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.]
I have never toured [personally]. That is not my level. And I wasn't getting paid [by the church as a drummer], so it's not like I was losing my livelihood [through the lockdowns]. But I had friends who certainly who were affected, friends in the industry, including some from these churches who were shut down, and they weren't making money during COVID.
LIZ: In other words, for you, loving your neighbor, was a really simple calculation and it was like, hey, your neighbor needs to stay alive. You can't do things that are going to kill your neighbor, right?
So, that was the inciting incident for your “deconstruction” culturally. But what did your church relationships look like after you’ve come to this tipping point?
TIM: Well, [by 2015,] I had finally settled down with a church. I was there for six years, up until 2021. …You know, I'm a very all-in or all-out I'll kind of person. But also I'm very relational, a type six on the enneagram, and loyalty is a big deal for me.
I have this history with this church planting community, where friendship was the basis for everything.
So I had decided to fully invest in this church—it was time to make the friends, tithe, donate a drum set, drumming every Sunday. I did everything. I was the main drummer, led a small group, helped build up the worship...
We also started this other event called Resonate, which was a multi-Church worship night that blew up to… 600 people, who came out to these every other month worship nights from about 60 different churches, attendees across denominational lines, 100 volunteers behind the scenes, and on the stage was maybe eight different churches represented, all playing music together for the first time.
That multi-church worship event really connected me to other musicians outside of my church. All these churches were sharing [their] musicians [for the event], and I had many friends in those spaces.
At the time, I had a lot of good conversations about queer inclusion and how do we move forward as a church and what [even] is the church? I thought, what a dream to merge my passions with great relationships.
It was beautiful. We killed it. We were top-notch. This was my life. I was all-in. I mean, I'm in, and I'm deep in. Attending faithfully, doing everything correct. These were my people.
…And I was also meeting my senior pastor to get coffee to show that I’m not a threat.
LIZ: Wait, back up. You said, “to show your senior pastor, that you weren't a threat.” Did he feel like you were a threat?
TIM: Well, I think that they saw some my Facebook posts at times.
They knew I had “different views.” I was talked to you about it.
Hey, your tone, isn't that great. Hey, you're a leader here. Hey, people are looking at what you're saying. Hey, the young people are reading your stuff and they look up to you…
LIZ: So, you'd been reprimanded?
LIZ: As in, could you take it down a notch here, please Tim?
TIM: Pretty much. But I was very transparent. I would meet with the senior pastor, a 65-year-old AG [Assemblies of God] guy, and we would get coffee. I was intentional about that because again, I didn’t want him to think that my views are here to take over their church, right?
I'm just here to love people. Hang out. I love the diversity of perspectives.
And I was very intentional not to bring up my perspectives in that church. When we had devotions, I wasn't [saying,] is God really God? That wasn't me. But behind the scenes, I'm listening to the Bible project and having my mind blown. But I don’t not share that with people at church…because I don't want to freak them out.
I'm just playing it safe. [I told myself], just be faithful, love people, and do your thing. Then COVID hit.
Obviously, I saw the lines drawn quickly. Not in my own church. My church handled COVID really well—you know, wear[ing] masks, shutting down when we needed to. But as far as evangelical culture, [I saw a different message]: no mask wearing, no this, no that.
But I started New Evangelicals in December , and online, I never talked about my church. No one knew what church I went to, and if I ever did mention my church on my account, it was always in a positive light. In fact, [I hoped to] show people that there are some evangelical churches getting it right. Like my church.
So, my worship pastor was really protective of how much I volunteered, and he wouldn't let me play every Sunday, even if I wanted to. That's a win. My church follows COVID guidelines. Everyone wears masks and they sanitized. That's a win. My church gave away 10 percent of their income to missions and local people. That's a win. As in, look, there are some good guys out there.
That’s where I was… until April/May of 2021 was when my senior pastor asked to get lunch.
LIZ: Oh no. [And] you were already meeting with the pastor because you're on the “watch list”…
TIM: Yeah, that’s when it all went down the shitter. My worship pastor wasn’t [even] there, which was another weird thing because I’d been leading with him for years, but the senior pastor sat me down over lunch and said that he loved me and then he asked questions about my content on new evangelicals—mainly around tithing and queer inclusion.
[For example,] …he had assumed that one week when he preached on tithing at church and that I had posted in response to his message. But my post was unrelated. It was just a coincidence. I would not try subvert my pastor that way.
LIZ: He was reading into it.
TIM: Right, and he didn’t have Instagram, he’s an older guy, so I don’t know who’s feeding him this stuff. Apparently, people were coming to him [complaining] about my content. I said, well, no one's come to me. This is all going to the pastor. I’d been [in the church] for six years, all-in, heavily invested. People knew me. Yet no one's talked to me. No one.
No, screenshots, no here’s my question, it was just, Listen, I can't have someone on the stage who is playing music, who seen as a leader—a volunteer leader, I guess, hitting things in the drum booth—saying things on social media that go against my teachings in such a public way.
He implied that there were young people who follow me who are asking questions.
I said, well, I think what you're telling me is that either I stop doing what I'm doing on social media or I stepped down from leading worship.
He said, yes.
At that point, even though it was a painful decision, it wasn't a hard decision. The New Evangelicals had so many people messaging us, thanking us for our content, saying how much we're helping them. We got over 10,000 DMS last year. So how could I stop doing that work? It was clearly more important than playing drums in the booth.
Plus, if no one's coming to me [to talk this through], then what kind of relationships do we really have?
Also, [I wondered,] why does a pastor feel like he has the authority to tell a volunteer what he can and can't say theologically?
I'm not getting shit-faced on social media the night before in a club or cheating on my wife and then playing drums on Sunday morning. That's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about theological issues about how we can be better Jesus followers. That was the issue.
LIZ: He was asking you to give up this part of you that has always been asking questions, that has always been digging further into what does that look like to follow Christ. So he was saying, you need to do it my way, or you can go.
TIM: Well, I was really hitting beyond the boundaries of white evangelicalism. They allow questions, as long as you come to the right answers.
Especially when you talk about queerness and queer inclusivity—you're way beyond. But don’t forget, I was outspoken before. This wasn't like, oh, Tim is super conservative, then one day, he's like BLM!
LIZ: Tim snapped!
TIM: Right. So anyway, [at the end of the lunch], the pastor and I shook hands and I never set foot in that church again.
Then, the next week, I texted the senior pastor, to check if I could still be part of Resonate, the worship night. Because that was separate.
And he answered, no, unfortunately, your decision also impacts your involvement in resonate. And the worship pastor agrees with me.
LIZ: That’s so punitive. And the triangulation! It's obvious the leaders got together to figure out, what do we do about Tim? Gosh, we need to get him under control.
TIM: Right, I hadn’t heard from the worship pastor about any of this. And this is a guy I’ve been with for six years, really pouring into, leading together, making the effort. That for me was when I went from sad to angry.
Now, looking back, I want to say to the worship pastor, where were you? Aren't you a leader? Don’t leaders eat last? Don’t you make the hard decisions?
Me and the worship pastor had a pretty brutal phone call after that—it went pretty south—and I asked him at one point, what rules in the handbook did I break?
He said, well, you haven’t been tithing recently.
I said, well, I lost my job because of COVID.
LIZ: Are you serious? I can’t believe he said that. “You haven’t been tithing.” I mean, he went and checked up, because he needed a weapon, just in case?
TIM: He later apologized for the comment, but the comment’s still out there. It still stung. Honestly, I think I was angry, he was angry, and he just went for the shot in the nuts and I was just so flabbergasted. Like are you kidding me? Like, is that a joke? It's been a very interesting roller coaster of emotions.
I have so many people online that I engage with, yet not many in my own life that I can really engage with.
…So anyway, so long, long, long story short, within two months, 90% of all those [church] relationships completely dissolved. All of them. They're completely gone. I haven't heard from most of those people and I've even messaged some of them, and I’m left “unread.”
The church ended up offering to give me back the drum set I had donated. I said, no, and then two months later, they sold the drum set and bought another one. It’s been really shitty.
So I lost my church community, you know, within a couple conversations. …And I feel totally hoodwinked.
I was under the assumption that our friendships and our relationships are paramount to our beliefs when in reality, our beliefs are paramount to relationships—that’s what [our relationships] are contingent on.
[That’s] just not how I function it. I have so many close friends who are completely crazy compared to my views on things, and you just make room, right?
I mean, thank God for trauma therapy, but I mean, I still have stress dreams about it, I still get really angry thinking about it. In my view, I was totally fucked over. But I'm working through it.
LIZ: I can relate to that kind of [attitude from church leaders] of, hey, actually the things that you've been doing for free for us? We really don't care about those, and we want you to go.
TIM: That's right. As professionals, you know what you could charge and what you could be compensated, and instead, you do it for [church for] free, willingly, and then you're told, thanks, but no thanks.
LIZ: Well, I can totally relate, and I think you’re right—it is a broader experience, unfortunately, that a lot of us are walking through, trying to figure out what is our engagement with church going to be like after we’ve been hurt by church leaders. You wonder, what am I allowed to say? And what do I want to say? And how do I how do I walk that line?
A lot of people are not willing to go all the way down the rabbit hole [,to say,] you know what? …What I am walking through with Jesus is more important than what my leaders are saying. Most people are not at a place where they can make that choice.
So I feel really grateful that you had the integrity to say, no, I'm not okay with squashing this—because I think this is where Jesus is leading, and I'm going to follow Jesus even if it comes at great cost.
TIM: It's a decision I never wanted to be forced to make, though it's really allowed me to be more honest with myself and with my community about, you know, the white evangelicals’ complicity in massive racism that I never knew existed, for example. And queer theology and inclusion.
There's just so many things I'm learning now that I'm not sure if I could be as outspoken about if I was still in that church setting in that particular church. Maybe it was only a matter of time.
But, yeah, it's not uncommon. My story is pretty tame compared to many. But I'm definitely one of the one of the evangelical casualties. As I've dug down this rabbit hole, I realize, this is really more systematic than I ever thought. Now my eyes are open.
I really can't unsee what I'm seeing.
LIZ: Yes, …the systems of suppression and silencing and diminishing of the personhood of someone who disagrees with you. Those things are so painful and so widespread.
TIM: It's the illusion of family, right? You think you’re irreplaceable. Yet there was a drummer in my spot that next Sunday, three days after my lunch with the senior pastor.
LIZ: Because you’re actually replaceable.
TIM: I think people go in with these assumptions, of being part of the family… until you're not. And the machine just keeps going, the “evangelical industrial complex.”
[Listen to Skye Jethani’s series about the “evangelical industrial complex” on the Holy Post podcast.]
I don't know if that church has ever talked publicly about why I'm not drumming anymore. I'm just… not there, I'm gone. So, just move on. It’s a road bump, and Tim’s just another speed bump in the road to saving souls for the kingdom, despite the …casualties that we leave behind.
LIZ: What would reforming evangelicalism look like?
TIM: Well, one of the problems with the American evangelical church is that technically, they’re not all unified denominationally, right? So, when they want to stay separate, they can, but also when they want to unify, they can.
A good example of this is John MacArthur. Three or four years ago, he came up with this statement condemning social justice in all forms and currently 17,000 church leaders have signed it [in agreement]. So, when the evangelicalism wants to… “rally the troops,” they can do it.
But when they don't want to face systemic issues, they say, oh, well, we're not part of that denomination. They've actually mastered this both/and, where they can …say, look for “evangelicals,” CRT is dangerous. But when Mark Driscoll is an abuser? …We have no jurisdiction to call him to repent.
We have to start calling the bullshit. Don’t hide behind autonomy when it's convenient and then rally people to your cause when it's convenient.
We [sometimes] think that when we’re criticizing the evangelical church that we’re critiquing the church, [but] we’re not.
We’re critiquing the institutions that we’ve tacked on to the church. And institutions come and go throughout church history. The church will go on forever; the church is the hope of the world. But these institutions that, I would say, hold the church hostage, will not.
…This is why so many of us are fed up with the white evangelical position. Because [we’re] reading this Jesus person and [it doesn’t] compute… with… telling me that if I don't vote Republican, I'm not a good Christian. As opposed to the position of Jesus that says come all who are weary, come all who are heavy burdened. The Christian majority is in bed with the state. And I think that’s why we’re having this deconstruction explosion.
Tim Whitaker is the founder of the New Evangelicals. You can support his organization with donations that will offer FIRE POWER to his kind and radical Jesus work. Find Tim on the New Evangelicals podcast, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.
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