Chew on This!
A Newsletter from the After Purity Project
The post-purity movement that I’ve been tracking for several years has developed alongside a robust movement away from evangelical Christianity with many building community around their shared experiences via social media, podcasting, and publishing. The overwhelming majority research participants in the After Purity Project are former evangelicals, now commonly referred to as ex-vangelicals. Many described their grief due to numerous forms of loss including a tight-knit community, a sense of belonging and purpose, and the romantic aspirations of true love. Though leaving one’s faith tradition or community is a long and storied human experience, the phenomenon of ex-vangelical is noteworthy because it has become an identity in and of itself.
Author and podcaster, Blake Chastain, coined the term in 2016 to help others cope with the numerous losses. “Leaving an evangelical community can feel very isolating. Evangelical culture is all-encompassing. If you are “plugged in” to a local evangelical church, chances are that your entire social support network is dependent upon it. Your closest friends and confidantes are consolidated into a group that is, when push comes to shove, highly prejudicial and judgmental. Your acceptance in the group is conditional: believe and behave a certain way, or you will be ostracized, admonished, excommunicated.” One-hundred and thirty-one individuals submitted demographic data to the After Purity Project, including descriptions of their former and current religious and/or spiritual identities. Using that information, I have created a tentative set of categories around these responses. Tentative because the ex-vangelical moniker, as Chastain explains, “can be a liminal space. It isn’t meant to describe all of you.” The ex-factor of ex-vangelical is important given that the tradition rarely provides options for spiritual experimentation.
A Tentative Typology
Affiliated Christians. Some of my research participants found other Christian denominations a suitable substitute including the Episcopalian, Presbyterian Church USA, Anglican Church of Canada, and Methodist churches. Starting in the 1980s many evangelicals shifted toward long-established liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. For some this was a starting point for moving further away from evangelicalism, while others found a Christian tradition that encouraged more substantial theological engagement.
Unaffiliated Christian. These are people who use adjectives such as progressive, deconstructing, universalist, contemplative, mystic, and spiritual in their self-descriptions. They are informed by the late 20th century trends in spirituality that allow the individual to craft a religious identity outside of formal church structures. This group is the most comfortable describing themselves as participating in the deconstruction process, the practice of evaluating Christian beliefs in light of changing norms, personal identity formation, or as a response to high-control contexts. These are people who may remain active in Christianity community, yet allow themselves to shun the label. Others enjoy being in Christian communities dedicated to asking the theological questions that were never permitted in their former church context.
Christian Hybrid. These are people whose self-descriptions indicate a connection to Christianity and to something that is not Christianity, such as another religious or spiritual tradition or a social justice movement: College students who take a course on Buddhism and discover a new set of spiritual practices, LGBTQIA folks who discover a feminist spirituality that offers healing from homophobia and room to grow a more intuititve spirituality, White people who develop an understanding of how Christianity promotes their own racial privilege. Christian hybridism indicates that many ex-vangelicals seek to lower the exclusionary boundaries of their former communities. This often means becoming less concerned with what is “Christian” and what is not. Rather, the search is to determine what is just, inclusive, and allows all people to live authentic and whole lives.
Non-Christian. For those who leave and never look back, the moral expectations of purity culture, including the innate homophobia and misogyny, played an out-sized role in their leaving. Struggling with socio-sexual development, many ex-vangelicals seek out the resources their churches and families did not provide. Robust conversations about LGBTQIA inclusion along with severe yet careful critique of complementarian theology are fostered at various degrees of separation from evangelicalism, including from within. In some ways, the markers of ex-vangelical belief are those of evangelicals, but in contradistinction. But to portray ex-vangelicals as mirror images of their former selves with different socio-political objectives does not help us understand why people leave evangelicalism for another tradition, or for none at all.
Uncertain: Because the line between Hybrid Christian and Non-Christian is difficult to determine, I created another category I call Uncertain. I include the possibility that one can still be Christian and/or evangelicals in habits of thought and belief, including participating in community. Yet, they feel unsettled by their continued proximity to these beliefs, habits, and/or communities. This could be because people are in a family and work situation that makes it difficult to leave their Christian community and are required to continue to perform the functions associated with their obligations—including remaining in a marriage despite needing to leave (or having just left) or being employed in a particular job such as a church worker. The dependence that evangelicals offer their members is extensive, especially within more tight-knit communities. In some cases, churches create dependency in order to keep people committed and giving. Leaving a church can sometimes means leaving your entire social network. A high-investment church demands high boundaries between “us” and “them,” so when an individual or family leaves the impact is palpable.
So what do you think? Do you see yourself represented in these categories? Has the name exvangelical been helpful for unpacking all your religious baggage?
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