Leaving Christianity: Christian leaders offer some antidotes but it's not that simple
The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity” explores the reasons why many Americans are rejecting the faith they grew up with. In this eight-part series, we feature testimonies and look at trends, church failures and how Christians can respond to those who are questioning their beliefs. This is part 6. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7a, 7b, and 8.
Growing up, Essie Horn wasn’t much different than many young girls raised in an evangelical Christian home.
She attended church, sometimes Presbyterian, other times nondenominational, with her family, in addition to receiving her K-12 education at a small Christian school. Her college education took place at a small, private Christian college located in the hills of Tennessee, where she felt her faith “really grew” after she grasped her “own depravity and grace.”
“I considered myself a Christian my whole life,” she recalled.
But as Essie entered adulthood, something shifted.
“The more I studied the Bible, the more I disliked the character of the Christian God,” she said.
“A deep conflict grew in my heart between Christian morality and what I felt in my heart was good and evil. Similarly, I found a huge disconnect with evangelical Christianity and what’s actually in the Bible. I felt that evangelicals pieced together what they liked from the Bible and left out what they didn’t, and then added a lot of emotion to the mix.”
“That,” she added, “turned me off a lot. I feel that if you believe one part of the Bible, you must believe in it all."
Today, Essie doesn’t consider herself a Christian.
“I feel happier and more at peace now — I’m not trying to reconcile my gut feelings and the character of God,” she said. “I still believe in God, just not the Christian God. I still respect the Church and I don’t hate Christians. I just can’t love a God that I dislike so much.”
Such accounts, popularly called “deconversion stories,” are not uncommon in the Christian church. Dating back to the Old Testament, church history is freckled with stories of those who abandoned the beliefs they once professed.
In recent months, deconversion stories have made headlines due to the public nature of the individual falling away. Whenever an individual publicly renounced the faith they once professed, there have been a wide range of reactions from the Christian community.
Some rush to condemn the offending party, finding solace in the belief that “they were never a Christian to begin with” (hearing this response, Essie told this reporter, was the “most hurtful part about leaving the Church").
Others respond with fear, grief and even outrage, feeling betrayed by the individuals they once emulated.
But theologian Os Guinness argued that apostasy shouldn’t surprise us, as the New Testament tells us that it does — and will — happen. When asked about the signs of the end of the age in Matthew 24:12, for example, Jesus, speaks of an increase in wickedness that will cause “the love of many [to] grow cold.”
“Scripture tells us we can expect a lot of people to drop out,” he told The Christian Post. “Let's not use the fancy word 'deconversion;' they're just basically dropping out. It happened in the Old Testament, it happened in the New Testament. They are what the Soviets would call defectors.
“In many cases, their understanding of the Gospel was incredibly weak. You find that they didn't have a solid grasp of the Gospel. So when the testing came, it fell through. And that's tragic.”
What is the correct response to those who have deconverted? Moving forward, what can churches learn from those who have left Christianity?
Importance of apologetics
The Case for Christ author Lee Strobel, a former atheist, told CP that the recent spate of deconversion stories highlights the need for apologetics — a discipline that deals with a rational defense of Christian faith — within the Church.
“A lot of people have a faith based on emotion,” he said. “They have an encounter with God that changes them, and it’s probably an authentic encounter with the living God. But when questions come up, when doubts arise, as they do in everybody’s lives, if they’re not equipped to deal with that, it can kick the legs out from under their faith.”
Churches must develop a strong apologetics program to help people understand their faith is based on a solid foundation and historical truth, according to Strobel.
“We need to teach people how to pursue answers when doubts come in,” he said. “When the euphoria of their conversion dissipates over time, they need to understand that there’s more to our faith."
Still, Strobel clarified Christians should not ignore or suppress emotions, warning “it’s possible to go too far in the other direction.”
“The same danger is on the other end where we have too much of an intellectual faith,” he noted. “Faith is not just a bunch of facts but there is a personal relationship with God that’s involved. I think we have to understand our faith is based on reality and a solid foundation of truth but also involves a personal relationship with God. It’s experiential knowledge; it's not just abstract knowledge. We can know God personally and that depends on our faith.”
Apologetics, Strobel contended, gives Christians the power to fight the forces of darkness. He pointed out that John 10:10 clearly states the devil comes to “steal and kill and destroy.”
“C.S. Lewis said we make two mistakes about demons and Satan: we see the devil behind every bush, but we pretend like he’s not there. The truth is, there is a personification of evil and he does have certain capabilities and powers and we need to be aware of that. When we have a faith that’s undergirded by facts, it gives us the confidence to weather these attacks and come out stronger.”
“We all benefit when we understand why we believe what we believe,” he stressed. “That’s an essential component of our faith that’s been missing in a lot of church teachings. Churches must develop an apologetics ministry that can strengthen the faith of its people.”
A safe space for doubt
A 2017 study from the Barna Research Group found that most Christians have at some point experienced a time of spiritual doubt when they questioned what they believed about their religion or God.
Having reached adulthood in a secular and pluralist culture, millennials (38%) were found to experience about twice as much doubt as any of the other generational groups. About one in 8 (12%) lost their faith entirely as a result of those doubts.
Yet just 18 percent of spiritual doubters turned to their pastor or spiritual leader for answers, reflecting “the awkwardness of confiding in the individuals and institution that represent one’s questions, as well as the challenges that ministry leaders face to create safe spaces for doubt,” noted Barna.
Singer/songwriter Ellie Holcomb told CP that the Church must become a safe place for individuals to explore doubts and questions of the faith. Historically, she argued, it has done a poor job of embracing those rife with questions and struggles.
“The church is meant to be a hospital, not a museum,” she said. “Sometimes it becomes this place where you're looking at everybody else who is so faithful and using their gifts, and really, it's meant to be a place where we come broken and busted up to the beautiful embrace of Christ.”
The church, she said, needs to become “comfortable” with the reality of suffering, doubt and pain. She added that throughout the Psalms, David continually directed his questions and doubts toward the Lord and Isaiah describes Jesus as a “man of sorrows." Additionally, Jesus encouraged three doubters who came to Him in the Bible.
This, she said, demonstrates God has a “long leash when it comes to suffering and patience as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
“We need to hear from the pulpit that it’s OK not to be OK,” she said. “I think so often all that’s presented in both sermons and worship music is, the Gospel is about being good and loving God and other people. And that’s all well and good, but it’s not the full Gospel.
“God isn't far away from our pain; He understands our sorrow and suffering. We can come to Him because of what Jesus did with all of it. Just because you're suffering doesn't mean that the Gospel doesn't apply to that.”
Hymnwriter Matt Boswell told CP that “thin” Christianity often results from churches driven by entertainment rather than spiritual discipline. To its detriment, he argued, far too many churches don’t allow room for questions, doubt, and lament — and that is reflected in many modern-day worship songs.
“The songs we sing haven't given us space to wrestle with doubt or sorrow and suffering. We just haven't learned to lament in our singing and we haven't learned to wrestle with doubts,” he said. “When the back cover of the hymnal is taken away, we start to just kind of sing whatever we want and we're prone to run away from those things 'cause they're not fun to sing, but they're necessary for Christians to sing.”
“We have this propensity in Western evangelicalism to get bored with our faith, whereas in the eastern and in the persecuted church, they're clinging to it. Songs are one way we help people cling to what they believe and to understand what they believe.”
Importance of spiritual discipleship
Scripture is clear that faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 ESV). Yet, in its quest to become seeker-friendly and trendy, many churches have “shrunk” the Gospel, according to Os Guinness. In doing so, they have stunted the spiritual growth and development of many of its members.
“If you only focus on the ‘relevant’ and what really appeals to the audiences, you're shrinking out what C.S. Lewis called the ‘resisting material,’” he said. “The Gospel will always fit in with certain things in every age, but the full Gospel is repellent at certain points to certain things in certain ages.”
To be faithful to the “full Gospel,” churches must “preach the uncomfortable as well as the comfortable,” Guinness emphasized. Church leaders have a “God-given obligation” to guide their members through their spiritual walk in order to produce strong-standing Christians.
“We’ve got to discover what is faithfulness to survive in an increasingly post-Christian and anti-Christian culture,” he stressed, adding that failing to preach the whole Gospel has “tragic” ramifications for those attempting to navigate a postmodern culture.
H.B. Charles Jr., the pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, told CP that the recent spate of public deconversions should challenge the Church to remain faithful amid pressures to dilute doctrine to fit what’s culturally acceptable.
“The growing hostility to the Christian faith is a wake-up call for the Church to be the Church and to recognize that we are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the Earth,” he said. “We are living in dark times in a culture that is decaying and needs the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Yet the Church shouldn't be discouraged by deconversions, Charles said, pointing to Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of our God stands forever.”
“The Church has reason to be concerned about the times we are living in, but not alarmed,” he stated. “I believe that the Bible has answers for the matters that are under debate in the culture today. And I am convinced that those answers are true and will not change.”
Spiritual discipleship, he said, comes through prayer, frequent gathering, Scripture and service.
“The question is, will the Church be faithful to speak for God to the culture or just join this voice to whatever the opinion of the day is?”
Pastor David Jeremiah, founder of Turning Point Radio and Television Ministries, told CP that in many ways, the Church has “forgotten what it’s supposed to be” to the detriment of attendees. It’s no surprise, he said, that the Church is seeing a nationwide decline in attendance.
“Christians have two major markers in their lives: When they become Christians, and when they go to Heaven. But most Christians don’t know what to do in between those two markers, and that’s because churches don’t teach them,” Jeremiah said. “The whole idea that God expects us to build character in our lives is a foreign thing to so many people because it hasn’t been taught and explained from our pulpits.”
Discipling the next generation
Instilling proper doctrine and spiritual health in children begins in the home — and parents have a God-given mandate to seek to strengthen the faith in their own children while understanding only God can truly change hearts, according to Guinness.
“There's a crisis in the millennial generation of really being initiated into the first things of the faith; there’s been a breakdown in transmission. There has to be transmission passing on from generation to generation, or we’re in trouble. Sadly, in the Church, there’s a biblical illiteracy that is quite appalling.”
“There's a crisis in the family,” he emphasized. “Fathers are uncertain about being male, and it goes right down the line. There’s an incredible crisis in the family, which is quite deliberate. The heart of the Bible is relationships; the Bible cares more about relationships and regimes. We’ve got to be counter-cultural and begin with relationships.”
Gospel Coalition founder and theologian Don Carson recommended family devotions and prayer time to instill in children the fundamentals of the faith at an early age.
“I think that it's important to give them good things to read, to submit them while they're young to good literature, to learn the Bible and family devotions when they're young,” he said. “I find it shocking how many Christian families have no family devotions.”
“Consistency is really helpful,” he added. “Parents must live lives consistent with what they teach. There's nothing that turns kids off faster than a fraud, a phony, a counterfeit.”
“Somewhere along the line, show kids your interest in the poor and the broken. Take kids on short term missions, not just send them, take them with you so that they can see your interest in commitment in more than white, upper-middle-class suburbia.”
No simple solution
There is no singular, easily identifiable reason individuals deconvert. There are no simple, reductionist solutions to ending the “apostasy epidemic.” Scripture states that until the New Heavens and the New Earth are established, deconversion stories will continue to emerge throughout church history.
Carson told CP that people “often want to have one solution to all the hard cases; ‘if only they had had a proper theological education, this wouldn't have happened; if only this or that had happened, they wouldn't have left the faith.”
He shared the story of a former student — a “brilliant, hardworking man” — who was working on his Ph.D. in the New Testament when he was caught in adultery. After resigning from the ministry, he began a blog where his “opinions clearly began moving left.”
“On pride week, he basically said, ‘I've had more theological education than 99.9% of the population in this country. So let me tell you flat out, you can't be sure what the Bible says,’” Carson shared.
“He was basically giving a postmodern hermeneutic. He's had some good theological training, but when you slip away far enough, you can always use your clever mind to make hermeneutical excuses to justify anything.”
Carson issued a word of caution to those tempted to judge those who have apostatized and called for discernment, offering the reminder that “just as it's possible to stereotype those who have fallen away as losers, so it's possible to stereotype those who are saying that they're losers.”
“They don't have labels on their foreheads,” Carson said. “So it might be that they need listening to and praying over, praying with, and so on. They might come back. I could tell you some remarkable stories of people who wandered away and what we would call backsliding, who nevertheless returned to the Lord a couple of decades later. So you want to allow that as a possibility and not, in any case, be supercilious or condescending.”
“It's all ‘good guys and bad guys' without discernment and recognition that the Bible pictures falling away and inconsistency in many, many different categories,” the theologian added. “Repentance is possible, as well as a renewed commitment to the covenant. It doesn't have to turn out in a bad way.”
The proper response to deconversion stories, according to Carson, is humility and prayer, acknowledging that “but for the grace of God, go I.”
“At the end of the day, apart from the grace of God,” he said, “we're all dead.”