Have you heard the term “exvangelical?” It’s a new buzzword among many people who say they used to be evangelical Christians. If they are no longer evangelical Christians, what are they?
Our purpose in this new Faith and Self Defense series is to shine a light on a growing problem in families and churches. The first step in solving a problem is admitting we have one .. and we do.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
Let’s define some important terms we’ll be using in this series:
Christian: personal disciple, faith follower, of Jesus Christ .. believes Jesus Christ is the Eternal Son of God who died according to the Scriptures, was buried, was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures and was seen by hundreds of people before He ascended back to Heaven to the right hand of God the Father.
Evangelical: Christian dedicated to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ .. the same Gospel Jesus Christ and His apostles preached two-thousand years ago .. not some new gospel that makes people feel good about themselves rather than the Gospel of repenting of sin and confessing with their mouth the Lord Jesus and believing in their heart that God has raised Him from the dead. “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).
Exvangelical: “A person who has left the Evangelical Christian movement. This includes people who have left to more progressive Christian denominations as well as those who have left Christianity all together.” (The Urban Dictionary)
Religious (Faith) Deconstruction: the taking apart of an idea, practice, tradition, belief, or system into smaller components in order to examine their foundation, truthfulness, usefulness, and impact.
Religious (Faith) Deconversion: The loss of faith in a given religion and return to a previously held religion or non-religion (typically atheism, agnosticism, or humanism).
In this series, we will look at both types of exvangelicals: those who have left to more ‘progressive Christian’ churches and denominations and those who have left Christianity all together.
The term exvangelical does not introduce anything new into Christianity, even though it’s a relatively new term. We’ve written about “Progressive Christians,” “Ecumenicalism and Emerging Churches” and Deconversion (creating atheists) for many years. We’ve seen how easily church attendees can be led away from the truth of Scripture to believe false teachings in churches and denominations. Jesus and His apostles warned that this would happen.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. Matthew 7:15
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Acts 20:28-30
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2 Peter 2:1
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1
We could blame false preachers and teachers in the churches and denominations for the problem, but who let them into churches in the first place? I think we can lay the blame at the feet of “drifting shepherds” (pastors and other church leaders). Some may say they were unaware of what they allowed to happen, but I believe many are complicit in what’s happened to churches and denominations. If a preacher/pastor/teacher is in the Word and prayer, how would they not see false teachers in their congregation or denomination? That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
I recommend you read the entire context of Paul’s comments to get the full effect of what he was saying about the need for church leaders to instruct Christians in what to believe and how to behave. Paul’s letter to Titus is another good one to read to see what constitutes a Bible-based church and how Christians should live their lives.
We have lots of examples from which to choose from in the sad world of shepherd’s drift, but one you may be familiar with is Rob Bell. Bell was the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, a mega-church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was extremely popular and had a wide following. Time Magazine called him “a singular rock star in the church world.” Bell shocked the evangelical Christian world when he wrote Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell questioned how God saves and punishes people. Many who read his book questioned if Bell really believed in universal reconciliation and was therefore a heretic. That led to an uproar in the evangelical Christian community.
I wasn’t shocked, however, because it was obvious Bell had started his spiritual drift years earlier. He wrote Love Wins in 2011. He wrote Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith six years earlier in 2005. What he wrote sounded similar to what I was reading from leaders in the Emerging Church/Emergent Church movements. That’s a concern when pastors we trust begin to sound like pastors we don’t.
In the book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2014), the publishers wrote:
The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is a creative, entrepreneurial religious movement that strives to achieve social legitimacy and spiritual vitality by actively disassociating from its roots in conservative, evangelical Christianity and “deconstructing” contemporary expressions of Christianity. Emerging Christians see themselves as overturning outdated interpretations of the Bible, transforming hierarchical religious institutions, and re-orienting Christianity to step outside the walls of church buildings toward working among and serving others in the “real world.”
In light of that background, is there any way we could have seen what was coming with Rob Bell? I think the clues were there. Not outright heretical statements, but opening theological doors and windows a bit to let something new inside.
Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be … this book is for those who need a fresh take on Jesus and what it means to live the kind of life he teaches us to live. I’m part of a community, a movement of people who have been living, exploring, discussing, sharing, and experiencing new understandings of Christian faith. Velvet Elvis
Those explorations and experiences led Bell to write a book six years later that many Christians viewed as heretical. It’s not far from trying to be cool to being wrong. Bell went on to be wrong on a lot of other foundational Christian beliefs, but you could see him drifting long before it became obvious. Bell resigned from Mars Hill Church, moved to California, wrote other books, worked and toured with Oprah Winfrey, and appeared in comedy clubs.
The New Yorker Magazine interviewed Bell about his book in 2012. The article was titled, “The Hell-Raiser: A megachurch pastor’s search for a more forgiving faith.” Bell told the The New Yorker reporter why he wrote Love Wins.
Bell says that the book, his fifth, was inspired by a congregant who insisted that Mahatma Gandhi, because he wasn’t a Christian, must be suffering in Hell. In the opening pages, Bell recalls his incredulous response: “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? The New Yorker Magazine
That’s an interesting reason to write a book questioning God’s punishing unrepentant sinners since the Bible clearly teaches that is exactly what God does. We do have confirmation in God’s Word that He punishes unrepentant sinners. The question might be better posed as whether we know for sure that Gandhi did not repent of his sins and receive the gift of eternal life when he confessed Christ as Lord and Savior sometime before he died. None of us can judge what a person who has heard the Gospel might do with that Truth in the moments before death. Only God knows for sure. However, for Bell to position himself as denying God’s eternal judgment of unrepentant sinners is the problem. Just that comment alone, even without reading Bell’s book, should cause Christians to be concerned about his leadership in a church. After reading the book, your worst fears about Bell may be confirmed.
While Bell still believes himself to be a Christian, his spiritual drift caused many to question what kind of Christian he is or if he ever was a true Christian. Drift can take people in a variety of bad directions. Some move on to a more progressive type of religion through deconstruction. Some move out of religion all together through deconversion.
Let me add that by using the word drift I don’t mean leaving Christianity as if you could walk away from an eternal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. What’s eternal about salvation if it’s something you can make temporary by leaving it? Jesus didn’t say He came to give temporal life. He said:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father,who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. John 10:27-29
Spiritual drift is where someone with a history of believing in the foundational truths of Christianity begins to talk or teach differently about those same truths. Rob Bell is just one example of preachers, teachers and other church leaders who have drifted spiritually and caused great harm to churches and their attendees. Unfortunately, there are thousands more just like Bell, many of them well known with substantial influence. Many of them have left ministry, while others are still leading churches and denominations in new directions.
If you are wondering how to identify false preachers and teachers in your church or denomination, you may find this series helpful — A Layman’s Guide To False Preachers and Teachers. We will do our best in this series not to duplicate what you can find in other articles on Faith and Self Defense, so please look through our past articles and free eBooks for topics that may help you. You may also find articles of interest at our companion GraceLife Blog.
If you would like to look at some research on the topic of Christian leaders deconstructing or deconverting, you may find these sites helpful:
LifeWay Research — Church Goers Express Hope/Sadness Over Leaders Who Leave The Faith
LifeWay Research — Reconstructing Faith in a Deconstructing Culture
Barna — Only 10% of Christian Twentysomethings Have Resilient Faith
Why are so many young people in churches becoming exvangelicals? Could it be because of idol worship? We’ll look deeper into that possibility in the next part of our new series, EXvangelical – What’s That?
And Jesus Said (Part Two) – Faith & Self Defense
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