40% of churchgoers fear leaders who leave the faith could lead others astray: poll

Former Evangelical Pastor Joshua Harris.
Former Evangelical Pastor Joshua Harris. | Photo: Courtesy of HBO

As some high-profile Christian pastors and musicians have abandoned their faith in recent years, a large percentage of churchgoers say they’re concerned about those leaders’ eternal destinies and fear they may lead others astray, a new LifeWay Research poll finds.

“If a person who is well known for their work in Christian ministry announced they no longer believed in Christianity, how would you expect to feel?” the Nashville-based Sothern Baptist organization asked 1,002 Protestant churchgoers from across the United States in an online survey released last week. 

Nearly 70% of churchgoers said they hoped the former ministry leaders would come back to the Christian faith someday, and 63% said they were sad the leaders abandoned their faith, according to the poll conducted in September 2019. 

At least 40% said they feared that the ex-Christian leaders’ decisions might lead others astray, the study found. According to the data, 44% expressed concern for the ex-leaders’ “eternal destiny.”

The study was conducted after Maryland megachurch pastor Joshua Harris, who authored the popular Christian book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced in July 2019 that he is “falling away” from the faith and no longer identifies as a Christian.  He also announced that he was separating from his wife. 

Weeks later in August, prolific worship music writer Marty Sampson announced that he was “genuinely losing” his faith. But later clarified that he hasn’t officially lost his faith and explained that he is on “incredibly shaky ground.”

The announcements from the leaders have sparked conversation among Christians about the doctrine of salvation, with some arguing that those who renounce their faith like Harris were never truly a Christian.

The new LifeWay study found that 17% of respondents believed that leaders who leave Christianity “must never have really had Christian faith” in the first place.

The study also found that less than 10% of churchgoers said they were “happy” that leaders found a belief system that worked better for them and that they were “angry” at whoever or whatever pushed them away. 

Only 8% of churchgoers said they could “identify with their doubts.”

“The predominant reaction among churchgoers when they see a leader walk away from their faith is to maintain hope for them while grieving the decision they are making,” said LifeWay Research Executive Director Scott McConnell.

The study found that older churchgoers with evangelical beliefs who attend services more frequently responded differently than the younger churchgoers who are not evangelical and attend services less often.

For example, more than three-fourth of respondents 65 and older said they hoped the former ministry leader would return to Christianity someday. Additionally, churchgoers who are 65 and older expressed a higher concern for the leaders’ eternal destiny (54%).

The survey found that respondents with “evangelical beliefs” are almost twice as likely than churchgoers with non-evangelical beliefs (51% to 27%) to fear that the leaders’ decisions could lead others astray. 

“The big question is, will this leader cause others to also walk away?” McConnell said. "The data doesn’t answer that directly, but we see 8% of churchgoers currently have similar doubts and could be considered vulnerable. Also, the 2 in 5 who fear others could follow the leader away from Christianity may simply be speculating or they may know some of those who have these doubts.”

This May, Christian rock band Hawk Nelson’s lead vocalist, Jon Steingard, declared he is no longer a believer. 

In June, Steingard shared his thoughts in a video conversation with professor and author Sean McDowell.

“When you become the singer of a Christian band, all of a sudden you’re put in this role that almost has a pastoral element, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to have something worthwhile to say,” Steingard said.  “That was a season of me digging in a little more and going like, ‘Oh, I really need to be able to say things that are meaningful and to write songs that are meaningful to people.’”

Whenever he had a doubt or a question while being with Hawk Nelson, Steingard said that he was “so terrified” because it threatened his livelihood as well as social and family relationships.

Steingard felt as if he “stuffed those questions and doubts down for a long time” to be able to sing on stage and said he “didn’t let myself think about it.” 

But after Steingard took on another career, he said that his livelihood didn’t depend on the band as much.

Harris, who was the lead pastor of Covenant Life Church, the founding church of Sovereign Grace Ministries in Gaithersburg, Maryland, shared last November that he had been going through a process of deconversion for a while before making his decision.

He noted that the main reason he “excommunicated” himself from the church was because of the failure of his marriage.

“I was really just trying to be honest about the fact that all the ways that I had defined faith and Christianity, that I was no longer choosing to live according to those — most significantly, the decision that my wife and I made to end our marriage,” he said.

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