I would like to take a few of the days allotted to me to write (you would think being the owner and publisher of this site I would have more control over these things, wouldn’t you?) about my journey out of the evangelical world I have lived in for more than 40 years. This is my journey; I am not saying anyone else will ever come to the same conclusions as I have. I simply want to provide a few snapshots of my journey out of evangelicalism. If you identify yourself as an evangelical, this is in no way meant to say you need to leave or that anything you are doing is wrong. But I am asking you that, as you journey with me, you look at your own motives and desires. If you feel led to leave evangelicalism, don’t get mad at me.
I was teaching high school in Ohio in the mid-90s when two of my students approached me.
“Mr. Dunn, we want to go see the Rolling Stones in St. Louis, but our parents won’t let us go unless we have an adult go with us. You’re the closest thing to an adult we know, so will you go with us? We’ll buy your ticket and pay for all the gas. All you have to do is go with us.”
I thought about it for two, maybe three seconds before saying Yes. Hey, I was all about furthering their education any way I could.
So on a Friday afternoon, right after the final bell sounded, we hopped in a Ford Bronco and drove to St. Louis. I really didn’t know what to expect from the show. I had never been a huge Stones fan, but I expected them to put on a good show. I was wrong. They put on the most incredible show I could ever imagine. As I sat (and stood) watching Mick and Keef rip through song after song, I just kept thinking, “Why do we Christians try to out-entertain the world?” Didn’t we have a message that could stand on its own without all the hype?
The answer I kept encountering was, “Maybe not.” This was the mid-90s. “Seeker sensitive” was still a relatively new phrase in church circles. It came with another phrase attached: “Felt needs.” As an elder and interim youth pastor in my church, I was in on a lot of strategy meetings where “felt needs” were discussed. What needs was the married mother of four coming to church with? We needed to address those with songs and messages and programs. What about the single moms? Their felt needs were different from the elderly. And then don’t forget the men. Their felt needs had to be addressed, usually in the form of “men’s groups” or the requisite golf league. It was voiced that if we didn’t meet these felt needs, the people would leave for the church down the street that did meet those needs with songs and sermons and programs. (And their golf league played on a better course.) And of course all of our services had to entertain. That was what was expected of any Christian gathering. After all, we couldn’t leave the entertaining up to the heathen Rolling Stones, could we?
1998 found me moving with my family back to Tulsa where I had gone to college, and then taught at that school. Now I was coming back to work in Christian media—first with an advertising agency, then with a publisher. I spent a dozen years trying to come up with products to meet felt needs. No, to be more precise, I was trying to manipulate the felt needs of consumers in order to sell products. As soon as we would come up with some catchy devotional title (“God’s Little Instruction Book” anyone?), we would branch it off into a version for women, then moms, then teens. The content didn’t matter. We farmed it out to writers who cranked it out quickly. We spent out time coming up with just the right color for the cover, and just the right sales sheet for the sales reps to use when they presented it to Sam’s and Costco. The product needed to entertain and to meet felt needs. This was evangelicalism as I knew it. And as long as things were going ok for me, I didn’t question it.
Through all of this—as a youth pastor, as an elder, as a preacher, as an editor and then literary agent—I avoided looking inside of myself very closely. I knew what I would find.
I was empty. On the outside, I was all that and sugar cookies too. But on the inside I was hollow. I knew my Bible. I could hold my own in theological discussions. I had my daily quiet time and was active in my church (which was one the “cool” churches that pop up like dandelions on a spring lawn here in Tulsa). When I lost my job (because the publishing world did just as I had predicted it would and stopped giving big advances and long contracts to people who had nothing to say and couldn’t say it), I slumped into a deep depression. I was a bottomless pit; there was no foundation for me to stand on. The free fall is not what hurt; it was the sudden stop when I hit bottom that made me realize just how empty I truly was. And I blame it on having a personal relationship with Jesus.
One of the strong tenants of evangelicalism is one’s personal relationship with Jesus. You are saved when you invite Jesus into your heart. We are told not to pursue “religion,” but rather a “relationship.” And that relationship is a personal one with Jesus. Me and Jesus, we got a good thing going …
And in all I was hearing in church and in Christian music and in Christian books was that God wanted to take care of all of my needs. He wanted me to be happy and entertained. I never need suffer through a bad day. As a matter of fact, I never need suffer. God loved me, and he knew all of my needs. He knew all of my felt needs, and he stood at the ready to meet all those needs. All I had to do was to … believe, pray, give, have faith, confess. Actually, there was a lot I had to do, but the bottom line was I was very important to God, so important that he took up residence in my heart, sticking very close in case I had the slightest want or need.
Have you heard the difference between dog and cat theology? A dog who lives in a house says of the man in charge, “He feeds me, he gives me shelter, he pets me. He must be God.” A cat in the same house says, “He feeds me, he gives me shelter, he pets me. I must be God.” After 40 years of this personal relationship, of everything being focused on my needs, I had become God. And I am tired of being who I was never made to be.
There is a God, and I’m very comfortable saying that I am not He.
Evangelicalism has tried to entertain me. It has tried to make me happy. It has tried to sooth me when I am in despair. In everything it has made it clear that I am the center of God’s universe, the very reason that the sun rises and sets each day. And after 40 years, I now see that has been a lie. I do want a relationship with God, but not one where I set the terms. I don’t want to get my own way just because I feel like it. I want to know God as he knows himself to be, not as I wish him to be.
Evangelicalism tried to tell me I was God. I’m not. I’m Jeff. I’m a mess on my best days. I make a much better dog than cat.