I have spent most of my (admittedly pretty short) life immersed in Evangelical Christianity. I grew up in an Evangelical church. My youth group went to Evangelical conferences. In college, I attended an Evangelical campus ministry as many as six times a week for leadership meetings, bible studies, worship services, band practice, and socials. For nearly two decades, I was neck-deep in the stream of Evangelicalism.
Things started to change mid-college when three of my Evangelical friends, independently of each other, admitted to me in private that they were gay.
I had never had openly gay friends before, so I faithfully parroted Evangelical cliches to them like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” and “It’s okay – us straight people are sinners, too.” But I could tell that something wasn’t right. God’s love is supposed to build people up, not make them suicidal. It was around that time that I discovered postmodern philosophy and the mainstream historical study of the Bible.
Within a year, I had wandered well outside the heavily-fortified boundaries of Evangelical Christianity.
Within a few years, I made my way to Mainline Protestantism (a category of denominations including Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and PCUSA Presbyterians). In Mainline denominations, you’re [typically] allowed to doubt out loud without being slapped in the face with a Bible. You can even change your mind about beliefs! At my Methodist church, there are many openly gay couples (gasp), everyone is cool with evolution (as far as I know), and the pastor often champions social justice in her (yep, a woman pastor!) sermons. It’s perfect for me!
But here’s the weird part: my heart is still stubbornly Evangelical. I still love to read the Bible, and I look for God’s word to me on every page. I still pray to God as if to a close friend. And although Mainline Protestants are pretty big on the universal love of God when it comes to politics (a notion that, luckily for Donald Trump, white Evangelicals have yet to embrace), I also want to feel God’s love for me as I pray in private.
Many (though certainly not all) Mainline Protestants relate to God differently than their Evangelical brethren do. Mainliners tend to think of God in less personal and individual-centered terms. It can be considered crass or inappropriate in some of these circles to claim that God told you something very specific. The Mainline God is certainly bigger and less judgy than the masculine God of Evangelicalism, but the Mainline Deity is also somewhat more distant, less concerned with the details that mean so much to me.
T.M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, gets it – but from the opposite direction. She grew up in a liberal Mainline church, but found something strikingly different in today’s American Evangelical Christianity.
When God Talks Back is the product of Luhrmann’s mammoth effort to understand how God becomes experientially real to modern people, particularly in Evangelical Christianity. Her bibliography is a whopping 553 titles deep (yes, I counted them). Although she is no longer a Christian, she spent four years actively participating in Vineyard (a charismatic Evangelical denomination) worship services, Bible Studies, and conferences in order to understand Evangelicals from the inside, on their own terms. She says she has a six-foot stack of transcripts from her interviews of Evangelical Christians at her church. This is no casual weekend research paper.
I’m only 50 pages into When God Talks Back, but I already have high hopes for what it can teach me. One of Luhrmann’s goals in writing the book is to help non-Evangelicals understand how these believers learn to experience God in such intimate and personal ways. Perhaps she can help my Mainline mind come to terms with my Evangelical heart.