What Abandoning Evangelicalism Does And Does Not Look Like



In the wake of the epic World Vision fiasco last week I wrote a post calling for the abandonment of evangelicalism in favor of “new wineskins.”

That call wasn’t an impulsive reaction.

It was the continuation of something I began talking about two years ago and others began calling for many years before that. Last week’s disaster only reinforced my conviction that evangelicalism is a culture/mindset/structure that needs to be left on the ash heap of history.

I am convinced this is necessary because I believe evangelicalism is a structure built around core values that are either deeply problematic and/or altogether antithetical to the gospel. Among them – a dangerously high view of Scripture that transform the Bible into a weapon to be wielded rather than good news to be shared; a radical personalization and internalization of the faith that makes the faith into something that is primarily about “me” and not about “we”; an obsession with converts that dehumanizes people into little more than numbers and prizes to be won; a hyper-focus on the end to the exclusion and detriment of the present; and a glaringly unchristlike love for theological purity more than people.

And, as I said last week, regardless of whether or not every person who calls themselves an evangelical is guilty of the these sins, evangelicalism should be abandoned if for no other reason than it has lost all credibility with those outside the church – the very people it’s supposed to be evangelizing.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But in all the pushback I have seen from those who argue that evangelicalism is worth saving, I have yet to hear a reason given that is actually unique to evangelicalism. In other words, many of the things people seem to love about evangelicalism and make it something they believe is worth saving are not uniquely evangelical. They’re simply Christian.

Which, again, is why I believe the church can abandon evangelicalism and will be better for it once she does.

Now, while there is no rigid blueprint for what I think abandoning evangelicalism looks like because every person’s situation is different, I do want to offer a few clarifying thoughts on what I am and am not calling for.

To do that, I think it’s first worth reiterating once more that evangelicalism and Christianity are not one and the same. Evangelicalism is a way to think about and act out the Christian faith, but Christianity existed long before evangelicalism was born and will continue on long after evangelicalism is a thing of the past.

Likewise, calling for an end to evangelicalism isn’t a call for the end of evangelism. Obviously the words are nearly identical, but again, the latter does not require the former. The call the evangelize, or preach the gospel, is intrinsic to Christianity regardless of the particular tradition.

Finally, there’s one more distinction that needs to be made and which is critical for understanding what I think abandoning evangelicalism should look like.

Evangelicalism is not a building.

Or a person.

Or even a church.

It’s a way of thinking about and living out the Christian faith.

Which is why abandoning evangelicalism does not necessarily mean abandoning your local church or your community of faith or your friends or your family. It’s possible that leaving those groups behind might be needed if the situation is such that staying means spiritual death, but abandoning evangelicalism does not necessarily mean leaving people behind.

In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true.

I believe that abandoning evangelicalism is a prophetic act. By that, I don’t mean you’re predicting the future. I mean “prophetic” in the true Biblical sense of calling the people of God back to the true heart of faith and leading them down the path of renewal – a tradition embodied in everyone from MLK to Luther to Jesus to Isaiah and countless others in between.

But to do that sort of prophetic work requires being present in the place that is in need of renewal and transformation. Which means more often than not abandoning evangelicalism will mean staying right where you are. Because it’s the culture or paradigm of evangelicalism we need to abandon, not its people.

As a more concrete example of what I’m talking about, I’ve spent my entire life in an evangelical church. I’m ordained in an evangelical denomination. And I currently attend a church that would describe itself as evangelical.

But I have no plans on leaving.

While I have abandoned the evangelical mindset that plagues my denomination (like so many others) and which I readily confess to have taken part of in the past, I stay because I see hope and transformation in my local church where my pastor and our people are more focused on Jesus than the typical tenets of evangelicalism.

So, I stay physically to be part of a spiritual transformation back to the way of Jesus.

Unless the situation is such that physically leaving is needed for spiritual survival, I believe this is what abandoning evangelicalism can and should look like.

Because, once again,  I’m calling for the abandonment of an ideology, not the abandonment of people.

Abandoning evangelicalism doesn’t mean we should go around on Sunday morning correcting everyone’s theology or telling them they’re going to hell because they didn’t stop and buy breakfast for that homeless guy they passed on the way to church. And it doesn’t mean trying to sabotage any and every thing that happens at church that we don’t care for.

But it does means we should try to lead by example, speak up when the opportunity arises, and listen to the needs of our community of faith. And it means we should do so with humility, grace, and patience – always incarnating the way of Jesus we are calling the church to rediscover.

That doesn’t mean we should never get angry. Some things demand our anger. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out and name injustice for what it is. Remaining silent only empowers injustice. And it doesn’t mean we should never be critical. Healthy criticism helps us to grow.

But our anger should be righteous, not bitter. Our prophetic cries should be redemptive, not demeaning. And our criticism should stem from a place of hope for a better world, not a covert attempt to put others below ourselves.

This work will, of course, look slightly different for everyone. And I freely admit it’s a practice that is much harder and far more complicated than a simple blog post could ever convey. But if the conversation is to have any hope of moving forward, I think it’s important to take a moment to clarify what I am actually talking about – and what I’m not.

I am under no illusions. This sort of move won’t happen overnight. It will take time.

But this is a move the church can make.

It’s a move I believe she should make.

And if she does make it, I am convinced we will all be much better off for it.