Anchors for those who drift
“Exvangelicals” make headlines, but what can help wayward Christians embrace their faith again?
Andrea Palpant Dilley grew up knowing suffering. As the daughter of Quaker missionaries who spent the first half of her childhood in Kenya, she watched her father bring a dying man home and bathe him in their bathtub, followed her mother to the hospital to minister to sick and dying people, worshipped with refugees who fled genocide in the middle of the night. It was a Ugandan nurse named Betsy who led Dilley, at age 3, to profess faith in Christ. Suffering was all around her, but so was deep, hardened faith that proclaimed love for Jesus in the middle of tragedy.
This intimate cognition of suffering followed Dilley as a young college graduate when she went back to Nairobi, Kenya, to assist a widowed professor who had experienced profound grief: He had lost his wife, his mother, and his daughter to a single car accident. One day, Dilley stood in the largest slums in Africa, holding a wailing, muslin-wrapped baby born with AIDS. Looking at the rows of cribs filled with crying AIDS-positive babies, she lost faith in a good God: “How do I make sense of this? How can a good, omnipotent God allow this kind of suffering?”
Dilley is one of many evangelical Christians who have disavowed their faith for various reasons. Many, like Dilley, leave because they cannot reconcile what they see in the world with a compassionate, sovereign God. Some leave because they say Christians perpetuate or ignore injustice. Others leave because they suffered personal trauma in the Church.
These ex-evangelicals are bound not by their beliefs but by what they repudiate, said Blake Chastain, a former evangelical in Chicago who coined and popularized the term exvangelicals through his same-titled podcast: “It’s a term to acknowledge a prior experience, just like someone might describe a prior relationship with an ex-spouse.”
Many who left the faith had strong ties in the Church: Pastor and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye Joshua Harris announced on Instagram, “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” Jon Steingard, a pastor’s kid and lead singer of a Christian rock band, wrote on Instagram: “After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band, and having the word ‘Christian’ in front of most of the things in my life—I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.” Paul Maxwell, a former writer for Desiring God, announced in April he is “not a Christian anymore.”
Paul Chamberlain, director of the Institute for Christian Apologetics at Trinity Western University who wrote the book Why People Don’t Believe, said the most common reason he hears ex-evangelicals give is they want to “be free from the shackles of religion.” When those people have been raised and trained in evangelical churches and seminaries, the arguments they form against Christian beliefs and values are intelligent and precise because they know the theology inside-out.
“These folks don’t argue like anyone else,” Chamberlain said. Since 2012, Chamberlain started noticing a “new wave” of ex-evangelicals who not only walk away from the faith but mobilize a significant force against it: “I saw a different group of critics. They’re much more ardent, more passionate, more knowledgeable with an insider’s perspective that others don’t have.”
That’s why Christians need to be prepared to engage those who have deep, difficult questions, Chamberlain said, not dismiss them: “We must carry out the Second [Great] Commandment and love these folks, because we gotta remember: People do have second thoughts. You and I have them—why wouldn’t they?”
LIKE MANY EVANGELICAL KIDS growing up in the purity culture movement of the 1990s, Ryan Connell was ashamed of his constant thoughts about sex. He knew lust is a sin, but no matter how hard he tried not to, he continued fantasizing and masturbating.
So at age 14, when he heard the church camp preacher quote Romans 7:24—“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”—those words struck a chord. As the lights dimmed and the music softened, he stood up, tears streaming, and professed faith in Christ. He had what he calls his “big conversion experience.” Not only was he delivered from his sins, God was now his forever friend. God would always be there for him, the pastor promised him. To the shy, sickly, lonely, homeschooled preacher’s kid, the idea of eternal companionship was comforting. He was ecstatic when his lustful thoughts seemed to disappear.
Then less than a week after church camp, lust crept back into his mind, and Connell slipped back into his old ways. Then came shame: “I felt both incredibly loved, but also incredibly like a failure.”
Connell suffered from anxiety and depression since childhood. He dealt with those issues even as he enrolled in a church-affiliated ministry school after high school and spent the next several years working for his church, street-evangelizing, and preaching. People in his church community didn’t have a language for such mental issues. They called his episodes “spiritual relapse” or “lack of faith” or “spiritual attack.” A pastor once told him he had nothing to be depressed about and to “portray a victorious life.”
Connell knew the Scriptures say he’s saved by grace through faith alone, but he didn’t know how to reconcile that with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:48: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So he prayed up to six hours a day, repenting of his perpetual sins and praying earnestly for the unsaved. He memorized Bible verses, read through the entire Bible twice a year, participated in accountability groups, and kept asking God for forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Connell met people on the streets who asked questions he had never considered before: Is the Bible historically reliable? Why do Christians have so many different interpretations of the Bible? “Um, let me look that up. Come back next week,” he told the skeptics. But the more he researched those questions, the more conflicting information he read, and the more confused he got.
Then he met a young black gay man while street-evangelizing. They began meeting regularly for coffee. Connell remembers thinking, “I should invite him to church, but there is no way he’s going to be loved at my church.” That realization rattled him.
At age 23, Connell stepped down from ministry. He realized he could no longer preach in good conscience when he questioned everything he was preaching. That same year, he sat at his parents’ church listening to a sermon about loneliness. Once again, he was reminded of how intensely alone and isolated he felt. He wept as he responded to an altar call and prayed: “Please, God. Let someone come and pray for me. That’s all I’m asking.”
No one did. Since then he no longer calls himself a Christian. It wasn’t so much that he stopped believing in God: “I just didn’t really believe that God cared, I think.”
FOR SOME, LIVING WITHOUT FAITH may be as hard as wrestling with it. What’s next for someone after rejecting something so foundational?
“That’s the challenge of deconstruction,” said Emily Joy, a poet and pastor’s kid who graduated from Moody Bible Institute: “Taking stuff apart is a lot faster than putting it together. It’s like, ‘I don’t believe this anymore, I don’t believe that anymore,’ and you have a whole list of things you don’t believe anymore, but you can’t replace them at the same pace.”
Joy attended church several times a week as a kid, hung out with Christian friends, read Christian books, attended Christian concerts and festivals. Then when she was 16, her parents learned she had been in a romantic relationship with her 30-something-year-old church youth leader.
Today, after years of therapy, Joy understands that “relationship” was a form of sexual grooming and abuse, but she didn’t know it then. Her parents forced her to call the man and apologize to him. Joy had no language or context to understand what had actually happened to her. Instead, she got depressed and tried to make penance: She went to church to help out five times a week, volunteered at the nursery, played in the worship band, and stacked chairs.
When the #MeToo movement exploded, Joy went public with her story on Twitter and co-created the hashtag campaign #ChurchToo, which went viral. She now attacks many facets of the faith she grew up in. She gives speeches in churches, college groups, conferences, and festivals criticizing Biblical sexual standards. She landed a book deal. She also divorced her husband after coming out as gay (she previously identified as bisexual) and is currently in a relationship with another woman.
So what’s left in her faith? “I don’t know,” Joy said. “I feel like that changes, always. For a while, Jesus was still there.” But when she crossed out everything she didn’t like in the Nicene Creed, “There wasn’t much left.” Joy says at times she misses the idea of an interventionist, empathetic God. She misses the assurance of salvation, the comfort of certainty in her faith. Whatever semblance of faith she has left now, she holds in a loose fist, ready to ditch or pick up whatever seems right to her then.
It’s not uncommon for ex-evangelicals to miss their past. A year ago, Connell spent several months visiting various churches across the country. Each time he entered a service, he once again felt his heart drawn toward the shimmering possibility of the divine: “There’s still that pull. I still really want God to exist. I want this stuff to all be true—that friendship and intimacy with God, that divine experience, that holy glow.”
BOTH CONNELL AND JOY first started questioning if God is good, then progressed to questioning if God exists. Andrea Palpant Dilley also questioned if God is good, but she never stopped believing that He exists because of what she described as “anchors” for her faith.
Two years after she decided she couldn’t believe in a good God anymore, Dilley still struggled with the reality of suffering and evil. She had spent those two years toeing around the fringes of secularism, hanging out with non-Christians who loved drinking and laughing at bars but didn’t ask existential questions. She felt unhappy and lonely, still probing for answers to satisfy the longings of her soul.
It was while standing inside that tension that she remembered her father would take her out for father-daughter breakfast dates when she was a girl. Over waffles, she had peppered her father with questions: What does it mean to be Christian? Why do we suffer? Her father had once walked through his own crisis of faith, so he didn’t panic over his daughter’s questions. Instead, he listened carefully, then calmly and confidently engaged with her doubts: “Those conversations served as anchor points, like rock climbing. They still anchored me even though I drifted quite a ways.”
Dilley also remembered that widowed professor in Kenya, who despite tremendous loss still trusted God. She remembered the African refugees she met as a missionary kid who sang joyously to the Lord despite their traumas. Their lived-and-tested demonstration of faith also anchored her.
One Sunday morning, for reasons she still can’t explain, Dilley woke up and decided to attend a church. She chose one full of strangers and sat in the back. She returned the next Sunday. And again, and again. Sometimes she sang along with the hymns, sometimes she kept quiet. The questions didn’t go away, but the same questions about evil and suffering that pushed her away from God drew her back in. Much as C.S. Lewis realized and wrote in Mere Christianity, Dilley realized that outside of faith, she didn’t have the language or moral framework to wonder why evil exists. Can there be evil without good? And she acknowledged that if anyone understands injustice, it is Jesus.
Dilley didn’t choose to return to God because all her deepest questions had been answered. Rather, like Peter who confessed to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” Dilley returned to God in a state of defeat: “Lord, I don’t know where else to go. I feel defeated, but here I am.”
Today, Dilley is online managing editor for Christianity Today. It was within the Church that Dilley could freely wrestle with God again. “Listen to that grief, that yearning,” she encourages others who struggle with their faith: “Those griefs do lead to God, and they belong in the space of faith. It can really be tended to carefully and faithfully inside the body of Christ.”
—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting to correct Andrea Palpant Dilley's title.
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