Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

“I mean, we’re culturally Jewish.”


“But you met on a JDate!” I yell, drink in hand. “Don’t you guys take your religion pretty seriously?”

“Yes and no. It’s our tradition. And we definitely believe, but it’s just . . . less literal, you know?”

Yeah. I do.


I’ve heard this kind of thing a lot from my Jewish friends. Even if you don’t buy it all, you can still remain in the community. A.J. Jacobs writes that he is “Jewish like The Olive Garden is Italian.” I wish Evangelicals were as adaptable.

Even though I’m no longer a Christian by doctrine, I’m proud of much of my heritage. But the world’s largest religion doesn’t yet have a category for people like me — you’re either an actual believer or you’re just a lukewarm Christian, and that’s the kind of Christian God spits out of his mouth.

I grew up bouncing around mega-churches, and upon recent reflection, I’ve realized how fantastic my childhood was. My dad led thousands in worship every Sunday. During the week, he would (as we Evangelicals say) “do life” with these people, working as counselor, collaborator, and friend. His job was to nudge people toward the divine. I love that.

The older I get, the more I love about my Evangelical upbringing. I love that I was pondering existence and eternity in the context of a community since I was a tiny human. I love that I was trained to befriend outcasts and loners at school, like Jesus would have done. I love that I was immersed in different cultures around the globe while partaking in works of charity with huge groups of friends on these things called mission trips. I love that pop music and positive values fused every week at youth group. I love how much confidence my faith gave me. I love the good decisions I made because of it — and the bad decisions I avoided. I love how my default greeting was to hug instead of shake hands, even with people I was meeting for the first time.

I love that I was trained to befriend outcasts and loners at school, like Jesus would have done.

But, of course, there’s a whole lot more to being an Evangelical Christian than that. I used to love all that “whole lot more,” too. I was a radical soldier for every aspect of my culture. I was a Jesus Freak who Kissed Dating Goodbye so I could Fight For My Generation. I never kept track, but I probably converted a hundred of my peers throughout high school. I started an evangelism training small group that grew to around fifty students; I preached there almost every week. Leadership roles in youth group were a given. Hyperbolic encouragements from church leaders reinforced my godly (and God-sized) ego.

Straight out of high school, I went to Oral Roberts University, the Charismatic Christian utopia in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But after just three semesters, said utopia had essentially de-converted me. ORU had some ridiculous rules (curfews, closed dorms, no facial hair except mustaches, etc.). It was also more charismatic than the churches I’d attended growing up. At chapels, a certain dean would pray in tongues on the microphone; students would wave flags and dance in jubilee; speakers would claim divine healing powers. The crazy rules and crazy chapels made me wonder if my whole life was crazy. I got the unnerving feeling I was on the edge of a cliff. I was. Once I allowed myself to really question things, I began falling out of faith.

I went back home really (really) pissed. I felt like I’d been on the receiving end of a joke my whole life, except nobody was in on it. How the hell had I bought into all this? Did I actually pray over someone whose leg was broken and tell him to “jump on it in faith”? Had I really spread anti-scientific and anti-progress sentiments on nearly all fronts? Had I really believed it was sinful to be gay? Had I really perpetuated such sickening intolerance?

My questions were heartbreaking for my family and friends. I lost my girlfriend of five years and friends I’d known since childhood. After a while, I couldn’t stand to walk through the giant, automatic glass doors of my home church. Life-changing worship experiences gave way to super awkward “Let’s pray for Michael” moments. An empowering sense of community dissolved into the realization that connecting with others usually requires you relate to them, and reading my church’s statement of faith informed me of how little I now related.

For a while, I considered myself an agnostic. I still kind-of do, but I struggle with labels like that. Sure, the word “agnostic” describes my position on the question of the existence of God, but what about my approach to everything else? Like my Jewish friends, I want the heritage label without all the doctrine.

Unfortunately, most Christians I know would consider this heresy.

I want to ask [my friends] how stuff is really going, and hug and cry if things suck, or jump around like a crazy person if they’re great.

Christian fundamentalism (like any form of fundamentalism) rests on black and white, absolutist paradigms. Over and over again, by misusing and overemphasizing strange verses like Revelation 3:16 (the “lukewarm” thing), my peers and I were taught that we could never, ever have our cake and eat it too. It was all or nothing. This is why many of my friends have also rejected religion. Some have discarded any notion of personal morality whatsoever. Many of them have no idea that less conservative approaches to their childhood faiths even exist — the strange Christianity we experienced is the only Christianity they know.

But in attempting to escape their indoctrination, I think they have fulfilled it. Brainwashed with extremism, they are still operating as if the values of their religious worldview and the evolved-over-the-centuries ethical underpinnings that motivated them can’t be separated.

Must we accept that Jesus literally resurrected from the dead in order to apply his teachings to our lives? Do I really have to be an ideological clone of my father to find his work in ministry beautiful? And perhaps most importantly, are all of us ex-Evangelicals destined to lives of poignant nostalgia for the communities of faith we once belonged to?

I can’t accept that. I want to meet with my friends every week and celebrate life, even celebrate the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual teachers throughout history. I want to ask them how stuff is really going, and hug and cry if things suck, or jump around like a crazy person if they’re great. I want to give my ancestors a seat — just not the only seat — at the table. I still want to share my life and what I believe. I’m not a post-Evangelical. It’s not something I’ve surpassed. It is still me. Still my way of life. Still my culture. I’m culturally Evangelical.

Image by Daniel Robert Dinu.

Michael Harris
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  • JennaDeWitt

    Wow, have you read Addie Zierman’s “When Were On Fire”? I just finished it this weekend and I feel like you two would have a lot to talk about. 🙂

    • Michael Harris

      I haven’t! But I just googled it and you’re definitely right; we would have much to talk about! I’m working on a memoir right now, myself. Just from the book description, it seems we had very similar experiences. I look forward to reading it. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Elchupinazo

    Not sure I get his point. There really isn’t an evangelical “culture” without evangelical piety. If you want to retain some of those values (kindness, charity etc) that’s wonderful, but those aren’t uniquely evangelical or even Christian things. Plenty of secular humanists, even, espouse the same beliefs.

    • Michael Harris

      Of course values such as kindness and charity are not unique to Evangelicals, but I was referring to a rather specific culture that you really don’t find outside churches. Youth group, mission trips, weekly outreach projects, conferences, weekly high-quality oration, one’s daily “quiet time” devotional, music that encourages you to love the outcasts (I listened to a copious amount of Relient K), etc. These are rather specific to Evangelical culture, but I believe can be easily transferred.

      • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

        None of those things are specific to evangelical culture, it just happened to be something that tied them together in your experience. I’m not sure how typical your experience is though.

        I doubt atheists can be culturally evangelical in the way an atheist can be culturally jewish, because judaism has adapted so much to survive that it’s become very thin, basically the traditions without any dogma. While christianity at large and protestantism included are struggling to keep their dogmas but simultaneously catch up to ethical and scientific developments. It’s still pretty important in order to be christian to believe that jesus was himself a god, whereas there’s not really an analogous required belief to be jewish.

        If you’re looking for a church alternative without required dogmas or a belief system there’s an interesting phenomenon called Sunday Assembly.

      • Antonja Cermak

        Well the Unitarians may be somewhat close. They at least do have Sunday assemblies, youth groups, etc. They are certainly all about non-exclusion. And they don’t mind if you don’t accept Jesus, Trinity, etc.

        The Episcopalians do believe in Trinity, Jesus, etc. but they probably won’t insist you do if you just want to experience life with them. They are, however, a somewhat liturgical expression. The UCC usually has no problems accepting people who doubt into their body. The MCC might be another avenue to pursue.

        Perhaps you could start your own thing. It sounds like you have the leadership skills to do so.

        • Michael Harris

          Antonja! Sorry I never responded. I thought I did, but apparently the comment didn’t go through. I think I had a link in it is why.

          It’s been a while since I’ve checked out a unitarian congregation, so I’ll do that! Thanks for the suggestion. I really respect Episcopalian faith, as well, but the focus of both of those would probably be more on beliefs than life. I’d like to be a part of a community where the main focus is how we might live the most fulfilling lives possible, not how we should please God. I’m not against that, but it strikes me as so arbitrary, subjective, and polarizing to have lived out its usefulness. I’m definitely open to reconsidering that, though.

          I’d love to start something, too, but I’m wary of that. The line between “cult” and community gathering is a thin one indeed, depending on the nature of the gathering. I’m a recovering people-pleaser, and would want to make sure I was as healthy as possible before putting myself in that position. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

      • Elchupinazo

        I see what you’re getting at, but they are (and have been) easily transferred. Youths meet in groups to discuss all manner of topics, otherwise known as “clubs.” You can’t go on a “mission trip” without the religious bent, but you can go on trips to serve the needy by participating in Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, etc. There is no shortage of opportunities to hear quality speakers, either in person or online. “Devotionals,” without the religious subtext, are just meditation sessions. Most music is made by “outcasts,” and much of it seeks to strike a chord with them.

        If you’re talking about something where all of these things happen under one roof you might be on to something, but most college campuses provide a reasonable facsimile.

        • Michael Harris

          Yes! It’s the “all under one roof” thing I’m after. I agree that there are somewhat suitable alternatives at universities, but it’s the energetic let’s-do-life-together, all-encompassing housing that secular society is missing. I enjoy all the things you mentioned above, but I think where church succeeds and society does not is in the application of these things to an overarching pedagogy. Religion attempts to assimilate and streamline these practices in the context of a community for the sake of helping us lead more fulfilled lives.

  • D S

    Ick. Keeping evangelical culture is about the last thing I would want to retain if I’d already jettisoned the faith aspect. Evangelical culture is one of the most powerful arguments against Christianity.

    • Michael Harris

      D S, I can understand that. What, in particular, do you find so revolting about Evangelical culture when it’s divorced from its theology?

      • F M

        Evangelical culture is like Christian neoliberalism. You mentioned mission trips, which are a perfect example. They’re the ultimate individualist paternalism, where a bunch of white teenagers have a “cultural experience” (or my favorite “go to Africa” when there are dozens of nations on the continent) by using people of color as props in their own personal development.

        • Michael Harris

          No doubt this is a major issue. I wince when I think of myself doing the same thing when I was younger. But works of charity, (along with many aspects of Evangelical culture) when separated from the spiritual colonialism that is so pervasive in Christian culture, can be beautiful things. For ex, when I went on a mission trip to Mexico as a 6th grader, I was definitely (albeit unknowingly) using the people we met as props for my own personal development, as you say. But we did build them a house in three days. They lived in a cardboard shack before the trip. I think massive good was done there. I don’t see why teenagers couldn’t be informed of the tendency to have a “cultural experience,” “use others as props,” and “go to Africa,” and then still do massive good with this increased consciousness. If Evangelical passion could be combined with solid education, I think lovely things could occur.

          • http://sdcaulley.com sdcaulley

            I think I understand FM’s view. I was an MK living on the mission field full time. What always bothered me the most about short term mission trips were not the humanitarian aspect but the fevered rush to try to make converts with no plan as to who was going to continue the growth and investment once the group was gone.

  • John Corbitt

    According to God, your “heritage” without doctrine is like rain clouds without life-giving rain. Worthless. 1Cor. 15:17-19 says “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Why most pitied? Because you cling to something that you do not even consider true. Dumb really. If it’s not true, eat, drink and be merry, cuz this life is it.

  • John Corbitt

    No doubt you believe that one can still be good without being a believer. Logically that is a huge fail. Without an outside-of-man authority of what is good, whose goodness is true and whose power to judge those who do wrong impeccable, unfailing, then as one who chooses to do things that other men consider wrong, who are you to tell other men what is good? And vice versa? Ex: If it’s good for me to take what is yours, including your wife, home, wealth, then that is absolutely OK. Who would you be to tell me otherwise? At that point, anything goes. Only God, who never lies, can tell us what is good for us and what is evil and therefore harmful to us. Only God would love us enough in our fallen state to sacrifice Himself for us. Only God would have the power to come back to life, proving that His great work of mercy and love was valid. And only God could be trusted when He says believe or perish.

    • Michael Harris

      John, I understand your perspective, but it is A perspective. Some call it moral universalism. You think that without an arbiter (like God) of absolute morality, we have no standard for what is good or what is bad. Personally, I think ethics/being good or bad are fluid throughout time. If we were able to zap to the past, (say the middle ages) you and I would be burned at the stake for agreeing with Copernicus that the Earth is not the center of the universe. At the time, that was Truth. To believe it was “good.” Today we we think differently. Years from now, Christians may believe it is a sin to eat their fellow creatures. Who knows? History teaches us that our morality does not stay constant. Ethics are a necessary mechanism for a society to function, but societies change. So, to use your example, if I had a wife, home, or wealth, (alas, no such luck) of course I couldn’t claim that you stealing those things from me is “universally bad,” because I don’t have that kind of authority. Thankfully, we live in a society that acknowledges we all benefit from safeguarding individual rights, so if you did that, the government would subdue you using force (ie; police). Personally, I choose not to steal (even if I could get away with it) because I do not believe it is conducive to the most fulfilling life.

      • John Corbitt

        You make my point perfectly that your belief that “ethics/being good or bad are fluid throughout time” make goodness/righteousness by man’s determination, a pointless pursuit. If the only reason to be good or moral is to avoid consequences, whether societal or personal, then if I think that doing something against you is good for me, and I can get away with it, then by all means, I should and will do it. Good luck protesting it if you can’t prove I committed the offense. Justice, by your reasoning, is a joke.
        But thank God, He defines righteousness and judges those who violate His Law and reject His Risen Son’s righteousness by foolishly trusting in their own.

        • David Lucas

          John: “Logically a huge fail.” No. It depends on what you mean by “being a believer.” The problem is with ascribing properties to the “outside-of-man authority”. An orientation towards the good that accompanies a sense of striving is indeed an important component of a moral life. The point however, is that this striving must never be brought to a halt by way of naming God and intuiting his will. Once you define the end, it looses the separation from the self that is required for orienting yourself to something greater, and becomes instrumentalized as a tool for all kinds of subjective agendas that we coerce God into supporting. “Being a believer”, in the way that you intend it, is a narrowly defined, culturally specific concept of God that deflates the project of orienting ourselves towards something greater by instead orienting ourselves towards a concept of God that we and our congregation approve of. One we do that, we’ve dragged God down from heaven and situated him squarely in the world. The belief that it’s possible to “still be good without being a believer” only becomes a fallacy if you confuse the ends with the means. Religion is a means, not an end. Practically speaking, I would say it’s more dangerous to assume that you know God’s name and what he wants you to do to please him, than it is to try to do the right thing, without believing that that you know the nature of God.

  • Suegirly

    There is a place for you. It’s the Unitarian Universalist church. It’s exactly what you’re looking for. But no…Christianity is not going to change for you…nor should it.

  • http://GracefullyTrans.wordpress.com/ Brettany Renée Blatchley

    If I may generalize a bit:

    In recent years, I have moved from being an Evangelical with a capital-E to being a little-e evangelical.

    I see “evangelicalism” as *one* way of relating to Christ, and “Evangelicalism” as being a subculture that adds many human-made assumptions and expectations to the basic (evangelical) relationship with God. One of those assumptions is the all-or-nothing approach Michael describes (and I see very negatively reiterated by some prior comments here): you’re with US or you’re with THEM (and THEM is not a good group to be with because they’re “Hell-bound”). I finally tired of this hurtful nonsense about the time Evangelicals in my life decided they could not live with me as a transgender person. That broke our relationship along a line that had already been scored by a number of other intolerant views about other debatable points…

    …Unlike Michael, I have decided that there is too much in the Evangelical subculture that is insular and (in my view) counter to the whole point of Jesus life, teaching and sacrifice for us, that I can no longer make my home among them (though we share Christ in common) – it’s sad really because my way of relating to Jesus and to them could enable us to live in joyful unity, BUT their way of relating to Christ allows no room in God’s family for people other than themselves (forming a boundary they regularly and ruthlessly police). Their way of relating to God will not accept that there could be legitimate ways of being Christian other than *their way* (which they assert/assume to be God’s way). For individuals in that subculture to even publicly entertain the possibility, is to mark oneself for “reeducation” (and failing that: “eradication”) from their church (which is presumed to be The Church, as-if they controlled the “guest-list” instead of God). So, when people start raising questions, that is when they are generally pushed-out (or in my case excommunicated). I have come to realize that such people are characterized by their faith in their dogmas and traditions rather than God who is over all – that is, they have “faith in ‘faith'” rather than faith in God…

    …Funny thing is that I never stopped following Jesus and our relationship deepened, and I became someone He could more easily love others through. I learned to be very secure in my position with Jesus, and as a result, I can take risks for Him with the talents I’ve been given. AND I have found community with other believers who can imagine something beyond the fundamentalism of Evangelicalism, embracing the fact that none of us have an “open-and-shut” understanding of God and God’s ways.

  • Mark Byron

    I hear a rejection of Pentecostal excesses (as a recovering “Bapticostal” Vineyardite, I hear you loud and clear) and of a bad Pharisee streak in the modern church. I don’t hear you rejecting Jesus coming to be God incarnate and loving mankind enough to die for us. That gift of salvation that you seemed to receive and helped other get will survive you not being a member of the Ken Ham Fan Club (me, neither) or favoring same-sex-marriage (not with you there, sorry). The UU folks want to recruit you, but if you didn’t toss out Jesus with the bathwater, you need not go that far to the theological left to find a home.

  • LDH

    Your last paragraph pretty much described a Unitarian Universalist Church. I’m an ORU alum who also experienced “falling out of faith” and the Unitarian Fellowship I joined fulfills for me the same desire for a religious community you seem to want.