By Eugene Schlesinger
Though forecasts of doom are surely premature, even the casual observer can tell that American evangelicalism is in a time of crisis. Not being an evangelical, I do not wish to speculate about, or attempt to diagnose, the precise reasons for this ferment. I should not judge other servants, and I trust that my evangelical sisters and brothers will stand and fall by their master, who is indeed able to make them stand (Rom. 14:4). What interests me, though, is the phenomenon of post-evangelicals: those who had at one time identified with broadly evangelical Christianity, and who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to do so. Many post-evangelicals have found a new home in the Episcopal Church, and I hope that more will do so, so long as it remains true that we can unfeignedly say The Episcopal Church Welcomes You to them as well.
At the outset it is worth noting that the post-evangelical experience differs. Just as evangelicalism defies definition, and encompasses a rather diverse populace, those who move on from evangelical identities are also diverse. I do not pretend to catalogue them all, but list here several of the most prominent varieties of post-evangelical experience. Further, it is obvious enough that these types of post-evangelical can overlap in various permutations.
There are, first of all, angry ex-evangelicals. For whatever reasons (some surely valid, others probably not so much), they harbor a resentment toward their former communities. Perhaps they have been wounded, or have grown tired of seeing others wounded. Perhaps they have seen a seedy underbelly that betrays a gross hypocrisy they can no longer countenance. Some “angry ex” types renounce Christian belief altogether. Others migrate into other types of Christian communions but carry with them still-tender scars and a tendency to understand themselves in terms of what they no longer are.
Other former evangelicals find themselves more positively drawn to something else. Some are attracted to the wider Catholic tradition and, craving liturgical depth and sacramental formation, migrate into another ecclesial configuration that supplies this traditional mooring. The phenomenon of “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” remains common (see a couple Covenant examples here and here). These post-evangelicals are not so much repudiating evangelicalism as they are moving into a wider Catholic reality, which fulfills their former style of Christianity even while transcending it.
Others, awakened from a GOP-dogmatic slumber, realize that the Bible speaks to moral issues beyond the culture-war talking points of abortion and sexual ethics, that it stresses corporate solidarity as much as individual responsibility, and that darling issues of the liberal/progressive vision (such as justice) are near to the heart of the Old Testament’s prophetic outlook. Set free from their lockstep with the Republican Party, they adopt more progressive causes and stances. In many cases, their quest for justice leads them to re-examine matters of sexuality, leading to an “affirming stance” on LGBTQ issues and placing them at odds with their erstwhile evangelical compatriots, such that they wind up finding a church that shares their views and priorities.
Still others have suffered an identity crisis as they have watched some of the old guard of the evangelical movement offer more or less carte blanche to President Trump, a man who embodies almost everything that these evangelical stalwarts had formerly stood against: rapaciousness, adultery, vulgarity, etc. Here I do not intend to enter into the political fray, either to condemn or absolve evangelical Trump supporters. Rather, I just note that the Trump campaign and administration has indeed provoked an identity crisis for many evangelicals. They can no longer identify with the evangelical movement, and find themselves homeless in the landscape of American Christianity. Such post-evangelicals have become so, not because they’ve left any evangelical values or priorities behind, but precisely because they still uphold them.
The Episcopal Church has the opportunity to both provide a home and refuge for these post-evangelicals and to be enriched by them. Yet to do so we must be careful in a few different ways. We can provide a place of healing for the angry ex-evangelical, but only if we refuse to let that person fester in bitterness, and only if we refuse to sneer at other types of Christians (for whatever reason). We can embrace the Canterbury trail types, who have come for a deepened catholicity, but only if we continue to hold fast to Catholic faith and order, refusing to capitulate to the temptation to make ourselves “relevant” or to capitulate to the cultural Zeitgeist. Those who adopted a more holistic view of justice have, perhaps, the most natural affinity with the Episcopal Church, particularly those who have adopted an affirming view of same-sex sexuality. Very little needs to be done to accommodate and welcome them.
On the other hand, what of those who come to us still holding traditional positions on issues of sexuality? While there are still distinct minorities who hold these views, the majority of the Episcopal Church has adopted revisionist positions. Neither the remaining traditionalist minority nor an influx of post-evangelicals are at all likely to reverse this trajectory. Indeed, it would be quixotic to attempt this. Nevertheless, it is worth asking to what extent the Episcopal Church will welcome them too, especially as the prospect of prayer book revision lies before us.
Recently Twitter was ablaze with a dispute about who could be considered a progressive Christian, and specifically if those who held non-affirming views on sexuality could truly belong to the progressive camp. As with evangelicalism, I have no dog in the fight over progressivism. This Twitter tempest uncovered some deep-seated suspicions within the progressive camp and some definite tendencies to exclude dissident voices. The Episcopal Church has the opportunity to embody a different way. We are a Christian church, founded upon the gospel of Jesus. We need not give in to the politics of fear and exclusion, whether they come in the garb of the right or of the left.
Finally, though, the direction of benefit is not solely from the Episcopal Church to the post-evangelicals. Instead, we have the opportunity for genuine enrichment from post-evangelicals who find their way to us, for the Episcopal Church has become much poorer for its dearth of evangelical witness. Here we must tread lightly in our assimilation of evangelicals, for assimilation can be either good or bad. Good assimilation will seek to integrate newcomers fully into our communal life. Bad assimilation will seek to shave away their particularity so that they simply blend in. Yes, evangelicals can and should be reshaped by their engagement with and incorporation into the Episcopal Church, but so should the Episcopal Church be transformed by them. Emphases like Bible study, personal conversion, and evangelistic witness are not the sole property of evangelicalism, but they are strengths. The Episcopal Church could do far worse than to receive a healthy dose of them, particularly since, as congregations shrink, only by evangelism (and, of course, the grace of God) will we survive.
This particular cultural moment may turn out to be, in the providence of God, precisely what’s needed, both for Episcopalians and for these recently homeless former evangelicals. In this way we may see something of a fulfillment of the Solemn Collect:
Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.
 It was a fairly wonderful and liberating turning point when I realized that I did not have to comment upon or repudiate statements or actions coming from the evangelical camp that I found problematic. This not being my camp, I have neither the responsibility nor the right to offer my viewpoints to them.
 I’ll avoid naming names, for a variety of reasons.
 Solemn Collect for Good Friday, 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 280 (also used at ordinations).
[…] Though forecasts of doom are surely premature, even the casual observer can tell that American evang… […]
I think perhaps the author does reveal a bias: use of the terms “traditionalist” and “revisionist” are code words just as much as any others.
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Fr. Solon.
I’m certainly not trying to use coded speech in describing positions, and regret giving that impression.
Part of my point is that even across disagreements on issues of sexuality, we can hold together because of our communion in Christ. This doesn’t involve pretending that the differences aren’t there, nor require us to resort to code words or dog whistles.
Thanks for making it clear that as an evangelical on the Canterbury Trail I need to look for an alternative to the American Episcopal Church for a spiritual home. The implicit denigration of traditionalist views on sexuality and gender as something to be condescendingly tolerated and accommodated within TEC comes across as a clear “move along” message to anyone not a captive of modern progressivism. Fortunately there and other Anglican alternatives to be explored on the American church scene.
Thank you, Doug, for taking the time to read and comment. I’m sorry that this is the impression you’ve gotten from my essay. I hope you don’t feel that I’ve denigrated traditionalist views “as something to be condescendingly tolerated and accommodated within TEC.” I cannot pretend that traditionalist/conservative views on sexuality are anything but a minority in the Episcopal Church. In the essay I’m not suggesting that they should merely be tolerated, I’m appealing to the majority to make the Episcopal Church a truly welcoming place for people coming to (or remaining with) them who retain this minority view. Though… Read more »
Thank you for this post on this subject. Although heretofore unbaptized and unchurched, I see myself in all of the categories you described. I am currently a catchumen hoping for baptism and communion some time in the next month in a small parish in rural Tennessee and I thought I would comment on my experiences and what attracts me to TEC. 1. As a youth I questioned my gender and sexual identity. As an adult in my 30s I identify as bisexual and gender fluid, never married and no kids, although I have found that in my personal experience heterosexual… Read more »
I attended the Episcopal Church from about 1993 to about 2010. During that time I never met a self-described evangelical. I’ve heard of them in theory but never in practice. Granted my sample size is small, four parishes across four different states in the deep south. I’m aware that they do exist across the Anglican Communion with figures such as John Stott, JI Packer or NT Wright. I don’t think serious evangelicals would feel at home in TEC. I recall being interested once n a proposed bible study based on an NT Wright book. Wright’s views were derided as those… Read more »
Hey, Scott: I think your sample size is probably too small! There are authors on this very blog who describe themselves as evangelicals, and quite a few parishes (fewer than there were before 2008-9 however). Whether they feel “at home in TEC” — well, I suppose many people, not just evangelicals, have problems with that.