Religious Trauma & Evangelical Abuses: Real, Common, Systemic


Tell a story of religious trauma and you are bound to get at least one person who says that you were just doing it wrong, in a bad church, or “following man instead of God.” I’ve gotten dozens of such comments on this very blog. My most recent was yesterday on Twitter, where I got this:

My original tweet, refers to an article in Marie Claire about a trend in Evangelical families called “stay at home daughters.” They’re literally kept at home – schooled either there or at a church school – and given an “education” that only covers the bible and how to be a “godly” wife and mother. It’s about Patriarchy on steroids: absolute obedience to Dad, then absolute obedience to the husband he approves for you.

And it’s a popular movement. From the Marie Claire article:

By selling life manuals and school curricula, as well as promoting conferences to strengthen families, a number of Christian patriarchy–preaching ministries have profited in the millions, even as the most well-known leaders have been sued for sexual harassment and assault.

Multiple “ministries” don’t make millions in profits of a tiny segment of people. Nobody seems to want to believe it, but this shit is PERVASIVE. Many of the families in my UPC church considered this idea NORMAL.

Support Groups For Stay At Home Daughters

No Longer Quivering, Homeschoolers Anonymous, Spiritual Sounding Board, Love Joy Feminism, and Recovering Grace are just a few of the support groups for girls in this movement. And there are dozens more secret ones, because the last thing a girl in this situation needs is for Dad to discover she’s in one.

There’s even an escape network with secret safe houses all over the country just like the freaking Underground Railroad.

This level of infrastructure doesn’t spring up around something that’s just a few people “not doing church right.”

And this is only ONE type of abuse you’ll find in evangelical churches.

The Exvangelical Movement

Blake Chastain created the hashtag #Exvangelical on Twitter, and a popular podcast by the same name that discusses the pain of evangelical trauma and coping with it after leaving. The podcast has nearly 3500 followers. A facebook support group by the same name is closing in on 3,000 members. The hashtag was used 3,200 times on Twitter between 6/11-6/18.

Christopher Stroop created the hashtag #EmptyThePews for people to use to explain why they left evangelicalism. It had 4,300 mentions during the same time period last week. Spend some time scrolling through those stories and you’ll see that trauma from these churches is anything but rare. Stroop himself has over 31,000 followers.

Also, a quick search on Facebook revealed that besides the Exvangelical group, there are over 3 Dozen groups (not counting secret ones) related to religious trauma with over 3,000 members between them. Additionally, specifically UPC-related support groups (including several secret ones) have another 1,000.

Those are just the people you can find with about an hours worth of searching – JUST on Facebook and Twitter – who are willing to talk openly about their trauma. There are thousands of them.

Hard Numbers Show It’s More Like MILLIONS

The Public Religion Research Institute released an article last fall with hard numbers regarding the decline of Evangelicalism in the US. While the landmark Pew Survey in 2014 lumped all evangelical protestants together and found they were the group with the smallest decline over the previous 10 years, PRRI focuses specifically on white evangelicals.

And white evangelical churches are absolutely hemorrhaging members. 

1997 was the high mark for white evangelicalism. That year, 27% of Americans identified as white evangelical protestant. As recently as 2006, PRRI numbers showed 23% still claiming this identity. Yet their 2016 survey found the numbers had fallen to only 17%.

Looking deeper into the 2014 Pew survey that showed only a 0.9% drop in overall evangelical protestantism since 2007, the numbers show a 5% increase in the amount of non-white members of this denomination. So while there may not have been less evangelicals overall, there is a consistent drop in the number of white evangelicals – they were simply replaced by people of color.

Meanwhile, the largest evangelical denomination in the US – the Southern Baptist Convention, which is 85% white – reports that it lost one million members between 2007 and 2017. And that’s just one church organization.

Why The Difference Between White and Evangelicals of Color?

This part is my own personal opinion – and I’m absolutely going to do more research to see if it bears out – but the most rapid decline in white evangelicalism seems to begin around 2007 – coincidentally the run-up to the election of America’s first black president. I was still in an evangelical church at this time, and the election of Barack Obama sent everyone into apoplectic fits. “Oh, it’s not because he’s black,” we all insisted. “He’s a socialist! He’s too liberal! –” yada yada.

It was during this period that white evangelicals seemed to be getting Angry. The rise of social media allowed them to express that anger in ways that shocked many of their fellow churchmates. This wasn’t why I left my church, but it was exactly why I left Christianity.

For Black and Hispanic evangelicals, church is often part of their cultural identity. And as the backlash to Obama’s election among white evangelicals got more vocal – and especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump – I would imagine many are feeling more persecuted than ever. Perhaps black and hispanic churches actually feel loving and welcoming – like a group that’s trying to get through something difficult together.

I would LOVE to talk to current and former Evangelicals of Color to find out more about this difference. Is there less abuse and trauma in your churches? Or are your numbers staying the same because enough new people are replacing people leaving in the same numbers as white churches?

Meanwhile, Church Leaders Know Exactly Why People Are Leaving

John Pavlovits is one of the few Christian blogs I will still read. As I was researching this article, I stumbled upon this gem he wrote called “The Christians Making Atheists:”

In record numbers, the Conservative American Church is consistently and surely making Atheists—or at the very least it is making former Christians; people who no longer consider organized religion an option because the Jesus they recognize is absent. With its sky-is-falling hand-wringing, its political bed-making, and its constant venom toward diversity, it is giving people no alternative but to conclude, that based on the evidence of people professing to be Godly—that God is of little use. In fact, this God may be toxic.

Pavlovits isn’t alone. Christian leaders recognize that trauma and abuse are rank within their numbers – they’ve coined it “Church Hurt.” Christianbook.com has 197 books currently for sale about this topic, and another 427 on “Spiritual Abuse.”

620 books don’t get published about something that’s rare or unusual. And this doesn’t include older books that are already out of print.

So there you have it. Spiritual trauma, people being abused and hurt by churches AND Christian doctrines are not rare or unusual. There is clearly a systemic problem that is affecting MILLIONS of people.

And it’s never going to get better as long as people continue to deny, ignore, and minimize the reality. 

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