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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Learning from the Exvangelicals

April 17th, 2024 | 9 min read

By Cameron Shaffer

Sarah McCammon, The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church (New York: St. Martin's Press). 320 pp. $30.00 cloth.  

I grew up in a subculture that was evangelical and fundamentalist. Many of my childhood friends have deconstructed, dechurched, and deconverted. So it was with great interest that I read Sarah McCammon’s The Exvangalicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church. McCammon, now a correspondent for NPR, grew up evangelical, with all the right bona fides. Exvangelicals is one-part reporting on why some evangelicals dechurch, one-part memoir of McCammon’s own process of leaving evangelicalism.

I come from the same world as McCammon, although her background had a Charismatic inflection absent from my own, and I even knew some of the people she interviewed. Her experience of and insight into evangelicalism from the late 80s to the early 2000s rang true. I could quibble with some of her descriptions and emphases (she takes some extreme examples from her own experience and makes them normative for all evangelicalism; does she have a non-patronizing explanation for the tens of millions of kids who grew up like her and stayed evangelical?), but on the whole I found her work valuable in providing deeper insight into the experience of my friends. Every generation of evangelicals has a group that moves on; rather than dismiss the exvangelical narrative as the same tedious story, those of us who stayed behind should listen with a sympathetic ear. As an evangelical pastor, McCammon’s work gave me better tools to compassionately understand my exvangelical friends and how to think about the posture and expectations of gospel communication.

Salvation Under Duress

“Yeah, I grew up with God. He’s a douchebag, alright? Did he tell you that you were broken and that you need him? Yeah, that’s his move.”

This line from exvangelical, Millennial comedian Taylor Tomlinson’s (crude) stand-up routine encapsulates the flavor of McCammon’s experience with the evangelical church. While full of sincere, if misguided believers, the church expressed a manipulative understanding of God that left people traumatized. And it is explicitly trauma, not ideology or exegetical differences, that forms the matrix of McCammon’s ex-evangelical account.

She opens by recounting an Easter reenactment of the crucifixion she attended as a child. She observes that the evangelical story of the crucifixion “was meant to illustrate a deeper reality: that lurking beneath the veneer of our comfortable, suburban, midwestern American lives was a threat so severe that God had to send his only son to brutally suffer and die to save us from it. The blood might be fake, but the danger was not. That threat informed every aspect of my life." Her portrayal of evangelicalism is a life policed by fear: fear of hell, fear of the world, fear of transgressing boundaries.  

Her experience, like so many other Millennial evangelicals, is one where the church blended the law and gospel, the indicative and imperative of the Christian life. Ethics did not flow out of gratitude to Christ in communion with him, but the motivation for obedience and good works was fear. Making our calling and election sure was done through conformist, good behavior, not faith in the gloriously unmerited grace of Jesus. Instead, fear of going to hell, of losing our purity, of being hoodwinked by a crafty world, of God’s anger, was normative.

The misery of this is not insignificant; religious trauma occupies a whole chapter of the book. Perfect love is supposed to drive out fear, but for many exvangelicals the “fear of falling out of favor with God” terrified them, lest a forgotten sin keep them from salvation. McCammon describes still waking up in the middle of night in a panic about God’s (damning?) purpose for her.

Karl Barth once attended a Billy Graham rally in Switzerland, and described Graham’s preaching as

the gospel at gun-point…He preached the law, not a message to make one happy. He wanted to terrify people. Threats--they always make an impression. People would much rather be terrified than be pleased. The more one heats up hell for them, the more they come running.”

Fair or not to Graham, this description of “gospel” preaching summarizes what was heard by McCammon and millions of other exvangelicals: a gospel at the end point of a hellish pitch fork held by Jesus, as salvation is received under duress.

This leads to an evangelical culture that might preach love, but really is more about boundary-policing, especially with purity culture. This posture of fear leads to an overemphasis on how the world outside the church’s doors is terrible. I often have conversations with high school students confused since their secular, non-Christian friends are genuinely nice and well-adjusted people. “We were told how ‘the world’ is an evil place, and you have to stay out of it…I found the opposite to be true. I found that ‘the world’ was a much more loving place, and much more comfortable to be part of than a strict religious bubble.” McCammon quotes her friend Daniel here, and this stands as a representative perspective of the exvangelicals. When the church is supposed to be the good guys and shouldn’t cross the line into the terrible world, but the “terrible” world is pleasant and much nicer than the church, it seems like the church was wrong about all kinds of things, including God and the gospel.

Fear was the fuel for much of the hypocrisy that McCammon and so many others witnessed: when the world is bad, setting aside moral standards in politics is justified if we can win and be protected. If our ministries are how God works against sin, we can’t afford to fail, so we’ll overlook sin in the camp, or else it all might collapse. In this world, the gospel (Jesus!) becomes the means to an end.

And what happens when those ends fail? When the rules are supposed to provide the good life, and they don’t, pain is all that remains. McCammon recounts a sad conversation with her former evangelical, first husband: “‘We followed all the rules,’ I said, tearing up in frustration. ‘They told us to follow all the rules so we wouldn’t get hurt’ ‘We’re not hurting because we broke the rules,’ he said. ‘We’re hurting because we followed the rules.’”

McCammon and so many other exvangelicals concluded, based on their experience and pain, that the Christian message (or at least the evangelical version of it) is wrong. Evangelicals shouldn’t be dismissive of this experience, but rather evaluate whether we speak about the gospel as the uplifting good news that it is.

The themes in the old hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” should be the church’s cadence in all its speech.

A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing,
Nor fear, with God’s righteousness on,
My person and off’rings to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.

Doubt Your Doubts

This is my invitation to exvangelicals.

One of the features of the exvangelical experience is the assumption that the default for truth lies in the secular realm. The assumption is that there is a neutral set of facts or reality, and the broad American culture has embraced these while evangelicalism lives with “alternative facts” to reality. “Alternative Facts” is one of McCammon’s chapter titles, but there seems to be no awareness that perhaps the secular values of American culture are the alternative facts that need evaluating. Much of the deconstruction that leads to exvangelicalism is privileging doubt and skepticism. Yet, there is no doubting the doubt. No, I don’t mean that exvangelicals failed to wrestle with their deconstruction, but that McCammon (I think accurately representing the movement) never once in Exvangelicals examined or doubted the presuppositions by which she critiqued and repudiated evangelicalism.

This is not to say that the evangelical subculture is above critique or does not have serious, sinful structural issues. There was one sympathetic group interviewed in Exvangelicals doing just this while holding onto the faith. Black pastors and theologians Tyler Burns and Jemar Tisby both urged white evangelicals in the process of deconstructing to “[sort] out what is white and what is Christian” and to “engage with the perspectives of Black Christian thinkers.” Burns has “observed male white exvangelicals turnings for guidance to progressive theologians… ‘it’s kind of replacing one problem for another.’” Burns and Tisby are people who have been hurt, and are unwilling to throw historic, orthodox Christian teachings out with the evangelical-culture bathwater as they “decolonize” the faith.

Contextualization and its Limits

When Burns and Tisby speak of decolonization they’re talking about maintaining the doctrinal truths of historic Christianity while removing the extra-biblical, White evangelical additions that obscure the gospel. I couldn’t help but wonder what McCammon would have thought of the early days of the New Calvinists, sometimes called the “gospel-centered” movement, which also tried to do that.

Matt Chandler’s famous 2009 “Jesus Wants the Rose” is its archetypical example. Here we have Jesus clearly proclaimed, sex-shaming as evangelism repudiated, compassionate understanding of the non-Christian’s perspective foregrounded, and an attempt to rescue historic Christianity from the fear-based evangelical culture, all of which allowed for clear and winsome communication of the gospel. Chandler and the other New Calvinists were making serious efforts to contextualize the gospel in an appealing and intelligent way while centering the finished work of Christ.

The Exvangelicals is sparse on narrative between McCammon’s college graduation in the early 2000s and her covering the Trump campaign in 2015, and she doesn’t interact with the significant changes that happened in evangelicalism from that span. Her re-engagement happened as the six-way fracturing of evangelicalism was well underway and the “gospel-centered” movement was stumbling. Chandler at this point does make an appearance: McCammon notes his dismissive comments on deconstruction in 2021 and being entangled in a (non-sexual) purity culture scandal in 2022. The “new” had given way to the old evangelicalism.

The “gospel-centered” movement had its share of failures and mistakes, and perhaps the 15-year effort to “deconstruct” White evangelicalism with New Calvinism only ignored the underlying structural problems with the subsequent fracturing as an inevitable regression to its spiritual mean. Yet, there was truth and power in what the movement was attempting, and Exvangelicals shows that the need to fearlessly center the life of the church on the free, loving offer of the trustworthy work of Christ remains.

Yet, the best communicator and most sympathetic pastor cannot make offensive doctrines palatable. Sometimes evangelicals become enamored with the idea that if we’re just wise, nice, clever, intelligent, and sympathetic in our messaging that people will convert. That somehow if we just cleaned up our act and polished our presentations that exvangelicals and nones will return to the church.

But there are certain core convictions that will simply not be found acceptable in the broader culture. No matter how it’s massaged, the doctrine of hell as eternal torment for sinners who reject God is going to be seen as cruel by many, with God as a hateful despot. To consider LGBT relationships that are otherwise healthy and loving, sinful, and to ask LGBT people to turn from an orientation where they are happy and content to the suffering of self-denial, is going to be seen as spiteful and ignorant by many. These teachings lie at the core of the trauma of the exvangelicals and their rejection of the evangelical Christian faith. 

Contextualization and winsomeness are about presenting the gospel and biblical message in the language and forms that are intelligible and compelling to people in our cultural moment. But successful and faithful presentations do not mean that arguments understood will be accepted. Sometimes they will be rejected, not out of intellectual ignorance or obstinance, but reasoned disagreement. It is a disservice to exvangelicals like McCammon to conclude that if we simply cleaned up our presentation and behavior that they would be persuaded of the gospel. In our cultural moment the simple truth is that many evangelical doctrines, no matter how they are shared, will be barriers to conversion to outsiders and sources of embarrassment for some of our kids.

We should avoid a two-fold danger. First, we shouldn’t jettison or hide our convictions because of this pressure. While always reforming ourselves against scripture, it is our confession of scripture, not the values of our cultural moment, that should set our priorities. So center the gospel, proclaim scripture in intelligible and winsome ways, but declare the whole counsel of God. 

Second, we shouldn’t overcompensate. Just because the doctrines themselves may be received as offensive does not mean that we might as well be jeering and goading in our attitude to exvangelicals and non-Christians. The biblical opposite of a soft, compromised gospel is not taunting, but clarity.

Jesus confronted the sins of the scribes and Pharisees with strength and stark language, but was never sneering. Even in his rebukes of sinners Jesus showed compassion. The Exvangelicals is worth reading in order to sympathetically understand many of those who have deconstructed.

Cameron Shaffer

Cameron Shaffer (PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is the Senior Pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church in Langhorne, Pennsylvania and serves on the Board of Directors for the World Reformed Fellowship.