God loves the sojourner. Deuteronomy 10:18 says, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you.”
When I talk about orphaned believers, I mean two things.
First, orphaned believers are cultural orphans. We’re Christians in a middle space. We might be politically progressive, moderate, or conservative, but we have joined together in standing against the deep currents of Christian nationalism that surfaced during the Trump presidency. We are troubled by white nationalism’s lasting implications for the American church. We’re often alienated in our pursuit of Jesus in a moment when many people equate identifying as a Christian as archaic, anti-intellectual, and supporting dominant culture and “God and country” rhetoric.
Second, orphaned believers are spiritual orphans. The way we express our faith may look different from our parents and peers. We’re stirred when cultural Christianity has usurped the gospel’s call toward transformational work that leads to discomfort and disruption. Yet we remain inspired by—and live our lives centered on—the gospel story and the call of Jesus to be transformed by grace.
Some of us have experienced a double orphaning, first from church culture—reeling from -isms including nationalism, racism, and sexism. But we’ve also been orphaned in broader culture, where following Jesus costs social capital.
If you identify as an orphaned believer, I want to say three things. First, you’re feeling this way for a reason, and it is not an accident or just in your head. Second, you have probably been feeling culturally and spiritually estranged because of specific societal and political forces that are working systemically. Third, you’re far from the only one experiencing sadness, heaviness, or confusion. You are not alone.
What Has Shaped Us
I’m interested in finding what’s valuable and true in complicated stories, and I believe God works in and through everything. Even every broken thing.
I believe we can see ourselves—and our future—in a new way when we understand our common past. Considering the past helps us accept where we’ve come from before we move further ahead. Understanding the larger cultural and political context that shaped evangelicalism leads Christians on a clearer path toward deepened spiritual formation.
Reading accounts of evangelicalism from the ’60s through the ’90s and hearing stories from our friends and family of origin can’t paint a whole picture of the past for us. We tend to remember history in ways that idealize or catastrophize what happened before we were born or when we were kids. The way we recall memories or are told family stories may or may not align with the reality of former events. Nostalgia can manifest itself as longing because what happened when we were younger solidified the beginning of our own spiritual formation.
But time can also make room for finding through lines connecting the dots of how something that happened in our own lives was linked to the wider world. For example, a lot of parents in the mid-80s were concerned that backtracked vocals on records were hiding satanic messages. When no one was watching, kids like me were running our fingers counterclockwise across vinyl, trying to make out a secret message. The secret message fervor had an illicit hidden treasure, cartoon-mystery vibe. We probably didn’t know the reason our parents were worried about satanic messages laced into music was sparked by Senate hearings with the Parents Music Resource Council in 1985. The group worked to earmark songs in categories including “occult” on its “dirty 15” list. That throwback cultural moment is light and kitschy to most of us looking back from the 2020s, but I use it as an example of how understanding the larger context of what happened in formative years helps us make sense of trends, fears, and behaviors.
Orphaned believers are impacted by three specific failures of white American evangelicalism in the ’80s and ’90s that continue to shape the church today, regardless of how directly or indirectly we interacted with them: specifically, an obsession with the end times, culture wars, and consumerism.
The first area to consider how the American evangelical church failed a generation is in its discussion of the last days. You may or may not have been raised with a parent who told you Jesus would return in your lifetime, or even before you would be able to start a career or have a family. If you heard this message and carried that spiritual trauma into adulthood, it never should have happened and I’m sorry it did. You are in good company.
Your life may have been deeply impacted by fear-based end-times theology, called premillennial dispensationalism, or the whole “left behind” era may have been a strange curiosity, a church subculture you didn’t encounter.
Regardless of whether or not you have a personal end-times story to tell, dispensationalism is important to consider because it is directly tied to conspiracy theories, the rise of Donald Trump’s presidency, and other power dynamics threaded through politics. Christian nationalism has irrevocably damaged American Christianity, and end-times culture is a part of the story. We are all better served by understanding how obsession with the end times in the last decades of the twentieth century still plays a role in the church and broader culture today.
Second, certain cultural forces, from the New Age movement to an airport revival, from hippie Christians to modern-day miracles, shaped American religion for decades and led to a cultural estrangement for evangelicals, including many Gen Xers and Millennials.
Ironically, some Christians who entered adulthood on the more radical side of the culture of their day, as a part of the Jesus Movement, became a force for influencing conservative politics in the ’80s and ’90s. No culture war issue more clearly unifies and aligns American evangelicals than abortion.
When I was a teen, the emotion of abortion, the idea of a baby being murdered, landed me in a protest line, praying for young women entering into the Planned Parenthood office in my hometown. There were millions of unborn babies being killed each year, I understood, and no one counted their votes. As I moved into adulthood, like many I began to consider how few evangelicals I encountered were supporting single mothers after their babies were born or advocating for other marginalized people such as immigrants and migrant workers.
Beyond abortion, what other culture war issues paved the way for Boomers, such as my father, to hold a lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party? Christian culture wars had their own flavor in the ’80s and ’90s, from evolution to censorship. How did conservative politics become synonymous with evangelicalism and tarnish the witness of the church for us kids, who watched conflicts bubble up in the media and from the pulpit?
Third, I grew up spending Sunday morning in church and Sunday afternoon at the mall. The influence of the market on the suburban church molded my faith as much as youth group. Like a lot of peers, I moved to the city after college, leaving my suburban home. I wondered how the suburbs and consumerism meshed into the white evangelical church and how those ideals transferred to careerism, burnout, and aspirations to live in a certain bracket of lifestyle and class marked by hyper-agency and a quest for authenticity that could be both created and controlled. How did the suburbs help the church swell in size, and how did the church define the white suburban experience?
The church remains our best hope. She’s what Christ left us with.
The church, the body of Christ, is always being reformed and renewed. Orphaned believers can reform the church, because it’s the people with consciences that cry out who create change.
Many of us remain convinced Jesus wasn’t only a good prophet, a historical figure, or a crucified refugee. We believe because, in the presence of our doubts, our lives have been changed and hearts softened by the gospel. Whether we’re orphaned spiritually, culturally, or both, the Christian story is ours.
Excerpt from Sara Billups’s Orphaned Believers: How a Generation of Christian Exiles Can Find the Way Home, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Published January 24, 2023, Used by permission.