Part of my Lenten practice this year was to think of one genuine gift each of the forty days that the world of evangelicalism gave me. It’s not an earth-shattering practice or one that will herald any second comings of Jesus or anything. I really only wanted to find beauty and meaning in a past that has done damage.
It’s so easy for me to slip into the narrative of “evangelicalism is all bad”. Especially when the larger world is also calling for greater accountability within the evangelical context, I can simply add my voice to the echo chamber. And I would be justified it doing so.
What I began to discover was that this raging against the system wasn’t as transcendent as I perceived it to be at first. Rather, I stepped from one form of black/white thinking into another. No wonder it was such a slick move from praising Jesus to decrying Jesus. I hadn’t learned to see the world differently. I only changed the words a little bit.
Furthermore, I discovered how uncomfortable I became when non-evangelicals (as in, folks who had never practiced evangelical traditions before) judged and condemned evangelicalism itself without any personal participation. It made less and less sense to condemn an entire worldview based on particular proclivities that did not include inside-out experience. Rather than wisdom, I began to encounter it more as condescension born of ignorance of the truest sense: a lack of knowledge translating into an impossibility of awareness.
Once I began to acknowledge these nuances, whether I truly understood them or not, the more I was able to confess how much I needed to name and focus on the beauty of my past. I didn’t want to let evangelicalism off the hook by any stretch. I didn’t want to sweep the guilt, shame, or fear under the collective rug. But nor was it fair or right of just of me to continue to use ongoing broad strokes to describe the worlds I came from.
It’s not a practice I would lightly recommend. If anyone is still in the places of woundedness or pain, those places need to be gently honoured for the heroic dimensions they are. Jumping to seeing the beauty can easily spiral down into “Well it wasn’t that bad…”, and the need for healing is squelched. And if anyone can’t ever come to a place of naming the beauty of their past, that needs to be honoured too.
For me, it was about ongoing forgiveness and healing. Some days, I can’t feel it. Other days, I carry a funny, weighty guilt for expressing such intimate critique of the evangelical world. But we all know how guilt goes: we feel the weight of the thing, and then tell ourselves “I shouldn’t feel guilt!”, and the berate ourselves for should-ing ourselves, and the whole pack of elephants slides back down the hill.
Part of it, too, has been realising that no matter what religious tradition I become a part of from here on in, I can’t hold it so tightly that it crystallises within me. I’ve lived through the damage of unchanging theology — beliefs that are taught to be so foundational to our cores that if they’re questioned at all, we go after them with torches and pitchforks. Maybe I need to have a gentler grip on my religious identities. No matter how precious, releasing them to the light and air will only help them grow. Grasping them close to the chest will stagnate them in the end.
With all that said — and in no particular order — here are the first 20 of 40 gifts I carry with me today thanks to the evangelical world:
- There is a God — this hasn’t been an easy gift to continuously believe in, and my perceptions/beliefs about God have certainly changed. However, I’m grateful that God was instilled in me nonetheless from the time I was born
- There is a God who’s close — rather than being distant force, God is close and wants relationship with creation
- Ancient stories — the Bible is filled with stories of people encountering God and one another over thousands of years. Literalism aside, hearing larger-than-life characters survive floods and battle giants created a sense of connection and awe with the ancient world
- Hymns — the vast store of sacred music taught me theology, musicality, notation, harmony (insofar as I can actually harmonise, which isn’t much), and the ability to sing songs sometimes hundreds of years old
- Worship music — newer musical expressions gave me the gift of learning to innovate, to break out of older wineskins and to find God in the changing world.
- Worship teams — church gave me the chance to be a part of music teams/bands that I wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. U2 we weren’t, but we had fun exploring different ways of expressing ourselves through song
- Community — I learned to see life through the lens of church potlucks, picnics, baptisms, and church spring cleanings. I learned that church happened in the everyday and not just on Sunday
- Holy rhythm — attending church every Sunday, Bible study on Wednesdays, and youth group on Fridays gave me structure and sense of season. It impressed on me the need to observe sacred time
- Rites — whether baptism or communion, evangelicalism taught me the importance of sacred rites — sacraments — in our world that eschews them. Marking divine interaction with the human is as necessary as food and good rest.
- Potlucks — while I mentioned this one briefly in #7, I felt it deserved a mention all its own. After all, what kid didn’t love trying out ten different kinds of meatballs, three different kids of scalloped potatoes, endless pickles, and potato chips? I don’t know who invented devilled eggs, but those could easily stay home…
- Jesus — the classic Sunday School answer for all Sunday School questions. Being introduced to the ultimate expression of Love on earth has been and will always be one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received
- Personal relationship — the evangelical core teaches that for one to encounter God in a meaningful way, one must choose to accept Jesus. Yes, the theology has been abused and has often been used for guilt and shame. But I would slow up before calling the whole thing shame-based. Having my own quiet conversations with Jesus, seeing him as a real person to connect with, to look up to, to accept and embrace made God real. I couldn’t expect God to magically fabricate that for me all by God’s self. I needed to choose to enter into participation as well. People can mock or belittle the belief all they wish. It’s made me who I am, and it’s a gift I’m eternally grateful for.
- Prayer — I was taught to talk to God and to listen for God. I wasn’t raised in liturgical traditions, so I was taught very few pre-written prayers. The majority of my upbringing focused on me being able to articulate my own words with God, and to learn to listen for how God speaks.
- Devotions — the practice of spending intentional time with God each day was impressed deeply on me. I find it hard to carry on through life claiming to be in relationship with a Being I don’t know. Carving out focused time, for me, is essential to my wellbeing in God
- Emotional expression — evangelical churches tend to be more emotionally expressive than liturgical churches. In a world that damns such expression, especially in men, it was a gift for me to see people of all genders engaging in such expression
- Social justice — while some churches I attended condemned social justice as a weak or watered-down gospel, my parents were true to their Salvation Army roots and saw it as fundamental to life. I couldn’t claim to follow a God of love and not live it out in community
- Scripture memory — the Bible isn’t a book of magic. The literal, word-for-word speaking of it won’t transform me into a perfect person. However, committing its words to memory helps connect me to God and ancient ancestors who learned these truth thousands of years ago
- Church juice — every single church kitchen was equipped with the cheap version of Tang. These juice crystals created watery, syrupy forms of what was supposed to be peach, grape, or orange juices. Every kid alive raised in church knows this kind of juice. I’m not so sure it’s an ongoing gift so much as a nostalgic memory over a truly terrible substance
- And all the jazz — I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music or heavy metal when I was growing up. Having said that, I was the only kid in my class who knew who Billie Holliday was, the Nylons, the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof, or Mozart
- Velcro walls — evangelicals seemed to have a good knack for allowing their children to do stupid human tricks. For example, as a ‘prize’ for chugging a can of Pepsi down first (through another person’s dirty sock, no less), I was allowed to dress up in a sticky velcro suit, jump off a springboard, and hurl myself against a sticky velcro wall. Every child needs to learn how to create stupid human tricks at church, I believe. It’s all a part of growing up
These are battered gifts. They were given to me wrapped in theology that did harm and caused pain. It took me years to unwrap these gifts and appreciate them as such. I know not every post-evangelical will agree with my list. We were all affected differently. What I can say, at least with a sort of new-legs kind of confidence, is that these things are truly beautiful, meaningful things that have shaped me and my relationship to the world.
Most of all, I’m grateful that at the end of the unwrapping of the pain and suffering and sorrow, there were gifts to be found. The fear of finding nothing was profound. The relief at discovering at least something, and that this something is valuable to me, is wondrous.