Why Stay in the Church?
by Dan Stringer
During my freshman year of college, a guy who lived on my floor converted from evangelical to Eastern Orthodox. After learning about the Orthodox Church in a theology class, he shared his enthusiasm with whoever would listen. Whenever I’d see him in the hallway, he would share something he valued about Eastern Orthodoxy that had been lacking in his experience with evangelical Christianity. One week it was the smell of incense and the sound of bells. Another week it was the apostolic lineage that traces back to the early church. Since I hadn’t even heard of the Orthodox branch of Christianity (some would call it “the trunk”) at that point in my life, I remember feeling perplexed as to why this guy was so excited. I assumed he was using the word orthodox to mean having correct beliefs. I was glad that he found a church with correct beliefs, but this didn’t seem like something to write home about. It wasn’t until later on that I appreciated the magnitude of his decision and the shift it represented. I now see this as a positive example of someone who left evangelicalism for another place on the Christian map after finding that it would be a better context in which to follow Jesus.
Leaving one’s faith stream is a big decision not to be taken lightly. Just like there are good ways and bad ways to leave a local church, the same is true of a faith stream. It’s particularly unwise to depart rashly or without fully considering the implications of your choice. Why not at least take stock of the benefits being left behind? Evangelicalism can be a very life-giving place for some, but others have experienced too much pain and are barely hanging on. I’m reluctant to say that evangelicalism should be vacated wholesale, but I’m also someone who personally would have much to lose by leaving. Some danger zones are more susceptible to harm than others, but it’s still people’s spiritual home. Returning to the geographic metaphor, if people can make their home in a desert or frozen tundra, people can make their spiritual home in evangelical spaces.
A growing number of evangelicalism’s former residents—reflected in the hashtag #exvangelical—are voicing their reasons for leaving. Some have departed because of a spiritually toxic environment. Others were kicked out for differing too much from dominant norms. Whether their departure was voluntary or not, these ex-evangelicals remind us that evangelicalism isn’t a healthy space for all of its residents.
Skeptics may try to minimize the problem by rationalizing that people are leaving the church because of their own unwillingness to play by the rules. We might not want to pay attention because it’s painful to read stories of people who have left the church. One key feature of being an evangelical involves believing that following Jesus and remaining faithful to him is a matter of urgency. Because of that urgency, it can be difficult for evangelicals to accept when someone we love chooses to walk away from the faith. What I find even more tragic in such situations is how many of these stories of being rejected and cut off did not need to happen.
JESUS IS BIGGER THAN EVANGELICALISM
My heart breaks when people equate evangelicalism with the totality of Christianity. What happens when evangelicalism is no longer a healthy place for them to inhabit? If we teach our flock that rejecting evangelicalism amounts to rejecting Jesus, we have deceived our own people. Moreover, we have sown seeds into the lie that if someone doesn’t want to be part of evangelicalism, there is no place for them in Christianity.
I understand that every church makes mistakes. Every community of faith and parachurch ministry goes through times when they fail to demonstrate the grace and love of our Savior. This does not mean we have a monopoly on Jesus. It is so tragic to me when someone leaves the Christian faith without ever visiting a non-evangelical church. Jesus is so much bigger than evangelicalism. The New Testament was not written by English-speaking, evangelical Protestants any more than your high school teacher wrote Romeo and Juliet. We are but stewards of a living story that each new generation re-tells in its own style. Modern evangelicals may trace our heritage to the early church, but that makes us no different from other Christian streams who do the same thing.
My plea is that if you know someone who is considering dropping out of Christianity because of their experience with a narrow pocket of evangelicalism, make sure they know the difference between the two. Evangelicalism is not homogenous. It varies greatly by race and geography. Anglicans and Baptists both follow Christ but with different approaches. Their respective visions for how to train clergy, disciple their members, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper are full of contrasts. That’s why awareness matters so much for renewal. When evangelicals perpetuate the myth that their little group has exclusive access to Jesus, the Bible, the Holy Spirit, or, heaven forbid, the one true God in three persons, we cause spiritual damage that someone else will have to clean up.
It might be too late to bring back those who have moved on, but we can still do our part to take collective responsibility for this place called evangelicalism, not only to benefit current inhabitants but also future generations who will live here. Just as we have a responsibility to care for rainforests, coral reefs, and freshwater lakes for the sake of those who come after us, let’s steward evangelicalism well enough for our spiritual children and grandchildren to live out their faith here.
Taken from Struggling with Evangelicalism by Dan Stringer. Copyright (c) 2021 by Daniel Stringer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Dan Stringer grew up as a third culture kid in five countries on three continents and is the author of Struggling with Evangelicalism. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and serves as team leader for InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries in Hawai’i. He is pastor of theological formation at Wellspring Covenant Church in Hālawa, Hawai’i. He previously was a social worker helping people obtain housing and employment. He has written for Missio Alliance, Inheritance, and Level Ground, and is a contributor to Father Factor.
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