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It’s not an infrequent occurrence that my friends will reference a song from the 1990s or early 2000s and I have no idea what they’re talking about.

My response is usually along the lines of “No, I’ve never heard that song. Remember, that was back when I only listened to Christian music.”

They spent their childhoods listening to the pop, rock, and alternative hits of the day. I spent a good part of my childhood and teen years listening to artists like Amy Grant, Point of Grace, 4Him, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and the Newsboys. I can still sing all the lyrics from the seminal Jars of Clay debut album from 1995 and from every single Relient K album.

It’s little quirks like these that have made me realize that growing up in a subculture like evangelicalism of the 1990s and early 2000s is really bizarre. In the exvangelical community I’m part of, there are frequent conversations where we all laugh at our strange past lives as evangelical kids of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s: first concerts and first CDs (almost always obscure Christian groups), weird rules at home, church, or school, alternative Halloween celebrations (shout out to my school’s Halloween replacement–the Reformation Celebration). At the same time, these seemingly minor and amusing quirks point to a deeper cultural divide between evangelicals and most other Americans.

It’s sometimes hard to explain these oddities to people because, yes, evangelicalism is a religious movement but in many ways it is also an all-consuming lifestyle. And yes, white American evangelicalism is made up of disparate churches and denominations but it also shares a strong and fairly monolithic subculture. We had our own music, books, clothing, schools, and social activities, even our own lingo.

This carefully-crafted subculture meant that my experience growing up was vastly different from that of my non-evangelical friends. So different that I frequently think about all the things I missed out on growing up evangelical as well as the pressing questions like: Why can I still discuss the evolution of VeggieTales, the main plot points of a slew of Karen Kingsbury novels, and the merits of each Relient K album? And why do I still know so much about Ken Ham but so little about evolution?

In high school, I worked at the local Christian bookstore, where I was immersed in the evangelical subculture. I amassed more Christian fiction than I know what to do with as well as countless albums and demos from an assortment of Christian artists. A few weeks ago out of curiosity, I decided to comb through my iTunes library and find all the Christian music I still own. Six hundred songs later, I had my playlist. It spans every genre of Christian music imaginable from the classics like MercyMe and Newsboys and Michael W. Smith to the group I like to call Christian Rascal Flatts to the edgy (or at least edgy to 14-year-old me) sounds of Relient K and Audio Adrenaline.

It all sounds very weird as I describe it now, over three years removed from the strange and isolated bubble of white evangelical culture. Now I think that behind the amusing and innocent anecdotes about tacky Christian music and fiction, there is the deep, self-inflicted isolation of evangelicals in the United States.

In the world, not of it?

I firmly believe, however, this self-imposed isolation comes at a price, both for those who remain a part of the culture as well as those who leave. One need only browse the writings of ex-evangelicals, in podcasts and on Twitter, or even in my own post on purity culture last month here on The Twelve, to know that living in a world like that comes at a price.

Now, at least, I try to console myself by telling myself that knowledge is power and that my six hundred Christian songs can’t be a complete waste. Despite our atypical experiences as children and teenagers, I figure that at the very least my fellow exvangelicals and I have a deep religious literacy when it comes to white evangelical subculture–something I think is desperately needed given our current political climate. Someone has to be able to explain white evangelicals to everyone else, right? I might as well put all those years listening to Christian music and reading weird Christian fiction to good use.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • mstair says:

    “there is the deep, self-inflicted isolation of evangelicals in the United States.
    In the world, not of it?”

    yes … and hopefully a yet undescribed sense of the intimate spiritual nurturing that occurred … the rare understanding of what it means to be chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless, destined to be his adopted children.

    An opportunity for all of us to “put all those years listening to Christian music and reading weird Christian fiction to good use.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Allison, for your insightful peek into the many stuck in the evangelical box. Our CRC sheltered life consisted of Christian education from Kindergarten through college. We had our own form of childhood evangelism, called covenantal thinking. We pride ourselves on our faith nurture programs, which most often amount to brain washing. So even those, not necessarily in what all would call an evangelical box, the Reformed mentality involved a confining Christian box.

    One of the more frustrating things for those looking at those stuck in their confining Christian box, is the Christian’s narrow view of Scripture, a view that only their own Scriptures are infallible and therefore completely true and trustworthy. They think they can relate to or understand those on the outside, and yet Christians judge those outside their own box by the standard of the Bible alone. After all, it is only Christians who think the Bible is God’s inspired and infallible word. When other religions claim their Scriptures are inspired by God, same as Christians, yet Christians deny the God breathed nature of other religions, especially when it comes to salvation and the nature of God (the Trinity). I think Christians, for the most part, are blind to their own blindness. They just can’t see how blind they are. Thanks, Allison, for this enlightening article. Blessings to you.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Allison, thank you very much for this posting. I would like to add an extension to it from the perspective of growing up in the CRC before the rise of the evangelical culture. I went to Christian schools for 12 grades (actually, three in three different states) but those schools taught classes largely from standard textbooks, especially in the higher grades. The rise of Christian schools tied to the evangelical movement led to the production of “Christian” textbooks, many of which presented revisionist subject matter under the guise of a purportedly Christian world view. History, especially American history, and the sciences were particularly rewritten to conform to evangelical presuppositions. (Your comment of knowing more about Ken Ham than evolution is indicative of this.) I draw attention to two consequences. The first is an continuing withdrawal of the evangelical community from a shared knowledge base with the rest of American society. The second is an increasing anti-intellectualism within the evangelical community because its members perceive that their educational stances are not respected by those outside the community (which is indeed the case). The result is an evangelical community that is isolated from the modern academy, the scientific research enterprise and, to some extent, technology research. It is a community that is increasingly divorced from facts and factual analysis and increasingly reliant on an internally-constructed set of beliefs that are inconsistent with current knowledge.

    I interact routinely with Christian graduate students, some of whom come from the evangelical community. Many of these students struggle with their faith because their education is at odds with what they have been taught in their churches and Christian schools and the rigidity of the evangelical faith makes it difficult for them to reconcile the two. The evangelical community then blames the academy for leading their children astray. I have a different view – it is not the academy that has left the evangelical church but the evangelical church that has left the academy. Sadly, the church is no longer salt or light within our world.

  • George E says:

    Thanks for a very encouraging post, despite the snark. I am concerned that I’ve become too much of the world, but you point out that the years in a Christian culture are never quite forgotten. True, you have moved off, but even you have retained some of its influence. And you’ve reminded me that Christians are persecuted — here in the US not like Ms. Bibi, but thru the contempt you hold us in. So thanks again, and sorry for your loss.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “I have a different view – it is not the academy that has left the evangelical church but the evangelical church that has left the academy. Sadly, the church is no longer salt or light within our world.”

    This, I think, summarizes the prevailing sentiment here at THE TWELVE. A general frustration that the church has left the world to the detriment of its followers, mission and the world at large. Rather than argue out some individual point, let me ask a few questions: Do you believe the world/academy/political organization has any room for your salt or light? Do you believe the world will accept you on anything other than it’s own terms?

    There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with fellow Christians, and so we can squabble about that. But I NEVER get the sense on this site that there is an enemy in the world and that we’re SUPPOSED to be in conflict with it. (James 4:4)

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      Hi Matt,

      The world and the academy in particular absolutely needs and has room for salt and light. To me, the question is how we engage with the world. If the evangelical church community that Allison described and I commented on sees itself as beset by the world and withdraws into itself, then it has great difficulty being salt and light. As an extreme example, I may respect the Amish for their dedication to their beliefs and the community spirit that they have among themselves, but they provide little incentive to become part of their worshiping community. I think we are called to love our neighbors but it is hard to do that if we don’t actually engage with them.

      I am not quite sure I completely understand you last point. We are perhaps using the “world” in different senses. Recently I was reminded (by a professor of history at my secular university) of the statement by Alexander Solzhenitsyn “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” I am not using “world” thinking that it is full of evil people opposed to the church, which is composed of the good people. We all have good and evil within us. I live and work within a secular world, as do you, and, I hope that I represent within that world the gift of salvation that I have received. So, yes, sometimes I am in conflict with the values and demands of this “world” and I have to resolve those conflicts consistent with my view of what Christ commands me to do. But, more often, I find myself called and moved to minister to the wounded and hurt that cross my path.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Tom – your reply is quite good, but it’s not what I’m driving at. My point is that the bible tells us that we should expect active resistance from the world. If we’re going to call out a handful of Christian subcultures for retreating from the world – we could at least acknowledge that they were resisting something that needed resisting.

      Why does the world need Jesus (other than to cower a few middling Christians)? All we need is a super-government that can take whatever it wants from whoever it wants in order to help whoever it deems to be in need. Also, there’s no need for biblical standards with respect to male/female, marriage, right to life, etc. Jesus is just a cute story that helps pry the money out of some with a little less friction, and for a time provide a few votes, but otherwise is unnecessary. That’s what the world thinks, anyway. I’m just trying to figure out how that is different from THE TWELVE.

  • Steve says:

    A new term: “exvangelical.”

    But your dissertation intrigues me. Any chance that could be accessed?

  • Dean Koopman says:

    Thank you for your post. I wish you could expand in the future on this subject how you found Boston College to have integrated its distinct Catholic heritage into your doctoral studies and how it compares to your studies before. I wonder to what extent it was integrated or more of a sacred-secular divide? How has it influenced your view of the “bubble”?
    I’ve grown increasingly convinced that the “evangelicalism” problem is both truly self-inflicted and a seductive secular ploy to exclude Christians from the public square or to convince us that we can enter only having left that “baggage” before we enter.
    My guess is that you grew up here in West Michigan. This is where I have and continue to experience the greatest “bubble mentality”. I have even been warned on these pages that I should be careful reading and listening to people like Albert Mohler because he’s Baptist – don’t you know.
    Maybe growing up outside Boston almost four decades ago gave me a faith life with a broader ecumenical interaction and appreciation since the lines have always been clearer and the need to band together greater there. There’s a both a richness and an interconnectedness I see much less here. There’s much to learn from other denominations, both cautionary and instructive and it is our loss not to study it.
    Maybe that’s also why I’m concerned for the direction of the Christian Reformed Church. And maybe why I left it.

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