The Evangelical Shift, Part 1: Evangelical Refugees
For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated by reports that there are a number of Evangelical or ex-Evangelical Christians in America who have left their traditional churches and who are finding a spiritual home in liturgically-based Mainline Protestant churches—the Episcopal Church in particular.
The phenomenon of the “Evangelical refugee” seeking sanctuary in the Episcopal church first came to my attention a few years ago, when I started reading the work of a few well-known Christian bloggers, writers, and musicians talking about their experiences with liturgical worship. When writer Rachel Held Evans was getting ready to launch her book “Searching for Sunday” early in 2015, her switch from an Evangelical church to the Episcopal church was not only well-documented (even here at the Episcopal Cafe), but also caused consternation in some conservative Christian circles that she had abandoned true religion for the “high of smells and bells.”
But rumors of this exodus didn’t stop there. At that time, there were a number of writers talking about discovering liturgical worship in an environment that aligned with their values in Episcopal and other progressive, mainline churches. Evans shared a moving post about writers she knew who were on a similar journey, and the Episcopal Cafe asked if there was a trend of young Evangelicals seeking liturgical churches, which listed writer and musician Aaron Niequist, writer Jonathan Merritt, and others as fellow pilgrims.
As someone who comes from an Evangelical background myself, having grown up in the conservative Church of the Nazarene, then, after much wandering in the wilderness, and finally rediscovering the mystery and solemnity of worship in an Episcopal church, I took notice of the experiences I was reading about that so closely mirrored my own.
I began to wonder if this migration was a real thing, and if so, how big a “thing” it was and what was driving it.
In an era like ours, characterized by reports of the decline of Christianity in America, any movement within the church can feel significant. It’s important to remember that the backdrop for this anecdotal movement is the many recent reports about the decline in Christian religious affiliation and church attendance in America, particularly from the Pew Research Center in the widely publicized Religious Landscape Study.
While Pew is not not the only source of data on the matter, its study was the one that made headlines with reports of the steep drop in church membership and the growth in numbers of among those unaffiliated with any religion or church, the “nones” (those who selected “none” under the question of religious affiliation).
Across all Christian denominations, church attendance is falling off, which leads some to say that the country is becoming less religious, or at least less Christian—and that may be the case. Even in denominations with modest gains in numbers of attendees, such as with Evangelical denominations, a decline in percentage of the overall population shows that the downward trend affects us all.
In light of this in downturn in church membership, I wondered if the migration of this band of “refugees” was really just a blip on the research radar—a brief rest stop among people who are looking for something different, like preachers in skinny jeans in megachurches with fog machines and coffee shops, perhaps as a last milestone on their way out of the religion business in general.
If it was more than that, and the phenomenon new Episcopalians coming from Evangelical backgrounds is real, even if it’s just a small caravan of strangers seeking shelter, I want to get a sense of what is attractive to this group about the Episcopal church, to get a sense of what, as a body, Episcopalians can do to emphasize, elevate, and educate on those aspects that make us most welcoming to those who are seeking a spiritual home—and ideally welcome new members into the fold.
Once we got into the numbers, most of the people that I talked for this article told me that the numbers were hard to quantify, but had met enough fellow travelers and heard enough stories firsthand to give it the feeling of a movement, even if the reasons for people making the move were varied between individuals.
When I talked with Rachel Held Evans, who is soon to launch her newest book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” to ask what her experience has been and whether she has observed significant migration, or just a few significant voices, she told me that she had heard of several among her friends, particularly people who were starting to feel disconnected from the Evangelical tradition or from their particular community: “I don’t know if the statistics bear this out, because there’s a new survey that comes out every week. And some of them are hard to interpret, especially when people are migrating. There’s often a kind of wandering time in between. All I can point to is anecdotal evidence of a shift over to more liturgical tradition among my disenfranchised, disenchanted Evangelical friends. They tend to either quit altogether or find their place in a progressive liturgical church.”
I also talked with writer and self-described liturgical convert Jerusalem Greer, who is the Project Evangelist for Baptized for Life: An Episcopal Discipleship Initiative (a project out of Virginia Theological Seminary and funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.), and from whom I also borrowed the term “Evangelical refugees,” about her take on this movement, which she certainly experiences as real in the South and in her home state of Arkansas: “I think it’s really a thing. I don’t think it’s necessarily nationwide yet. I think there are pockets of it. It’s definitely a thing in my part of the world. It’s probably the most prevalent here.” When I asked her what she thought people were looking for, she said, “I do feel like in a lot of instances, people are looking a place that is more progressive when it comes to social justice, gay marriage, supporting women, those sorts of things, which unfortunately have also become political. But then they also want the liturgical elements, and a safe place to have those conversations.”
Writer and musician Aaron Niequist, author of the forthcoming “The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning,” which talks about the shift from beliefs-based faith to practice-based faith, and who has worked to introduce liturgical music and experiences into Evangelical worship, talked with me about the attraction of the history and tradition of liturgy itself for people from Evangelical backgrounds,
“At first, I thought it was just a few, and now I’m realizing it’s widespread. Everywhere you go, people who grew up Evangelical churches are going this is good, but it’s paper thin, and realizing that there’s got to be more. A few are doubling down and staying in their churches with their families, but many are moving to different traditions, or a lot of them are just jumping ship from the whole thing. For them, the liturgical tradition feels like recapturing or remembering some of these things—it feels like maybe your parents threw the baby out with the bathwater, and has really been meaningful.”
Another person I spoke with who sees the pull of history as something that might attract people to the Episcopal church is the Right Reverend Clifton “Dan” Daniel, who is currently the Interim Dean at the Cathedral of St John Divine in NYC (where I also work and worship): “I think it’s been a steady stream, perhaps not as dramatic as it was in past years, but it may have gained some notice in recent days because the young age of many of the folks coming from other churches. In my summation, the millennial generation are looking for something that is stable, something that is traditional, and they’re looking for some authenticity, which they seem to find in the Episcopal Church, that roots them in a moving stream through history.“
Do these stories make “Evangelical refugees” a thing? The stories suggest so, but the numbers are hard to quantify.
Writer Jonathan Merritt, author of the soon-to-be-released “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them” and cohost of “The Faith Angle” podcast, talked with me about the challenges in putting numbers to the stories: “If I put on my journalist hat, I couldn’t necessarily affirm it was a real thing without any data. But a big study from Barna this year is on Christian liturgy and how familiar people were with Christian liturgy. What they found was that higher numbers of Millennials and Gen-Xers say they’re curious about liturgical styles than Boomers and Elders. I think that’s massive—that there’s a higher level of curiosity around liturgy because the Evangelical church tends to be a “low-turgic” expression of worship, so I think that the liturgical piece is somewhat attractive. So, is it anecdotal? Absolutely. Is it quantifiable? Not yet.”
For some people that I talked with, it’s not just an attraction to the liturgy that might draw former Evangelicals to mainline, progressive churches. In this era, it’s difficult to separate what’s happening religiously from what’s happening politically in our society.
Politics came up a several times in these discussions. In the years since I read about the first “refugees”, a lot has happened in America, including our continued fragmentation along racial, economic, and political lines. In the narrative of the 2016 presidential election, Evangelicals—particularly white Evangelicals—figure prominently. I wondered if the polarizing politics of the day had any effect on the shifting movement between denominations, either causing white Evangelicals who may earlier have been on the fence and willing to explore liturgical worship to double down on their traditions in this time of chaos, or if there were those who looked around and said, this isn’t working for me, I can no longer align myself with what we’re doing, I have to find a new place to call my spiritual home.
“I do think that the moment that we’re in with the election of Donald Trump is going to produce a future think-shift in American Christianity that will be measured in the years to come,” Merritt says. “Will this be one of them? I think it’s possible. I think there’s been a reaction against the partisan political affiliation with the Republican Party that’s so common among Evangelicals, and I think you’ve got a lot of young people reacting against that. When you ask if I just have stories or if I have hard evidence, at this point I just have stories. But I have a lot of those stories.”
This moment in our history, as we see what’s going on at the intersection of religion and politics, is particularly challenging for people of color. As I started working on this article, the NY Times published a moving article entitled “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers are Leaving White Evangelical Churches”. The Times asserts that many black Americans who have been worshipping in the Evangelical environment feel abandoned by the right-wing politics and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) personal and systemic racism they experienced in those communities.
So while researching this series, I not only talked with writers and clergy about what the Episcopal church is doing well, but we also talked about what we can do better, specifically we can do that would make the Episcopal church more inclusive, ecumenical, and radically hospitable to people of all races and colors who walk through our doors.
While we realize that the Episcopal Church has members who span the political spectrum, even as we come to the table to take the sacraments together, the church, on a national level, has predominantly leaned toward the socially progressive. The Episcopal Church has been active in recent years in support of women, in support of fiercely defending the dignity of LGBT people, and, in many areas, has marched at the front lines for social justice. But demographically, the Episcopal Church does not fully represent the great racial diversity of America, as was reflected in the fact that most of the writers I had read on the subject were middle class and white. With all of this in mind, I also wanted to ask what the Episcopal Church can do to be a more welcoming spiritual home to people of all colors and races.
I talked with the Very Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, Ph.D., Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and author of several books, including “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” about how the political alignment of Evangelical churches has spurred some people, both white and people of color, to leave in search of a new home. “I think we’re talking about the same thing when it comes to white people who find themselves leaving the Evangelical church and traditions and people of color who are leaving those traditions. It seems to me that in both instances you find people who have become disenchanted with what they have seen in terms of the Evangelical retreat from certain values that they have for so long held to be priorities for them. Particularly when we’re talking about the white Evangelical population whose values traditionally put a high priority on personal morality, etc., and what you see, particularly, throughout the recent elections, is that these personal moral values seem to no longer be the priority for a group of people who’ve always even considered themselves, quote, unquote, ‘value voters.’ When we have seen that the white Evangelical community has supported candidates who don’t uphold those kind of values, the question becomes ‘Why?’”
“So there is disenchantment because there’s the loss of this core value center, which doesn’t allow for the respect of all people,” Douglas continues. “Human values are at stake when you’re suggesting not simply that certain people are a problem, but that certain people are an affront to God. This doesn’t equate well, with what the Evangelical tradition has upheld, at least in theory, which is everyone’s equality before God.”
So to return to my first question, the conversations I am having confirm that the concept of the “Evangelical refugee” is real enough and documented enough to be considered a phenomenon, although it won’t be easy to quantify for some time.
As we talk about why people are moving, it sounds like this migration is happening for a number of reasons, some positive—the attraction to liturgy, the rootedness in history, progressive values that align with those of visitors who join us—and some negative, including a sense of disenchantment with the political and social direction of the churches in which people formerly worshipped—which, in many cases, were the same churches in which they were raised.
It’s tempting to say that people making changes in their religious affiliation, particularly young people, are pursuing the next trendy, hip thing. Particularly when the move is from a more traditionally conservative church to a progressive one, it can look on the surface like leaving a kind of “orthodoxy” in search of a less challenging worship that is a better fit with a culture in which religion is in decline.
But it is not easy to leave a church community, which in my experience can be as much family as one’s actual blood relatives, so I take seriously the sincere and heartfelt reasons that cause people to uproot themselves and look for sanctuary in a new worship environment. And the stories I’ve been hearing, as well as my own experience, have opened my eyes to the deep history of liturgical worship, the apostolic origin of the creeds, the Christ-centeredness of the sacraments, and the thoughtful theology that underpins the Episcopal Church’s mission for social justice.
If there is any there is an overarching narrative I’ve uncovered, it is less about finding a church that is easy and is more about an authentic restlessness to find that which is true, good, and real.
Writer Zach Hoag, whose book “The Light is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life” looks at the current decline in religion in America as an apocalyptic opportunity to return to a greater orthodoxy, focusing not so much on saving our churches and ideologies as focusing on the message of Jesus himself, talks about his own transition from a conservative, Evangelical environment, to mainline liturgical worship:
“And that, really, is the reason for religion. It sends the roots of our faith down deep. It drops anchor right to the bottom, connecting us to the history from which we’ve come. It provides handholds for our attention and our affection in the midst of all the distractions that are relentlessly competing for them. The routine and the ritual, the repetition and the rhythm—these are what shape us into the people of God. It is not a bland pursuit of cultural relevance that will sustain us over the long haul, nor is deconstructing ourselves into oblivion to keep pace with the culture, but the rooted practices that define who we are as religious people. If our Christian faith is going to flourish in the decades ahead, outward success won’t matter at all. Deep substance will.”
For me, this conversation isn’t about the numbers. Nor is it about any competition between denominations of the Church. We are all one Body and have a faith large enough to hold many theologies and interpretations, which we see as far back as when Paul wrote to the diverse fledgling churches in the 1st century. With that in mind, I would be hard pressed to say that any denomination has it all figured out, or that we don’t all have a lot that we can learn from our diverse but often complementary traditions.
It is also not about criticizing Evangelical church tradition. I don’t want to sugarcoat our differences or shy away from conversations that shine a light on the real difficulties that people have faced or are facing within Evangelical communities, as those conversations are relevant to this discussion. But I want to stress the ecumenical nature of this discussion, and my respect for those who worship in the Evangelical tradition.
Although I’m a practicing, confirmed Episcopalian, I still cherish the community and the chance to worship together with my family and friends in Evangelical churches when I go to visit, even if I disagree with some of the teaching. In fact, I have also heard stories of people moving from mainline churches to Evangelical churches, for the community, the connection to scripture and teaching, and the energy of the worship—and there’s a lot that Episcopalians and other mainline churches can learn from these things that Evangelicals do really well. I grew up in the Evangelical tradition, and it is home to me–where I learned about the Lord and about worship and about fellowship. I even cherish the spirited debates afterward.
But in many ways, these are conversations and debates that we as a whole Christian body need to have, informing and challenging one another, looking at what our traditions do well and can do better, and to try to be the Body of Christ as we move through this world.
And as long as we who are within the Episcopal church know that there are people out there who are looking for a place to worship, and to whom we have something to offer, it is important for us to understand why they are coming, and to find ways we can be the most radically welcoming church we can be. This conversation will help us understand where we as a church and people are going—and who’s coming to join us!
I’d like to thank all of those who took the time to talk with me, and whose views on a number of topics, including liturgy, sacraments, wrestling with controversial issues, the continuing struggle for inclusivity and justice, and the interchange between Christian denominations, will appear in this space in the coming weeks.
[Originally published in Episcopal Cafe Magazine]