Until a few years ago, I could never imagine writing an article like this from personal experience.
I was your basic white-evangelical-church-lover and church-goer whose practice of the Christian faith was the most visible and prominent part of who I was. I attended the same church (with my husband and kids) for more than twenty years, and was active in every possible way a person could be over that duration. I led Bible studies and sang on the worship team. I served on the missions committee, went on numerous missions trips, helped plan holiday services, even preached a sermon one time. I spent three to four days of every week at church for most of those years.
Above all that, I loved God and pursued Him like crazy.
But now, as I type these words, I’m listening to worship music for the first time in more than six months, and the very sound of it pierces my heart like a dagger. It’s August, and I haven’t set foot in any church since Christmas. Aside from a brief eight-month stint at church #2, I haven’t attended anywhere regularly for years. There’s a lump forming in my throat and hot tears are stinging the corners of my eyes.
In many ways, I don’t recognize myself.
A Tale of Two Churches
Five years ago, I found myself at the center of a church scandal, the unwitting yet ‘willing’ victim of years of pastoral grooming. Lured by the promise of a father-daughter relationship, I allowed my pastor to court me into something that was dangerously close to an all-out affair. Nothing physical, but at a heart level, it was intimate. I was such a broken mess at that point in my life, I didn’t even recognize it was wrong, much less notice the countless red flags that arose along the way. Neither did my husband, actually — he was as thrilled as I was that I finally had a father figure in my life. But in the end, the pastor was confronted privately about his behavior, and my family and I were told to leave the church. I lost nearly every friend I had.
In some ways, that horrible experience facilitated a deeper, more genuine relationship with God. I had to rely on Him in a way I never had before — without all the church constructs or the people I allowed to be God-in-the-flesh for me. It took me several years of deconstruction to be able to disentangle the church from God Himself.
But here’s the thing. About a year after leaving church #1, we found church #2 and began attending regularly. Sat in the back row, faking smiles during the “turn and greet your neighbor” part, high-tailing it out the door as soon as it was over. It took us a long time to loosen up enough to connect with a few people. One of them asked me to confide in her what happened with our previous church, and stupidly, I did. She announced before I even finished my story that she absolutely had to tell the pastor, and she followed through with it. That was it for church #2 for us.
Enter, Donald Trump
Around the same time as our exodus from church #2, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. I was deeply disturbed that so many Christians supported him despite his despicable character and behavior, but whatever concern I had during his campaign turned into all-out alarm once he took office.
Many Christians support him in order to secure more conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench, hoping to overturn Roe v. Wade and protect socially conservative (read: Christian) values under threat by the “liberal left.” In addition, Trump’s pro-Israel stance and policies have won the hearts and loyalty of those who move in prophetic circles, as the restoration of Jerusalem is said to signal the coming of the end of the ages and Jesus’s return. There are people I love and respect who support the president for these reasons, and I get it. I don’t agree, but I get it. The problem is, it’s so much bigger than that.
More than any other issue or person in my lifetime, Trump has fractured the Body of Christ in America, perhaps irreparably so. He doesn’t bear sole responsibility for that of course, but he is certainly the poster child for it. From the top office of the United States, Trump has given outright permission for jealousy, hate, and paranoia to rise to the surface in the evangelical community, and he emboldens them to give voice to it. He celebrates irrational thought and behavior, and exposes and mocks those he perceives as weak.
Make no mistake, when you support Trump, you support these things.
I don’t say that flippantly. You cannot separate the man from policies in this case. This isn’t just a man’s ‘character flaws,’ ‘human-ness,’ or ‘sinful nature’ on display — it’s systematic disregard for the sanctity and dignity of human life, super-charged by the most powerful office on earth.
The church in America has been a dysfunctional family long before Trump took office, and Donald Trump aside, is not without its egregious sins that need repenting and change. In many ways, the evangelical church has positioned itself perfectly to become Trumpians: misogynistic, self-righteous, accustomed to turning a blind eye to its own shortcomings, and entitled. Our freedom of religious expression, along with our other precious American freedoms, has shielded Christians in the US from the persecution many other Christians around the world face. We’ve had it pretty easy.
I’ve often wondered as I’ve heard stories about persecutions whether my faith would stand the test in those same situations. Would I deny Christ under extreme pressure?
My thoughts have drifted there a few times as I’ve examined my own withering expressions of faith and the bitterness and cynicism I now wrestle with regularly. Who have I become through all of this? Do I still love God if I don’t love Christianity and all it seems to stand for right now? Can I still say I follow Jesus?
No, I’m not saying this is persecution. But I do believe it’s a test…a big, important one. Christianity in America has essentially been redefined by the evangelical church — the most vocal and powerful expression of the church right now. Along with adhering to scriptural doctrine, to be a Christian, you must be:
- Republican, pro-Trump
- Pro-life, in the sense that Roe v. Wade must be overturned, abortion outlawed
- a watchdog over our freedoms and way of life
- patriotic, ascribing to the idea of “Manifest Destiny”
- a defender of “Christian” values
- anti-liberal, anti-socialist
- have deep distrust of government
Dig a little deeper, and American Christianity is also pro-white, suspicious of foreigners, anti-science, and open to accepting conspiracy theories. And the message they broadcast is loud and clear to those who don’t agree with them: this is what it means to be a Christian.
Is it really?
Your answer is important. This isn’t a drill.
Who Do You Say I Am?
I am not here to justify my bitterness and cynicism. Neither are endearing character traits in a person. In many ways, I am just as messed up as the next person…but I’m also someone who has habitually pursued healing and growth throughout my life, and that gives you a certain perspective on things. I’ve made a practice of looking honestly at my own crap, and then taking action to deal with it. And it’s been gutting me, thinking I might actually be falling away from Jesus because I’ve been ashamed to call myself a Christian.
But I’m not ashamed of the Gospel, or of who Jesus actually is.
I just can’t — won’t — toe the line to believe or act like an American Christian. Because those things aren’t at all biblical, and they’re not like Jesus.
The real Jesus upset many around him because he crossed all kinds of social — even religious — boundaries. He went out of his way to hang out with the unsavory, the counter-culture, the outcast, the weak, and the foreigner. He didn’t try to preserve a way of life; he upended it. He called out seemingly righteous behavior as hypocrisy, in part because the ‘righteous’ marginalized people and went to great lengths to protect their status and self-serving standards.
Jesus lived in a time, place, and culture that was infiltrated and dominated by Rome — an unwelcome superpower whose presence impacted every part of everyday life. Yet, to the dismay of many, Jesus did nothing to fight against this.
He kept preaching his message (love, acceptance, forgiveness, and repentance) to those who were hungry for it and needed it the most. Never did he align himself with the powerful to accomplish his purposes.
The conflation of Christianity and politics is dangerous, and history shows us this in countless disastrous examples. It leads to oppression, enslavement, and violence. It weaponizes the Gospel against the very people that need to hear it.
And so it hit me. This rebellion I’ve been feeling inside comes from the message that, in order to call myself a Christian in America, I need to lay aside the Jesus that I know (and what He’s said) and subscribe to the beliefs, behaviors, and culture of evangelical Christianity today.
And I will not.
Following Jesus Today
My husband and I recently finished watching the YouTube video series, The Chosen, for the second time. Though the story centers around Jesus, the series really focuses on the disciples (and others) Jesus chose to follow him as he began his ministry. It does a good job of portraying each of them as imperfect, “regular” people trying to live and survive during trying, oppressive times. It’s not a stretch to imagine yourself as one of the characters in that story.
The truth is, we are characters in that story, and the situation we’re in is not all that different. We may not have to physically leave our homes and families and travel the dusty roads with Jesus, but the basic requirements are the same.
You have to be willing to love and serve the broken, marginalized, outcast, different-than-you — and you have be willing to swim against the current to do so.
A lot of Christians today believe the current they’re up against is secular society, trying to advance a culture they don’t agree with. But what they end up fighting for is their own rights, their own freedoms, their own way to be THE way. And that’s not it at all.
Swimming against the current, following Jesus the Jesus way, means serving and loving people where they are, intersecting their lives with the love of God. Quietly, without notoriety or fanfare, laying aside your own comfort. It’s a sacrificial demonstration of love — Scripture is so clear on this. People have interpreted and added onto what it means to follow Jesus so much and for so long, we’ve gotten way off track.
It’s simple, yet so hard to do. Like the Pharisees, many Christians today have included all kinds of standards, practices, and beliefs to define and put parameters around what it means to live righteously. It makes it easier to believe you’re in the right if you can create a checklist of qualifications that you know you can adhere to. But Jesus himself said those things are meaningless: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
I honestly don’t know when (or sometimes, if) we will join another church. It still makes me sad to say that, because I want to love church the way I used to, albeit in a healthier way. I just don’t know whether “church” as we know it now is what Jesus had in mind. It is an appealing idea for organized Christianity to disorganize; to return to being an underground, grassroots, rag-tag bunch of imperfect people trying to follow their Savior and do as He did.
I want that. I want to be a real disciple right now. And I want to find others who want that, too. I still love God and I want to pursue Him like crazy, as I once did. It just can’t look the same. I want what is real and authentic and will please Him.
I guess it’s time to get in the water.