This is Part 3 in a series on leaving progressive Christianity by Dave Stovall, worship leader and former lead singer of Wavorly and band member of Audio Adrenaline. He describes how his journey into progressive Christianity left him dissatisfied and how he found the road to a more sustainable, faithful faith. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 4 and Part 5 and Part 6.
One of my earliest memories of church was seeing one of our deacons smoking a cigarette outside the side door of the church. I turned to my mom and asked, “Is he…still a Christian?” My mom laughed nervously and said yes as she hurried me along, but I knew even at such a young age that our bodies were temples and anything we did to harm them was a sin. So, smoking? Yes, definitely a sin in my little brain. I would’ve said the same thing about tattoos at the time.
I grew up with the impression that there were 3 things you didn’t ever do if you were a Christian: you didn’t drink alcohol, you didn’t smoke cigarettes, and you definitely did not say cuss words.
These beliefs carried on into college. I mentioned earlier that I joined the BSU my freshmen year. What that meant was that I went to weekly Bible studies, worship nights, mission trips, and tried my hardest to not sin in any way, shape, or form — specifically not in the forms of drinking, swearing, or smoking. Those 3 things made it LOOK like you weren’t a Christian (emphasis on look in case you didn’t catch the all-caps).
I will say that living that way kept me away from a lot of trouble, so there’s that. But there is a way to abstain from those things without alienating yourself from others or setting yourself up in a position of judgment—or worse, of being in a place where you’re trying to make non-Christians act Christlike.
As a council member at the BSU, I was required to have a weekly counseling session with one of the directors. We had two solid dudes leading the organization. The Director was a little more old-school; he added the word SUX to that list of unspeakable words for BSU goers—which was super hard to stop saying for some reason. The Associate Student Pastor happened to be a musician. I got to spend an hour with him every week which was huge for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was week-in, week-out discipling me. We would talk about music. Then there were times the conversation would go deep and I would confess some of my fears/thoughts/sins to him. They were usually met with a “me too.”
He probably would’ve been the person to help me walk through my doubts if I had been brave enough to voice them.
But I was sort of scarred by the reaction of my peers so I didn’t really let him know about them. I guess I was worried I would be kicked off the worship team or something. I probably said the classic line of, “Yes, I have had doubts before…a lonnnnng time ago. But not now. I’m totally good now,” to protect my current state of affairs. Through our weekly conversations, he was the first person to broaden my thinking on a lot of things outside of our Bible Belt culture.
He once mentioned to me that Christians in other countries were known to drink beer when they got together. This literally stumped me, I’m embarrassed to say. Also, when I found out my favorite author C.S. Lewis regularly met up with another favorite author of mine, J.R.R. Tolkien, at a pub to drink and smoke pipes, that was equally mind-blowing. After reading books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, it was obvious that these men knew and loved the Lord, and yet they regularly partook in something I had always considered an obvious sin.
I checked every reference for alcohol in the Bible.
It’s connected with getting drunk, being caught off-guard and…being murdered. Great. But then there are verses where King David thanks God for “wine that gladdens human hearts” (Ps. 104:15). Also, Paul said to “use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5:23). A requirement for being an elder is “not indulging in much wine” (1Tim. 3:8). Interesting.
I still wasn’t convinced that it was ok for me to drink. But then my Christian pop-punk band and I visited Nashville, TN, for our very first Gospel Music Awards week. There we met some very interesting people. Were we invited? Of course not, but we just kind of showed up and ate the snacks.
I was introduced to men and women in the Christian music industry that week and it was a bit of a culture shock to this Alabama boy. Hearing them talk about the Lord and about what they were involved in with helping out the needy in their city was completely invigorating. They sounded and acted a lot like the Jesus of the Bible I had in my mind during this time — gentle, humble, not easily surprised, not afraid of anything. To put it in one word, they seemed free.
I probably need to pause and explain to you that a big word in southern Christian culture would be the word guilt.
I know I often felt guilty about my own sin before God. I would be so worn down by the fact that I kept messing up with the same exact sin over and over that I couldn’t fully accept the fact that I was covered in the righteousness of Christ. I won’t be vague about what I’m talking about here since I’m letting everything else out in this article: I struggled with porn from 15 years old to 30.
Thanks to programs like Celebrate Recovery and Sexaholics Anonymous, I can thankfully say I have been sober from that darkness for years now—praise the Lord. But before getting sober, I always felt like God was disappointed in me, even when I wasn’t consciously sinning. Back then, I wasn’t sure that I was truly saved, because how could God save someone like me? My prayers mainly consisted of “I’m sorry’s” and “I’ll never do that again’s” on repeat.
These people I met in Nashville didn’t seem to have that weight of guilt on them like I did.
It was like they fully and completely relied on the grace of God for the full forgiveness of their sins and the salvation for their souls. Novel idea, right? I hadn’t seen that before at this level. I was even more blown away when, after the events of the day, we all went to a “restaurant” called The Flying Saucer. I include quotation marks because this place is known for having hundreds of beers on tap, and when you want to use code in front of legalistic Christians for “Hey, let’s go drink,” you say “We’re going to a restaurant later…”
So The Flying Saucer allows (or allowed) you to smoke in the room as well. So these same people who seemed to me to be so close to the character of Jesus a few hours ago were now sitting in a smoke-filled room puffing on cigars and taking big draughts of dark beer all the while talking about theology (what a bunch of Inklings wannabes…).
I was seriously unsure if it was okay to enjoy myself.
I’d love to see a replay of this night of me awkwardly walking to the bathroom trying to look like I had been in a real-life bar before, weirdly smiling and nodding at everyone on the way. What a newb. I definitely felt confused and felt a little bit of (here’s that word again) guilt. Would God be okay with me being in this room with these people?
And then it happened. I absolutely could not believe it. It was one thing to hang out at a restaurant while other people did the sinning, but all of sudden out of nowhere, someone in our group said “slipped and busted my a–.” With those words echoing in my brain, it was at that moment that I realized I had had enough. I couldn’t be expected to let my little virgin ears be tainted in this way, could I? If this had been a PG-13 movie, I would’ve promptly turned it off and proceeded to complain to anyone near me about its audacity. And yet…these people were also the closest thing I had seen to the character of Christ in my life. So what did this mean?
I went to bed confused that night. I prayed to God about it. The next day, my bandmates and I talked about it. Some of us were excited while others were a little unsure. I had always been the mom of the band. I didn’t earn the nickname “Downer Dave” for nothing, so it was no surprise that I was pretty outspoken that we weren’t going to be like that.
We took a quick weekend run of shows up to Chicago and back.
It wasn’t everyday you got the opportunity to open for THE John Reuben, so we said yes even though our van was broken down and we didn’t “technically” have a way up there. We were living in an apartment in Jumpertown, MS, at this point, so that was quite the haul. A youth pastor in Nashville that had brought us in for a show had once offered to drive us all the way up there. He was an answered prayer for sure. So we basically spent 14 hours in a truck with this guy.
What’s funny is that, as a Christian artist, you know the fans that meet you probably have some pedestal version of you in their minds—where you don’t struggle with any major sins, never doubt or question God, agree 100% with their own personal theology, and always vote Republican. I always thought I wouldn’t do that to anyone else from experiencing that on the other side. Yet I totally did that with our youth pastor friend.
I assumed a lot about him, so I was completely surprised when the youth pastor let his guard down and started talking and sounding a lot like those Christian drinker-smoker-cussers. He kept using the word liberated. He said that Jesus had come to liberate us from our sins and that if we were still experiencing guilt over anything, then we hadn’t really accepted the fact that we’d been set free. The prison door has been open the whole time; just walk on out! To Jesus, it didn’t matter when we messed up. We’re humans, we do that, and God knows that. To Jesus, what was more important was that we loved God and treated the people around us well.
As much as I didn’t want to give in to this new way of thinking, something started loosening in me.
A tightness of grip relaxed. A little blood rushed back into my years-long white-knuckle game. Was it possible to really live this way? Could God really forgive this completely? I remember a part of me beginning to want to let go of this legalistic part of my upbringing. I began to want to know what it felt like to sit in a pub enjoying a pint of dark beer, smoking a pipe, and talking about the Lord.
It was as if I had a tight grip on strings tied to multiple balloons which had kept me floating smugly above regular people on the ground. One-by-one, I found myself releasing those balloons from my life. Alcohol. Tobacco. Occasional cuss words (at first just to make my friends laugh). At this point in my life, I had a tight grip on my resolve to quit my addiction to pornography, but I would later relax on my personal pursuit of holiness altogether and give myself a break when I “slipped up” every other week…or day.
I began living with this leniency because I thought it didn’t matter what I did anymore. Instead, what mattered was how I treated people, specifically how I treated the non-believers and the outcasts excluded from the American church (e.g., the sexually promiscuous, the doubters, LGBTQ’s — or to sum it all up, “sinners” and “non-believers”).
I even began to relate more to the non-believer than I did the average church goer.
I sincerely hope I haven’t misled you in this article: I am not throwing shade on alcohol or moderate tobacco use. I’m not putting those things in the same category as obvious sins such as lust and porn. I, for one, enjoy both alcohol and pipe tobacco in moderation. I, for another one, am an aspiring Inkling (look it up). And, depending on the day, you may still hear me say a cuss word just to make a friend laugh, although generally I try my best to find better words to use than those.
The point I hope I’m clearly making is that I slowly changed some of my own personal convictions in order to do the things I really wanted to do.
Of course, it didn’t feel like that in the moment; it never does. We have all fallen short and performed some version of doublethink on ourselves with which we switch our minds from what we ought to do to what we secretly have been wanting to do. I flipped that switch and hid it from my family and even from the churches where we put on concerts. This change further drove the wedge between me and the conservative Christian.
Honestly, it all felt a little edgy and I was happy about it. It was sort of a rebellious feeling. Jesus even seemed more like a rebel to me during this time. In my mind, Jesus had come in order to stump the Pharisees, flip some tables, and reverse all the previously stated rules and regulations. “You have heard it said, but I tell you…”
The scary thing is that my new version of Jesus started to look only like a small portion of His real character rather than the whole thing.
Yes, Jesus is gracious, but He is also truthful. Should we even really desire Him to be anything less? Think of your friendships. How fulfilling are they when someone just let’s you vent to them but never pushes back on what you think and feel? Why would we want a God who is a pushover and lets us do horrible things against Him and never speaks up to let us know He’s offended?
I think maybe because I had grown accustomed to the God of only truth that the God of only grace was pretty attractive. I could live how I wanted, never feel bad about it, and still believe I’d go to Heaven when I died. For the first time in my life, I actually felt…free. And the conservative Christians I had grown up around? Now, I pitied them for being so far behind when it came to true Christianity.
Isn’t it interesting how the boy intent on living life differently than the “hypocritical Christians” actually grew up to be exactly like them?
That’s usually what happens to self-righteous, judgmental people. It’s funny (no, it’s scary) how the Devil sets his traps. One minute, you’re trapped in a very dark addiction and you’re so low yourself that you couldn’t possibly look down on anyone else. Then you seek help, get some sobriety, get baptized, memorize Scripture, and get involved in a church and small groups.
Then, long before you realize it, you’re wondering why your old friends from high school aren’t further along in their relationship with God (like you). And, without realizing it, you’re becoming “twice the son of hell” you were before you even found God. What an awful, meticulous plan which works nearly every time. To quote a great group of theologians (Stryper): “To Hell with the Devil.”
So what do we do?
Where do we find hope that we can walk Jesus’ straight and narrow path? It is literally impossible on our own, but God says a thing or two about Himself versus impossibilities—something about the ability to do “immeasurably more” than we can ask (Eph. 3:20). When we’re seeking and trusting Him for each next step, we may still fall, but we will always get back up and walk again.
There is a way to live free and not be a self-righteous person with hidden sin. There is a way to live free and not be flippant about personal holiness. It’s the way of grace and truth that Jesus calls us to, and He is the one who will show us how to do it. It is a road which demands more intentionality and is not without pain, but the pain is only temporary. The depth of relationship with God, the freedom in Christ’s righteousness, the warmth of friendship with the Holy Spirit by far outweighs any hardship we have to go through, any favorite sin we have to give up in order to follow Jesus.
The depth of relationship with God, the freedom in Christ’s righteousness, the warmth of friendship with the Holy Spirit by far outweighs any hardship we have to go through.
I wasn’t planning on ending the 3rd article in this series this way. It actually sounds like the end of a series, but it’s not. There is much more to go. I’m planning for at least 10 of these, but more stuff keeps coming to mind as I go, so I have no idea where I’ll stop. The paragraph before this one was a total Holy Spirit thing given to me to help somebody. Is it you? Please reach out and let me know. Don’t build up that Holy Spirit comment in your mind; by the way, I’m literally lying on my kids’ roadmap rug after putting them down for the night and typing in Notes on my iPhone; it’s the only time I can find to do this. I feel a compulsion to share my story, and as long as people keep reading this, keep getting help, keep being inspired to go deeper with the Lord, then I will keep writing. Next month’s post: Part 4 — The Banned Books and Podcasts for Real Christians.