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Losing My Faith in Progressive Christianity: There and Back Again? (Part 8)

This is Part 8 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 3 and Part 4 and Part 5 and Part 6 and Part 7.


My wife and I had an interesting conversation the other day. She asked me, “What do you call yourself when you’re talking to people about your faith?” I answered, “I typically describe myself as a ‘follower of Jesus’ rather than calling myself a ‘Christian.’”

I’m not embarrassed by the word “Christian” or anything. I think most of us are aware that the first followers of Jesus referred to themselves as disciples while the rest of the world called them “little Christs” (aka Christians) as a derogatory term. In some ways, I feel I’m not qualified to call myself a little Christ, but hopefully people would describe me in that way.

But for the part I can control, I wake up every day and choose to follow Jesus with my decisions for that day. I’m a disciple, a student if you will, at the feet of Jesus. I’m learning and applying. I’m failing—a lot. But I’m being honest about those failures and getting right back up.

I’ll also tell people I’m aligned with the historic beliefs of Christianity. What I mean by that is the major beliefs that the first Christians believed.

Before I delve into some specific beliefs, I’d like to talk about how radically my life has changed since coming back to historic Christianity. One of the main differences between the deconstructing-me and the reconstructed-me is that I no longer identify as a progressive or a spiritual wanderer.


“I’m a disciple, a student if you will, at the feet of Jesus.”


This doesn’t mean I’m completely satisfied with every single answer historic Christianity gives me for every question about God and the Bible, but it does mean that I’m more settled in my faith when it comes to those questions. I still don’t have the answers to all the tough questions, but they no longer dominate my thinking and certainly don’t send me down a years-long trip of doubting and deconstruction anymore. And that’s an incredible thing! I was stuck there for so long, and now I finally feel free.

I definitely still hit bumps in the road, but I’ve got a few tools that I didn’t have before:

1. Transparency with spiritually mature people.

With these people in my life, I can open up to them about the things I’m wondering without judgment, and I still do that from time to time. Questions kept in secret create blackholes within our spirits, and they can eventually suck all the life out of us if we’re not careful to talk with someone about them. I believe everyone has questions, sometimes soul-crushing ones. The difference is how we deal with them.

While I was deconstructing, I dealt with the questions by stuffing the doubts down. If you’ve ever tried that, you know that doesn’t work for very long. Some people ignore their questions. This creates a blissful yet ignorant state of mind. To me, these people seem like they’re white-knuckling their faith while not facing reality. They seem happy enough, but in a sort of creepy way (for example, like everything is hinging on one specific prayer request that they really need answered and if they just keep reciting the magical phrases and believing, then everything will turn out just fine).


“I believe everyone has questions, sometimes soul-crushing ones. The difference is how we deal with them.”


Don’t be that person or any of those types of persons I just listed. Find yourself an open follower of Jesus and, when the speed bumps come up, give them a call and push through the awkwardness and get the secret thought out. You will feel a weightlessness about you that you maybe have never felt before. Recovery programs have a truer than true saying that’s worth pondering: you’re only as sick as your secrets.

2. A quiet and patient trust in God.

I don’t have an urgency for my questions to be answered right away like I did before. I trust the Holy Spirit to lead me in the direction of truth, but sometimes I’m not even close to being ready to hearing that truth. So when I ask God to reveal something to me, I simply wait. When my consciousness is ready to handle the truth (suddenly I’m picturing Jack Nicholson in a court room with veins popping out of his forehead), the Holy Spirit will reveal it to me.

This goes back to the “giving God the benefit of the doubt” thing I mentioned earlier. If you trust that he’s good, you’ll find the ability to chill out and trust him while you wait for an answer to come. You’ll find yourself in a state of peace in the not-knowing for now. I suppose you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands if you don’t trust that he’s good.

If that’s you, and you genuinely want to know if he’s actually good, reach out to him with an earnest prayer and ask him to show you that he’s good. But keep in mind this probably won’t happen if you’ve already made up your mind. Would you waste time trying to convince someone you’re a nice person if you could clearly tell they were never going to believe you?


“I don’t have an urgency for my questions to be answered right away like I did before.”


3. Better sources for understanding.

I took a brief class on Greek (not enough to understand it all or read it, but enough to understand some things about the language). I’ve also found the Blue-Letter-Bible app to be a great way to double check meanings and get answers closely linked to how ancient people thought of biblical terms—and not closely linked to the way 21st century, predominantly white thinkers want to interpret the Greek.

I want to know what the author meant and how the audience would’ve received it, not what a certain word or two could mean to any given modern thinker. I’m way less intrigued by the phrase “could have meant” now, where I once was enamored with it. It throws up a red flag for me now. “How is it that after thousands of years of people studying and seeking the things of God, that this North American dude-bro ended up being THE one to crack the code on what Jesus ‘actually’ meant?” I’m done with that.

So, What Exactly Am I?

These tools have helped me continue on the journey of not identifying as a skeptic or a progressive anymore, although I sometimes jokingly say I’m still a recovering skeptic. Honestly, my default reaction probably always will be a little skepticism, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I used to feel guilty for that, but a good friend of mine helped me understand that I was probably just created that way. He referred to me as an intellectual (which I immediately laughed at), but he explained that being an intellectual doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart. I thought, Okaaay, keep talking… He said intellectuals typically feel anxiety over something they don’t understand and won’t feel right about a subject until they’ve studied it. I totally feel that way about a lot of things.


“Honestly, my default reaction probably always will be a little skepticism, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”


It’s funny. That sort of wiring in my brain sent me down the deconstruction path to begin with, but it has also turned out to be one of my greatest strengths on the other side of progressivism. Studying the Word, the commentaries, and doing the research actually help me understand, but doing these also helps me to let go. That may not be how your brain works, and that is totally fine. You might be better off than me, honestly. But if your brain does work that way, a word of encouragement to you: God may have just designed you that way for a reason. It might be a good idea to spend some time praying and fasting for how God may want to use that gift in and through you.

So, I’ve covered what I wouldn’t call myself anymore (skeptic, progressive). But what would I call myself now? I’ve really wrestled with this answer even as I’ve been writing this article. It would be nice to say that “I started out evangelical, went progressive, and came back to evangelicalism.” Boom. Wrap it up and put a bow on it. . . .

But that wouldn’t really be the whole truth, would it? I guess I’ve landed in a place similar to where I started out, but . . . different. My eyes have been opened to certain things, and there’s no fully going back. Like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, I once was safe and secure in the Shire, but I went on an adventure with strange people and I’ve once again returned to the Shire, but with visible scars and just a tad bit weird. In the book, the neighboring hobbits were a little unsure what to do with the new Bilbo. Or maybe a better example would be Frodo coming back without an index finger and with a huge scar on his chest.


“Maybe a better example would be Frodo coming back without an index finger and with a huge scar on his chest.”


Either way, I couldn’t outright say that I’m 100% an evangelical again. What I mean is that I’m a tad bit weird, and—perhaps my fellow hobbits are a little unsure what to do with me! I do love the original meaning of the word “evangelical,” as it is based on the word meaning “good news.” But as I was saying with the word “Christian” earlier, the definition of “evangelical” seems to have changed over time, if only in the minds of non-believers.

The word “evangelical” may even be making you flinch as you read it because you’ve got some real church hurt by so-called people of the good news. The word “evangelical” may conjure up images of judgmental Christians characterized by their hatred of certain people groups or their allegiance to a certain political party. When most people hear the word “evangelical” now, they don’t automatically think “good news.” They probably don’t think of the word “good” at all, to be honest.

Perhaps the next label that comes to mind is far-right Republican. Fundamentalist. Gay-hating transphobe who votes pro-life in order to control women’s bodies. They may think evangelicals are stupid and way behind the times.

While I don’t believe those things are true of evangelicals, I’m sort of afraid of what happens if I wear the label now, because of what it might bring up in the mind of someone I’m trying to find an “in” with for the gospel. That label can hinder the type of evangelism I’m trying to do.


“The definition of ‘evangelical’ seems to have changed over time, if only in the minds of non-believers.”


I’m a slow-burn kind of evangelist; I don’t prefer the shouting-through-megaphones-on-street-corners method. I don’t prefer the handing-out-tracts method like I used to do in college. I prefer the method that was used to slowly melt my heart of stone and get me to look at Jesus again. And if we really take a good look at how Jesus was with his disciples, we’ll see it’s the exact method he used: life-on-life discipleship. It’s subtle, but man is it effective. Jesus took three years with his disciples and look what happened.

So, I’m fine with labeling myself a disciple of Jesus who tries to line up with historic Christianity, but at this point and time, I feel like there’s just too much baggage in the hearts of lost people to proudly claim the label evangelical for myself and potentially close off any line of communicating the gospel with those people.

You may not feel that way, and I do understand that. I’m not advocating that you should think like me on this. I try my best to be a person who gives anyone a fair hearing instead of judging their book by their cover, but I know not everyone I will try to reach is like that. And I want every chance I can get for a person to know me before they make judgments on my character based on the label of a people group that may have hurt them in the past. I want a real shot at introducing them to the real Jesus.

My Beliefs Then and Now

To bring it around full circle, unlike when I was progressive, I actually believe the good news again. I believe it’s real and I want everyone to know it and to surrender their lives to Jesus because it’s the best thing for them. It’s the best way to live. Now, every time I befriend a stranger, I’m thinking in the back of mind, “How can I help them see Jesus?” I know that makes me sound like a fanatical Christian, but I honestly believe the good news isn’t just good…it’s the BEST news, so why wouldn’t I want people to hear about it??

Contrast that back to when I was progressive: I don’t think I actually wanted people to hear the good news because deep down I wasn’t so sure I believed it myself anymore. How sad is that? That breaks my heart even writing that out. I didn’t want people to hear the very thing that could’ve turned their lives around. . . .

Here are some other ways my beliefs have settled since leaving progressive Christianity. I went from thinking Jesus probably wasn’t aware he was the Messiah to knowing that Jesus definitely knew he was the Son of God. From responses like “I am he” when asked about the Messiah (see John 4:26; Matthew 26:63-64), I think it’s plain to see that in Scripture now, but I forgot that when I was progressive. If that’s not a case for always staying in the Word, I don’t know what is. When you’re not in it, you simply begin to forget it.


“Unlike when I was progressive, I actually believe the good news again.”


I used to question why Jesus had to die. I suspected that the Christian answer “it pleased God” lined up with the progressive answer that it was “cosmic child abuse.” (How do they come up with such catchy, deceptive phrases??) My thinking at the time was that the cross might very well have been “child abuse” because, since God had the end in mind when he created the world, he must have planned to severely punish his Son all along, right? Well, if it weren’t for those words Jesus said in the garden (Matthew 26:36-42), then maybe, but Jesus literally said he was willingly laying down his life (John 10:17-18). I’m confident now that the reason Jesus died was to save the world from the wrath of God, according to dozens of Old Testament prophecies and direct words from Jesus himself.

I used to wonder if Jesus literally rose from the grave or just metaphorically rose in spirit (a sort of “carrying on of the torch” by his disciples. (By the way, I’m now rolling my eyes at myself for believing that one, so feel free to do the same.) Now I would say I’m as confident as you can be without having been there that Jesus physically came back to life after defeating sin and death. Yes, I’m confident because of what the scriptures say, but also because the earliest attempt to explain away the resurrection (that the disciples came and stole Jesus’ body) assumed that they never found Jesus’ body. The religious leaders that hated him and sent him to the cross were paranoid that the disciples were going to steal his body so they doubled up on security—and then ended up spreading the rumor that Jesus’ disciples did steal the body, even though the disciples wouldn’t have had that ability. Something obviously happened back then, something that caused a stir, and the most logical explanation would be that he did what these historically and geographically accurate eyewitness accounts say he did: rose from the dead.


“The most logical explanation would be that he did what these historically and geographically accurate eyewitness accounts say he did: rose from the dead.”


I went from believing the Bible was a collection of stories from humans about God to believing how Jesus himself viewed and treated Scripture: as God’s word written through the hands of humans by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how Christians throughout all time have handled the Bible. Cultures are cyclical. Just because Scripture goes against the grain of our culture doesn’t mean we ought to do away with certain verses in the Bible. I’m sure there were plenty of things going on back then that didn’t line up with Scripture. I mean . . . Christians throughout history have been persecuted and murdered because of Scripture. It’s never going to fit in a fallen world.

I went from thinking large portions of the Bible were wrong to believing that the Bible is inerrant (while not always maximally precise—more on this later).

I went from thinking there was no hell and that everyone (eventually) would end up in heaven, to lining up my thoughts with the only one to ever go there and see for himself. Jesus says there is an afterlife where people go—either to a place like Gehenna (burning trash dump) called hell or a place greater than the fanciest things you’ve ever seen called heaven, where he (the Messiah) is seated on the throne.

I used to think the people of God would bring about utopia one policy at a time to the point where the world was good enough on its own. That point would, in a way, be heaven. But now I agree with the one who was here when everything was set in motion at the beginning of time, and he says that history will culminate in the day when he comes back to judge the living and the dead and restore all things.


“I went from thinking there was no hell and that everyone (eventually) would end up in heaven, to lining up my thoughts with the only one to ever go there and see for himself.”


By the way, this is me finally getting down to the nitty-gritty—to the differences between progressive Christianity and historic Christianity. It feels a little weird to juxtapose the two lines of thinking like that. But I will say as I’m ending this article, as I look back on my own story, I do sort of feel like my life has been split into three sections, and I’ve taken something with me in each third part of my journey.

Three Stages in the Journey

When I was an evangelical in the first third of my journey, I witnessed to people. All. The. Time. Gas station clerks. Mission trips to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Wherever I went, we were evangelizing people all the time. But I didn’t really care about the people—not really. I mostly got sad when someone rejected the “How to Get to Heaven” tract I was offering because I wanted my Baptist Student Union Director to be proud that I “saved” someone. That’s such a backwards reason for doing that, but that’s the truth.

But in the second third of my journey, when I was a progressive, I learned how to actually care about people. I got into the lives of “sinners” from all walks of life. I sat down with the alcoholic. I slept on the floor of houses with marriages barely hanging on by a thread. I listened to the gut-wrenching stories of bullying from the pasts of LGBTQ+ people. My heart broke for these people, but I never gave them a good answer. I just listened, which is good but only half the battle.


“I just listened, which is good but only half the battle.”


I see it now, in the final third of my journey. Jesus is the answer. He’s the best thing there is. It’s all about him, and we get the chance to know him and it’s unbelievably rich and good. I’m ashamed of myself for being someone so wrapped up in legalism in my first third that I couldn’t see the poor sinner in front of me. I’m also ashamed of myself for partaking in drunkenness and debauchery in my second third, all the while having the precious jewel of life locked secretly away in my heart. I’m looking through tears as I’m writing this for all the wasted opportunities and time with people whom I will never have the chance to talk with so intimately again, that may end up separated from God forever at the end. I don’t ever want to squander my time like that again.

What I’m trying to apply in this third part is both the richness of the truth that my upbringing taught me by keeping my nose in the Bible with the wonder and the mystery of the grace that has been shown to me by Jesus who eats with sinners. I seek to live every single day with the conviction of the truth in all of Scripture and with a heart full of grace and compassion for the broken world right in front of me.

We have been given the best deal of our lives, people. Really. We were nothing. Nobodies. And the greatest person to have ever lived looked at you and he looked at me with tears in his eyes and he said, “I can help them.”


“I seek to live every single day with the conviction of the truth in all of Scripture and with a heart full of grace and compassion for the broken world right in front of me.”


And now we’re free. Let’s be the kind of people who know him so well that there’s no question of who we are. That no one would look at you and say, “Oh he’s an evangelical; you can tell because he hates gay people.” But rather that people would say, “That person is unlike any other person I’ve ever met. They’re so kind and caring.” Why? Because the character of Jesus is so much upon you that the you that was there before, the one with all the baggage, with all the hurt, with all the doubts and the anger, the one with all the hidden sin, isn’t defining you anymore. The real you is the gracious character of Jesus that looks at the world and says through you, “Here I am. I can help.”

That’s the person I seek to be now after this there-and-back-again trip through deconstruction, progressivism, reconstruction, and finally peace in the here and now. I don’t know where you are in your journey, but please let what you’ve read here fill you with hope that, whatever part you’re on right now, there is a hand that will carry you through. And it’s the same hand that made you and knows you and loves you forever. Amen.

Are you a creative who cares about good theology? If so, we encourage you to come to the 2024 National Gathering in Indy and join Monday evening’s collaborative breakout on building a culture of creativity. The conversation will be led by Dave Stovall, Kim Ford, and Daniel McCoy. Dave will also be leading worship at the Gathering. Register for the Gathering HERE.
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