the Empathy List #79: Sara Billups is a Seattle Christian Living in the Wake of Mars Hill Church
Evangelical Deconstruction Stories
This is a new series in which I’m sharing stories of religious deconstruction and reconstruction. If you find it compelling, would you share it with a friend?
Hello friend, Liz here.
Today, I’m delighted to introduce you to a fellow writer friend: Sara Billups, writer of one of my favorite newsletters, Bitter Scroll, and a NYT published author (her op-ed is titled, “There are evangelicals who stand against Trump. I’m one of them.”)
She happens to be a Christian in a city where a Very Famous Church Scandal took place (ahem). She’s also deconstructing (ish) and she’s still Christian, all of which I find fascinating. All that to say, I had a million questions for her.
I hope her words will be a balm in a season of EXCRUTIATING church splits and yelling matches. There are those of us who are walking in tandem, looking for Jesus and stumbling in the dark. You aren’t alone, friend.
Thanks for reading. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
By the way… I WANT TO HEAR YOUR STORIES, too!
If you have a deconstruction/reconstruction story, I’d be grateful to hear from you! (REPLY to this email, or get in touch via my DMs or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Sara Billups is Living in the Wake of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA
LIZ: First off, would you call yourself an “evangelical”?
SARA: I identify as a Christian. But what about an evangelical?
I was raised in the 80s and 90s in a non-denominational evangelical, suburban white Church. I attended an evangelical church in college. I’ve attended a Presbyterian church for 18 years here in Seattle. I could call myself a presby.
Or I could call myself an evangelical by process of elimination: I am not Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Coptic Christian, so I am protestant. I believe in a literal resurrection and that Jesus performed miracles, so I am not from the liberal Christian tradition that may see those acts as symbolic.
For anyone following the cultural conversations around evangelicalism, there is both the idea of evangelicalism as a theological tradition and the functional definition that evangelicalism is synonymous with whiteness, celebrity pastors, and militant masculinity.
In the new IVP book Struggling with Evangelicalsim: Why I Want to Leave and What It Takes to Stay, the author, a pastor named Dan Stringer, makes the point that if we deny the word evangelical, we deny our responsibility to deal with its mess. Other folks would argue that there is no mess worth the clean up crew it would take to reform the evangelical church from within.
In fall of 2021, Kristin Du Mez noted in an NPR Politics podcast that most evangelicals have little actual interest in the theology that defines evangelicalism—in the Bebbington Quadrilateral, for example—but define evangelicalism culturally. The cultural associations have allowed the co-option of white evangelicalism by racism and toxic masculinity.
I said something about defining evangelicalism in a recent newsletter and heard from a reader who was baffled by the assertion that cultural evangelicalism has become dominant. We had a phone call after where she told me about her diverse and thriving evangelical congregation on the West Coast, assuring me that evangelicalism may be synonymous with racism and Republicanism for others, but not in her experience.
750 million people around the world identify as evangelical today. So there’s the important Western lens to acknowledge in this discussion as well.
So I can tell you the technical definition of evangelical, I can talk about the cultural distinctions of white American evangelicals, and then tell you the reasons why I'm not "that kind” of evangelical. But the entire process of explaining you’re not-that-kind-of anything is draining and of much less interest to me than moving forward and pursuing spiritual formation and community.
Honestly, I'm less interested in making a declaration that I am no longer an evangelical, or drawing a line in the sand and saying I can't use that word any longer.
And I say that as someone who is uncomfortable with ambiguity. I appreciate direct and crisp language and logical thinking that leads to clear identifiers.
Here is what I know for certain: I remain committed to the historic Christian faith. I believe in the trinity, resurrection, the virgin birth, and all the definitions of Christianity in the early church councils.
LIZ: How would you describe your experience in church growing up?
SARA: Growing up in the Rust Belt city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, my family always felt a little out of place, both inside and outside of the church. My dad is a Jewish Christian, converting in the 70s. There were about … zero other Jewish Christian families in our city in the 80s and 90s. We heard about one guy in Indianapolis, but that was it.
This framework — insider and outsider, in the church but a little different — became a point of both distinction and alienation for my parents that impacted me. Born an introvert, a self-aware enneagram 4 that starts most sentences with “I feel,” my personality only reinforced the desire to be special yet anonymous that was mirrored in my family of origin.
My parents made a lot of mistakes, first and foremost showing me The Exorcist in seventh grade.
I was raised with a lot of fear of the end times and was told the world would probably end before I could get married or have kids.
My parents also did a lot of things right. “We always had a lot of love,” dad often says when we talk about my upbringing.
I met my husband Drew, who couldn’t be more different from dad, freshman year of college. We attended Taylor University, located in a speck of an Indiana town called Upland. I was 18, Drew was 19. We’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary this fall.
Drew and I were very involved in the late 1990s/early 2000s in a small church in Muncie, Indiana led by a pastor influenced by the Jesus Movement. The church was not especially charismatic on Sunday mornings, but we were welcome to practice gifts of the spirit and there was a beautiful focus on prayer with Sunday night meetings that often lasted for hours.
LIZ: How did you reconcile the church experiences you'd had with those you witnessed, especially considering you had a bird's eye view on Mars Hill's impact within Seattle?