My Experience in Evangelicalism: Four Things that Pushed Me Out

Leaving Evangelicalism wasn’t easy and it didn’t come overnight either. I come from a family of extremely dedicated evangelicals. My parents even started an evangelical home church in the second half of the sixties, turning their back on an increasingly liberal Reformed Church as they dedicated themselves to Billy Graham and his Gospel. I’ve deeply respected my parents and their faith and still do. I even became an ardent supporter of my Dad’s Church, eventually making it to assistant-pastor. The point is, I was an evangelical. Evangelicalism was all I knew from my earliest youth.

Breaking away from this faith involved a long process of soul-searching and entertaining agonizing questions. Eventually, everything came tumbling down like a house of cards that had to come to terms with its flimsy structure and lack of foundation. It was not a mere intellectual decision in which I exchanged one set of presuppositions for another, but much more a prolonged existential struggle that left me orphaned, bereft of certainties. I’m certainly not happier now, though I feel good about my decision.

I managed to remain on talking terms with my parents on matters of faith and occasionally pray with them when the need arises. In fact, I’m not even entirely against evangelicalism or evangelicals. I’m in conversation with some of them and occasionally stand corrected on wrong assumptions and wrong views. There are evangelicals who are open to the world, who speak and listen in an attitude of humility to the other. There are those who look a lot more like Jesus than I ever will. So I believe evangelicals have something to offer to the rest of Christianity. I also believe that different discourses, placed on a continuum from conservative to liberal, have something unique to reveal about a truth that perennially eludes us, and this includes evangelicals. Evangelicals, for instance, are good in their emphasis on discipleship, revering God’s Word, and their attempts to come up with a comprehensive worldview.

Divergent

Of course, it is precisely on those points that my views diverge strongly from that of evangelicalism and thus provide the rationale for my departure. I think there is something deeply wrong with the evangelical paradigm in its theological outlook and social expression. I had to leave it behind. I had to go, even though, because of my deep involvement with the movement, the departure was painful and left me wandering in a spiritual wasteland.

Part of the problem is how evangelicalism in the USA has been co-opted by the Republican agenda and how its adherents envision their public role as in a way that makes them look like bigoted warmongers (or prove them to be). Many assume that it is all about asserting power and demanding legislative change in order to impose their ethics on others. This trend has culminated in evangelicals’ unexpected and unprecedented support for a president who is the very antithesis of everything evangelicals morally stand for. Part of the problem is how evangelicals have slowly become unfriendly if not hateful people, out of fear of losing the culture battle. They’ve become hardliners on issues like gay rights, abortion, and basically anything to do with sexuality (except that it’s okay to be a sexually immoral person when Trump turns out to be a pussy grabbing pervert).

In contrast to their stance on these issues, they have remained notoriously quiet on issues of justice and racism, giving them a strong appearance of being hypocritical. Part of the problem is that evangelicalism seems to have been swallowed up by the very movement it attempted to distinguish itself from in the 1950s: fundamentalism. Part of the problem is also that large swaths of American evangelicalism have equated their religion with nationalism. Being a Christian is equal to waving the American flag in willful ignorance of America’s past involvement in genocide and slavery.

Now, American evangelicalism does not provide the standard for the evangelicalism you find elsewhere in the world. Though it is true that evangelicalism was birthed in the cradle of the Anglo-Saxon world, it has also matured and developed its own character. Yet, American evangelicalism is still a leader in this worldwide evangelicalism and the latter shares many of the same theological commitments and is in principle vulnerable to the same pitfalls.

Ultimately, I do believe that most of what is wrong with evangelicalism can be traced to certain fatal theological commitments that once worked but are now hopelessly detrimental to its own survival and credibility. In this post, however, I do not want to outline these theological issues, but rather concentrate on my experience in evangelicalism as a committed and yet rather unhappy evangelical. It is this experience that lies at the basis of the later deconstruction and theological critique as the reader will find in my next post.

I have identified four areas in my evangelical experience that I’m quite certain provided the initial unrest and feelings of discomfort that would eventually blow up in my face. These areas are the climate of power games, the boomerang effect, the experience of being cursed by God, and the haughtiness of always knowing things better.


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Power Hungry

Already when I was rather young I noticed how my dad as the leader of his fledgling house church met with fierce resistance and outright hatred from other Christian members of the church. After prolonged battles with those who wanted to take over the leadership, grasp power, and obtain honor in a church not their own, my parents had to go through two church splits. I think it broke them. They lost most of their former friends.

I’m sure, they made mistakes in all of this, but I had started to realize that evangelicals are completely unable to live up to the standards of their own sanctification or bring evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in them. Of course, I only needed to look at my own inability to walk in the ways of the Lord, but the hypocrisy that in the name of the Lord backstabbed my parents was just unlike anything you’d encounter among normal people.

Apparently, it is okay for evangelicals to employ political power games in their churches in the name of the Lord. And it’s not just churches. I later witnessed with regret and pain in my heart how a beloved evangelical institution in the USA, that means a lot to me, was taken over by people who were bent on returning the institution back to a 70s version of evangelicalism. In this conservative takeover people were forced to leave or felt compelled to go; people who should not have gone. The unintended effect of it all was that the institution basically cut back itself into oblivion.

If there was anything that made much of evangelicalism odious to me it was that politics and power struggles are justified in the name of the Lord and/or waged on the insistence of the work of Spirit. How can a conservative turn to a more “biblical” theology justify dirty games?

Boomerang

When I went to study theology in America in 2009 at the age of 43 I was still a dedicated defender of the faith. What I didn’t know then was that entering an evangelical institution to study theology opened the way to deconstruction. I still can’t understand why other students in my class did not deconstruct. They too grappled with some of the questions, but I guess for them it was mere play. They coined complex phrases, played with dangerous words, and were willing to go down some dark allies, but they kept their flashlights on, so to speak. As soon as they went on to their ministries, they boomeranged right back into the safe fold of their evangelical origins. They had answers again instead of questions. Oh, those beautiful and reassuring answers.

I didn’t boomerang, because I heard an invitation to a world of paradox, ambiguity, and the freedom to embrace reality for what it is. I’m not discussing the actual theological issues here; that will come in a next post. I was literally set free from the answers. To be able to share the same questions with non-believers, to be allowed to doubt and question, to no longer be forced to defend the evangelical worldview as superior was extremely liberating.

I later realized that this quest for certainty which marks evangelicalism and much of Calvinism had actually always been an oppressive force that kept me on a permanent leash and set me apart from other people. Though, as an evangelical, I loudly proclaimed my freedom in Christ, I also tried to listen to those who were in leadership in order to know what to say and what not to say. Some theological statements are ok, others are definitely not. And the claim of biblical inerrancy didn’t seem to guarantee that everyone automatically agreed. You need to know the code. Though the words “thought police” are maybe too strong, it is certainly the case that you can’t just believe something that is at odds with accepted evangelical thought, even if the Bible supports it.

That many of my peers boomeranged right back into their pre-seminary theologies (why did they come to seminary?) was due to the social control the evangelicals consensus exerts. You better follow the elders of the congregation or you find yourself without a job.

Cursed

A third cause, I guess, is a personal experience of God that completely belies the alleged, prescribed, and incessantly attested experience of answered prayers, exorcised demons, healed bodies, spiritual victories, and abundant divine blessings. Nothing in my life was able to attest to any of those things. As far as experience goes, I could easily have been demonized, under the spell of a powerful delusion, or simply not saved.

Whenever it was my turn to give a testimony I simply faked it. I looked for turns in my life that could parade as a conversion experience or breakthroughs from the Lord. Deep down I realized, however, that my life was at odds with the believer’s guide to the galaxy of spiritual wonders. I was baptized with the verse “Blessing I will bless you,” but my experience in life has rather been “Cursing I will curse you.” Deep inside I could not rejoice with those rejoicing because I was struggling with issues that Jesus simply wasn’t the answer to.

This is not to say that Jesus, in my opinion, is not some sort of answer at a very deep level. But the song “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” resonated with me only to the extent that I enjoyed playing the piano during worship, which I was pretty good at. I generally hated worship CDs, actually. I still do. The evangelical experience doesn’t allow for too much and too prolonged suffering because we all need to live in victory and proceed in the bold expectation of Jesus’ return.

But my life is actually marked by a suffering that the gospel is not able to address. At least not without involving a serious dose of professional counseling, for instance. And even then, I tend to be a pretty gloomy person. Too much of the smiling-toothpaste-thumbs-up-Jesus and I readily fall away from my faith. It is hard to be part of a community that you live so completely at odds with. It adds a lot of pressure to life. You better smile and say “praise the Lord” a few times per day, or else.

A Better Salvation

Lastly, there has always been that weird discrepancy between evangelicals and the wider world. I guess the tendency to create a subculture has been inherited from the Anabaptists. But in evangelicalism, this inward trend is complemented by an outward trend to reach the lost. So you get a dichotomy between the lost on the one hand and the saved who are trying to save the lost on the other. The lost are actually not too keen on being told they are lost, especially since some of them are working on justice issues in ways that shame evangelicals. This tension of saved versus unsaved show up in many areas, but I’ll mention only one.

I think for instance of the evangelical response to the call for justice wherever it sounds outside of the Church. For most evangelicals, spiritual salvation comes before justice, aid, and charity. You need to have your ticket to heaven before you get your daily bread and if you get your daily bread first it is primarily to soften your heart toward the gospel unto salvation. The problem is sin and not hunger. Interestingly hunger is usually the result of other people’s sin, so you can’t really make such a clear-cut distinction.

Evangelicals have a hard time unreservedly joining hands with non-evangelicals because, they’re either espousing a wrong theology or don’t subscribe to the need for repentance of sin. This goes all the way down to the heart of evangelical theology since its roots lie in the fundamentalist movement that saw in the Social Gospel its prime nemesis. Again, I do not want to discuss the theological issues here but point to my own experience of being set apart.

I was set apart for what? For fake sanctification; for knowing the fake inside scoop of salvation; for fake assurance of knowing it better than everybody else; for a fake Jesus who only wants to live in your heart but is not interested in touching the horrors wrought by capitalism (to name one harmful ideology that evangelicalism, in particular, has sold itself out to) as it leaves millions upon millions in economic desperation.

I was told that communism is wrong, that socialism is wrong, that live-aid was wrong, and that we need to set up our own subculture of imitation of the world in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God (because, why should the devil have all the good music?—I actually like Larry Norman). I was told that it is important to belong to the in-group of those who are saved so I won’t go to hell. I was told that the world is black and white and that evangelicalism is the white that knows itself to be white while the rest of the world, because of its darkness, is blind to its own condition of blackness. “We know the truth!”

You’re either in or out and the only way to know is by listening to the gatekeepers. Because the gatekeepers know best. They know who is saved, why the world in its sin is not capable of truth, they know what the Bible teaches and what it does not. They are the leaders who are experts in biblical leadership (whatever that means but evangelicals are very fond of this word).

Belonging to such a gatekeeping and yet outgoing community is not healthy at all. To be forced into an attitude of knowing it better, of having the mind of Christ (i.e. knowing what he is actually thinking so to speak), of being the only ones in the world who got it right, is not healthy. Especially not when it is so blatantly evident that evangelicalism is wrong on plenty of issues.

Does Experience Count?

These are the four underlying causes that made me want to leave Evangelicalism behind. They describe my personal experience of at-oddness in the faith I was brought up in. They were the cracks in the edifice of my faith; cracks that appeared early on and were harbingers of the change that would inevitably come. Some will say that my experience is personal and that this is not how other evangelicals feel (obviously most don’t feel like this at all). They will say that such a personal account is touching but doesn’t amount to anything, because it doesn’t represent evangelicalism as it truly is.

But, I think it does. Perhaps the reader should take some of the rhetoric and hardness away. But what you get then is a pretty accurate picture of evangelicalism. I think my feelings of unease in evangelicalism, especially since this faith was inculcated from my earliest youth, point to a problem in the evangelical way of life, its theology, its worldview, and its social imaginary. This was only confirmed by the great number of students I encountered at the evangelical institution I went to study who, all for different reasons, felt themselves at odds with Evangelicalism.

But for those not satisfied (but certainly also for myself) I will address in my next post a few concrete flaws in evangelicalism that will function as hard evidence of evangelicalism’s failure.


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This article is part of a 4 part series:

My Experience in Evangelicalism: Four Things that Pushed Me Out
My Struggle With Evangelicalism: From Inerrant Word to Subjugated World
A Sundered Cross: Evangelicalism and the Public Sphere
On Being Post-Evangelical: Moving Beyond the Anger of “Post-ness”

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

10 Responses

  1. You have written a very excellent summary of why you have left evangelicalism. I also have been leaving for the past 20 years, but have one foot still in because I raised all my children in this form of religious thought in the 1970s and 1980s. As I have pulled away, they and their families are still in, but their common sense and failure to embrace the judgementalism and politics makes it not too uncomfortable for me. They are more like the evangelicals of their childhood. Theologically, however, we differ on some key issues. I will be looking forward to your next installment!!

  2. “In contrast to their stance on these issues, they have remained notoriously quiet on issues of justice and racism, giving them a strong appearance of being hypocritical. Part of the problem is that evangelicalism seems to have been swallowed up by the very movement it attempted to distinguish itself from in the 1950s: fundamentalism. Part of the problem is also that large swaths of American evangelicalism have equated their religion with nationalism. Being a Christian is equal to waving the American flag in willful ignorance of America’s past involvement in genocide and slavery.”
    …BINGO!! Hit the nail on the head! Premillennialism is partly to blame here. By pushing the Kingdomof God to a place after Christ returns evangelicals are largely absolved from enacting Kingdom reform now.

    1. I wrote this well before reading “American Apocalypse.” I mean, that book is soooo revealing. Of course, evangelicalism was not swallowed up by fundamentalism; it IS the same movement.

  3. “Heaven has a wall, a gate and a strict immigration policy. Hell has open borders. Let that sink in.“

    This mime was on my mother-in-law’s Facebook page and illustrates perfectly the problem that evangelicals have differentiating between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. Where the gospel becomes, not “good news” but a means of exclusion. This, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of evangelicalism. It did afford my wife and I to have a deep discussion about this, but as far as my evangelical family goes, well you just have to love them and hope the gospel eventually sinks in.

    1. That is a shocking quote. If America is heaven and you are trying to keep people out you are unfulfilling the great commission. I hope for you thar your wife has said goodbye to evangelicalism.

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