Exodus International and the Millennial Marketing Blitz

Alan Chambers’ apology and the closure of Exodus International have been hailed as the harbingers of a new, more conciliatory era for American Christianity. As always, the truth is somewhat more complex. The timing and cultural context of Chambers’ apology raise questions about the sincerity of his motivations. In this post, I’m going to deconstruct this cultural context and explain why I, and so many others, suspect that Chambers acts out of political pragmatism rather than genuine conviction.

1. The Prodigal Generation

Americans Evangelicals are aware they’re losing their grip on the latest generation to come of age in the church. As a prodigal, I am not particularly surprised that the first generation raised to adulthood by America’s Moral Majority is now the least religious generation in American history. Older Evangelicals, however, are simultaneously stymied and horrified by this demographic trend. The children trained from childhood to excel in apologetics and debate, the generation raised with the specific goal of reclaiming America for Jesus, now leave the organized Christian in droves. And worst of all: many of them list the church’s anti-gay beliefs as a specific reason for their departure.

This is my story, too. I left the church at the age of 21. Exhausted by the church’s homophobia, sexism and over-politicization, I came to the conclusion that Christians showed no evidence that they’d really experienced the transformational redemption they preached from the pulpits. I didn’t realize then that I’d just joined the ranks of what author David Kinnaman calls the ‘prodigal’ generation: Millennials who abandon the church entirely in early adulthood. We represent a significant challenge to the American church. If we fail to return to the fold, the church shrinks and its political influence subsides.

So how to woo the prodigal? From a marketing perspective, the answer is fairly obvious. A generation alienated by the church’s strident homophobia requires a friendlier Christianity. Perhaps Alan Chambers read Blue Like Jazz, so popular among struggling Millennial Christians, and drew inspiration from author Donald Miller’s ‘confession booth,’ in which Christians confessed the sins of the church to Reed College’s heathen campus. Perhaps he thought that this is what Millennials want: a confession booth on a national scale. There’s certainly precedent for it; the popular Emergent figure, Shane Claiborne, issued a similar public apology for the behavior of the church.  Perhaps this is conservative Christianity’s attempt at a confession booth. And I find it easier to believe that it is a marketing tactic, and not a real apology, because Chambers’ apology is not accompanied by a substantive ideological shift. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Narrative Control

Make no mistake, Alan Chambers and the staff of Exodus International have not actually changed their beliefs on sexual orientation. Even in his ‘apology,’ Chambers states that he cannot apologize for his beliefs on marriage and sexuality. Chambers remains anti-gay.   His apology, and his decision to rebrand and reform Exodus International, represent a narrative shift, not an ideological shift. Had Chambers truly intended to work for the liberation of the queer community, he would have relinquished his position of cultural power. He would have acknowledged the validity of queer identities, and simultaneously, he would have stepped back from the conversation so that it could be driven by those most affected by its outcome. Chambers did not do this. His very public apology coincided with Exodus International’s national conference, and he will lead the ministry forming from its ashes.

Chambers’ public apology therefore keeps queer Americans in a precarious position. If they question his motivations or refuse outright to accept his apology, they appear ungracious, and their own motivations are questioned. It’s a subtle form of gaslighting. ‘Progressive’ Christians have flooded Chambers with praise since his apology became public; his decision is, according to many, a gesture of reconciliation. Those of us who have found ourselves the target of progressive Christian ire for questioning their true commitment to social justice are, in turn, familiar with the consequences of rejecting these superficial gestures of reconciliation. We are negative. We are uninterested in healing. We are bad for ‘community.’ And we are shunned. Our attempts to influence the prevailing narrative about our own identities are met with resistance.

3. Unrevolutionary Reconciliation

If Chambers, and the Christians who have rushed to support him for his apology, are truly interested in reconciliation, it is time for them to acknowledge that the damage they’ve caused to queer Americans isn’t simply due to reparative therapy, or even the tone of their rhetoric. These are symptoms only. The disease? Their core beliefs about sexuality. As long as Chambers and his supporters believe that it’s a sin to be queer, true reconciliation is impossible. You may as well expect black Americans to reconcile with whites who believe, sincerely, that they are the superior race. As long as Chambers retains his belief that heterosexuality is superior to queer orientations, he denies the equal personhood of queer Americans.

I am not straight. Not entirely, anyway. Thanks to organizations like Exodus International, I struggle with impressive cognitive dissonance about my own sexuality. The further I drift from the church, the more I find that I can accept my occasional attraction to the same sex, but even at the age of 25 it is a battle for me. It’s hard to state, simply, that I’m attracted to men and to certain types of women, too. My instinct is to interrogate myself about the legitimacy of my attractions. And I’m not ready to forgive Alan Chambers and the staff of Exodus International for the psychological damage they’ve inflicted on me and on so many others. I’m not prepared to pretend that he’s no longer a homophobe just because he’s apologized for the way he’s expressed that homophobia. I don’t think I ought to accept anything less than the public acknowledgement that my sexual identity is completely valid. Because really, what sort of change is it when Alan Chambers apologizes for trying to fix something that he still believes needs to be fixed? It’s not really reconciliation as long as it’s reconciliation on Chambers’ terms.

So call me ungracious, and question my commitment to reconciliation. But this queer prodigal remains unconvinced that Alan Chambers wants anything but my church membership, and by extension, the survival of his brand of Christian.


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