4 Unsung Skills of Exvangelicals
(or, as always, whatever term you prefer for those who've left high-demand religions)
Over the last week, there’s been a lot of lampooning of a Gospel Coalition article claiming to address “4 Causes of Deconstruction.” According to author Joshua Ryan Butler, they are:
Desire to Sin
Under the first point of “Church Hurt,” the author parades erstwhile evangelical leaders as pariahs: “Often these relationships were intimate and formative: the pastor you grew up with, the mentor you trusted. For others, the relationships are more distant. You grew up under the influence of leaders like Ravi Zacharias, Carl Lentz, or Mark Driscoll—whose teaching and charisma powerfully inspired you and formatively shaped you—but then the curtain got pulled back.” It does not mention that Mark Driscoll was once a Council member of The Gospel Coalition (this announcement is no longer on their website, but accessible via The Wayback Machine), or that TGC played a role in amplifying Driscoll’s teachings.
Under the “Poor Teaching” heading, the writer rips terms like deconstruction and reconstruction from the contexts used in ex/post-evangelical communities and social media, and uses them in his own.1He frames Jesus as both deconstructionist and reconstructionist, but beyond some rherotical flourishes and appeals to broad good/bad language God/Satan archetypes, is completely devoid of an argument.
The last two points, “Desire to Sin” and “Street Cred” received the most attention from exvangelicals online.
This stinging passage is rather insulting to those who have undergone incredible personal turmoil in order to contort themselves into an acceptable form in evangelicalism:
“I minister in a college town (go ASU Sun Devils) where students regularly deconstruct when they’ve started sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Convenient timing. Others deconstruct while harboring an addiction (drugs, alcohol, porn), to release their guilt.
Deconstruction here is usually presented as an anguishing process of honest wrestling (“I just don’t understand why God won’t show up and answer me”). It casts the questioner as the hero grappling authentically with a God too distant to trust or too difficult to believe.
This masks what’s really going on. “What the heart wants, the mind justifies,” the old quip wisely observes. God allows us to think we are “judging” him, when really it’s a form of God’s judgment on us. It exposes how far we’re willing to go to justify our sin. God hands us over to the depravity of our mind, that we might attain the corrupted desires of our heart.”
First: this passage belies the contempt the writer shows for people in their community that do not meet his stringent sexual ethics—a stringency that is not seen in the life of Jesus, who hung out with sex workers (if that sort of thing matters to you). Second, it demeans and derides the terrible personal toll that struggling with purity culture entails, and the incredible lengths people have gone in order to exist in these confines only to find more suffering; their personal liberation came at great cost. Books like Linda Kay Klein’s Pure, Brenda Marie Davies’ On Her Knees, Jamie Lee Finch’s You Are Your Own, Matthias Roberts’ Beyond Shame, and others explore the toll that purity culture—with its inherent misogyny, heteronormativity, and homophobia—has had on people trying to make sense of their sexuality and identity.2 I do not need to try and replicate the arguments made by more capable authors in this essay, so I’ll just direct you to them, as well as to the documentaries like Pray Away and the catalog of interviews I’ve done with LGBTQ+ persons on Exvangelical.
Finally, the claim of “street cred.” This claim is utterly ridiculous.
Fellow IMG podcaster Justin Gentry wrote a very personal thread about why this is such a shallow criticism, found here:
It’s also completely lacking self-awareness about white evangelicalism’s own trappings and desire for “street cred” and being “hip.”
White evangelical apologists are celebrity-obsessed and it permeates their critiques of any creator or commentator who critiques them, as I wrote in my July piece for Religion Dispatches:
This argument also betrays the belief that people who leave white evangelicalism all end up in the same place or communities, which is untrue. Some move on to another Christian community, and the damage done by white evangelicals goes unseen by them, as Rev. Atcheson said on Twitter earlier this year:
Blake Chastain @brchastainwhite evangelicals think that everyone that flees their flocks are just becoming godless secularists, and well, some are and that's ok. but still others are leaving for other faiths and spiritual practices that aren't tied to white Christian nationalism, as white ev has chosen.
These arguments are facile, flaccid, and false. They do not take the lived experiences of people nor their valid perspectives seriously - whether expressed in a meme, a podcast, an essay, or a dissertation - and their failure to do so is to their own detriment.
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The 4 Skills of Deconstruction
Which leads me to the unsung skills of exvangelicals.3 There are 4, of course:
⛪️ Insider Knowledge
📢 Ability to Speak for Ourselves
🌉 Bridging Information Ecosystems
💗 Multiple paths to flourishing
Exvangelicals don’t appear from nowhere. They were raised in white evangelical churches. They know the beliefs and practices, the spoken and unspoken orthodoxies of these institutions. The circuitous process of leaving the community that formed your first sense of identity is painful and personal. We paid attention, and took you seriously. There is no big-C church to slough off your failings onto like some scapegoat.
Ability to Speak for Ourselves
Social media, for all its faults, has given everyone an ability to speak their mind. Other avenues such as podcasting allow ideas to spread, to be re-used and remixed. In the same way that evangelicals deflect blame by asserting that there is no central headquarters of evangelicalism, Exvangelical/deconstruction spaces mirror that. This makes sense - these spaces emerged from and are made by and for people who were shaped in white evangelicalism - but this manifestation of exvangelical spaces is incredibly new, and my hope is that as these followings, cultures, and communities arise, we can be cognizant of the many dynamics that are at play and work to offset them. Conflict has and will occur, as does burnout - but that is for another post.
Even with these caveats, any person that wants to speak out against white evangelical hegemony can do so and has an opportunity to have their work seen. Hashtags like #ChurchToo, #EmptyThePews, #exmormon, #exvangelical, #faithfullyLGBT, #deconstruction, etc tie these disparate people together into a loose culture. Even so, this does not by any stretch mean that these online communities have access to the real financial capital that white evangelicals institutions do. To claim such a thing is foolish.
Using their insider knowledge, they can reasonably level critiques. There’s power in that.
Bridging Information Ecosystems
Many (if not most) exvangelicals were raised in homes, schools, and churches within the conservative information ecosystem. Even if they do not ascribe to a particularly liberal political or social view as adults, they can at least see how this shaped their personal & communal worldview - and how conservatives use language in fundamentally different ways.
This is an absolutely undervalued skill of exvangelicals.
Marshall McLuhan said that “environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.” Deconstruction can be framed as a way of rendering the invisible structures of belief & practice visible. Changing one’s mind so completely is no small feat, and those who are able to “translate” across these divides have an ability to see and articulate things that may otherwise be missed.
Exvangelicals can also use their insider knowledge, and the ability to speak for themselves they learned in white evangelicalism, to identify when conservative movements co-opt and appropriate language in order to steer conversation in a more favorable direction.
Multiple Paths to Flourishing
Unlike TGC, who tries to frame a ‘right way’ to go through the process of a faith shift, there is no singular vision of what it looks like to pursue flourishing. Some people may find value in reclaiming a spiritual practice from their ancestors. Some may find a path in another branch of Christianity. Some may integrate multiple faiths into one pursuit. Some may have no need for spiritual practice at all. Personally, I think the being we ascribe the word “God” to would honor that, but I don’t expect everyone to echo that back to me.
TGC calls deconstruction poison, but that’s just the snake selling its own oil as a cure after it bit you. If we’re playing with metaphors, deconstruction is like the development of antivenom - white evangelicalism has bitten us so many times, we’ve started to develop a resistance.
I’ll also note that some folks disagree with the use of the term ‘deconstruction’ wholesale, because the way in which it is used in post-evangelical contexts - whether a person describing their individual story, in a post online, or in community spaces & dialogue, is not in keeping with the philosophical origins of the word. FWIW, I think language is malleable enough to accommodate both meanings, and meanings drift over time regardless. This is only accelerated by social media environs where we also bring questions of privilege, race, and gender, and other social factors to bear on every post and interaction.
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You can use another term as you wish; I am using ‘exvangelical’ as a stand-in for anyone who has left white evangelicalism.