Exvangelical is a relatively new term used for former evangelical Christians who have 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” (Urban Dictionary).
Another term that is older, but similar in some ways, is post-evangelical. The term was coined by author Dave Tomlinson and is the title of his 1995 book, The Post-Evangelical. Many in the Emerging and Emergent Church movements have referenced the book and the term.
Our series is focused on the newer term, exvangelical, and how it is impacting the 21st century church.
In the last part of our series, we looked at religious deconstruction. We move now to religious deconversion.
A short definition of religious deconversion is “loss of one’s faith in a religion” (APA Dictionary of Psychology). Christians would see deconversion as loss of faith in Christ. If someone had truly converted to Christ, then deconversion would mean no longer believing in Christ.
Religious deconversion differs from deconstruction in that the former “believer” no longer believes in the Christian God. They are often atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc. These people often go through a process of deconstructing before deconverting. Here’s one example. I chose it because the deconstruction phase lasted for several years before full deconversion and he is now having a big impact on leading others to deconvert.
Former Christian radio host Seth Andrews wrote about his battle with doubts and eventual deconversion and becoming the host of a popular atheist community (The Thinking Atheist). His 2012 book is titled Deconverted: a journey from religion to reason. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote the foreword to the 2013 second edition of the book.
Andrews called his journey from Christianity to atheism “a long, strange, painful, exhilarating, liberating, amazing journey.” (Introduction, p I) His deconstruction process included seeing Christianity as being ridiculous, atrocious, insane, wild mythology, psychological abuse, bad science, corruption and blatant lies. This, he said, after being a Christian for 30 years.
As a Christian for thirty years, I had long been an accessory to these crimes against education, science, and reason. For decades I had accepted without challenge the religious teachings of my family and culture. I was the genuine article. I was a true believer. Introduction, p III
Seth was host of a morning radio show on a Christian station in Tulsa from 1990-2000. He said that the tragic accidental death of Christian songwriter Rich Mullins in 1997 caused him to struggle with “the God of Matthew 10, the one who considered us worth ‘more than many sparrows.” Seth wondered why God “would design or abide the taking of Mullins’ earthly life in such a pointless, gruesome manner.” (Friendly Atheist)
Most people I’m familiar with who have deconverted had what I call a “trigger” event. Something triggered their doubt. I know what mine was and how it opened the door to many doubts, questions and eventually becoming an atheist. When talking with people who are in the process of or have deconverted, I like to talk with them about their “trigger” event. What started the doubts? Talking about the event or events that started doubt are often helpful in resolving the earliest doubts. The doubts that followed will also need to be discussed, but the “trigger” is important.
Seth said another event that rattled his “religious cage” was 9/11. He said his faith went into “a kind of muted, dormant phase … doubt was always there, but I focused on other things.”
It was a cop-out, really. I was speaking the words of Christianity, but I didn’t attend church or pray because it seemed ridiculous. Friendly Atheist
Seth said he watched a YouTube video of Christopher Hitchens and found himself emboldended to ask questions of his own. He said he read the Bible objectively and unfiltered for the first time in his life. Seth said the way Christian apologists responded to his questions actually “propelled” him toward and ultimately to apostasy.
After reading what he said about how the apologists responded to him, I understand why his questions were not answered. Similar responses turned me off as an atheist radio talk show host and were not the answers that eventually led me to Christ. We apologists can learn some important insights to how to help people in the deconstruction phase of their religious lives by listening to them carefully and giving them thoughtful answers based on evidence. Pat answers without substance won’t help.
Seth also pointed to a 2010 radio interview he did with Dan Barker, a former evangelist and President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as another turning point in his life.
When Dan said, ‘If I wasn’t a Christian, nobody is,’ I could totally relate. And now I’m free. I’ve made it a life mission to expose the flaws in the very teachings I once held so dear. Introduction, p III
I understand what Seth said. I had a similar zeal to fight back against the ignorance and stupidity (so I thought at the time) of Christianity. However, I realized later that I had never been a real Christian and never searched out the evidence for theism and Christianity.
Seth’s story should be a warning to all Christian parents, teachers and apologists. His story is repeated every day. People of all ages, some of them sitting next to you at church, in your youth group, on your worship team, preaching from the pulpit, are struggling with doubt and silently going through deconstruction. Once it becomes obvious or they share their struggle publicly, it’s often too late.
When I hear or read people’s deconversion stories, they are often similar to my experience as a child of the 1950s and teen and young adult of the 60s and Seth’s experience as a child of the 70s and 80s. I became an atheist at a much earlier age than Seth, but the stories are much the same. He was in his early 40s and I was a teenager.
It’s important that we understand each person as an individual. Deconversion stories may be similar, but each is unique and we should treat each person as unique.
Young People Deconverting
Many teenagers who were raised in evangelical churches deconstruct in high school and deconvert during college. That was my story. Most, however, never come back to church attendance or belief in God. I was blessed that God brought Christians with good answers into my life during my early 20s. I think that because I was never saved, even though I played one at church, I was more open to conversations with thoughtful Christians. Being an investigative journalist also helped. I looked at the evidence Christians gave me from the perspective of an investigator.
I’ve been involved in working with young people in church settings for 50 years and have witnessed the process of young people deconstructing and deconverting. So many of them were just like me — raised in evangelical churches from childhood only to leave the church in mid to later teenage years. Someone has said that youth ministry is like herding cats. You get some into the room through one door, only to see others leaving through other doors. And if you think that the young people leaving the church were only the ones on the fringes of faith, look again. Many were leaders in their youth groups. Some went on to college and became heavily involved in campus ministries, only to develop doubts and walk away during or after college.
We’ve written for many years about the problem of young people dropping out of church attendance or leaving the faith. Here are a couple you may want to read for some background.
I’m an early Baby Boomer, born in the late 1940s. Most of my friends in the first church I attended after I was saved were about the same age. We loved Bible study and solid sermons about the truths in God’s Word. Our assistant pastor was a professor of Greek at a local Christian college and taught Sunday night Bible studies from the Greek. That was a great introduction to God’s Word.
My first encounter with youth ministry in the 70s was with late Baby Boomers, sometimes called Generation Jones. They were born between 1955 and 1965 and several years younger than me. We were all concerned about social issues (Vietnam War, race relations, etc) and searched for answers together from God’s Word, believing what God said to be the best source of truth on all matters related to faith and practice. We expressed our doubts and searched for answers to tough questions. I remember staying up late into the night with our youth and singles groups talking about everything important to them. We found answers to our questions and doubts in God’s Word rightly divided. Our focus was on “making disciples,” something many churches don’t do and haven’t done for decades. You can read more about that here – The Church’s Biggest Problem(s).
Every generation differs in some ways from their parents’ generation. Gen X, born between 1964 and 1980, were the children of Baby Boomers. Gen X was followed by the Xennials micro-generation, born between late 70s and early 80s. Millennials (Gen Y) were born between 1981 and 1996. Gen Z were born between 1997 and 2010, children of Gen Xers. You can read about them here – Meet Generation Z.
What we’ve learned from research (e.g. Barna, LifeWay, Gallup) is that the percentage of people who say they still believe in God and the Bible has become smaller with each generation. Church membership is one metric of how people view religion and their belief in God.
Gallup began polling church membership in the United States in 1937. Young people living then were known as part of the Silent Generation – people born from 1928 to 1945. (My parents were born in what’s called the Greatest Generation – people born between 1901 and 1927.) The percentage of people who attended church in the U.S. was 73% and stayed near 70% for several decades. The slide downward began at the turn of the 21st century and has continued a steady decline. The last Gallup poll information from 2020 showed that membership in a church, synagogue or mosque was at only 47%. Based on trends from the last 20 years, membership in houses of worship will continue to plummet.
Gallup’s researchers found that the decline in membership was primarily because more Americans express no religious preference.
Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.Gallup
According to Gallup, membership in church is generationally driven. 66% of “traditionalists,” adults born before 1946, attend church. Baby Boomers come in at 58%, Gen X at 50% and 36% for Millennials. Data about Gen Z is not available yet because only a small number of them have reached adulthood. The younger generations are also becoming a larger part of the entire adult population as older adults die.
While some of the “nones” never attended church (many were raised in atheist families), many were raised in church and went through the deconstruction and deconversion process. My own experience talking with “nones” is that the conversations are usually friendlier because they know very little about Christianity. Conversations with those who have deconverted, on the other hand, can be more challenging because they believe they know a lot about Christianity. The opportunity with both “nones” and “deconversions” is to love them and share the evidence that points to the truth of the resurrected Son of God who loves them and died for them.
We’ll look more deeply into how the deconversion of ‘Christian celebrities’ is impacting Generation Z in the next part of our series, EXvangelical – What’s That?
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