An Open Letter to Evangelical (Boomer) Parents
Updated: Jan 31
*May also apply to other generations...
This letter is addressed to Boomer parents (in general but not all), because this is the generation that went through the Jesus Movement as they were having children in the 1970s and 1980s. The Jesus Movement was an intensified, all-in, all-inclusive approach to Christianity. Combine that with fundamentalism in some religions and not being able to be questioned, and being shunned or looked down on in various degrees if you leave, and you're pretty much forming a type of cult. People in a cult don't know they're in a cult, and they even deny it, with reasons that seem legit to them on the inside. However, an outsider can often see the red flags as plain as day. (I am not saying all religious organizations are cults).
First off, let me say this is not a letter of attack, but a letter to inform. There are different opinions on this, but I believe my parents did the best they could with what they knew. Their goal was to raise a healthy child who loved Jesus, which they firmly believe is the one right way to the God they worship, and they genuinely wanted the best life possible for me. And that they did! They kept me from thinking critically and realizing I hadn't formed my own identity for 37 years! Well into adulthood, I was still convinced that it was not okay to question too deeply or look outside the church for answers. I was also convinced I had the only right interpretation of the Bible, God, and Jesus...that others were products of heresy and those people didn't know God, and were being deceived by our enemy, the devil.
For children born into dedicated Christian families during the Jesus Movement, we were spoon-fed and given our entire identity in a one-stop shop...especially those of us who were also home-schooled or sent to Christian school. We were told day in and day out that our ENTIRE identity was in Christ. Without him, we are NOTHING. We were worthless, filthy rags, with no purpose. Our destiny was hell. But with Christ, we had identity, and eternity in heaven...which was all this life was said to be for anyway...a pre-trial, so to speak, for heaven. We were left here after we were saved specifically to make sure others were saved too...no other reason. This life doesn't matter if it's not put toward winning souls for Jesus. Our religion was all-inclusive...a place where all our needs were met and we were told who we are, how we are supposed to act, given community, support, guidance, acceptance, and love...as long as we followed the conditions. When we struggled following the conditions were disciplined to keep us in line...and shown how to be accepted in this way of life.
Parents, we want you to know...
- When we talk openly about our faith shift, it is not about you.
- When we talk often about our faith shift, it is not about you.
- When we talk loud about our faith shift, it is not about you.
Moms and Dads...our faith shift...is not about you...in any way, shape, or form.
IT IS ABOUT using our voice to reach out to others. It is about being heard, and it is about being loud and obvious so that others will know they're not alone and that they have a safe place with us - because most likely many of their friends and family have distanced themselves too.
It is not about convincing anybody that they NEED to follow OUR path.
Each person is autonomous and has the right to have their own, unique, individual life experience. It's nobody's place to tell another person what they should or shouldn't believe or how they should or shouldn't live.
We don't need to be fixed. We don't need to change. We don't need to be added to a prayer list.
We are whole. We are growing. And if you let us be real with you and still accept us, our relationship can thrive. But for this to happen, many of you will have to ignore what religion has taught you about where we're at. And for many of you, this will not be possible, because without experience, you cannot understand where we are at or how we got here. You only have what you've learned and internalized to go off of and assume you think you understand us, but you don't...unless you've been here too.
We realize this is hard for you, but it is hard for us too. It is hard because we cannot make you understand where we are coming from, and you do not believe us. When you do not believe us, we feel like you reject and abandon us...and you are the people who should love and accept us most...UNCONDITIONALLY. Instead we often witness watching you believe and assume that what the church says about us is true, rather than trusting what we tell you about our own experience. This breaks our hearts. And there's nothing we can do about it.
We did not go looking to disrupt our entire identity. Nobody does that! The pain we experience is beyond what words can describe. Nobody purposely creates pain like this! It just happened. And we're left to accept it, pick up the pieces, and move forward down OUR path. Not your path. With or without you. And this is okay. For us, it has to be okay. It happened. We can't change it. We can't go back. We can't undo this. Our only choice is to stay stuck and hide, or to move forward. This doesn't mean we don't love you. This doesn't mean we're against you.
This does mean that our life is ours to live. And you can trust us to do the best with what we know...just like you did the best with what you know. But please realize there is truth outside of what you know to be truth. And we don't have to agree. We are all growing in different directions, in different ways, at different paces.
When we finally open up to you about our faith shift...most of us are terrified with the thought of being honest with you. We don't want to hurt you, yet we battle the desire to be authentic at the risk of still being accepted.
We are terrified because we grew up in the church and we know the lies they teach about "children" who walk away from the faith. We know because they are lies that many of us once believed about the "outside" world.
We have discovered those lies are not true because we have lived through the faith shift, and we fear that you will not accept us unconditionally any more...which most of you don't.
We come to you with every hope that we will be wrong about how we assume you will respond to our honesty. You see us as rebellious, when in reality, we are not rebellious, but we are genuine, vulnerable, and open with you, hoping for your embrace, acceptance, and unconditional love. You may even see it as a personal attack, or a parenting fail...when really, it's our individuality, autonomy, and love for the best life possible (which may not match your opinion of what that best life looks like - but refer back to autonomy on that one).
When we admit our change in our belief systems, we work up the courage for months or years because we know that a shift in beliefs can cause a major shift in our relationship with you. We desperately want you to accept that it's okay for us to believe different than you and to embrace us and have a happy relationship with us, but when one leaves fundamentalism, this is not allowed to happen. Fundamentalist churches preach against it.
They preach that we are following Satan, that we are deceived, that we are living in sin, that we are running from something...and that we need to be handed over to Satan so hopefully we will return to the "truth." Many of us are scolded, shunned, lectured, disciplined, misunderstood, not heard, and even ostracized from the family. We are told there is nothing left to talk about, that God is going to get us and judge us, and that we need to turn back to God. We are told that we left him (many of us did not choose this).
We (many/most) of us did not leave our faith to spite you or even to rebel against you. It's not about you. It's not about what you did or didn't do right or wrong. please stop playing the victim and making this about you. Just love us for who we are and where we're at - because there's nothing wrong with us.
We don't even necessarily have the words needed to express exactly what happened to us, because many of us don't exactly know. We didn't wake up one day and choose to walk away from our entire identity
Those of us witness our faith disappearing without our consent, find it fascinating that contrary to what were taught in the church, people without the Christian faith DO have a huge heart of love for other people. We genuinely care. We judge less. We accept more. We hold space. We allow people to be who they are, where they are, without needing to change them to fit our personal story of what life should look like. We are good! We have morality!
We were told that unbelievers have NONE of these things. But our experience proves that theory wrong.
We still want you in our life in healthy ways. We want your acceptance. We want to laugh with you, be silly with you, hang out with you...without you having an agenda or feeling a need to talk us back into the fold. When you feel and voice the need to control us and our belief system or with-hold love and conversation, you force us to put up boundaries to protect ourselves and maintain our autonomy.
Reality is, we want to have normal, fun, thought-provoking, inspiring conversation with you. We want to be accepted and included, but we do not want to be controlled. That is not your place. There is so much more to talk about. There is life outside religion. But not everybody can find that.
So what happened to us? Why aren't we like our parents?
I don't have an all-inclusive answer for this, but other than our autonomy and individuality...the biggest factor seems to be...
Many of us have parents who grew up immersed in their culture...dancing, wearing clothes that were the style regardless of the length or look, listening to the popular music, playing cards, going to movies, hanging out with the opposite gender, and being generally familiar with what was going on in the world outside their Christian doors. While most of our parents were raised with the freedom and individuality to create their own identity as adolescents, teenagers, and young adults, many of us born during the Jesus Movement were sheltered from all outside influences...we were sheltered, but mostly clueless to the fact that we should have choices.
The church(es) and Christian schools I grew up in were "a few steps above" the Jesus Movement...they wouldn't listen to their Christian rock music...because the beat was evil. They boycotted things like promise keepers...because of the music and gays. They wouldn't speak in tongues...because that's of the devil. They wouldn't join with other denominations, or even different branches of our own denomination, because we were INDEPENDENT churches...and God loved ours most. We even wore long, loose dresses/skirts to church...because God deserves only our best and we need to cover our tempting bodies to protect men's eyes from these objects of shame.
We were taught that culture was evil. That we were to be counter-culture, to whatever the world was being at the time. We were to be different. Because the world was evil. And Jesus wanted us to be good...to represent him well...so the world would want what we had.
Even among many of my Christian friends, I was always feeling stupid...they knew how to play cards, while I couldn't even touch them. They knew how to dance, while I wasn't allowed to. They knew popular music, while I was clueless. They wore cute clothes, while mine were baggy and long to hide my sinful body. They watched and went to movies, while I coudn't enter a theater and had to plug my ears and turn the movie off if I heard "OMG." Not even "gosh" was allowed in my house...so we shouldn't hear it on tv either.
Parents of those of us who left the faith - we would love for you to understand the impact of paradigms/mindsets on early development and who we become. We would love for you to see how the way you raised us completely immersed in fundamentalist Christianity (or any other religion), without any outside options or opportunities to make belief decisions for ourselves solidified our identity without our ability to choose or consent. You had a choice to choose Christianity. Many of you chose this intense way of following Jesus in late adolescence, your teen years, or in early adulthood. But YOU chose your identity throughout your entire life when it counted most as far as development.
Paradigms, the way the mind thinks, the stories and perception of how the world works that one bases their entire life and identity on, are formed very strongly in the earliest years of life. Therefore if you tell a child that a certain way is the only one right way, they're extremely likely to believe you and whole-heartedly buy into whatever you are selling. If you teach them that there are no other options, and they are not to look outside the walls of your specific church or denomination for answers, you are hurting the development of their critical thinking in a way that will influence them into adulthood and possibly their entire life.
What I'm getting at here, Boomer parents: is many, if not most of you, had the opportunity to be completely immersed in your culture with OPTIONS to form your identity. While most of your children unknowingly experienced identity foreclosure (taking on the identity that our parents gave us), even though we had no idea that's what we were doing. We didn't know we had options. Being raised in Jesus culture during the Jesus movement, we weren't given options or opportunity to question. Our questions were written off with, "you just can't understand God or he wouldn't be God." Many of us trusted the process. We shoved down the contradictions. We excused the violent God. We lived what we were taught we had to live to be a good Christian. We thought we were choosing the one right way to be.
I was whole-heartedly, 100%, all in, above and beyond committed and dedicated...until my paradigm unexpectedly shifted and I lost that ability. When this happens there is absolutely nothing that can be done to keep the paradigm together. It shifts on it's own. Just like you can't stop the land from shifting during an earth quake, you can't stop the mind from shifting an event or story causes it to question. The brain does what it's created to do. It grows, accommodates, re-frames as best it can, and moves on.
When someone in the military looses a limb, we don't blame them for their inability to function like they did before. They're no less of a person, despite their way of life having to change. So why do we criticize people who have a faith shift and no longer believe like us. This may be harder for you to wrap your mind around, but we've lost a part of us that gave us the ability to believe in your belief system...for whatever reason, we are NO LONGER ABLE to hold the same faith that you do. This reason will look different individually depending on what shifted to create the loss in the first place, if we even know what it was. Many of us don't have exact answers.
That being said...the best thing a boomer parent can do - in my opinion, is to let go of your desire to control your child's belief system and who you think they should be.
We long for you to accept us where we're at, acknowledge we do not have to follow your belief system, and apologize for ways that you (unintentionally) hurt us...because this shows you genuinely care about us.
No parent is perfect. It means a lot to us when you admit that. Whether or not the pain allowed in our life life was intentional, (which I choose to believe it was not for the most part)... the hurt, emotion, and trauma is real.
And LOVE gives up the need to be right in order to have relationship and connection.
Boomer (and other) parents, we crave this from you...but most of us have to give up receiving this unconditional love from you because you have to have it your way or no way to view us as okay and acceptable, and it's heartbreaking.
But truth is - because of how strong paradigms are - because of how hard it is to actually shift - this open letter will not change the mind of most parents who have children that have left their faith. But if it works for one, it's worth it.
I am not here to tell you what you must believe. I am here to gently tell you that if what you believe crosses boundaries with trying to control what your children believe and how they behave, what do you want to value?
Will you CHOOSE to value your relationship with your children? Or your religion?
I also realize that the Bible says you should value your religion more than your family. So I'm kind of at a loss here.
However, I do hope it will also encourage those of you who have struggled with your faith shift like me - to remember that you're not alone...and that your parents very likely cannot understand your mindset because they have not experienced it. And they are stuck, where you were once stuck. And because of paradigms, they are struggling too. It doesn't fix it...but understanding can grow compassion in you and make YOUR life easier. It doesn't mean you don't have boundaries and even cut off toxicity...but seeing things through a lens of compassion can lessen your anxiety to have a relationship that you cannot have ♥.
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