This is not a rant. I’m not angry about anything. This is my story. The fact is… I have waited more than 10 years to write it. I do so now because of the repeated inquiries of others. I write at the risk of being misunderstood. I write with the hope that I may help others in their journey. I write with the hope that a movement I was once a proud part of can re-evaluate itself for the sake of the gospel.
I was brought up in a traditional, conservative, evangelical environment. I am thankful for much of what I learned in those surroundings. My biggest takeaway is that the teaching I was exposed to bore in me a desire to study the Scriptures.
John Donne mused that, “no man is an island”. It is my opinion that movements fall short when they see themselves in this way. That we are… the first… the best… the only. The longer I stayed within the walls of the Fundamentalism of my youth the more it felt like I was on island… theologically, sociologically and ideologically.
I knew from age 14 that I was called by God to serve others as a pastor. From that same young age (and even before) I knew that there were grave difficulties within my expression of faith. Early in the process I felt that it was my duty to help bring changes to some of those difficulties. For years I tried to work within the system.
Here is a rough timeline of my movements…
1984… felt called to occupational ministry
1988… graduated high school
1988… Bob Jones University
1990… travelled with Minutemen Evangelistic Team
1991… Northland Baptist Bible College
1993… served Chinese Gospel Church – IL
1995… Northland Baptist Bible College
1997… served Bethlehem Baptist Church – VA
1998… served Immanuel Bible Church – AZ
1998… decided to leave the Fundamentalist movement
1999… served Locust Grove Baptist Church – KY
2000… served The Chapel Evangelical Free Church – MI
2008… moved to GA to plant Process Church
Ultimately one day in 1998 I decided it was time. To say “one day” is really not fair. Remember I had been trying since age 14… for 14 additional years I tried. A friend of mine with whom I had many historically shared experiences felt similarly about them. He created a website that would allow for an exchange of ideas… a forum for discussion… or so I thought. I’m a reader. I enjoy putting my own thoughts into words (written & oral). So I welcomed the opportunity to have a safe place to discuss things with guys who were in the expression of biblical Christianity that I felt called to affect.
The day I remember knowing I was done actually occurred during one of my quiet times with God. I was arguing with God. Pleading with Him. Asking Him to let me stay. But what I remember knowing is that it was time for me to leave… for two primary reasons… in this order. One, my attempts to affect change were turning me into an angry and cynical person. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people felt so threatened by an idea that was outside their own understanding. Two, I knew in that ultimate moment that the Fundamentalism of my youth was just not ready to look in the mirror and be self-diagnostic about its condition.
Since that decision I have been able to maintain genuine friendships with people with whom I disagree on a variety of personal applications.
I have thought long and hard about the particulars of why I left. And especially as it relates to the second primary reason I left, there are three specific issues that caused me to make the second assumption that I did about Fundamentalism… its lack of self-diagnosis. I am not saying that every man in Fundamentalism is this way, but neither am I willing to agree that this ailment affects only a few on the fringe. In general I think these things are characteristic of the movement as a whole. They take shape in these three major areas:
I mean this in the most literal way possible. I truly believe that motivationally there was zero intended maliciousness by the majority of my mentors and leaders. That said, there were unfortunate amounts of ignorance about many topics. I think much of it was spawned by generational ignorance and the difficulties associated with questioning people you love… especially when you think they might be wrong on a given subject. For instance I think the default position for many within in the movement is to turn their ear toward the loudest voice and subsequently adopt their position (often with little to no consideration of its rightness or wrongness). To illustrate that reality… I grew up thinking (and I use that term lightly)… I should say accepting the opinion of others that people in mainline churches and charismatic churches and almost any church that did not practice the way that we did were at best some sort of second class Christians… and likely were not truly converted followers of Jesus at all.
This also happened with the way Scripture was read and interpreted. I look back at some of my early sermons and I am horrified to read what I preached. An abundance of proof texting prevailed. Please understand that I am not judging anyone’s intentions in this. But I cannot tell you how many sermons I heard that waxed eloquent on a single verse that had little to nothing to do with the context of the overall passage surrounding it.
Ambivalence is a state of having simultaneous, conflicting feelings toward a person or thing. This may be my most poorly titled objection. My choice is an attempt to again assume the best about people. But the reality of this issue is the ambivalent choices of endorsing & condemning the same people left me often confused and at times angry. Maybe a better title would have been “Selective Agreement”.
When the desire was to communicate authority on a given topic those in the know would freely quote the latest Evangelical voice… often even studying people or books written by individuals who would (in other contexts) be referred to disparagingly… or worse. I understood then (and now) their need to do this occasionally to demonstrate that they had not left behind what they call the “Doctrine of Separation”. Since leaving the movement I have enjoyed the friendship and fellowship of many who had previously been selectively demonized.
Another example of this reality was the handling of “Christian” athletes. When it served our purposes (i.e. we needed someone to come speak during a special emphasis Sunday) we would bring in the resident Christian who also happened to be a Chicago Bears player and conveniently dismiss any discrepancies in their lifestyle. This confused me as a child. It still does.
Quite honestly I know this last one will sting the most. My intention is not to be hurtful. Those who know me will know this. Even as I type these words there is an ache deep in my stomach. But I cannot refuse to write about this. It has been the most harmful of my three greatest reasons for leaving. There is a dearth of desire to gain perspective from “the outside”. The thought from within seems to be that outside perspective is harmful to the purity of the movement. Therefore books read, conferences attended and circles of association must stay proportionately small.
To the same degree that I disconnected motive from my first reason I must connect it here. This arrogance takes place on a number of levels. The first place self-importance is evident is the leadership. Whether or not you prefer a top/down style, this is the only way within Fundamentalism. There is a major misunderstanding of the role in general and specifically the mode of leadership. Within this system leaders are meant to be followed not questioned. And any questioning is almost exclusively seen as insubordination. This is not a reality unique to Fundamentalism but one that is certainly characteristic of it.
A Final Word
Though I have personally moved on from the Fundamentalism of my youth, the odd thing is that I am probably technically-speaking more a Fundamentalist today than I ever have been. In fact I would say that strictly-speaking Fundamentalists would do well to return to a “Fundamentals-only” position. I don’t see this term surviving its negatively connotative modern definitions, but if it does it will most certainly come by way of a simplified Fundamentalism.