A friend asked me on Twitter the other day where he could read up on my story of how I left the world of Evangelicalism. It dawned on me that I hadn’t actually written down a summary anywhere! Scattered blog articles and social media posts over several years captured bits and pieces (see here and here and here), but nothing concise.
This is my #Exvangelical story.
(As an aside, it’s fitting that I’m starting to write down my story right around the time a character named Todd Bentley is back in the news again. Todd Bentley was directly responsible for the first cracks in my religious armor eleven years ago. But more on that in a moment…)
If you prefer hearing this article read to you, please download my spoken word recording.
I Got Duped
The very short version of the story is: I got duped into becoming an Evangelical–and a Charismatic one at that.
Prior to the mid 2000s, having been raised as a Christian broadly speaking and as a Protestant in particular, I wasn’t super-connected to my faith nor was I attending any church. Sure, I “believed in” God, Jesus, and the Bible, but it honestly wasn’t making all that big of an impact on my day-to-day life.
That all changed around 2004 when my mother began to get really sick with a mysterious affliction. She was afraid of conventional medical doctors, so she tried to find natural or spiritual healing remedies which eventually led her to connect with a group of local Charismatics who were running a “Healing Rooms” ministry.
Connections there led our family (my mom, dad, brother and I) to start attending a local, non-denominational church. I soon came to discover the church had strong ties with the “Apostolic-Prophetic” movement within Charismaticism–and in particular a famous church in Redding, CA called Bethel (led by Bill Johnson, Kris Vallotton, and others).
At first I was somewhat skeptical of the whole thing, but as I saw the genuine care and concern people at the church had for my mom in her illness (which we eventually came to discover was breast cancer), I slowly began to accept Charismatic theology and the teachings of the church.
My mom’s health continued to decline, and she passed away in 2006. She had been on chemo for a few months, but by the time her treatments had begun, the cancer had already reached stage IV so it was only a matter of time before her inevitable demise. Needless to say, she was not miraculously healed–despite the ferverent prayers of our church friends.
However, her passing only seemed to solidify in my mind the need for fellowship and bonding, so I charged headlong into church life with renewed vigor. By 2008, I was leading small groups, playing guitar on the worship team, attending youth events (even though I was past my teenage years at that point), and being groomed by church leadership into becoming an apostolic church planter. (I am not making this up!)
I was a conference junkie and attended major events around the western United States headlined by such names as:
- Patricia King
- Lance Wallnau
- Dutch Sheets
- Todd Bentley (there’s that name again)
- Bill Johnson (and various members of the Bethel leadership team)
- Chuck Pierce
- Mike Bickle
- Cindy Jacobs
…and many others of their ilk. (Look them up and for the most part they are all staunch supporters of President Trump and conservative Republicans. More on that also in a moment…)
I was “slain in the spirit,” prophesied over, and had hands laid upon me more times than I can count. I prayed for healing, and I prayed for others to be healed. I sought angelic visitations and asked the Holy Spirit to reveal heavenly visions to me. I walked through “fire tunnels” and went on “treasure hunts”.1
While I never quite made it into the “inner circle” of leadership in any of these large ministries, I was very close with my local church leadership and they were part and parcel of the whole movement.
What is very surprising to me now, as I reflect back on this strange time in my life, is how oblivious I was to just how much political policy (and lust for power) this movement shared with the broader world of American Evangelicalism. With very few exceptions, they comprised the backbone of the GOP voting block.
Essentially I’d been duped. You see, I was under the assumption we Charismatics were cooler than all that. I thought we were going to “love people” into the “kingdom” and represent Jesus in a whole new light. Instead of preaching fire and brimstone and calling on wicked sinners to repent, we were going to perform miracles of healing and deliverance to set people free from whatever enslaved them. We were called to “baptize the nations” and prepare the “bride” (aka the Church writ large) for the blessed coming of her bridegroom (aka the Second Coming of Jesus).
It turns out this so-called Apostolic-Prophetic movement was full of shit. We weren’t a new spiritual breed. We hadn’t been given a mandate from God Almighty. We had just put a new coat of paint on the same old Right-Wing Evangelical garbage truck. The racism, homophobia, bigotry, and overall political corruption at the heart of American White Supremacy was alive and well the entire time.
It took me a long time to see that. The rise of “Trumpism” in 2016 was a pivotal moment in my journey…the catalyst for my blindness finally lifting. At last, I was able to see the movement for what it truly is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Todd Bentley & the Lakeland Revival
By the summer of 2008, after a jam-packed couple of years pouring my heart and soul into the life of my local Charismatic church, I was starting to feel a bit burned out. I was becoming weary of the constant hoopla around miracles and angels and heavenly visions and messages sent from God to spiritual gurus (apostles, prophets, whatever). I hadn’t stopped believing in the theology, but I was having a hard time squaring what everyone believed with what was actually happening on the ground.
So when a bunch of people at my church asked me if I wanted to go with them to Lakeland, Florida and see the massive “revival” happening there at the instigation of Todd Bentley, I turned down the opportunity.
After what would soon transpire, it was a good thing I saved my shekels!
It’s hard to overstate just how much of a Big Deal™ the Lakeland Revival was in my religious community. People around me were going nuts. They thought God’s “shekinah glory” had come down to earth and America would be radically transformed with a great harvest of souls prior to the coming of the Lord. There’s even a freakin’ Wikipedia entry on the event!
Todd Bentley himself was an odd character. With tattoos all over his body and a ginormous beard, he looked like he belonged in a biker gang. But he talked like an ol’ timey black preacher from the south. Even though he hailed from Canada, he would affect his voice, saying things like the glooooray of the Lord-uh and so forth.
But, you know, it’s hard to argue with the guy who’s leading crowds of tens of thousands in religious fervor, claiming that people are being raised from the dead and tumors are falling off of people’s faces and bones are growing back out of severed limbs and whatnot. (Actually, it’s very easy to argue against that, but not when you’re in the midst of massive religious groupthink!)
Anyway, while I was certainly intrigued by news of the revival, I wasn’t allowing it to consume my every waking moment. Then in early August, breaking news of what had just gone down in Lakeland made its way to California, and it was like a bomb had just been dropped on my world.
Todd Bentley had been caught having an affair, and he decided to leave his wife and run off with an intern. The revival was effectively over and his ministry organization was left in shambles.
Now, mind you, this took place right after a major televised moment when tons of Charismatic leaders from all over America (including Bill Johnson of Bethel) had “prophesied” over Todd, claiming that God had revealed to them that Todd was going to be used as a mighty apostle to bring unprecedented revival to the nation.
It Takes Time to Escape a Cult
You would think at that point I would have realized I was essentially trapped in a religious cult run by a bunch of lying charlatans, but what many people don’t realize about cults is when you’re in one, crazy shit can seem perfectly normal.
Even after Bill Johnson and others doubled down on their support for Todd Bentley in the aftermath of his meltdown, I thought I could remain a Charismatic.
But the fog was slowly starting to lift for me, and I was no longer going to blindly accept without question anything Charismatics were teaching me. I was starting (just baby steps at first) to question the validity of what I believed. On August 25, 2008, in a blog post titled “How ministry is destroying ministry,” I wrote:
[Regarding] how we “do church” in general… Something is terribly wrong, and I think few people realize just how deeply we’ve fallen into the grave we’ve dug for ourselves.
Even I didn’t realize how deep that grave was when I wrote that.
My period of soul-searching was temporarily cut short however because, soon after the events of the Lakeland implosion, I started dating a woman I’d met at a young adults Bible study–and in the fall of 2009 we got married. As you might imagine, the whirlwind of young romance and then preparing for the wedding proved just a wee bit distracting.
But shortly after that in early 2010, a lengthy and extremely painful sequence of events transpired which led me to becoming on the outs with church leadership. It initially started as some personal challenges with other people in the church which required counseling or discipline from the elders–not anything theological per se. But eventually as the conversations continued and finally broke down, it dawned on me I couldn’t justify remaining in the church if I no longer believed in the model of ministry they and the Charismatic movement promoted.
In the Wilderness…Then Comes Deconstruction…and Trump
From 2011 to roughly 2016, though I had formally left the institutional church behind, I still cared deeply about my Christian faith. Yet I struggled to find a way to fit into a local faith community. I could no longer tolerate the steady stream of authoritarian abuse, bald-faced hypocrisy, and lack of diverse creative input inherent in organized religion. I was convinced the best model of ministry was to meet “organically” (in homes, coffee shops, and other secular gathering places), so I tried either to join or to start organic churches on several occasions. For a while, I found some measure of success and happiness in this mileau.
By 2016 however, the closure of a home group I’d helped launch and facilitate, combined with the politcal turmoil of Trump’s rise to stardom as well as national reporting around social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo (and later #EmptyThePews), precipitated an intense season of full-blown faith deconstruction. I began to question everything–topics that had once seemed utterly sacrosanct to me (or conversely, forbidden). Things like:
- The exclusivity of Jesus’ followers with regard to absolute truth claims
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The “personal” nature of God as a divine orchestrator of events both intimate and global
- The eternal destination of humans (heaven or hell or…?)
- The merits (or lack thereof) of penal substitutionary atonement theory
- The power dynamics between religion and politics
- The direct experiences of persecuted demographics such as women, blacks, and LGBTQ+ people
- The history of sexual repression in general by religious leaders
- Proper care for the environment and pressing concerns such as climate change and exploitation of first peoples
- Dealing with depression and improving mental health through contemplative practices and mindfulness meditation
- And the list goes on…
Yet what really tipped me over the edge into realizing I had completely left the Evangelical fold wasn’t my exploration into these topics. It was the Evangelicals themselves who let me know (sometimes personally, sometimes just through general rhetoric in social media, books, conferences, etc.) that simply by entertaining different points of view on any of these topics, I had become either a backslidden liberal snowflake at best—or the god-forsaken spawn of Satan at worst.
In other words, I don’t feel so much that I consciously chose to leave the world of my religious upbringing. Rather, that world cast me out. And what really bakes my noodle is just how rapidly this excommunication transpired. In many ways, I feel like the fact that an overwhelming number of white Evangelicals who voted in 2016 voted for Trump–and continue to support him even now–was the deciding factor.
American Evangelicals (and Charismatics to a truly shocking degree) are Trump’s staunch loyalists. Deep down they must know he really doesn’t care a hoot about stopping abortion or ending gay marriage or any number of pet Evangelical issues–but he’s their guy because he’s willing to give them political power. And they gladly wield that power in order to further their agenda to reverse all the progress America has made in the past 100 years to bring freedom to oppressed minorities and pursue science-backed initiatives to protect our planet from the specter of global warming and environmental pollution.
In almost every way you can slice it, Evangelicals/Charismatics are on the wrong side of an issue: from sexuality to mental health to race relations to use of military force to interfaith dialog. And what is so deeply troubling to me is that in many cases, their beliefs are entirely divorced from the teachings of the Jesus they profess to follow. I’m not here to defend the Bible. It has plenty of weird and questionable aspects all on its own. But if you look at the overall gist of the original Jesus movement–pro-love-your-enemies and anti-imperial-power–and compare that with American Evangelicalism today, it’s nuts how widely the two mindsets diverge.
I am no longer an Evangelical–nor a Charismatic–because I believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being and his or her right to love whom they wish and worship (or not) how they choose–free from coercion from either governments or religious movements–and I believe that our planet is indescribably valuable and must be protected and nourished for future generations.
Apparently, those beliefs are not shared by many of the Trump-loving members of the Evangelical tribe. And so I am not one of them.
Where I Am Today
A question I’ll get asked these days is if I even believe in God, or Jesus, or the Bible anymore (whatever it means to believe in a book written by ancients over two millennia ago).
Truthfully, some days I’m excited about the idea of following Jesus and ruminating on spiritual and theological constructs.
Other days, anything even remotely smacking of religiosity is exausting to me.
I’m still working through past scars. I’m still triggered by certain songs or Bible verses or theological phrases. Every time I read something in the news about another god-awful political development with regard to Trump and his Evangelical followers, I’m dismayed and disgusted.
I try not to get too sucked into everyone’s #Exvangelical story on Twitter, but there are truly some gut-wrenching stories out there. I have to admit, in most respects, I’m one of the lucky ones (probably due to the fact I’m white, cisgender, and male).
Whenever I’m asked if I’m gay because I’m so strongly in favor of LGBTQ+ rights and the validity of Christians to love Jesus and be queer at the same time, I’m deeply offended–because that’s like asking if a white person is actually black because they want to advocate for justice on behalf of black people.
Sometimes I wonder if anything I saw or heard when I was a Charismatic was real–and if so, what was real and what was fake…and was all the real stuff real because “God did it” or was it some unknown kind of higher supernatural power which humans can mysteriously tap into?
All that to say, I take it one step at a time. God alone has the authority to judge my heart, and I hope he/she/it/they can see I’m simply doing my best every day at doing what seems most life-giving and humane. I’m still deeply in love with the story of Jesus, and whenever I hear somebody preach on what seems to be at the heart of the Gospel narrative–sacrificial, unconditional love–tears will inevitably well up in my eyes.
So that’s my faith journey in a nutshell. Now it’s your turn. What’s your #Exvangelical story?
I’ll write in detail about my thoughts on the supernatural phenomena and ecclesiological practices of the extreme end of the Charismatic movement in a future installment here at Simple Praxis. ↩
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