Exvangelical Musings: How to Talk to an Evangelical When You are Deconstructing

Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church was basically life in a bubble in which we pretended the world we created for ourselves was the only one truly worth living in for everyone. Sometimes, people would just leave and we’d hear they were “backsliding,” but it’s okay – we were prepped in Sunday school and in evangelism training about explanations for those elusive, extremely rare group of people who had fallen away from the faith. I remember being more afraid of them than anyone – including scientists, Satanists, and liberals (all the same people, by the way). We were usually just taught to avoid “backsliders” like the plague, except to let them know we were praying for them. 

Why were we so afraid of them? Because evangelicals are taught that they are on the One Truth Path, walking with Jesus into God’s perfect plan for your life. The idea that someone would abandon Eternal Life shakes the very foundation of the premise that anyone who accepts Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior has now found the peace that passes all understanding. It is therefore necessary to come up with explanations for what has gone wrong in the salvation or mentoring process of this backslilder – otherwise, how could they possibly find salvation and then reject it all over again? 

Unfortunately, evangelicals are also usually more comfortable gossiping about these folks than actually seeking them out and asking them ourselves why they’ve broken up with Jesus. That’s mostly because church leaders instruct us to avoid them. But that’s changed in the digital world, because users can engage with each other anonymously and without having to look at each others’ faces. And friends – the dialogue happening right now between both communities is something to see. And when I say dialogue, I mostly mean evangelicals making up increasingly tunnel-visioned excuses while putting most of the blame on exvangelicals for getting it all wrong about Jesus.

Before I started this blog, I joined a number of #exvangerlical communities all over social media, learning and listening. It’s been fascinating reading some the evangelical reactions to the exvangelical community – now that we’re out in the open in such a legion, evangelicals have started infiltrating our hashtags and responding in defensive droves. Turns out, they’re still doing more talking than listening.

I’ve assembled here the six consistent explanations that evangelicals are so graciously providing us for what went wrong. When you are comfortable deconstructing out in the open, these are the sorts of reactions that you can expect to hear. I’m also including my own versions of honest, polite, but firm responses that you can give – I can personally attest they’ve been very helpful for me and some others I’ve been reading. Keep in mind: I am no therapist, though I have a lot of training and experience in trauma-informed care. If you have a therapist, consider discussing these answers with them before you use them. (If you’re not in therapy, I recommend it as exceptional self-care; I am happy to help you find a therapist in your area with training in Religious Trauma Syndrome, and our conversations will be completely private.) 

Another disclaimer: These replies are not meant to teach you how to engage with evangelicals in their rhetoric. Resist that temptation, because they will only retort with the talking points in which we were all were trained. You know the canned dialogue I’m talking about: “But the Bible tells us it’s the Word of God, how can you question that?” “Satan’s got a hold on you, brother (or sister).” “How will you find purpose without Jesus?” “The Christian life isn’t supposed to be easy.” These types of answers are circular logic that makes it nearly impossible for them to actually listen to you. You wouldn’t be deconstructing if any of these passive aggressive reactions still made any sense to you. The more you try to talk to an evangelical, the more it will turn into an argument. As I’ve stressed in previous posts: If they can’t see what’s going on, they won’t hear what’s going on.

Rather, these are tips on how to respectfully disengage at the very beginning of dialogue, until you feel like you are in a healthy mental space to actually try to talk to them. And I assure you: There’s no rush to get there, even though they’re going to try to push. Until you get to that space at your own pace, we’re not here to argue – we’ve done enough of that already within ourselves. You’re focusing on yourself right now, trying to heal. You deserve to be gentle with yourself, and that includes not engaging in any dialogue that you are not ready for. 

So – here are some tips on how to politely walk away to avoid arguments:

#1: “If you walked away from your faith, you were never really a true believer to begin with.”

Evangelicals stress that what they have isn’t a religion, but a personal relationship with Jesus. And anyone who has ever truly, authentically engaged in this personal relationship with Christ would never truly walk away from him. Dozens of religions currently being practiced in the United States alone, incidentally, offer personal relationships to their deities through prayer, praise, worship, community, and studying scripture. (Ironically, here is one that doesn’t: Satanism.) But yeah, all religions more or less make this claim, and Christianity really isn’t all that unique. 

But don’t get into that with them – I’m just providing context. They won’t hear it – they’ll just keep stressing that what you had wasn’t real if it’s something you could leave so easily (like any of this is fucking easy). Perhaps you only had a “Church experience,” not a “Jesus experience.” Maybe you didn’t really mean the Sinner’s Prayer when you said it – or some distraction made it not work. Maybe you have not accepted the correct version of Jesus (that’s something an evangelical pastor once told me when I confessed that I’d really appreciated what The Last Temptation of Christ” was trying to do to balance Jesus’s humanity with his divinity; I guarantee you that right now, an evangelical just read that statement and went, “Ah HA!”). If we’d just known the True Jesus, we wouldn’t have left.

Don’t listen to any of this – it’s bullshit, and every exvangelical knows it: At one point in our lives, we sincerely and humbly accepted Jesus as our Personal Lord and Savior. It was as real of an experience as we comprehended reality to be within our narrow understanding of it. And later on, we changed into people who now want to question whether or not it was real. Some of you may decide it was, but that perhaps the Church needs major reformation. Some of us decided we didn’t need it at all. Both of those paths are valid. But what’s important when considering a response to this statement is that you don’t owe anyone but yourself an explanation. It doesn’t matter whether or not an evangelical thinks you were “really saved;” if it’s about a personal relationship with Jesus, it isn’t about what they think anyway. So just don’t go there at all! I have found that the most useful answer to this is:

“I’m glad that the path you’re on has worked for you. I once believed very deeply in Jesus, but I’ve decided that it is not the path that worked for me. We need to respect that we have come to different conclusions and agree to disagree.”

#2: “Not all churches are bad, you know. And not all Christians.”

“Not all men,” “Not all whites,” “Not all zombies,” blah blah blah. This is simply a defensive retort that we (“we” primarily being those of us in white bodies) all seem to naturally have when they (“they” being everyone on whose necks we’ve been standing) talk about harmful experiences they had with our demographic. I’ve yet to encounter a context in which this answer actually provided clarity. Once again, they’re making it about them instead of listening to you (expect that a lot). It reveals the fragility of their own faith, but they’ll never admit that. Here’s the response:

“Pointing out that not everyone is bad does not negate the fact that I experienced abuse.” Rinse, repeat this one often, by the way – “not all churches” is going to be a pretty common one.

#3: “You were hurt by the Church, not by Jesus.”

The idea here is as old as the Garden of Eden: We are all inherently sinful by nature, so people are going to mess up in their walk with Christ. You’re just naturally going to hurt other people. But even though humanity is inherently flawed, Jesus isn’t. In fact, getting hurt by people in the Church only proves how much you actually need the real Jesus. Maybe the Church you attended taught you bad theology that isn’t a reflection of true faith. Maybe the pastor was backsliding into sin, and that is how you got hurt. But this reasoning all boils down to this: Because Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus, don’t give up on it just because you got hurt by the imperfect humans who make up the Church. 

Actually, I agree with this statement – just not their explanation. It WAS the Church that hurt me; it wasn’t Jesus – I’ve never met the man, and for all practical purposes, he sounded like a remarkable person (I suspect his true legacy is in the great civil rights leaders like Wovoka, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who all used his Sermon on the Mount more or less as their templates, but that’s a tangent reserved for a bar stool). Jesus had nothing to do with the theology based on fear, shame, and control that has caused so much psychological damage to so many people. He didn’t groom me to spew racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophopic ignorance and hatred from pulpits. He wasn’t the one who taught me that women were only created to please men. He didn’t preach that AIDS was God’s condemnation of LGBTQ people. He wasn’t the pastor who asked my friend who was raped, “What were you wearing?” He wasn’t teaching at the reform schools where countless Indigenous children were murdered. It was most certainly the Church that did all of that.

I don’t think there’s an answer to this one that evangelicals will hear at all, because they believe that they have a direct line to Jesus and that yours has somehow gotten its wires crossed. So just say, “I agree.” They’re not your therapist and you don’t owe them another word. They’ll see it as a victory, but letting them believe that probably isn’t relevant to your journey anyway. 

#4: “You just want to live in sin.”

Occasionally I’ll hear this one said to straight folks, like when some poor teenager admits to their small group Bible study that they can’t stop masturbating. But this excuse is mostly weaponized as a response against LGBTQ people. The bottom line is, the conservative evangelical body is never going to stop having a stick up its ass about gay people. While I believe individual hearts can be opened, the collective Church is still doing everything it can to demonize this community. 

As I deconstructed, I struggled at first to understand this completely irrational hatred based on a few vague verses in the Bible – until I remembered that until just a few decades ago, the Church preached the same kind of hate speech about interracial couples, also using a few vague verses in the Bible as justification. For that matter, look up the origins of the Southern Baptist Convention sometime. When it comes to the white evangelical church, leaders are bigots skilled at the terrifying art of Absolute Truth, and they’ve trained their (mostly) well-intentioned flock into believing that hate is love.

Well, guess what? You get to choose whether or not you want to stay in the flock, and no one else gets to decide that for you – nor the parameters of why you want to take a journey toward deconstructing. Therefore, what you do with your time is none of their goddamned business. Here’s the truth: You’ve been struggling enough with your identity within the suffocating walls of the Church. They have loudly and perpetually informed you that there is something wrong with wanting to find your own truth and embrace your own identity. They’ve made very clear that these struggles will continue until you admit to them that they are right and that you are wrong. 

It’s time to be gentle with yourself and to give yourself permission to heal. Don’t let an evangelical devote another word toward your “sin” in your presence. You deserve to feel like the beautiful human being that you are. You don’t deserve to feel this broken – and you never have. 

Just politely say, “How I choose to live is none of your business,” and walk away as quickly as you can. And be proud of yourself, because you’re a fucking warrior. 

#5: “I’m praying for you.”

You know what I’m talking about: That really sad look that’s followed by a deep sigh, as if they’re losing their best friend. “I just want you to know that I love you no matter what, and I’m praying for you.” 

I don’t know if any evangelicals are reading this, but in case they are: We really shouldn’t have to tell you how abusively gaslighting this kind of answer is. You more than anyone should completely understand that many of us are deconstructing from evangelical Christianity partly because we’re so tired of being told that someone is praying for us. We are tired of this because the judgmental assurance that we were being prayed for was a common part of conversations in which our parents or church leaders expressed their disappointment over something we did. We are tired of it because we have all used it as an excuse to spread hateful gossip about members of our church community. We are tired of it because it is so fucking belittling. And you now EXACTLY what I’m talking about. 

So let me be clear, friends: Just knowing that someone is praying for us is enough to trigger trauma associated with guilt and shame, and it is okay to set a boundary to shut that shit down.

I’ve found this one has worked really well for me: “I can’t tell you who or what to pray for, but I don’t need to know about it. I respectfully ask you not to inform me that you’re praying for me again.”

#6: “What you’ve said really offended me.”

Response: “Then forgive me.” (Credit that one to the late, great comedian Bill Hicks. Literally never fails to leave them stunned long enough for me to excuse myself.)

There you have it, six evangelical responses to your deconstruction, and what I hope will be six respectful explanations to give them while you are spending time listening to your own still, small voice instead of someone else’s. If you have any more that you’d like to share, as well as responses that have been effective, please comment below. If you’re just reading right now and can’t respond – I see you, and I love you.

Understand that I do not think that these are all of the responses you’ll get, but I hope that these provide ideas for boundaries you can set. I’m also not saying that there aren’t evangelicals to whom you won’t want to give a further explanation. You are inevitably going to have people in your life – most certainly family – with whom you are going to engage in dialogue about your deconstruction. But engage with those people when you’re ready, on your own time and on your own pace. Until you are ready, walking away and setting boundaries is a healthy and safe choice for your mental well-being. There’s no reason to feel shame or guilt when someone expects an explanation that you are not yet willing to discuss. Don’t let them push you into a conversation for which you’re not yet ready, because it is their responsibility to accept your decision not to engage with them. 

I will end this article with a somber aside: I often say in these exvangelical posts that it is not safe for some people to express doubt about faith out loud. I’ve been asked to clarify, so I will: These retorts from evangelicals are belittling, presumptuous, and abusive – and if you’re an adult processing your faith, you are more likely able to express your right to walk away. But there are some children and teenagers in households today who do not have that choice. Talking about their feelings is likely to result in pressure from guardians to stay on evangelical Christianity’s narrow path. 

Because, let’s be clear: Those parents, who may truly love their children with all their hearts and have the greatest intentions, have been indoctrinated themselves. Their indoctrination was the Church’s goal, and now the signpost has shifted to the next generation. It is how the white evangelical church has remained in power. Realizing that truth is how I’ve learned to forgive myself for the things I’ve said behind a pulpit: None of us really have a choice when we are children in need of a safe place to exist and there’s so much pressure to simply submit. 

I couldn’t tell you how many teenagers with trauma I’ve worked with who had given into self-harm and addiction because their parents kept drilling into their brains that there was something wrong with them for asking questions, for struggling with their sexuality, for being curious about the world outside the Church’s walls. You would weep at the conversations I’ve had with kids about the types of conversion therapy they expected to keep having performed on them when they went home from treatment. Many of them will hear the above abusive evangelical retorts and have a choice: Keep fighting, or just give in. The ones who fight usually ended up in my treatment centers. The ones who give in may become parents who indoctrinate their kids — but are often the ones who don’t make it into adulthood. 

For those deconstructing in relative safety: Remember these kids, because they’re everywhere and they really need us right now. When you’re ready, consider looking for them. 

To everyone still reading: Be gentle with yourself this week. Healing takes time. Practice kindness first toward yourself – it is okay to set boundaries when you need to, it is okay to disengage in order to focus on self-care. Whatever your struggles, you’re not alone.

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