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In a post-Trump world, these pastors are ditching the evangelical label for something new

Church leaders gather for roundtable discussions during a post-evangelical gathering at South Bend City Church on Oct. 12 and 13 in South Bend, Ind. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Emotions ran high at the gathering of about 100 pastors at a church about five miles from the University of Notre Dame. Many hugged. Some shed tears. One confessed she could not pray anymore.

Some had lost funding and others had been fired from their churches for adopting more liberal beliefs. All had left the evangelical tradition and had come to discuss their next steps as “post-evangelicals.”

The two-day meeting, which took place at South Bend City Church in mid-October, was intended for just 25 pastors but grew through word-of-mouth. It is part of a larger reckoning inside congregations and among individuals grappling with their faith identity in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. Many of these leaders were startled to learn that about 8 out of 10 White evangelicals voted for Trump in both of his presidential runs, and they believe the evangelical movement has been co-opted by Republican politics.

“There’s obviously some sort of desire for belonging for people who feel homeless right now,” said Mike Goldsworthy, a California-based ordained minister who organized the gathering.

As the pastors traded stories, they quickly found shared experiences. They lamented their conservative evangelical parents who watch Fox News, as well as their peers who had reexamined their beliefs so much that they lost their faith entirely. They skewed younger, many in their 30s with tattoos covering their arms.

Most of the leaders held some belief in Jesus and the idea that people gathering in churches is still a good idea. Many want their churches to be affirming, meaning that they would perform same-sex weddings and include LGBTQ people in leadership and membership. They preferred curiosity over certainty, inclusion over exclusion.

They also vocally oppose racial injustice and Trump. And they want their churches to be part of solutions to building or rebuilding their local communities. (South Bend City Church, where they met, had purchased and renovated a section of a historical Studebaker factory as part of a local effort to revitalize the area.)

They looked to each other to ask, What could it look like to organize as “post-evangelicals?” They had at least one thing in common: They were all on some journey of deconstruction, the process of reexamining their long-held beliefs, and they wanted to participate in reconstruction and the building up of something new.

Amy Mikal, who was once a pastor at Chicago-based megachurch Willow Creek, is one of those leaders. She said that her new church, called A Restoration Church, is avoiding megachurch strategies such as taking pictures from the ceiling to count attendance. She’s encouraging her congregants to reconsider God with male pronouns. And as a church, they’re studying through the Bible to see what they think collectively.

“The hardest part is that we were taught to take the Bible literally,” Mikal said. “We want to be a place that asks more questions than provides answers.”

‘Our job is to create the conversation’

Over the past several decades, the evangelical movement has produced celebrity preachers and teachers with churches that attract thousands of people to their services. But most of the leaders gathered here didn’t have massive social media followings, podcasts or books to sell. Their discussions were led by Scott Erickson, an Austin-based artist, and Brit Barron, a Black-Mexican lesbian who worked for a megachurch in California at 26 before she began reexamining her beliefs.

As she jumped on the church stage as the group’s “spiritual guide,” Barron joked about possibly needing a fog machine, like the ones used in many evangelical megachurches. She asked the gathered leaders whether it was necessary to believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, a question that would make most evangelicals deeply uncomfortable because it is generally seen as a core belief of the Christian faith. In this room, no one walked out, but no one cheered either. The pastors just listened.

“We can come to the table knowing that we are good, that we have divinity in us,” Barron said as they were about to take Communion together.

During an interview, Barron said she didn’t know what a post-evangelical movement could look like.

“Should there be alignment on anything? H---, if I know,” she said. “Our job is to create the conversation. If someone opens up and says, ‘I don’t know if any of this is real,’ then we’re doing our job.”

Barron began reexamining her faith after she picked up a book by the late author Rachel Held Evans and in 2016 came out as a lesbian, prompting her to leave her church. Now, she said, she wants people to focus less on “here’s what the church did to me” and more what the church could become.

“You shouldn’t have to believe anything in particular to be a part of this group,” she said, before pausing to reconsider. “Well, if you’re racist and homophobic, you might be uncomfortable.”

Most of the pastors gathered here come from worlds where there is no hierarchy, no pope, no single authority. But for most, it was a place where the Bible and sharing about Jesus were core values, and voting Republican is considered the Christian thing to do.

Some of the leaders left the evangelical tradition decades ago but decided not to find a home in a more liberal, mainline Protestant church where they might find shared beliefs and institutional support. Many of these leaders appreciate the nondenominational structure that gives them more freedom to create their own structures and rules, so some of these leaders, like Texas-based Pastor Zach Lambert, have planted, or built, their own churches.

But getting funding to start these churches was a common complaint. Recently, Lambert, who leads Restore Austin Church, said when he hired a Black female pastor, two people told him that they wouldn’t give him funding because she was a woman. Another said they wouldn’t give funding because she was Black and, they feared, adhered to Black liberation theology, a perspective considered too liberal for many White evangelicals.

Lambert said that he stopped referring to himself as an evangelical in the past few years because it does more harm than good in his more liberal city of Austin.

“I don’t want people to know that I’m a pastor until two drinks in,” he said. “The word ‘evangelical’ does nothing for me. It’s only negative. Trump was the last straw.”

Defining ‘evangelical’

Exit polls in previous elections have shown that White evangelicals have made up about a quarter of those who voted, making them a valuable voting bloc, but it wasn’t until recent decades that the evangelical movement has been strongly associated with conservative political beliefs.

The word evangelical comes from a Greek word that means “good news,” and historically the word is connected to famous preachers like Billy Graham, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and their followers. Graham’s break with fundamentalist leaders in the mid-20th century led most evangelicals somewhere between hard-right fundamentalism and more liberal mainline Protestantism.

Many academics of evangelicalism have tried to summarize evangelical beliefs as those who share belief in the authority of the Bible, belief in Jesus as humans’ only savior and an emphasis in sharing the gospel. But there are no agreed upon definitions or set of rules for the label “evangelical.”

Today, they tend to attend church and pray at higher rates than most other Americans, though the kind of person who calls themselves an evangelical has shifted, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis. There has been no large-scale exodus from the evangelical movement since Trump’s 2016 election, but those who have adopted the term evangelical since then are far less likely to be regular churchgoers, according to Pew’s Greg Smith.

Many who have dropped the label evangelical go in different directions: they might become mainline Protestant or Catholic, or they might leave the Christian faith entirely. A movement called “exvangelicals” that started as a hashtag in 2016 captured the experiences of thousands of people who have left evangelicalism.

The idea to create an organized group of “post-evangelicals” for people who remain in the Protestant tradition has been raised before, though it has never taken off in any formal way. In the early 2000s, many evangelicals joined the emerging church movement, which challenged traditional Christian understandings of faith. It has mostly faded from the landscape, but still influences many pastors today.

David Moses Perez, who left the evangelical tradition after several decades, said his experience didn’t take place after “church trauma,” like many others who had come to South Bend who may have been forced out of their churches. His “deconstruction journey” happened when he reexamined his own theology while reading emerging church authors like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.

When his Spero Dei Church in Nashville started in 2018, he decided against crafting a statement of faith and instead shares five values that aren’t concrete.

“It’s pretty d--- messy,” Perez said. “We’re always evolving, always changing.”

The two biggest issues that came up in several conversations were LGBTQ inclusion and racial justice and how those topics have led to their members deconstructing, or reevaluating, their faith.

Angela Logan, who is Black and grew up in a predominantly Black church tradition, said she had to square her Church of God upbringing with her Catholic education and said she’s been deconstructing her faith her whole life.

“To hear people here talk about deconstruction recently, I think, that wasn’t your childhood?” she said.

She began attending South Bend City Church in 2016, shortly before it decided to become LGBTQ affirming. Now, she said, she couldn’t go back to a non-affirming church even as her current one remains predominantly White.

“It would feel like a betrayal to gay friends,” she said. “I want to be an ally for people in a space they couldn’t fit in.”

Many religious Americans are becoming more accepting of LGBTQ people, according to research by Denison University political scientist Paul Djupe, who found that while 90 percent of evangelicals believed that their house of worship forbade homosexuality in 2007, that dropped to 65 percent in 2020.

One pastor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, said he had mixed feelings about his church’s plan to become an LGBTQ-affirming church. But coming here and hearing from author and speaker Matthew Vines, who works with churches that want to become more inclusive, gave him more confidence to make the change.

On the second day of the gathering, Houston pastor Sean Palmer, who is Black and heads a predominantly White congregation, led a group of about 20 about how White people can speak up for racial justice.

“White people are fragile,” Palmer told the group. “I’m like, ‘Is that trauma, or did someone hurt your feelings?’ ”

Palmer said what post-evangelicals could work on was producing a corporate liturgy for repentance and forgiveness for the sin of racism.

“A lot of places in society will make you eat it for lunch if you confess to racism,” he said. “Church is the place you can confess and find forgiveness.”

A collective future

Toward the end of the first day, the leaders huddled over roundtables and discussed whether a similar gathering could take place next year. With more marketing and sponsorships, they knew it could draw an even bigger crowd and become even more collectively powerful. But with more people and more money involved, some people fear it could adopt the same celebrity and consumer cultures these leaders want to avoid.

Donna Burkland, who grew up in evangelical churches in Orange County, Calif., told the group that she thought the word “evangelical,” even if it were used as simply part of the term “post-evangelical,” could be a trigger word for some people. She was worried that “post-evangelical” could simply become a copy-paste version of evangelicalism.

People shouldn’t rush to throw everything out and start all over, argued Aaron Bailey, whose network LaunchPad helps more liberal churches get off the ground. “But you don’t want a copy-paste version of evangelical and then tweak it to make it slightly less evil either,” he said.

Tommy Garvin, a life coach based in Charlotte whose work includes “spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction,” asked why people had any attachment to the term evangelical in the first place. Garvin, who uses the pronouns they/he, avoids labels because they paper over self-contradictions.

David Roberts, who said he was kicked out of his church when he decided to become LGBTQ affirming, suggested post-evangelicals can move forward by identifying and drawing from the best elements of the evangelical movement.

“There’s something useful about having a common language,” said Roberts, now a pastor at Watershed Charlotte Church. “Maybe there are things worth mining from the history.”

Correction: A previous version of this article included the wrong last name for Angela Logan. The article has been corrected.