He was my mentor. He was ordained in a conservative evangelical church. He had been meeting with me for several years as I sought to reconcile what I believed about God and the Bible with the huge discrepancies I saw in the church. It was good to bounce my frustrations off his mind. I think I would have left Evangelicalism for good if he had not helped me cope with the hypocritical practices of the church.
That’s when he dropped a bombshell. He had been attending some evening meetings at a local charismatic group. We both believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still given to people in the Church today. We also believe that there are proper and ridiculous ways those gifts can be practiced.
Here was his bomb. The night before, he claimed he saw gold dust appear on people’s hands during worship. Someone else said God gave them a gold filling during the prayer time which replaced their regular filling. My mentor was full of thanksgiving to God for these miracles. I asked him if he could confirm the gold dust or the gold tooth. Could he say with full assurance that it was really gold and not just some glitter or sweat from dancing in worship?
He was really angry with me for asking that question. He warned me not to criticize what might be the work of the Holy Spirit in case I was blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
At that moment, I decided I was mentally done with the Evangelical movement.
I wish I could give you the entire delineated journey of the previous 28 years up to that point. I have written about some elements of the journey in my books, articles, and blog entries. But with this essay, I want to explain to my friends and readers–and perhaps to those in my denomination looking for a reason to disqualify me–why I am not part of that tribe any more.
And I need to explain the parameters of what I left behind.
Actually, part of what I left behind, is “Left Behind”.
When I first became a follower of Jesus during the early 1970s, I was part of the Jesus People movement. Many of those who were teaching me were firm believers in the view that Jesus would return any day and that it would launch a cataclysmic event called the Rapture. Real Christians would hop up to heaven and the rest of the earth would have to cope with evil incarnate as a leader. Variations of that teaching were so popular in the groups I hung with.
All of us wanted to have sex before it happened. And because we believed that we had to wait until marriage for sex to happen, we prayed God would hold off the Rapture until we could marry.
The Left Behind books are the fruit of people who still believe all that mumbo-jumbo. As I matured in my faith and did some reading, I realized it amounted to sci-fi escapist psychology. And I saw it didn’t fit with the radical life of Jesus. So I left behind all the principles foundational to Left Behind.
As a side note, most of my Jesus People friends also left that doctrine behind.
I eventually became a pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The CMA (as we’re called) is a cross between the Pentecostal movement–we emphasize healing and the filling of the Holy Spirit–and the Holiness movement. We are thoroughly ensconced in evangelical doctrine. I was ordained with the CMA in Canada and had every intention of going to West Africa with my wife as missionaries.
During the time of preparation for going overseas, I also started to train as a psychologist. I had done work for the Correctional System in Canada before becoming a pastor, and I wanted more information on working with inmates. My curiosity led me to study part-time while pastoring to become a research psychologist. At the same time, I found I loved counseling. So, as part of my Masters Degree, I also focused on better practices for doing counseling.
Over the years, I have actually used my psychology training more for counseling than for research. But it was in the counseling arena that my commitment to evangelicalism began to deteriorate.
I have written in many places about the various victims of sexual abuse and assault I counseled. Since 1982, I have worked with over 200 victims and almost 100 churches. These were mostly victims of church leaders, pastors, evangelists, elders, parents, and dorm parents who were all evangelicals. At the time when the world was just uncovering the darkness of Catholic priest sexual abuse, I was trying to get people to pay attention that it was happening also in Evangelical churches.
In the 1980s and 90s, no one wanted to admit it was happening. Every time I brought issues up to boards, pastors, superintendents, denominational leaders etc. they would practice minimizing, sin-leveling, hyper-grace, victim-shaming and blaming, and all the other techniques of avoidance of responsibility. Most of my counseling clients who were victims eventually left their churches and many left having a relationship with God altogether because of the way they were treated.
“Oh, but Mike, not every church did this. You can’t blame the entire evangelical movement because of a few bad apples.” First, it is not a few. There are many more victims who are frightened to come forward. They see how victims are treated, and they will not bring it to the surface. Second, if that was the only thing I saw wrong, I would have probably stayed part of the movement. It was not.
I would go to pastor’s conferences several times a year because that was where we could be “refreshed”. That was the theory. It was taught that we, as pastors, experienced significant spiritual warfare and that we needed to get away to be refreshed. Well-known speakers would come to these conferences to help us process our lives and get re-tooled for “the fight”.
But I never felt refreshed, rested, or peaceful at these conferences. At the time I couldn’t figure out why. Then, as I listened to the undertones, it became more obvious.
Now, I’m a pacifist by doctrine, so perhaps I am very sensitive to all this talk of warfare. But it is amazing how many songs, sermons, slogans, book titles, and teachings focus on fighting, conquering, winning, warfare, and armies. This continual focus gives us an “Us Vs. Them” mindset. It caused the Evangelical church to circle the wagons. Anyone outside of our camp was the enemy that needed to be converted to the cause.
As a therapist, I spent a lot of time with “the enemy.” I found that those who didn’t follow Jesus were much nicer in many respects than leaders in the church. They weren’t as racist, they were more accepting of other people, they didn’t criticize as much, and they rarely used warfare language. I was more comfortable at meetings of the American Psychological Association than I was at my pastor’s gatherings.
I also noticed that many of my fellow pastors were classic narcissists. At our conferences, they would strut to and fro, dropping names and touting achievements. The favorite trick was to drop favorable statistics on each other. If they had experienced huge growth in their youth ministry, they had to insert in into a conversation. Church growth was all the rage. If we pastors weren’t seeing numerical growth like Willow Creek, Saddleback, et al, then we were lazy and deficient. The church growth guys were at EVERY conference. We were constantly beaten with that stick.
I was one of the people who had to pick up the pieces in counseling for all this church growth. Most churchgoers didn’t know their pastors saw them as a number in the crowd or as a “giving unit”. The larger the church, the more disconnected the members felt.
Mental illness was referred to as a lack of faith. Here were preachers with no background in science or psychology labeling all the mental health issues as some kind of failure. They said that all people needed to do was memorize some scripture if they were depressed or anxious.
Young girls were made to feel evil and dirty if they had any sexual thoughts. The Purity Culture made sex evil. Women were especially singled out as Cause of most of these lust problems. Girls were depicted in so many metaphors. One youth evangelist at “Acquire the Fire” held up a glass of milk. He invited a dozen young men to come and spit in it. Then he asked if anyone wanted to drink the glass.
No one did. He equated that to any girl who had sex with multiple partners. As a therapist that worked with sexual dysfunction, I was seething. This toxic movement was causing future sexual problems with its horrible teaching.
Here is then what I saw:
- Protectors of abusers
- Against best practices in mental health
- Focused more on sexual sin than any other
By the mid-90s, I joined with a few more charismatic groups, hoping their approach was more healthy. I found all the same things in those groups, though with different packaging. I was given an opportunity to teach those groups, but I kept running into more narcissists, more escapists, and more judgmental leaders.
I still believe most of the core doctrines of the historical Christian faith. Jesus Christ is my Savior. He is making me more like Him by his Holy Spirit. I think He heals today and I believe he has placed me here on earth to make a difference in this life.
I can still sign my denomination’s doctrinal statement with a clear conscience. I still occasionally preach, and I’m currently helping a church as an Interim pastor.
I work primarily as a therapist. Many of my clients are victims of abuse and sexual assault. Occasionally, evangelical churches and ministries invite me to come and speak. I don’t hide my outlier status with them; some of them don’t mind. Others have stopped inviting me. Selah.
I currently wrestle with some of the doctrinal positions on inerrancy, hell, social justice, sexuality, and the afterlife. But none of those are the reason I am #exvangelical.
Putting it simply, I don’t like Evangelicals as a whole any longer. Of course, I still have evangelical friends, and there are many individuals in the movement I admire.
What I can’t stand is this complete sell-out to Nationalism, anti-immigrant, and anti-liberal policy. I cannot truck with warfare teaching. I cannot go along with the teaching that women and men are fundamentally different in terms of how they can function in the church. I cannot accept that LGBTQ people should be treated with anything but respect, love, and dignity.
I cannot be friends with narcissists no matter what their title.
And I will not abide any sexual offenders in the church. I will not have fellowship with anyone who protects, defends, excuses, shows sloppy grace to, or enables a sexual offender who leads the church.
And because all Evangelical churches have these people and these ideas, I have been done with the movement for a long time. I will continue to be on the fringes of it so I may be subversive to the movement and protective of the victims. But I will not take part in helping you in any way.
I hope that is clear.