If you’re not on Twitter (and, very possibly, even if you are), you might not have heard of a recent hashtag circulating the Twitterverse. The hashtag is #EmptyThePews – a call for people to leave the Evangelical church.
It originated about a month ago, on the heels of the white nationalist tragedy in Charlottesville, when President Trump refused to distance himself from—and even supported—racist hate groups. When that happened, most of the country distanced themselves from the president: Democrat and even Republican leaders, both of the presidential business advisory councils, and millions of individual Americans. Everyone was jumping ship.
Except for one group. The President’s Evangelical Advisory Board.
Every member of that group—save one: A.R. Bernard, an African American pastor of a megachurch in Brooklyn for whom Charlottesville was just the last straw—stayed with the President. And they stayed silent. The highest profile Christian leaders in the country refused to dissociate with over or even rebuke Trump for…anything.
When that happened, the Evangelical church became solidified, in the eyes of so many people, as the Church of Donald Trump.
And that was the last straw for at least one Twitter user.
The hashtag #EmptyThePews was released on Twitter, and it had immediate traction.
Left and Right, people threw in their support over leaving a church that had made its bed with Trump and his administration.
And the conversation of #EmptyThePews expanded beyond just the Evangelical church’s affiliation with Trump and Republicanism and racism. People began to cite Christians for silence or ignorance of social and moral issues. (Issues that they are 100% right for calling the Church out on; issues that are central to the mission that Jesus gave to the Church.)
That’s the conversation that was (or should have been) expected from a hashtag called #EmptyThePews.
But an interesting thing happened.
#EmptyThePews started becoming attached to things that had nothing to do with politics.
People started using #EmptyThePews to talk about their STORIES.
Stories of how they had been hurt and abused by the people of the church.
Stories of how the church that says with its lips ‘God is love’ has treated people—individual, actual human lives—with disdain and cruelty.
Stories of harm, and fear, and hatred from people who claim the name of Christ.
This isn’t just the typical condemnation of the church’s hypocrisy, this is far more acute and personal.
Stories of being fired by a church…
…or being pressured to resign…
…because of speaking out against sin.
Stories of church leaders covering up and even justifying rape and sexual abuse.
And spiritual abuse.
And child abuse.
Stories of churches putting the needs of their own building or staff ahead of the needs of the people in the congregation.
Stories of how mental health issues are denied, that it’s really a lack of faith and it’s the fault of the sufferer.
Lots of stories of homophobia and hate for LGBT+ people.
And a disproportionate number of the people telling their stories are women. Women are oppressed and silenced in many churches, and this hashtag has empowered them to use their voices.
(Sidenote: if you don’t believe that misogyny in the church is an issue, you may want to also look up the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear.)
This is the beautiful, terrible, loving, grieving, story-validating place #EmptyThePews has become.
And it’s heartbreaking.
WE did this.
We, the followers of Jesus, did this.
We, the ones who have been awakened to the most profound love the world has ever known, did this.
We, the Church, the Body of Christ, who preach the good news that One who is love and acceptance and forgiveness is King…we did all of this.
These people have something to say. And we need to hear it.
Church, we have to face this. We have done real wrong to so. many. people. We should be in lament over this. And we need to own it…
Our pursuit of moral perfection and our rejection of those who did not meet our standards has driven them from Jesus, who would seek to love them and heal their wounds.
We have participated in, supported, and encouraged real evil. And worse, we have shamed and blamed our victims.
We have threatened people with Hell and eternal conscious torment if they didn’t conform to our beliefs and behaviors.
We have justified and protected abusers and rapists because we are so afraid of divorce.
We have sought our own promotion, our own good, our own success at the expense of the basic well-being of others.
We have told millions of people that they are they are less worthy because of the condition in which they were born.
We have justified war, pillage, racial supremacy, murder, and the rape of the natural world with words from the Bible.
Jesus made us His ambassadors, and we have wielded His name and authority to judge and oppress the people He died for.
We need to hear what we’ve done wrong if we ever expect to change.
#EmptyThePews is exposing the Evangelical church as morally bankrupt. I know and love many evangelical people who are quite the opposite. I know and love evangelical churches that are quite the opposite. I believe that many in the Evangelical church would be devastated over the hurt their churches have caused, directly or indirectly. But just because what #EmptyThePews says is not true of all Evangelicals doesn’t give us the right to dismiss the voices and stories calling us out. We are all culpable. If not by commission, then by omission.
Regardless of its original intention, #EmptyThePews is not about the President or the members of his evangelical advisory board; it’s not just a slam on Christians by a society that is growing increasingly secular.
#EmptyThePews is a vent for a swelling infection that has been growing for decades; it is lancing the boil. It’s unpleasant to see because it makes our sickness plain; but if we let it, it can bring us healing.
And it’s not all bad news. The creator of the hashtag specifically intended it to be a call to leave the Evangelical church, not the Church as a whole; and its users are, by and large, using it exactly in this manner.
Many of the people participating in the #EmptyThePews conversation have found and are finding love, acceptance, welcome, and healing in other churches. Many of the people hurt by the Evangelical church are not leaving Jesus.
But some are.
Because of the Evangelical church and because of Christians who misrepresent Jesus (at times in horrific ways) some people are leaving the Church of Jesus; leaving Christianity entirely.
And if anything matters to Evangelicalism—where evangelism is built right into the name—at the very least, that should.
But it should matter to us not because we’re ultimately concerned about Heaven’s seat count, but because these are living, breathing, actual human lives that are being affected.
And I believe that’s the lesson we have to learn.
People are more important than doctrine.
Being loved is more important than being morally acceptable.
Dignity is a more powerful life-changer than quoting Scripture.
This life matters just as much as the after-life.
Every human is made in the image of God and has unsurpassable worth to Him. And it’s our responsibility to treat them as such.
Something the Evangelical church is really good at is avoidance. We ignore criticism by laser-focusing on “the Gospel.” We justify our ignorance believing that we’re giving our full attention to what “really matters.” #EmptyThePews is teaching us that our focus on the narrow way has been too narrow.
And if we continue to avoid and ignore the voices speaking to us now, we do so at the expense of the very life of the Evangelical church.
We either wake up to this reality, face what we’ve done, and repent, or we become an irrelevant afterthought and die.