Exvangelicals and Progressive Christians, let’s have a little chat, shall we, hmmm?
First, a clarification on where I stand. I am personally exvangelical (raised evangelical but am evangelical no more) but I’m professionally a Progressive Christian TM in my writing career.
The reality is, of course, much more complicated, but for the sake of simplicity and mutual understanding, these labels are adequate.
Many of you, like me, are in both camps, but there are others who are either:
1) Exvangelical and are now atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, or otherwise completely non religious,
2) Progressive Christians who have never been evangelical. Raised in mainline church denominations, or converted into and participate in progressive/liberal traditions as adults.
I feel like there is a lot of potential for a coalition between these two groups of people because of the vast common ground where our values intersect, but there needs to be a deeper posture of listening from both sides so that collaboration doesn’t turn into a minefield of triggers that at best exude tone-deafness that crosses wires and miscommunicate, and at worst, further perpetuate spiritual abuse.
To the progressive Christians who are not exvangelicals, spiritual abuse is trauma.
I know it is hard for you to fathom how a God you’ve always believed to be Good and Loving could possibly be twisted into a Being who maligns and abuses, but as you are so compassionate in your desire to listen and believe victims of violence and oppression, please extend the same courtesy to exvangelicals.
Listen and believe when they say this particular ritual, or that particular prayer, or even the very mention of God can trigger an avalanche of anxiety that nobody wishes they have to deal with.
Please understand that the language you use sometimes dredge up a whole lot of spiritual baggage, even if it means completely different things for you.
For instance, “missions” for an exvangelical recalls: colonization, indoctrination, guilt, regret, shame, missed opportunities, and lost years (ahem, ask me how I know), whereas for you, it may mean something as harmless and lovely as feeding your neighbor.
There is a cross cultural language gap that needs to be bridged here, and we will do well to learn the meaning behind our words.
Don’t tone police exvangelicals by accusing them of being angry, cynical, and not moving forward.
Recovery and healing after spiritual abuse is not a straight line. And every individual heals differently. Unless you’re their therapist, maybe don’t dictate the direction and speed of their healing.
Don’t evangelize exvangelicals into your brand of faith.
If exvangelicals are looking for a healthier form of spirituality, give them the space and time to seek your tradition out should they desire, because honoring their consent and agency is critical to recovery from spiritual abuse.
If they are done with religion, respect them as well as you would any other atheist friend, because that’s who they have chosen to be now, despite their religious history. It’s basic civility in a pluralist society.
Again, use a trauma-informed lens and remember, many exvangelicals were raised as children and minors in that environment, so their trauma is intertwined with childhood wounds, which is not easily extricated.
This is not to say exvangelicals are weak and to be pitied. Having clawed their way out of a system hell bent on controlling them, they are mostly smart, critical, and very well informed.
You can learn every layer of nuance about the evangelicalism that has such powerful influence over culture from the people who lived and breathed its tenets. If you seek to affect actual change in society, you cannot ignore the voices of exvangelicals. There’s nothing more valuable than the stories of lived experience.
And now, a word to my exvangelical friends. Progressive Christians are not evangelicals, even if they often sound like them. I’m not saying they don’t struggle with similar systemic issues.
Exvangelicals of color in particular, will note that the same white supremacy that courses through the veins of evangelicalism also wreaks havoc in other denominations. And of course, we’ve all heard about the United Methodist’s recent vote against the LGBTQ community.
Despite this, there are still dramatic differences in the history and life of denominational Christianity that distinguishes them from evangelicals. This is the very same reason why some of them can be so tone-deaf about the spiritual abuse we’ve suffered in evangelicalism, because they are so far removed from that way of thinking they don’t even understand it.
There are Christian traditions and churches who don’t believe in the literal resurrection or virgin birth, who engage in mystical practices of spirituality, and have been justice oriented for decades, if not more.
I know we were taught to believe they are not “real” Christians growing up evangelical, heh, but they are, and while we were busy handing out tracts, many have been quietly working in their communities caring for the poor and advocating for the rights of the marginalized.
So their creeds may sound triggering af, but they aren’t the same hands that have hurt us, and I think it’s only fair to note this, especially because you often cross paths with one another in your common critique of the Religious Right and Fundamentalism.
Why should exvangelicals care about progressive Christians, especially those who have walked away from religion altogether?
Well, you don’t. Draw as many boundaries as you need for what is most life giving for you, but I’ll share why I appreciate learning from progressive Christians.
It is, to me, truly a breath of fresh air to see how healthy spirituality is possible given my own contrary experience. I appreciate every form of healthy faith, because it’s one ingredient for creating a better world, and I’m about that.
And on that same train of thought, many of us exvangelicals have only recently discovered justice issues because we were raised to fear social justice as the evil liberal agenda. So as passionate as we may be about the Resistance, fueled by our reaction to our evangelical upbringing, we shouldn’t erase the decades of work done by denominational Christianity. We can learn so much about doing justice work from those who have been doing it for a long time. Again, there’s nothing more valuable than the stories of lived experience.
The exvangelicals and progressive Christians I know want goodness and beauty and justice and truth. These are the common values that bond us to one another and together, we can go farther.
The prerequisite for this work, however, is that we respect one another’s boundaries, and commit to active listening.
I hope this open letter helps.
Cindy Wang Brandt