What Is an Exvangelical?
“Exvangelical” is a term adopted by many who no longer consider themselves to be evangelical Christians. Started and popularized in 2016 as the hashtag #exvangelical by Blake Chastain, host of the Exvangelical Podcast, the label provides a helpful starting point for people whose lives were significantly marked by both their participation in and departure from evangelical Christianity.
Exvangelicals may have left evangelical Christianity for a different denomination or faith tradition within Christianity, or they may no longer identify as Christians at all. In general, exvangelicals identify with more progressive values than the more conservative tenets that evangelical Christianity is typically associated with.
Those who embrace the “exvangelical” label often do so to signal their identification against certain common characteristics of evangelical churches and organizations. Whether these characteristics are fair descriptions or broad stereotypes is beside the point—for the exvangelical, what is important is that these ideals and values were once tied up with their idea of being a faithful Christian, but are now seen as antithetical to the values they hold most dear, whether Christian or secular in nature.
What Is an Evangelical?
On its face, “exvangelical” is fairly easy to define: an ex-evangelical Christian. However, issues arise due to the fact that the definition of “evangelical” itself continues to be up for debate.
“Is evangelicalism a theological category, a cultural movement, a white religious brand, a diverse global movement?” asked Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, during her presentation on evangelism at the American Historical Association conference in 2019. “What if the answer is, ‘All of the above’?”
“A Theological Category”
The trouble lies in the fact that many evangelicals claim to identify as such due to specific theological beliefs. However, those specific beliefs tend to vary from self-described evangelical person or institution to another. What one evangelical says is crucial to their faith and identification with evangelicalism may to another evangelical be ancillary or even irrelevant to their beliefs.
“A Cultural Movement”
Even more confusingly, some of these most tightly-held “evangelical” beliefs are not theological in nature, but rather more focused on cultural attitudes or behaviors. They may even seem to contradict other core tenets of the Christian faith.
For example, some evangelicals claim to be believers of biblical inerrancy and literalism—the idea that the text of the Bible can and should be taken at “face-value.” However, many evangelicals also fervently support anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies that are antithetical to the Bible’s consistently clear message of welcoming the stranger.
“A White Religious Brand”
For many these days, the term “evangelical” is associated with a specific brand of White Christian nationalism. After the 2016 election, an often-cited exit poll noted that 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. However, when broken down by race, 77% of White evangelicals voted for Trump, while only 9% of Black evangelicals did, as well as less than half of evangelicals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some people and churches have abandoned the word “evangelical” due to the increasingly extreme politicization of the term in recent years.
“A Diverse Global Movement”
At its root, the word “evangelical” comes from the Greek for “good news.” Many evangelical Christians identify as such specifically for their commitment to spreading the good news of Jesus throughout the world. As such, there is a diverse coalition of self-described, globally-minded evangelicals that can be difficult to recognize in the U.S., where the term has become entrenched with a single race or political party. (We actually talked with a Swedish evangelical on our podcast about some of these issues a few years ago.)
In fact, research has shown that Asia, Africa, and South America all have greater populations of evangelical Christians than North America. However, when broken down by country, the U.S. alone has nearly 50% more evangelical Christians (93 million) than the next-highest country, China (66 million).
Evangelicalism vs. Fundamentalism: What’s the Difference?
Fundamentalism is generally viewed as a stricter subset of evangelicalism. With a narrower view on certain beliefs, fundamentalists adhere to more rigid behaviors, with specific rules on acceptance versus expulsion from their communities.
For example, churches that forbid women from wearing pants are typically more closely aligned with fundamentalism than evangelicalism. However, it’s important to note that people who define themselves as “exvangelical” may be defining themselves against evangelicalism, fundamentalism, or both. “Ex-fundie” also gets tossed into the mix for those who have left fundamental evangelical churches.
Why Do People Leave Evangelicalism? 5 Common Reasons
In 2006, White evangelical Christians accounted for 23% of Americans’ religious identity. But in 2020, that number dropped to just 14.5%.
Because the definition of evangelicalism is so broad and contradictory, it’s easy to think that most people would choose to just carve out a subset of evangelicalism that works for them, rather than leaving altogether. However, many people find it impossible to stay in evangelical Christian spheres because of what they have either witnessed or directly experienced.
1. Evangelical Trauma and Spiritual Abuse
Religious trauma and spiritual abuse are real forms of spiritual, mental, and sometimes even physical or sexual harm committed in the context of one’s faith. How the faith community responds—or a lack of response at all—can compound the survivor’s pain and suffering. Denominations affiliated with evangelicalism, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have been notorious for their failure to remove abusive pastors and church leaders, causing survivors and allies to leave the church.
2. Christian Nationalism
Many evangelical leaders in the U.S. have crossed the line in aligning their churches with specific political movements, with the goal of making the United States of America an explicitly Christian nation with no separation of church and state. Christian nationalism is associated with autocracy and fascism. Many Christian nationalists have proven willing to discard American values of democracy to achieve their desired theocracy. In recent years, many American Christians who value free and fair elections have felt the need to abandon their evangelical churches preaching the opposite message.
3. Evangelical Hypocrisy
Whether in the political arena, private congregations, or personal relationships, many churchgoers are abandoning evangelicalism due to the movement’s blatant hypocrisy.
In recent years, evangelical leaders have embraced morally bankrupt candidates (who show no signs of repentance or remorse) simply to gain political power. Pastors have not minced their words in proclaiming judgments over those who disagree with secondary or tertiary Christian beliefs, elevating controversial topics about gender and sexuality to the level of affecting one’s salvation, but have kept conspicuously silent in order to protect known child abusers among their ranks.
For many, the hypocrisy of strict legalism for some and unchecked power for others has caused them to leave evangelicalism.
4. Racism and White Supremacy
As mentioned earlier, a portion of evangelical Christianity has aligned itself with racism and White supremacy. Although not always blatant, some evangelical churches communicate their disdain for racial justice and reconciliation by dismissing such efforts as “social justice nonsense” or “political correctness run amok.” However, there are many biblical examples of community lament and repentance for social injustices. Some Christians feel they have no choice but to leave their evangelical churches in order to find faith communities that practice the mercy and justice that are crucial attributes of Christ.
5. Patriarchy and Misogyny
With their tendency toward a conservative bent, many evangelical churches align themselves with complementarianism or other beliefs that prescribe a strict gender binary. These patriarchal beliefs lay the groundwork for excuses and justifications for men’s bad behavior, fueling male church leaders’ inclinations to hide abuse charges, blame victims, and wield unchecked power. For too many Christians, especially women, evangelical teachings on gender are not just offensive—they lead to real harm.
What Leaving Evangelicalism Means
When a person identifies as an exvangelical, the only thing you can be sure of is that they have had an experience with evangelical Christianity that they no longer wish to continue. Leaving evangelicalism can mean different things for different people, such as:
- Deconstruction: In the context of Christianity, deconstruction is a term used for when a believer closely examines their beliefs to determine if they are useful, good, and applicable to their life. This time of questioning and re-evaluation can lead people to decide that evangelical Christianity is no longer useful, good, or applicable to their context.
- Leaving your church: Some people who identify as exvangelical stay in their evangelical churches, hoping to continue conversations with others and enjoy their beloved community despite their differences. Others, however, leave their church as a necessary step in order to move forward and heal.
- Changing denominations: Becoming an exvangelical can lead people to change denominations. Anglicanism and Episcopalianism in particular have been popular refuges for recovering exvangelicals.
- Leaving the church: Some people feel led to continue their relationship with God outside of the walls of the church when they leave evangelicalism. Instead, they seek spiritual connection in other ways, often through family, friends, and nature.
- Deconversion: For some, the journey out of evangelical Christianity involves leaving Christianity altogether to find meaning in secular communities or other religions.
Recovering from Evangelical Christianity
1. Take Time to Rest
No matter your reason for leaving evangelical Christianity, and no matter where your journey has taken you, it is important to rest in order to heal. Losing one’s faith in any capacity, whether switching denominations or walking away altogether, can be traumatic. Take time to rest and reflect on what has happened and what you might desire from a faith community if you feel called to join a new one.
2. Begin to Heal
After religious trauma, your mental and emotional health may suffer. You may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, or you may still be reeling from burnout. It’s important to take those symptoms seriously and seek help so you can process what has happened and move forward when you are ready.
3. Find a Community
For many exvangelicals, the greatest benefit of growing up in the church was the community they experienced. Healthy, loving communities exist outside of evangelical Christianity. Whether you find a new church or a different community group, it’s important to seek out connection with others. The Gravity Commons is a digital community that allows exvangelicals and other Christians to connect, support one another, and heal.
4. Share Your Story
There’s a reason the term “exvangelical” started out as a hashtag. As Christians, we know the power of personal testimony. Many Christians who have left the evangelical community are sharing their stories online so others going through deconstruction know they are not alone. If you feel led to do so, consider sharing your story with your friends, family, and wider community of people you trust.
5. Advocate for Meaningful Change
Finding a new church or faith community can help people heal from the religious trauma they may have suffered in evangelical Christianity, but the work does not stop there. No church is perfect, and the current issues plaguing evangelical Christianity are not unique to this single faith movement. It is important to advocate for meaningful change regarding the reasons that people leave evangelicalism in the first place. For example, consider leading an antiracism group in your church or finding ways to support victims of sexual assault in your community.
Resources for Former Evangelicals
If you have recently left evangelicalism or have friends who are starting to identify as exvangelicals, it can help to have some resources to better understand what it all means. Here are our favorite books, articles, and podcasts on the subject of leaving evangelical Christianity:
- “Deconstructing Spiritual Practices, Embracing New Paradigms” (Gravity Leadership Podcast)
- “Walking Through Spiritual Abuse and Trauma with Gino Curcuruto” (Gravity Leadership Podcast)
- Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
- “Is Christianity Worth Saving?” (The Liturgists Podcast)
- The Exvangelical Podcast
- The Almost Heretical Podcast
- “How the Evangelical World Turned on Itself” (The Experiment Podcast)
- Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science by Mike McHargue
Find Community with Gravity Commons
Interested in finding community after leaving the evangelical church? The Gravity Commons is a great place to meet, connect with, and support other exvangelicals.