The Empathy List #81: Tim Whitaker, Founder of the New Evangelicals, Lost His Church Community By Speaking Out
Evangelical Deconstruction Stories
This is a 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.
Tim Whitaker, the founder of the community the New Evangelicals, does not pull his punches.
That’s something I like about him and also something that’s gotten him into trouble.
In our January conversation over zoom, what struck me about his story was his fearlessness in confronting his own community—not only anonymous strangers online, but also his own Christian friends and pastors—even as all the dramas that have played out from 2016 onward brought him to crisis in his own evangelical faith.
Deconstruction is often painted as a fad touted by mobs of millennials online who are too afraid to commit to a church in order to change it (so we just ghost, no explanations or goodbyes, just gone from the pew one Sunday).
But Tim proves just the opposite.
Tim’s church ousted him because they saw him as a threat. He’s wrestled both in private with his own church family and evangelicalism in public. That kind of integrity is hard to come by. And it’s especially hard to come by someone who takes faith seriously… yet doesn’t take himself so seriously. ;-)
A note about the format below: unlike Sara Billup’s story, which was written, Tim’s was a conversation recorded over zoom, so it has a different flavor. I tried to demarcate whenever I ask a question to make the transitions between speakers clearer. (If you’d prefer to listen to our conversation instead of read it, just shoot me an email.)
There are many BIG SCARY THINGS happening in our world right now.
Yet I still believe that stories have the power to change the soul in a way that the butt of a gun never will.
So I pray you can embrace the pain and comfort of Tim’s story, knowing that his story—and yours—are treasured by God.
Thanks for reading. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
By the way… I WANT TO HEAR YOUR STORIES of deconstruction, too!
If you have a deconstruction/reconstruction story, I’d be grateful to hear from you! (REPLY to this email or via my DMs @LizCharlotteGrant)
Tim Whitaker, Founder of the New Evangelicals, Lost His Church Community When He Started Speaking Out
TIM: [For my deconstruction,] the 2016 election of Trump was a pivotal moment. I [start saying], hey, this Trump thing is a problem. Maybe we can say, it was the straw that broke the camel's back, right? It was the whole thing behind it—of the [church as] event, of the megachurch, of the haze and the lights. I was wrestling with that already.
Trump happens. Then the murder of Ahmaud Arbery happens, Breonna Taylor happens, George Floyd happens. And I'm seeing pastors that I know in my own circles posting online [Fox News] …talking points. In New Jersey, [where my family and I lived at the time,] it's a pretty tight-knit network, and I'm pretty connected. I know people in all dominations, people know who I am. They still do… for different reasons now…
LIZ: Yeah, “That guy’s a heretic, watch out for him.”
TIM: Pretty much. But COVID-19 was the final straw that led me to starting to the New Evangelicals.
[But even] before I started the New Evangelicals, I was [already] pretty well known in my friend circles as being… controversial on Facebook. For years I was talking about how we have to reform church structures. I was always [saying,] okay, we have to rethink church, we have to rethink how we're doing things. We have to be more faithful to Jesus… which got me into some pretty deep reform circles. There were no secrets [about my views]. I've always been outspoken. This was nothing new for me.
But if we're going to frame it in that [deconstruction] conversation, in a way, I’ve always been rethinking things. Ever since I was 18. I was in Finland, Belgium, and Germany for a month in each country and Belgium changed my life forever, as far as how I view church.
You know how, in the Bible, Paul kind of brags about …how Jewish he was? Well, I can do that, too. I can really brag about all my credentials within evangelicalism, you know?
…I grew up fundamentalist, homeschooled, alcohol is bad, right? Super conservative.
[So, at the end of high school], I'm taking a three-month mission trip overseas [to] Finland, Germany, Belgium. I'm reading Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution in Germany. That was my first time thinking, huh, social issues, greed, …this is interesting. I didn’t have these categories at the time, you know, I was 17, 18. And I'm listening to [reformed pastor] Paul Washer at the same time.
[Then] I find out in Finland that, on our next stop, we're meeting with a church of small groups. Instead of one large Sunday gathering, they meet around the city of Brussels. And some of the groups meet in bars. I told my buddy on the trip, I don't know how I feel about this. They meet in bars? That's like, where alcohol is, bars are really worldly. That's where the culture is. This sounds weird.
But, when in Rome… [shrug] We went, loved it, it blew out all my categories. Someone [there] gave me the book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola, a big house church guy. Now, I read his book and I'm like, oh shit. [I realize] everything about our church structures are from pagan origins, so now I’m farther into my fundamentalism, right? Like, we need to reclaim the gospel.
That was the beginning. Then we got home, and I [joined] a group of 35 that was not a community group or a church plant, it was in between. We were able to talk and then [quickly] implement [change] in our structure, wherever we wanted. So we experimented with all these church ideas, asking these questions all the time. These folks were some of my closest friends. That really formed [my faith—[I thought,] oh, community is possible, deep friendships are possible, the church can be community-focused, not event-focused.
If I had been online in social media spaces, I guess I was deconstructing back then, but still [I stayed] well within white Evangelical confines. I didn't know that term existed until I started New Evangelicals and hopped online with my account, then I said, oh, deconstructing, this is the word that we're using. But I was definitely starting to [test] the boundaries.
I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed the words. You told me to take Jesus seriously. So I did, you know, I am. When my pastor says, don't believe me, search out for yourself, I took them seriously. Okay, I will. I will read the literature.
And then, Sean Feucht. Here's the moment that made me think of the New Evangelicals.
I'm watching Sean Feucht touring the U.S. in the middle of the height of the pandemic, having mask-less gatherings, saying we will not be oppressed, you know, let us worship, and I'm sitting in my rocking chair, after having lost my job due to COVID, watching him and saying to myself, this is such bullshit.
What the fuck is happening to the evangelical movement during this pandemic that is killing people? We need a better Evangelical Movement. We need a new Evangelical movement.
For me as a committed Jesus follower, I wondered, do we take the words of Jesus seriously? “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Okay, let's just use basic logic, right? If there's a pandemic and the virus is super contagious, the best way we can love our neighbor is by trusting the medical communities’ guidelines in this moment, to resist our desire to meet in large gatherings.
To me it's just Christian 101, no deep interpretation needed, no need to get into the Greek, it says it in black and white: love your neighbor as yourself and everything hinges on these two commandments.
It wasn't complicated. This was the beginning of me realizing that that white evangelicalism is centered on itself more than its neighbor.
…[I thought,] this is so backwards… as Christ followers to be doing this [Sean Feucht’s worship tour] while the medical community is overwhelmed, while our health care system is crumbling. People are dying, [other musicians’] livelihoods for touring are cancelled right now. And you, Sean Feucht, have the audacity to have these worship gatherings [anyway], protesting lockdowns, not even being arrested for it. What are you [even] protesting? No one is shutting you down. So, what is the real issue here?
[Read D.L. Mayfield’s take on Sean Feucht’s worship tour for context.]