Alongside pain and trauma of growing up evangelical, we also picked up a lot of useful skills. People kept telling me how good I was at organizing events and such, I realized in conversations with other ex-vangelicals that this was a common thread—we knew how to “do community.” We grew up hosting small groups, rallying prayer times, and someone always has a guitar around and can spontaneously lead a singing circle (& somehow everyone else magically knew all the lyrics too!)
As many of us have deconstructed the toxic religious teaching of our upbringing, I keep hearing over and over again that the most painful result of this journey is the loss of community.
For many, going back and sacrificing the authenticity of our whole selves is simply not an option. And yet, we still need one another. We need friends, camaraderie, as poet Ram Dass says, someone to walk each other home.
Whether driven by inspired vision or simply by the desperation of lack of choices, we roll up our sleeves to create new spaces.
The thing about post-evangelicals is that although we may have left the ideology in our past, the habits and culture and even the skills we developed in our evangelical years are still very much a part of our being. That’s what is sometimes missed about faith shifting—we’ve taken a turn on the path but we’ve taken our whole selves with us.
Feeling that loss of community? We’re the ones we’re waiting for, let’s take the passion from our days “on fire,” and channel it to something good. Here are 6 ways:
Remember how we gathered. Driven by the devotion of soliciting God to show up wherever two or three are gathered, we showed up with consistency and fervor. I know for me, having burned out on the betrayal of past relationships, it’s taken time to heal and to tentatively begin to trust in people. Take the self-care break you need, but the truth is that love will always require vulnerability, and that’s the willingness to put yourself back out on the market for connectedness. Take the lessons you’ve learned from abusive people and institutions and listen as your bodies steer you away from red flags and in the direction of healthy relationships. And listen again, when your body tells you to move, to show up, to be brave and take risks.
Start small. Plan a little coffee date. Then a gathering of two or three. Let those old gathering instincts activate again and meet up with folks.
Bring your gifts of ministry. Chances are, if you were raised evangelical, you were taught to MINISTER. I know this often required us to erase personal boundaries and to sacrifice our well being in order to help others. That’s effed up and we should never repeat those patterns ever again. But as much as I hate that evangelicalism has robbed the sacred meaning of ministry, I know that we need helpers to create the good neighborhoods Mr. Rogers wanted in the world. We need people who listen with compassion. We need people with soft, gentle tones and to lay tender touches on our shoulders. We need the steady presence of those who ask “how can I help?” and actually deliver. We need ministers in the new communities we create and those of us who trained to serve—well, we’re ready for the job. This time, out of our own autonomy and with well-constructed boundaries, but “loving on people?” We’ve got this.
Do marketing well. Evangelicals are way better at marketing than progressives. I’m sorry, I’ll stop saying that when it stops being true. To build new communities we have to have good marketing. I know it gives everyone heebie jeebies to talk marketing, but all it really means is the ability to effectively communicate what you’re offering to the people who need it. See? That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Remember our preparation at mission control center, I mean, orientation? Remember the Roman Roads, the Four Spiritual Laws, the megachurch hype, Easter events, and fog machines? That’s marketing, and evangelicals are good at it. If there’s any baby we shouldn’t throw out with the bathwater, it’s our branding skillz.
To create new spaces, design and messaging matter. In order to honor the people you want to reach, it’s only fair to let them know what you’re doing.
Outreach, baby. Lose the toxic proselytization, keep the marketing sensibilities into the goodness you’re about to create.
Tell good stories. Pertinent to the previous point, post-evangelicals have had a lifetime of training on telling our testimonies. I don’t know how many times I have had to give my testimony from the age of 15 to 35 but it was an inordinate amount. Evangelicals love testimony time, any chance to turn our stories into propaganda for the gospel. It’s bad storytelling to spiritualize real life stories for an agenda. I think as part of deconstructing my faith, a really healing thing has been to learn how to tell better stories of my life—how to strip agenda from truth-telling, how to offer ourselves with wisdom and vulnerability to connect authentically with another, how to pass on the stories of our lives without cognitive dissonance but with intention and power—this taps into the most profound depths of our being, our creativity.
It’s no accident that podcasting has become the new medium and an influential way of gathering communities, because its focal point is storytelling. I think of the popular podcast, the Liturgists, founded by co-hosts Science Mike and Michael Gungor, both of whom grew up with an evangelical background, who kept their inclination to tell stories to craft a beautiful show that has drawn together many who resonate with their faith journey.
Don’t stop telling stories—stories are the lifeblood of any new community.
Welcome the little children. Many of the families in my group, Raising Children Unfundamentalist have a very practical problem. They have evolved in their faith to disagree with evangelical megachurches and would rather not attend those congregations HOWEVER, typically they have the best children’s programs. In contrast, more progressive churches have aging populations and less young families and there simply isn’t as many resources allocated to young kids.
In order to activate new communities and spaces, we have to make these places inclusive of young families, an incredible energizing force of any movement. Post-evangelicals who grew up helping out with VBS and babysitting young kids, we need you to care about the needs of young children, not of course, with the zealous intent on converting them into praying the prayer, but to simply have fun and help them enjoy being part of new communities.
There is often a strong anti-child sentiment in exvangelicals that runs along a strain of feminism, a pushback against a culture who forced women into child-care takers and motherhood out of a patriarchal framework.
What we know about liberation is none of us rise unless we all rise, and that includes children. As someone who has engaged in the work of raising children unfundamentalist for several years, let me assure you, including and lifting up children does not add oppression to women, but brings healing and hope as we break cycles of pain and trauma.
Do not be afraid of children. They are human beings. You were one! The child in you and the child in front of you both need to be loved.
Fundraise well. The unfortunately reality of living in a capitalist world is that for new communities to be sustainable, we have to figure out how to be financially sustainable. Of course business and entrepreneurial ventures can be legitimately spiritual communities as well, but for those with a vision of community building that doesn’t offer tangible products/services, fundraising skills are necessary. And who better than those of us who grew up raising significant funds to fly our teenage selves over to the 10/40 window to save souls? Again, we were made for such a time as this.
Tap into the fundraising skills, alongside the marketing/branding tools, in order to make your new vision a reality and one that has the resources to continue flourishing.
I know many of us are burned out on institutions and too tired to think about creating new systems.
But here’s what I also know: as human beings we will always be constructing meaning one way or another, so we might as well be thoughtful about how, when, and with whom we can gather.
As Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary says, we are in a moment of spiritual crisis AND a spiritual flexibility. To me, it’s an exciting time to venture beyond the orthodoxy borders we’ve been confined in and build new and better spaces—ones that breathe life into our weary souls. And if we can pick up the tricks and trades of our past life to contribute into these new spaces, well, that’s not a bad way to redeem the path we didn’t want to walk.
Want to hear more about how to “parent forward” when you have been faith shifting? Check out the inaugural Parenting Forward Conference and hear from 20+ speakers at the intersection of parenting and progressive faith.