For several summers in my preteen years my parents sent me to church camp. My parents weren’t particularly religious, but I guess they thought that a little outdoor socialization would do their bookish daughter good, and for the most part they were right. Though some activities were imbued with a very gentle Christian message, and campfire prayer meetings were held each night, the camp always seemed more focused on nature and exercise rather than creating an army of God.
Then, a fundamentalist preacher took over as head counselor. A tall, severe-looking man, he presided over the campfire prayer circles with a threatening brand of absolute biblical certainty. He often demanded those of us with doubts to admit to sinful thoughts, and assured us that all nonbelievers, Mahatma Gandhi included, would burn forever in hell. One day he told us, the flames of the campfire reflecting off his face, that should he take a machine gun and shoot us all as we left church, he would be “doing us a favor” because we would all go straight to heaven. He may have been particularly extreme; however now, a nascent but fast-growing movement is trying to offer an unconventional challenge to this fundamentalist approach to raising kids.
You don’t need to invoke the name of Jesus to act Christ-like.
Cindy Brandt, a founder of the unfundamentalist parenting movement
The new school of Christian parenting referred to as “unfundamentalist” believes that children who grow up in fundamentalist evangelical environments are almost constantly plagued with fear and guilt. Spearheaded by Taiwanese progressive Christian blogger Cindy Brandt, unfundamentalist parenting rebukes “fundamentalists who control children under the guise of religion.” In place of an emphasis on extreme obedience and the use of guilt and fear to “evangelize” children, unfundamentalist parents attempt to foster a gentle, loving relationship between their children and Christianity. Progressive Christian parents are deeply cognizant of the power imbalance between parents and children, and do not take advantage of their kids’ trust by frightening them into belief with tales of sin and hell.
And it seems more and more people are getting drawn to this approach: The Unfundamentalist Facebook page today has more than 124K followers. The Raising Children Unfundamentalist group, started just two years ago by Brandt, now has more than 11,000 members. Six years ago, in 2012, the term unfundamentalist was relatively unknown, drumming up a mere 76 hits in a Google search as compared to 8,620 hits in 2018.
“We are a large group of people from across the country trying to raise a new generation of evangelicals who will actually do as Jesus instructed — to love the least of these, to put value on relationships instead of material and to give more than we receive,” says Raising Children Unfundamentalist group member and mother of three Jessy Hudgens Milicevic.
Proponents of unfundamentalist parenting say it was born of a growing movement on the part of progressive Christians to “reclaim” evangelism, or the commitment to publicly preach and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. “[W]hen you start at the place where your God-made flesh is hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors and drunks, and who also spends a great deal of time chastising the religious moralist of his time, the rules begin to change,” explains Andrew Shipley, teaching pastor at Missiongathering church in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Instead of a who-is-in-and-who-is-out mentality, [progressive evangelism] is about how many people can we let in.”
The movement has its critics. “Any movement that primarily characterizes itself by using the negating prefix ‘un’ is [in my view] a reaction to a movement and not a movement itself,” says Tyler Parson, pastor at CrossRidge Evangelical Free Church in Holstein, Iowa. “[To] paraphrase Nelson Mandela, at some point we all have to with conviction live for something and not just react against some things.”
But for many, the unfundamentalist parenting movement has grown out of personal experiences. Brandt, who grew up in predominantly Buddhist Taiwan and was sent to a Christian missionary school, spent her childhood terrified of the concept of eternal damnation. She realized later that the messages conveyed to her by the American missionaries at the school were partially rooted in sexism, racism and homophobia, a personal issue for Brandt, as her brother is a member of the LGBTQ community. “In the American context, a lot of Christianity is tied up in culture wars that lead to indoctrination into those positions in parenting,” Brandt says. Often, she says, these positions tie in with an anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-science conservative political agenda. In 2013, the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl — an extreme fundamentalist parenting guide — faced a backlash after some reports linked it to the deaths of three children.
But despite its challenging tenor, unfundamentalist parenting may share, in a far gentler way, one end with the fundamentalists: the propagation of the Christian religion. After all, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. America has witnessed a sharp decline in church attendance — according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, more than 4,000 churches close their doors every year due to lack of attendance. Unfundamentalism could represent a change in tactics designed to draw in followers.
Still, Brandt and many other unfundamentalists all espouse an unambiguously pro-science, pro-equality and anti-judgment message. “Instead of defending Christianity, advocate for those who are hurt by the hateful rhetoric,” says Brandt. “Stand up against bigotry, do better and create safe spaces for those who are most marginalized. You don’t need to invoke the name of Jesus to act Christ-like.”
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