Exvangelical TikTokkers Aren’t a Sign of the End Times, But Here’s What Evangelicals Need to Understand About ‘The Falling Away’

Evangelical pastor David Jeremiah, who sat on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board, preaches about exvangelicals.

On June 27, David Jeremiah, who sat on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board, preached a sermon at Shadow Mountain Community Church titled “Where Do We Go From Here: How the Prophecies of Tomorrow Help Us Understand the Problems of Today.” Dr. Jeremiah opened his sermon by saying: 

How many of you know we’ve got a few problems today? In fact, I can’t remember a time ever like this, maybe even in the history that I’ve read when so much is up for grabs in our culture. And today I want to talk with you about “The Falling Away.” 

Throughout the sermon, which is available to stream on demand on his church’s Facebook page, he would go on to vilify the terms “deconstruction” and “exvangelical” and those who use them.

In true pastoral fashion, he begins his sermon with an anecdote, which is really just a thinly-veiled reference to Josh Harrisauthor of the hugely influential (though now repudiated) 1997 book on Christian purity, I Kissed Dating Goodbyewho began using the term and hashtag “exvangelical” to describe himself shortly after his “apology tour documentary.” Harris even hosts an interview series on Instagram about the topic. 

Jeremiah later followed this allusion with another, referencing Ryan Bell’s in/famous experience of being “atheist for a year,” which garnered national coverage, and led him to leave his Christian pastorate for humanist chaplaincy. He currently hosts a podcast about the topic. Jeremiah also makes reference to Christian country music (CCM) artists “falling away,” which could apply to several musicians including John Steingard (who, like Bell, has a podcast on the topic), and Kevin Max of DC Talk (whose decision to publicly identify as #exvangelical on Twitter kicked off an entire news cycle in the Christian media). Each of these stories garnered wide attention because of their notoriety within evangelical circles, and because their use of the term and involvement in deconstruction-oriented communities is legitimate.

But here’s what David Jeremiah misses: It isn’t just well-known figures with professional histories in the evangelical entertainment industries or ministries who are ‘falling away.’ It’s tens of thousands of ordinary people, in all walks of life, who repudiate his version of the Christian faith. And it’s been happening for decades.

I should know: I’ve hosted a podcast about the topic for five years, called Exvangelical. I coined the #exvangelical hashtag initially to promote it and I’ve devoted a great deal of thought to what the term “exvangelical” means. I’ve even written a separate essay on the topic, which boils down to 4 main points: 

  • It helps to know you aren’t alone.
  • It is a clear repudiation of evangelicalism.
  • It acknowledges personal autonomy.
  • It does not require all of you.

Incredibly, the resonance of #exvangelical as a moniker has expanded far beyond a single show or commentator. The hashtag has almost 50,000 uses on Instagram, routinely receives over 100,000 daily impressions on Twitter, and has racked up an astounding 233 million views on TikTok. Popular #exvangelical commentators on Instagram have tens of thousands of followers; TikTok followers number in the hundreds of thousands

But for all his prophecy, David Jeremiah failed to notice this decades-long “falling away.” It’s only within the last few years that, through the constellation of related hashtags like #exvangelical, #churchtoo, #faithfullyLGBT, #EmptyThePews, #LeaveLOUD and others, these experiences have become indexable, searchable, and shareable. The successful election of Donald Trump due to overwhelming white evangelical support is only the most recent in a long line of catalysts for vast swaths of people to leave their evangelical churches.

In fact, former evangelicals have long left their churches for other traditions or to no tradition at all. What’s novel about this moment is that, with new media, those who question the spoken and unspoken orthodoxies of white evangelical churches now have an avenue to explore those doubts in relative safety. Through hashtags, podcasts, YouTube series, Instagram posts, and TikTok, today’s exvangelicals of all stripes are connecting in visible ways, forging communities of all kinds and openly critiquing the worldview they inherited. 

It’s incumbent upon today’s exvangelicals to recognize that many others before us have been wrestling with the legacy of white evangelicalismand they’ve been doing it for decades. We have our own “cloud of witnesses,” so to speak: Marlene Winnell published Leaving the Fold in 1993, Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1995, Brian McLaren published A New Kind of Christian in 2001, Tyler Connoley & Jeff Miner published The Children Are Free in 2002, Julie Ingersoll published Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles in 2003, and Diana Butler Bass published her memoir Strength for the Journey in 2004. 

Reached for comment via Twitter, Julie Ingersoll said: 

I was part of a cohort that exited decades ago. We left over many of the same issues motivating today’s departures. These issues included gender and sexuality but also racism and inequality. My first book was about (white) women in leadership positions facing conflict over their legitimacy. Many of them left or were pushed out. None of them were listened to and nothing changed. Thanks to the networking of exvangelicals we understand the inter-relatedness of these concerns much better now than we did then.”

Early bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, and Glennon Doyle also dealt directly with these issues. This is a limited sample drawn from published books, and doesn’t even adequately reflect the work of BIPOC commentators, which is beyond the scope of this article. For decades, writers, musicians, and artists have reckoned with the turmoil of deconstructing one’s beliefs, the social consequences of losing friends and family after leaving fundamentalism, and seeking health and wholeness on the other side of the process.

Throughout his sermon, David Jeremiah utilizes scripture passages from 1 John and elsewhere to paint exvangelicals like me as apostates and false teachers. In doing so, he says the recent visible rise of exvangelical content online is a sign of the end times. He claims we were never believers. This is categorically false. He doesn’t know who I am, but I know him: I sold his books when I worked at Lemstone Books, the Christian bookstore in my town. He quotes John Walvoord’s definition of apostasy; I read Walvoord’s book Every Prophecy of the Bible with great zeal. I attended college with the goal of becoming a pastor, and read 1 John in Greek. His facile use of scripture to delegitimize my experience and that of untold others is insulting and dehumanizing. 

These claims of apostasy from powerful movement leaders like David Jeremiah are also not new. The boundaries of white evangelicalism’s spoken and unspoken orthodoxies are strictly enforced, and one method of policing them is to levy charges of “apostasy,” or “drifting too far to the left” or, heaven forfend, “wokeness.” These tactics are woven throughout the white evangelical experience, from the messages preached on Sunday to how community discipline is administered to protect the powerful; and from the presuppositional assumptions of dominionist theologies to the zero-sum “pro-life” political calculus. Each tactic reminds the believer that their acceptance is conditional, and that they must keep their heart on a swivel and question their belonging.

This constant questioning and rejection of other forms of authority, autonomy, and lived human experience is precisely what deconstruction communities challenge. By rejecting reform or claiming that social justice is somehow antithetical to the gospelan idea that’s anathema to the black church, as Austin Channing Brown illustrateswhite evangelicalism simultaneously reifies and erodes its base. People will defect and leave the fold. As more and more people question the teachings of their white evangelical churches, they will inevitably consider the consequences of its social and political actions, weigh them against the example of Christ we were taught to emulate, and find white evangelicalism wanting. As Dr. Anthea Butler says in her book White Evangelical Racism: “Evangelicals are not being persecuted in America. They are being called to account.”

David Jeremiah cited 1 John, but when I think of what I’ve learned of and witnessed from the white evangelical church that formed me, I think of a different passage: 

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20)

The world is not ending because of exvangelical TikTokkers. The world is not ending because mainline Protestants now outnumber white evangelicals. What we’re witnessing is the end of white evangelical hegemony, the cozy world of privilege and power David Jeremiah is accustomed to. Exvangelicals, for our part, understand white evangelicalism and can analyze and criticize it with insider knowledge. We have seen the fruit of white evangelicalism at its personal and social scales, and it is rotten. We’ve tried to reform it from withinto address the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and Christian nationalism in its midstand been rejected. White evangelicalism has shown time and again that it does not want to be reformed. We will not willingly replant its seeds and we will work to uproot it, so something new can grow.

And you can be damn sure we’ll podcast about it along the way.