“Mom, why did Jesus have to die?”
I glanced at my husband and turned around to face my 3-year-old, sitting in the backseat of the car as we drove home from a family BBQ. A particularly precocious child, I found myself in theological conversations with him on a fairly regular basis once he started attending preschool at a nearby Evangelical church. Even though I didn’t identify as Evangelical, I still appreciated that he was getting some basic Bible knowledge. Except, in my opinion, they could really cool it with the ‘Jesus dying on the cross’ talk.
“Honey, I don’t think Jesus had to die,” I said.
“You don’t?!” exclaimed my husband.
“Maybe we should talk about it,” I shrugged and turned back to my 3-year-old.
As I muddled my way through trying to explain in 3-year-old terms what I thought Jesus’ death meant, the ‘Evangelical in my head’ was shouting, “HERETIC!” But I couldn’t in good conscience pass on to my children the views of God that I used to hold and that I now found harmful. And I no longer thought I needed to have it all figured out for them.
I grew up in the white Evangelical church and started very seriously deconstructing starting in 2014 up until about 2019. And then, 2020 happened to all of us ... and long story short, now I feel ready to be more open about why it matters to me that I continue to identify as a Christian and my desire to work toward a hopeful future for the church.
For me, even in my moments where I had no clue what I actually believed, I never really thought of not identifying as a Christian or not believing in God. It feels so foundational to my identity. Ever since I started deconstructing, I’ve been super curious about exploring American Christianity outside of white, Fundamentalist Evangelicalism. In my mind growing up, there really was no “legitimate” alternative that could still be called true Christianity. When I stopped identifying in that way, it was hugely isolating. I resonated with the words of Peter when he said, "Lord, to whom would we go?" But I didn't know where to turn.
I’m allowed to define myself as a Christian
That has been a huge part of my grappling and learning–discovering a whole world of faith and spirituality that exists within the umbrella of Christianity yet still marks you as an outsider with the culture that raised me. I’ve had to unlearn patterns of thinking to allow myself to trust that I’m allowed to define how I experience God and what I believe as “Christian.”
Over my years of deep deconstruction I did share about how my views were shifting and I received a lot of pushback behind the scenes from some loud voices. A lot of the time I didn’t have the energy to brace myself for that feedback. I was also experiencing some really hard life things during that time and felt pretty vulnerable, so I often chose to protect my peace by staying quiet.
During those years I also felt uncomfortable putting myself into any category with others. I noticed toxicity within the “deconstruction” camp so I didn’t settle there. I was still attending my neighborhood house church throughout this time, and I was pretty content staying quiet about that experience. I also felt deeply afraid to stake any claim in the “Christian” space because I was quite honestly afraid of rejection.
I needed a long time to work on belonging to myself and to my small circle of trustworthy people. Yet I also felt deeply lonely and disconnected from the bigger circle, and just kept reading and listening to hear what other people were thinking and where I could find resonance. I wondered where I could jump in and find a place where my thoughts could be seen valid, valuable and productive.
Coming out of isolation
Over the past year I’ve been doing Communications work for Parish Collective, an organization that believes in a more hopeful vision of the Church that's rooted in working for the good of our neighborhoods. Joining with them has helped me regain some trust that I could find a place of belonging with other Christians. I still feel a lot of pain over the wound of betrayal and rejection from the Evangelical church. I wrapped so much of my identity up with belonging, and there’s still a big piece of me that's afraid to even want to belong. Sometimes it feels easier to stay lonely than to risk rejection.
In May of this year, Brian D. MacLaren published a book called Do I Stay Christian? In Part 1 of his book, he talks about why it’s completely understandable and the right choice for some people to answer that question “no.” In Part 2, he shares why many people (including himself) still answer that question “yes.” And then in the last part of his book, he focuses on the “how” of living well regardless of whether you identify as a Christian or not.
I’m hoping this book will help give me words to articulate why I have chosen to answer that question “Yes, I’m still a Christian” despite it all.
The "Do I Stay Christian?" Book Club
Over the next 6 weeks or so, I’m going to be reading this book and reflecting on its topics and themes. If you’d like to pick up a copy and join me in reading it, please do! This isn’t a traditional book club in the sense that we’ll meet and discuss the chapters, but it’s going to inform a lot of what I’m thinking and talking about over the next 6 weeks. And I'd love to hear your thoughts if you read it.
I’m going to be having conversations on Instagram Live most Fridays for the next 6 weeks as I explore these ideas for myself personally and in the company of a diverse group of people that I admire. The majority, if not all of the people I’ll be in conversation with, had an intersection with Fundamental Evangelical Christianity at some point, and now have chosen to step outside of that context. Some have stepped out of religion altogether and some into a different version of Christianity or spirituality. I’m genuinely curious about the way that people live every day in light of their answer to that question.
I’m calling this series of Instagram Live conversations “Exploring American Christianity outside of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism.” I know, a mouthful. It felt important for me to be precise with words. American Christianity feels like its own unique cluster, and it’s what’s most concerning to me at the moment. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the world. I also want to make space for a less fundamentalist version of Evangelicalism, and for those of you who find yourselves one foot in and one foot out of that world.
It’s all valid and up for discussion, and I’m excited to facilitate and participate in these discussions. All that I ask is that you hold space for others’ experience and views, and to hold it in tension if you disagree (I know I’m not always the best at that, but here’s trying).
If you have comments to share, I’d love to see them here on my website, in the comments or on Instagram. I plan to save the Lives to my feed so that you can watch and interact with them even if you can’t make it in real time.