Evangelicalism and the Wilderness and Where I’ve Been



I don’t really know what to make of the “wilderness.” I’m a bit discouraged by it, to be honest, worn down by all this wandering.

When I am most frustrated, I get up and glimpse back at the place I left: Evangelicalism. A culture crumbling beneath the weight of it’s own expectations, banishing throngs of people, men and women that no longer meet their code. Fighting, always fighting, and burning and breaking things and people. I look at it and then to the big empty space all around me. The open space of my wandering. And I hear that SemiSonic song:

“You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” 


It was only months ago when I declared myself done. My heart was badly broken by World Vision and the evangelical machine that rallied against me, nationwide, for about the hundredth time in the past few years. I was done with listening and “bridges” and at last, I stopped clawing for a seat at the “Table.” I thought: Have the fricken table! Who needs this table!? Who needs ANY OF THIS BULL SHIT?!?


It’s quite easy to invite people to the wilderness, but a bit different to prepare them for life out here. As for me, the wilderness has been a cloud of uncertainty. I have no rubric. No measure of where I am to turn, what red flags to look for, where to unearth all the objective truth. All I have gone on is a simplistic evaluation: Is it like the Faith of My Past? Then NO. But the problem is that since I am overly cynical and am predisposed to suspicion against wide-eyed Christians anyway, I hardly give anyone or any thought the time deserved.  There have been many an author, a church, singers, even, that I have passed over and ridiculed and walked away from. I have gone so far as to research these Big Name People’s past statements about LGBTQ people and people of color and women. I’ve dug around in their politics and their denominational affiliation and their friendships with other mega-christian-leaders, and if I smell anything faintly reminiscent of EVANGELICAL, I render it worthless. Not for me.


And what this is mainly about, of course, is fear. I am afraid of getting caught up in the tide of good feelings and blissed out emotions and spiritual growth only to find out, when I’m already so far in, that I am standing on hostile ground, a place that didn’t know I was here, people who are now adamant that I leave. It’s a safety thing. And a good thing. But it can become an isolating and crushing thing when it directs the needle of my compass, out here in the wilderness. There is no sealed off, safe. There is only imperfect people who try to be better, and imperfect people who don’t.


The other day, I thought of that exquisite and tender How He Love Us song by John Mark McMillan and I immediately pushed the thought out of my mind because I listened to that song in that one church that one time, and it was thus corrupted. It was stamped and sealed by evangelical gatekeepers and the friend of my enemy is my en…


I listened to the song again, hesitantly. And as it played, I slowly rifled it out of the past memory, giving the words my full attention, letting them speak straight into my soul.


He is jealous for me,

Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,

Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.

When all of a sudden,

I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,

And I Realize just how beautiful You are,

And how great Your affections are for me.

We all know the words. They’ve been sung so much, by so many different artists, that they really ought to be clichéd out, annoying, repetitive, someone should’ve poked all the theological holes in this by now. But even so, for me, it was still as beautiful as the first time. It never went stale for me.


Then I went back and listened to one of my favorite Jars of Clay albums later, listened to their renditions of Amazing Grace and Come Thou Fount, because you know I love the hymns. And then I listened to a real Evangelical Sweetheart, Phil Wickham, because he once wrote a song called I Will Wait For You There and it was the song I used to listen to while I sat crying at the beach, praying fervently for a God I hadn’t heard from in awhile.


And what I am trying to tell you is that this is where I have been the last few weeks: Nowhere. Everywhere. Back and forth between the wilderness and evangelicalism. 


I’ve been imagining and triangulating. Accepting that anytime the heart treks out into the world for faith in community, there is no drawn out map to follow. Safe Place and Healthy Place don’t always mean same thing, and sometimes they do, but other times, there are deep places of abundance that we skirt around and miss out on because they are connected to that leader and that theology and those kind of people. We see the smudge and write them all off.


And we turn to the wilderness and face… a blank horizon. An environment entirely dependent on an individual’s ability to seek out God in solitude and solid theology, with the right blogs, hopefully leading to a kind of community that proves it cares about them, that it is worthy of trust, and doesn’t make promises it can’t keep.


The wilderness looks different for all of us evangelical expats. Often, mine looks like nothing more than tumbleweeds barreling past me. Ideas I don’t even know how to filter yet. People I don’t know well enough to trust. A quiet prayer for movement.


And it’s where I am at today. I’m an evangelical expat, trying to build a home here in the wilderness while still visiting the old home every now and again. Sometimes bringing back the music, some good theology, and trying my best to make these gravel stones fertile ground, because, man, do we ever need it.

  • You write so beautifully. Through your words, I feel your loneliness, pain, confusion, and small glimpses of love and hope. Better to feel out in the margins than to go through rote motions in the system. Thanks for helping me feel.

  • Darren Sterling

    If the wilderness helps you to write like this – then bring it on. Many in “the book” spent time in the wilderness, so perhaps its a time of renewal, discernment, who knows. But thanks for your honesty and openness. Your writing may often focus on the pain and discrimination felt by LGBTQ (as you put it), but I read your blog for your honesty, compassion, anger, – basically because your “real”. Thanks

  • Oh my goodness, I know what you mean about staying away from anything with a hint of the “good Christian” culture I used to be in. I’m so afraid people will judge me.

  • Cesie

    Beautifully said – I love your term “evangelical expat.” There’s nothing like a good hymn and now I am going to find one to sing this day. Thanks.

  • Beautiful, raw and honest.

  • Roo James Wilson

    Ben, wildernesses can be discouraging and everything you described above, however, having often been in the wilderness myself I was very graciously reminded by those wiser than myself that Jesus resides everywhere, even in the wilderness. Church isn’t Jesus and sadly, as much as I wish it was different, Christians aren’t Jesus. While I know your pain and too struggle with a lot of the evangelical nonsense and made up criteria, I find myself hitting my head against a brick wall when I re-realize that Jesus does not need any of these things to be himself, nor to love us completely. There is a verse that got my through a lot of these struggles and more, purely because it reminds me that He doesn’t need me, He doesn’t need Christians, He doesn’t need the Church but yet still chooses to love us…”And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” Acts 17:25
    I can sense your hurt and would love nothing more than to turn on the tea kettle, make a cuppa and listen to your heart…I really hope you have someone you can do that with, if not, I’m available. 🙂 Much love to you brother.

  • Anna Gravier

    Oh evangelical songs. I went to my parent’s (very conservative evangelical) church yesterday morning with my fists kind of clenched. It wasn’t a totally redemptive experience but they sang the song “Your love never fails/it never gives up/it never runs out on me” and it gave me hope and I’d like to think that I sang it somewhat subversively, declaring that God’s love never runs out, even for the people that they exclude.

    It’s hard being in the wilderness…or getting forced back into the evangelical world. Thanks for writing. Your words always make me think.

    • Thank you Anna. I love how, recently, I’ve been doing the same. Reclaiming much of the old, like the songs, for the new.

  • Oh yes. I’ve been running from evangelicalism since WV too. Well, I suppose tripping and falling are more accurate than running, since Christianese phrases have triggered panic attacks and reading the Bible kinda turned me into an atheist for about fifteen minutes.
    (And yet somehow I wound up abroad with other Christians, many of whom were evangelical, and found it the safest, healthiest place I’ve ever been. And regained a teeny bit of faith and a stream of hope).
    All that to say – It’s weird, this expat thing. And I’ll join you in working towards the fertile ground.

    • It is so weird. I was talking with another expat friend the other day who said it feels so random. Some people seem nice and honest and caring and end up being exactly that. Others end up being monsters. And as we experience new things, especially hard things, the Bible changes for us, feels different in light of everything.

  • southernsara

    I’m taking my first baby steps away from evangelicalism and it sure is scary!

  • Sheila Warner

    You’re in the wilderness and I am in the desert. I am leaving my Catholic faith because it shuts out more than it lets in. It’s so terribly hard, because I converted 10 years ago, and got a lot of flak from my Protestant friends and family. Now I just want to know who God really is. It can be so hard to feel him in my life. Or, her. Or, it. What is God, is my question these days.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Thanks for sharing this. I never could like that song How He Loves Us, because I’ve needed God to NOT be a hurricane, and He never has been one to me. But so many songs from evangelicalism are beautiful and comforting in the post-evangelical wilderness.

  • Ben, I am also an evangelical expat. Like you, I reached a point where I said “ENOUGH” and I left – that was several years ago. It’s a process – there is a wilderness where we have to wander for a season. We have to grieve and decide what to leave behind and what is worth taking with us – we have to build a new community … slowly, carefully. It’s hard – but it’s worth it. And we aren’t alone. In fact, these days there are more and more of us evangelical expats. It does get better. Before you know it, you will have moved out of the wilderness and into a new community and you will be encouraging and helping those who are spending their season in the wilderness.

    When I was in the wilderness music and poetry were so important to me so I really understand your desire to connect with a song that speaks to your soul. For some reason I had to leave most of the familiar worship music behind. It just had too much baggage for me and I never could redeem much of it. But I found a lot of new stuff that “said” something to me … things I needed to hear.

    One of the most meaningful pieces I discovered and hung on to when I was wandering and feeling disconnected was a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese”. For me, it was a balm and a protest all rolled into one. Maybe it will speak to you too…

    by Mary Oliver

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

    • Oh Liz, thank you so much for this. I am ashamed to say I just this year became familiar with Mary Oliver. I am loving her! And yes, I was talking with a friend about this wilderness and she said she tends to lean into poetry and art when the faith building, growing, whatever doesn’t feel right. She says art always centers her. I love that.

  • tryonk

    Been there. Thankfully I’ve found a church where I feel at home. I don’t agree with everything all the time, but we’re all travelling together and we can all talk about it.

  • I’m no theologian but I have to offer is a BIG HUG to Ben,over 3,000 miles of ocean and a faith apart. I want Ben to know that he is ALWAYS LOVED by the Almighty: the Evangelicalists might reject gay people, but G-d does not , let us say as it is written in Psalm Chapter 100 :

    ‘For the L-rd is good and his love is eternal: his faithfulness continues for eternity’

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  • Michelle

    Such a good reflection on the feelings of being caught in that wilderness – of wanting the comfort of the past and the belonging of a healthy community, but also being overwhelmed with fear because of those past hurts and rejections. Thanks for sharing!

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  • Songs — on the airwaves or in our hearts — have ways of reminding us of all that is good in a world that can be bad. Christianity would be perfect except for the fact that humans are part of the equation. That’s part of the deal. Your wilderness outpost is just fine. Be obedient. Be true. Know from a distance that you are still loved.

  • Tracy Jepson

    I have walked this journey you are walking (southern Baptist preacher’s kid with 2 gay sons…enough said). In my experience it is a process and a journey. You are doing beautifully and I love your writing, so talented. 😀 My advice… if you want to take it from a complete stranger (ha)…just relax in the process and flow along with it – do not be afraid. Look at me, I did it and I am fine. I let go of fundamentalist and evangelical beliefs, went through the process, and have come out on the other side smilin’ and thrivin’! 😀 I am much more free to love people and enjoy life. I put all old thoughts and beliefs through a sifter and decided what to keep and what to let go. I rebuilt my understanding of the world, people, and life. And I am so glad I did! I am experiencing peace and joy….everyone was always promising those things at church, but I never saw it REALLY happening. 😉 When I looked in people’s eyes it was not there. The dogma was blocking it, the toxic beliefs were blocking it. I cannot say exactly what your rebuilt psyche will look like…mine is based upon rational thought and love. Those are my criteria. I continually use critical thinking and ask myself the questions, “Is that true, how do I know that is true?” and then do not allow my mind to attach to unproven thoughts or beliefs that might be harmful. And I base everything on love….if an idea, a teaching, or a belief does not produce love, kindness, generosity, peace, or joy in the world then I shuck it! Unfortunately many beliefs in the evangelical world do not truly produce those outcomes….they promise it, but do no deliver. I have found sanity by basing my life on reality – and peace of mind by accepting reality…instead of using religion to live in a fantasy world that makes me feel better. But that is just me…that may not be your path….and beliefs can be beautiful if they produce beautiful things! I would just remind you….you have left a place that behaves as if beliefs (or unproven thoughts or theories) are facts that cannot be questioned. That is insane, isn’t it?! I hope something I have said here helps you….I have been there. Here is to hoping for much joy in your life and peace in your mind. 😀