• Ryan Walton

My Journey Out of Evangelicalism

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at CreativeMornings in Sacramento and during the Q & A, someone asked me what a “recovering evangelical” is—it’s a line in my bio, which had been read by the host when she introduced me. I’m embarrassed to say that I totally fumbled my answer. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. So...here is the beginning of my story. My truth. The only one I can tell.


Before I dive in, there are a few things I want to clarify up front. The first is that this is my story. While members of my immediate family have moved in similar directions, this is my own experience. In addition, there are many others I know who have also painfully walked this road. Like me, their questions have been ignored and brushed aside. They have been burned when they should have felt safe. They have been painfully marginalized by others who "stand up for truth" or are "defending the faith." They have felt and continue to deal with trauma few of us know, and I hold them in my heart as I write. My prayer is that you might hear their stories as well. To the women, LGBTQIA, refugee, LatinX, brown, black, exvangelicals...I love you.


Second, there are people and things I cherish about the evangelical world I was raised in. The friendships, the importance and emphasis on the inner life, and message that we are worthy of love are just a few, but important. I hope to honor those experiences in this space.

Leaving evangelicalism doesn't always mean walking away from faith completely (although this is important for some). It can simply mean that a certain culture or way of interpreting the world is no longer the proper vessel to contain the way you are being led to practice love in the world. I recently heard from an Anglican priest I respect, "Settle where you can best live out your baptism." Simply put, evangelicalism ceased to be a genuine way for me to live out my faith. A faith that engaged the world with love first, was intellectually honest, sought solidarity with "the least of these," and actively pursued a diverse community. For me (and many others I know) American Evangelicalism has lost its spiritual, social, and moral authority. To call myself evangelical was to be complicit in larger movements that I believe are damaging to what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God. Marriage to Republican Party politics, rejection of science, and clinging to theologies that have been used to oppressed people for nearly 500 (debatably longer) years have rendered Evangelicalism untenable in today's world.


Evangelicalism's culture also allowed me to thrive in ways that were unhealthy for both myself and those around me. The type of masculinity the culture teaches and often produces allowed me to use my maleness, whiteness, and straightness to have authority over others in ways that I should not have. I didn't always understand it this way, but it gave me a power that I subconsciously needed. For too long, things I had not earned gave me a free pass with the way I treated those that were different, particularly women and those in the LGBTQ community. I was able to easily hide my insecurities, doubts, and addictions because I happened to be the person on stage who too often goes unquestioned.


Although I had grown up in an incredibly loving home where faith was openly embraced and discussed, it wasn't until I was thirteen or fourteen years old that I had what I considered to be personal spiritual experience. Around the same time I picked up a guitar and the combination of music and newfound personal faith landed me on stage in front of churchgoers on a weekly basis (probably well before I was ready). During those years there were some great people and organizations that cared for me and did their best to show me the love of God as they understood it. They were pure in heart and I am grateful for an environment that made investments into my development as a person. The opposite was also true. There were those who sought to instill in me a narrative that was explicitly male, white, and driven by the need to be right at all costs. I thrived in the spotlight and my abilities earned me praise from other students and adults alike. So much so that I was eventually offered a partial scholarship to a prestigious bible college in Los Angeles. The school funded my musical projects and I traveled to churches, conferences, and camps, playing in front of thousands every year.


If I was not already, my experience in college made me a zealot for my faith. The stages I occupied only got larger, and I was surrounded with the message that our primary objective in life is to go out and "win the world for Christ" and to take a particular interpretation of The Gospel to the ends of the earth. I was young, male, extremely Republican, and ready to punch the world in the mouth for Jesus. In the midst of it all, I developed some incredible male friendships that were beautifully intimate and life-giving. While I loved (and still do) those in my life at that point, my world was still a bubble. There was little diversity of thought, culture, or faith traditions. I left with with a degree in Christian Education (not actually sure what that is anymore) and minor in Biblical Studies. In 2004, I moved to Sacramento to help start a church.


About a year into my time in Sacramento, I moved into the downtown area. The church had purchased a coffee shop and I moved in from the suburbs so that I could take over daily management. Sacramento isn't necessarily a major metropolitan city, but it is incredibly diverse and I found myself living and working alongside people I had never interacted with. Rich, poor, young, old, gay, straight, muslim, black, white, I found myself in a melting pot of people and cultures...and completely fell in love. I built friendships with people who I once thought were somehow my enemy. You see, one of the major false messages within the larger evangelical world is that there is this war being waged against Christianity by everyone outside of it. I ran right up against this falsehood. I began to ask myself what else about the narrative I so strongly embraced might not be accurate. What else was I missing? What else had I been blind to?


I started doing some digging and opening up books from what evangelicals would consider the “naughty section” of the library. I opened everything from spiritual classics like Siddhartha and the works of Rumi, to more modern books that explored issues of justice like Race Matters by Cornel West (more on all those later). It was a whole new world. I rekindled connections with people who had a found a new spiritual path that I had previously written off. I dove head first into this new environment that I had grown to love.


What I found changed everything.


The deconstruction of my worldview was a double-sided coin. On one side there was a beautiful new way of seeing that I had previously closed myself off to. It was full of new ideas, people, and experiences. Like my son on his first trip to Disneyland, I ran through this new world with wide eyes and arms in the air. Everything was amazing. During this time I had the opportunities to travel abroad and, as Mark Twain brilliantly said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” My encounters with those on the margins fueled this burning sense that something needed to change; that I needed to change.


On the other side of that coin, the removal of an identity I carried for so long was painful, like picking at a scab.. Layer by layer, the sacred stones I had used to build my identity came crumbling down. Questioning the way of interacting with the world that I had known for so long left massive voids in my life. This was an identity and a culture I belonged to; a profession I planned my whole life around. I looked for new things to fill those voids; grasping on to anything that I thought would tell me who I was, and affirm that I was ok.


I was a mess.


I had no idea what I believed anymore, and all the while, I continued to try to lead a church. I continued to stand up on Sunday and sing “blessed assurance Jesus is mine” when I had no idea what that meant anymore. Even though I was a part of a loving community that embraced the complexities of faith, I was still torn and aching for a rest from it all. Even at home, communicating was challenge. It felt like trying to explain where I was going, but I was driving in the fog and without a map. I retreated into my head and during that time, my marriage suffered immensely. We eventually closed the doors to that church. I felt alone and in the dark, dealing with both personal and professional failure, and with a shifting view of God that for so long was what I leaned on. The reality that this new direction would alter everything I had built was overwhelming. What would I do for work? How was I going to function in the world? I was already beginning to feel my social life shift. Would that be flipped upside down too?


Only now do I realize that I was grieving. I grieved that I had been part of the problem.

I was homophobic. I held racist views (although I wouldn’t have recognized them as that). I was sexist. I advanced the patriarchy. Rarely did I ever consider the poor or marginalized peoples of the world. With every new and exciting discovery, there is also the pain that comes along with facing your past and owning ways that harmed both yourself and others.

Every day I think about those I’ve met over the years that I had a “spiritual” experience with. Bible study groups, kids I took to summer camp, Sunday church goers and the like. I genuinely loved these people. But I was so young and had such little experience in the world. I did what I thought every Christian was supposed to do and I battle a deep guilt over where I think it might have led some people. I wish I could sit down over a cup of coffee with every single one of them and share stories about the experiences that have shaped our faith. I wish I could look them in the eyes and tell them I am sorry. Sorry for giving what I wholeheartedly believed was gift, but in reality was a narrow view of both God and the beauty that is the world.


As I connected with others and began to expand my knowledge, I started to blog. I was openly asking questions about God, the church, and what I was beginning to understand about the American Empire—especially in relation to those on the margins. This exploration was met with fierce opposition. I was called all the typical names like “heretic,” “false-teacher,” and the like. Evangelical trolls regularly littered my comment sections with aggressive words of damnation and insult.


One large evangelical church in the area (which at the time I had just a few connections to) printed out a blog I wrote and passed it around a staff meeting to discuss. Keep in mind, I did not attend or work at this church! Eventually I was asked to not associate with any young people in their ministry. Many friends from my past have ghosted me and I’ve had my share of hate mail. While I have experienced marginalization by the church and christian people over the past ten years, I recognize that it pales in comparison to the type of pain inflicted on the LBGTQIA+ community. I speak about my experiences humbly knowing that my sexual orientation, skin color, and gender allowed me to escape harsher forms of excommunication.

My grief, however overwhelming, was always met with small glimmers of light. I began to find safe spaces to share my grief and faith experience with others on a similar path. I realized that not only was I not alone, but there was a deep groaning within the evangelical church that echoed my doubts and concerns. While many just kept their mouths shut (and still do) to keep the status quo alive, there were those who began to move out of the shadows and tell their stories...and I started to listen. As I did, it became clear that the evangelical church was no longer a place I could call home.


Over the years I've received countless emails, texts, and private messages inquiring about my faith journey. This isn't because I have some great insight, but because the position I held as a worship leader and pastor was so visible, the transition has been as well. Sometimes these inquiries are from well meaning people who are "concerned." Others come from a place of curiosity because they too feel that something is out of place and are looking for some language to help them process these feelings. I have even had some people come full circle. I have a friend who literally said "When you first started talking about these things I thought you were crazy. A few years later it all makes sense." Even as this blog has progressed, a common question I get is "where have you landed?" or "what do you consider yourself now?" For the last piece in this series (but definitely not on the topic of faith) I wanted to share my answer to that question (spoiler alert - you might be disappointed) and the spaces that have helped me work through my questions and become my community outside of the institutional settings of the church.


The truth is, I don't have an answer to the "where are you now" question. I don't feel like I've landed my theological plane and, in reality, I don't feel any need to. The freedom to not need to hold a certain label didn't happen overnight, and I spent quite a few years trying on all sorts of labels to see how they fit. I see myself in a lot of different types of faith (and non-faith) expressions. Christian, atheist, mystic, evangelical, humanist, etc. I relate to aspects of them all and what really excites me these days is the exploration of ways in which these seemingly opposing viewpoints actually share much in common. I'm driven by my belief that love, in all of its complexity, is the driving force of our human experience. The pursuit of love across tribal lines drives my curiosities towards those who've had experiences outside of my own. It was my encounters with people and my love for them that cracked my religious shell and I've run that direction ever since.




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