the gifts of grace and of community. I need voices like yours to speak your truth in love and challenge me to deeper faithfulness.”

I’ll take it. If things go the way they may with human rights abuses and outright evil from the Trump administration, however, I’m going to need a stronger response. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

How are you feeling about church these days?

(By the way, if any Atlantans are looking for a new church, please feel free to contact me, as I would love to share my church’s name so you can visit!)

P.S.: Please check out Dee’s comment below. She provides some excellent context about the obstacles facing pastors talking politics in a PCUSA church.

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10 thoughts on “Post-Evangelical Life

  1. Hello! I’m here via Twitter. Glad to hear you’ve found a Presbyterian church you’re happy at. I was raised in a large, charismatic evangelical church in the South. Now I’m married to a Presbyterian minister. I feel for your new pastor! My husband & I are both liberal, and I would love for him be able to get up in the pulpit and essentially set all the conservatives in the room straight about the Muslim ban, etc. But the thing is, when it comes to politics, we all don’t march in lockstep in the Presbyterian church. Most Presbyterian ministers value separation of church & state and would therefore never, ever tell congregants how to vote. So people with varying views feel welcome. On the one hand, it’s great to have conservatives and liberals in community together. That’s the way it should be. On the other. . . it makes it extremely difficult to speak out about anything that could be construed as “anti-Trump.” It doesn’t mean you don’t do it, but you know you risk losing half of your congregation and, possibly, your job. PC(USA) pastors do tend to be more liberal than their congregations, so it’s a challenging time for many of them. They’ve never been through anything quite like this before.

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    • Hi Dee, thanks so much for reading and for this comment. The context you’ve provided is extremely helpful. I definitely understand – my father is currently an interim pastor at my his Baptist (CBF) church and he is dealing with many of the same issues.

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  2. What a nice denouement from your first blog about no longer feeling welcome or served by the SBC congregation where you and your family had worshipped before. You have obviously discovered the “‘hidden jewel” in a mainline denomination worship community; hidden only in that what the PCUSA and other mainline protestant denominations are about now without so many not realizing what is there and available. It sounds like what you have found what you have been yearning and looking for as a community of Followers of the Way. My friend and author, Diana Butler Bass, says that to be truthfully engaged within a community of faith today and within the foreseeable future, that it begins with Belonging, which leads to Behaving, and then to true and deep Belief; but always within a committed community context. If you get the opportunity (and I know that you have a very busy family and work schedule to deal with) pick up a copy of her book “Christianity for the Rest of Us”. I think that it will speak to you, just as it has with me.
    Your brother in Christ, Dan

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    • Hi Dan, thanks for reading and for your comment. I love the statement from Diana Butler Bass. It’s interesting that Belonging comes first, before Behaving or Belief. I feel like our experience shows how important it is to make people feel welcome. I’m glad that our new church does “Belonging” very well. Take care!

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  3. Holly – To go a little further into what Diana Butler Bass is saying in the book I have referenced, she really talks about the essential differences between “Religion” and its Latin root word “religio” and how the spirituality dimension of faith has been diminished in today’s religious denominations with credos, canons. and highly structured worship and membership definitions. She is looking forward to how Christianity (Following the Way) must re-emphasize the essential part that community has to be what a faith centers upon and grows around. The Great Commandment that Jesus gave us to “Love your God with all mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself” still rings true today; we just don’t seem to practice that as the center of who we should and can be.
    It sounds like you have found one of those communities that welcomes and treasures you, and is able to feed your spirit as a child of God, and as a loved sister.
    Dan

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  4. You’re search for a new chuch home reminds me of my mother. She was less concerned with the denomination, though we were typically Lutheran, than with the way the pastor and other leaders of the parish treated their parishioners and welcomed newcomers. She would know the right place when she felt it. When we moved to Michigan when I was 14, we went to a few churches and I kept asking her, “Do you have the feeling yet?” 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!

    Your blog, and particularly where you reached out to the pastor regarding Muslim/refugee EO, also reminds me of a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote from his letter from a Birmingham jail that I reference myself whenever I feel like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain when it comes to standing up for people. I know I have failed in the past to do so and this quote keeps me honest. Hope you don’t mind my sharing:

    “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

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    • Hi Danielle, thanks so much for your comment. I love this MLK quote so much (I’ve read it before but it’s been a while), and I am struck by how much it does speak to the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Do we care more about keeping the peace or justice? Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Hi Holly … I found you through “Unfundamentalist Christians” and am wondering if you read the post there about the Doctrine of Dispensationalism? It was posted after they published one I wrote called “What’s an Evangelical Voting Bloc?.” I became deeply involved in the conversation about Dispensationalism because I was indoctrinated in it as a child and never realized that it was a “Doctrine” and not true Christianity. I don’t think that most Evangelicals realize that what they are taught from the pulpit is based on a system of reading the Bible that only dates back to 1830 when John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield figured it out. II love reading about your journey and am curious about what you know about this ….

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    • Hi! I just went and read the Dispensationalism post before responding to your comment. Dispensationalism is a term that I had a heard before (particularly while going to a Southern Baptist college 😊) but I didn’t remember the specifics. I have memories of the Bible being taught that way from Baptist churches of my early childhood, but not so much from the more contemporary Evangelical churches I’ve attended up to this point as an adult. Like the author of that article (and you I think) I believe it is hogwash. 😵 What a convenient excuse to destroy creation in Jesus’s name. Terrible.

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      • Thanks for the reply, Holly. I probably heard the term too … I went to Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA in the 1960’s. All I remembered, thought, was the “Timeline.” The problem is that the doctrine gives equal weight to the Rapture as it does the Resurrection. They are both seen as literal, historical events. God decides when each of the 7 dispensations will end based upon man’s actions/choices. We’re in the Church Age … the Age of Grace. It’s going to end as soon as everyone has a chance to accept or reject Jesus as the Son of God. (That’s when the emphasis became “evangelism” … based on taking the gospel to “every living creature.” Jesus will come and “rapture” the believers as soon as everyone on the planet has had a chance. (And with the internet not they see the timeline speeding up.)

        I have no problem with the way Evangelicals divide the Bible/human history into the first 6 … it’s really a pretty classy way of organizing a piece of literature in order to make it understandable. Cyrus Scofield was the one who “proved” it all by referencing verses in the various books to each other. (That’s the narrow column down the middle of many Bibles.) What’s dangerous about that is that after almost 200 years of building on that structure, Evangelicals (like my brother whom I tried to talk about this with yesterday) find it so compelling that they don’t need any more information. He calls is his “World View” (not a religion … lol) … and is somehow even able to fit voting for Trump into it. (See the story of Cyrus in the Old Testament.)

        I’ve been trying to keep up a bit with the problems Evangelicals are having as they are trying to decide what “Christian values” are. Did you see that some Baptist groups in Puerto Rico are not supporting Franklin Graham’s visit this month? I’m trying to ask Evangelicals I know what’s happening now with the group of 70 church leaders that committed to work with Donald Trump after the “accepted Christ” just before the election at the meeting with 1000 Evangelical leaders. They called him a “baby Christian” and he said he would work with the chosen 70 as President.

        Anyway … I have started two Closed Facebook groups – really just for myself so that I can save and share some of the articles I find that could help us heal the divisions – both in the country and in the church. If you’re on FB I would love to stay in touch. I’m new at all this but have figured out that when someone joins the group I get a message to approve. I’ve met some interesting people that way and can see how valuable this can be … I can explain Leadership 2020 later … it’s something that I started in 1998 when I took and early retirement from teaching.

        https://www.facebook.com/groups/209206182858117/?ref=bookmarks
        https://www.facebook.com/groups/1813303895625167/

        Again, thanks for the reply and hope I didn’t overwhelm you with all of this. Bette

        PS … if you’re interested … here’s the webpage that I had designed in 2001 … and can’t do anything with because I never learned how to use Dreamweavers and couldn’t afford to pay a webmaster. What I realize is that if I change the date from 2020 to 2040 I’d say the very same things today …
        http://www.leadership2020.org Email: bette@leadership2020.org

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