A year ago last week, my father died. If anything, the one-year anniversary was even more grief inducing than the actual day of his death. I suppose that’s because, a year ago, I plunged immediately into activity—the writing of an obituary, the preparation of a eulogy, the mechanics of a funeral. And now, a year later, none of those things are before me—just the fact that he’s gone. With all the reflection over the past year, I’ve realized one thing that I never really knew before—my father taught me to love the exvangelical.
An exvangelical is the catchall term for people who have walked away, disillusioned and sometimes even traumatized by American evangelical Christianity. The word is really slippery because it can include everyone from committed orthodox churchgoers who no longer claim the word evangelical because of all the nonsense they’ve seen go under that name to those who have actually walked away from the faith altogether.
One of the most difficult days of my life was when, as a 21-year-old, I had to tell my father that I thought God was calling me into Christian ministry. It felt, I suppose, how it would feel to tell one’s parents one had been arrested or that one had decided to exercise one’s gifts at meth cooking. That was because I knew my father wouldn’t approve.
Unlike some people I’ve known, it was not because my father was against the church or religion; he was not. And it wasn’t because he was putting some sort of pressure on me to “succeed” in a way that would mean making a lot of money; he never did that. When I finally worked up the nerve to tell my father—I think the night before I told my church—he responded better than I thought he would. He said, “I wish you wouldn’t do it; I don’t want to see you hurt.”
My dad, you see, was a pastor’s son.
Over the years, the Bible Belt became a source of dismay and spiritual crisis, but the church was not. To me, my church meant home and belonging and acceptance. If I so much as smell something similar to my church foyer or a Sunday school room or those vacation Bible school cookies, I immediately calm down. And the hymns we sang together week after week after week bring to my mind, every time I hear them, whatever the opposite of trauma might be. But I had not grown up in a parsonage; my father had.
His father was his hero. Though my grandfather died when I was five years old, I grew up always around his reputation. He had been pastor of my home church; most of the people who taught me Sunday school or who led my youth group or who sang in our choir had been led to Christ by him or baptized by him or married by him. He was revered by all of them, and by no one more than my father. And he was the subtext of my father’s conflicted relationship with the church.
That night, talking through my call to ministry, my father said: “I’m going to say this this one time, and then I’ll never say it again. I’ll support you completely, whatever you decide to do. But I wish you wouldn’t do it. I just don’t want to see you get hurt the way they hurt my dad.”
My father’s disillusionment with the church never seemed to fit to me. My grandfather did not seem to be “hurt” by anyone. I had listened to his sermons on tape and listened to the people around me talk about him. If anything, he seemed ebullient and energetic. But my father was not talking about some big issue, but 1,001 little matters. He had observed, close up, the Darwinism and Machiavellianism that can happen in even the smallest of congregations. I’m not sure that such things even affected my grandfather. But he had a child who was watching.
My dad kept his word. He never said another word about wishing I wouldn’t do it. Never. He was always there if I was preaching anywhere around him. He was there for my ordination. When there were multiple opportunities to say, “Didn’t I warn you?” he never did—not once.
But what I realize now is that I judged my father too much for what I saw as a deficient spirituality—because I didn’t know what it was like to experience what he had.
He would often go to church—for great stretches of time—but his attendance would often taper off and then disappear. The only time I ever argued with my father—literally the only time about anything—was when I made a snarky comment as a young adult about his spotty church attendance. Let’s just say he was not happy—and I realized that there was a reason I had never engaged my father in a debate before that (or since). But I remember in that argument his saying something along the lines of, “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” And indeed I hadn’t.
After I was grown, I asked my grandmother why she had insisted that I be with her at church every time the doors were open—Sunday school, worship services, Training Union, Royal Ambassadors, Wednesday night prayer meetings. She said, “I wanted you to be a Christian.” I asked why she also insisted that we would skip one Wednesday night every month, her only explanation being “No church tonight; it’s business meeting.” She said, “Because I wanted you to be a Christian.” She didn’t want me to see the sort of carnality that could break out in a Baptist congregational business meeting.
My dad, though, never had that option. The business meetings came to him. They were in his living room, at his kitchen table, and he knew that at any time a business meeting gone wrong could result in his losing his home, his friends, and his school, and ending up somewhere entirely new. Maybe even more than that, he could see a man he revered cut apart by critics while smiling through it all and then showing up to those same people’s hospital rooms and then standing over their caskets to recite words of comfort when they died. I never had to see that.
I never thought about all of that until my 15-year-old son asked my wife in early 2021 whether I had had a moral failure, given the accusations of my being a liberal for not supporting a politician I believe to be unfit; a “critical race theorist” for saying that African American people are telling the truth when they say that racial injustice is still a problem; that I must be funded by George Soros because I think that the immigration system should be fixed, etc.
I invited my son to come with me to one of those “business meetings” where they read out their grievances against me. When we walked out, I said, “What did you think?” He said, “That whole meeting was so angry and so stupid. Why do we want to be a part of that?”
I didn’t have a good answer. But what I resolved at that moment, as I looked into his eyes, included two things. The first was that my son would never have to ask again if I had failed morally because of the machinations of such people. And the second was that I was going to make sure, as much as possible, that my sons never have to see the church the way my father had to see it.
I realized, only over the past several months, how despite the fact that I loved and revered my father, on this one point I had been judgmental. I chalked up to deficient spirituality what was mostly the result of pain. It wasn’t that my father had a low view of the church; it was that he had a high view of his dad.
Just this past week, I had multiple conversations with people who grew up in evangelical churches—some who had been very committed and devoted. And they had been hurt. They saw the church turn against them because they wouldn’t adopt as Scripture some political ideology or personality cult. Some had seen people they trusted revealed to be frauds or even predators.
Not one of them walked away because they wanted to curry favor with “elites” or because they wanted to rebel. If anything, the posture of many of these people was not that of the Prodigal Son off in the far country so much as that of his father, waiting by the road for a prodigal they loved and wanted to embrace again: their church.
My counsel to them was different than my counsel to many of you. To them, I talked about the dangers of cynicism and how to distinguish between the failure of an institution and a failure of the one worshiped by that institution.
To one I said, “If you look at Jesus and the Gospels and you decide you cannot follow him, that’s one thing. But it would be a shame to avoid even looking at the claims of the gospel because you want to avoid at all costs what a church that hurt you said they believed. That’s even more the case when your problem is that they didn’t seem to believe what they said they believed. And that’s even more the case when Jesus warned you—in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Revelation 1–3 and by the Spirit repeatedly in the letters of Paul and Peter and John and Jude—that such things would happen, and would happen in his name.”
But to you—to us—I would counsel: Let’s believe in Jesus enough to bear patiently with those who are hurt, especially those hurt by the church. Let’s not assume that, in every case, those disappointed or angry or at the verge of walking away are doing so because they hold a deficient worldview or because they want to chase immorality. There are some people for whom that is true, in every age.
But many, maybe most of them, are not Judas seeking to flee by night but are instead Simon Peter on the seashore, asking, “To whom shall we go?” (John 6:68). Many of them, like Peter himself, will conclude, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68–69, ESV). To many of these Jesus will say, as he did to Peter, “I have prayed for you … that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).
Let’s not mistake hurt for rebellion, trauma for infidelity, or a broken heart for an empty soul. We can only convince people not to give up on the church if we likewise refuse to give up on them.
Jesus does not need us to do public relations for his 99 sheep still in the pasture; he needs us to go looking for the one who’s lost in the woods. At some time or another, that’s all of us. And we will count on a church loving us enough to send in someone after us—not with hectoring and shaming but with patience and love. And it might even be that the one who comes to help you, in your darkest moment, is right now an exvangelical.
In the meantime, let’s have love for the exvangelical. Let’s have the kind of community that can counteract the business meetings.
It took 50 years, but my dad taught me that.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.
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