Leaving Christianity: Teaching an incomplete Gospel?
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 5. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7a, 7b, and 8.
Are churches failing their congregants when it comes to helping them grow confidently in their faith?
Tommy Hinson, rector of Church of the Advent in Washington, D.C., believes the faith that many grow up with is too narrow.
"What I am seeing among the [younger] generations that comprise our church is that most people, if they are not going through a full deconstruction of their faith, are going through a kind of partial deconstruction of a version of evangelical Christianity that they grew up with that they are realizing is far too narrow, far too simplistic to explain their lived experience and how they make sense of the world," Hinson said in a recent sit-down interview with CP.
"That the version of the Christianity they inherited was inadequate to stand up to the challenges and the complexities of life as it is now.”
Offering examples, he pointed to the purity culture on the right and intersectionality on the left. Hinson argued that perspectives like these are not so incorrect as they are incomplete.
"I think there is a human tendency to want to reduce and simplify," the Anglican pastor explained.
He emphasized that the “Gospel has a lot to say about sexuality and its relationship to spirituality” and “about issues of power and oppression, even systemic oppression.”
“But the problem is when you take those issues and extract them from the much larger metanarrative of the Scripture, they tend to become distorted. They tend to inflate and become their own metaphysical worldview. And that's where you go wrong.”
The only way to keep those issues proportionate is to ensconce them in the much larger metanarrative of the Gospel.
When Joshua Harris apologized last year for his popular 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, it triggered a host of reactions, including from those in the evangelical church who felt harmed by it.
Doug Bender, a writer at I am Second, concluded that Harris made “sexual purity a transactional morality” in the book — that if you simply avoid dating and abstain from sex (and even kissing) before marriage, you will be able to have a great marriage and great sex in marriage. And that premise was the “central error” of the book, he argued.
“Morality is not something that you do and then gain a just reward,” Bender stated. “Good behavior … has an [e]ffect. But this [e]ffect is not the formulaic reward of that behavior.”
When it comes to the larger teaching of the Gospel in many evangelical churches, Hinson sees the same error of reducing and simplifying.
Of the four “chapters” of the Gospel — creation, fall, redemption, new creation — evangelicals tend to overemphasize the middle two of fall and redemption, he noted.
"We don't talk a lot about creation and we don't talk a lot about new creation and the hope of that," which is to be distinguished from merely speaking about Heaven, he said.
"Because of that, then, we have this tendency to truncate what our vision of the Christian life is — that it's only about resisting sin and trying to obey the kind of Christian moral vision of the good life that is meant to replace sinful behavior.
"I think if you do that in any way, whether you're talking about sexuality or drinking or any of these other things that have become these sort of markers of Christian holiness, there's a way of doing that where you're missing the larger telos of the larger Christian life, which is this movement into a new creation world.”
Alan Briggs, lead creative for Stay Forth Designs from Colorado Springs, also pointed to the ramifications of a truncated Gospel.
"For too long faith was just fire insurance, which isn't faith,” he told CP. “It’s just 'I'm saved so when I die what does it matter now?’ Hence, considerably less or no care for the environment or about social issues or loving our neighbor.”
Functionally, the operative question has been: "What does it matter if it's all going to burn some day.”
“It is painfully obvious that we haven't had enough imagination around what we are and who we are as new creations in Christ and the work of God in renewing all things,” Briggs added.
The Christian life doesn’t end at redemption. There are “next steps.”
"Jesus was always inviting people into the next steps, into obedience. And in this information age, people are longing for an apprenticeship into the ways of Jesus," Briggs said.
Real discipleship entails relational, experiential and formal learning; and the U.S. church has heavily emphasized formal learning at the expense of the other dimensions, he pointed out. Following Jesus is an apprenticeship with Him and the U.S. church has largely missed two-thirds of the equation.
Teaching sound doctrine is important. But much like Hinson, Briggs believes that on its own, it’s incomplete.
Church leaders are mistaken to think that reasserting sound doctrine again and again will provide an antidote to what is ailing the Church, he said.
"We have taken the bait, believing that in an information age if we just teach more of the right information then we're going to get [Christianity] correct,” said Briggs, who leads a cadre of life coaches, Christian leaders and content creators who work with pastors and other influencers.
But the Christian faith is not about information so much as it is about transformation.
Christians should say that God has called us to a new way of living and it is the Kingdom of God — theology that Jesus talked about — that was set into motion with creation, he said.
A failure of catechesis
There’s a hunger, particularly among millennials, for apprenticeship that’s not often being satisfied in churches.
Part of that comes from the failure to catechize parishioners robustly, Hinson believes.
"People have not been given anything of real substance and so it's easy to walk away,” he noted.
Within evangelicalism, there may have been a lot of emphasis on knowing the Bible but that is not the same as catechesis, he maintained.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defines catechesis as involving “the lifelong effort of forming people into witnesses to Christ and opening their hearts to the spiritual transformation given by the Holy Spirit.”
Respected Anglican theologian J.I. Packer is a staunch advocate of catechesis — which he laments has been missing in evangelical churches — and has passionately emphasized its critical role in the life of Christians.
In recent years, prominent evangelical groups The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded by Timothy Keller, put together the New City Catechism to not only get people back to the core doctrines of Christianity but also to help believers “be transformed” by those doctrines.
"In the early church, new converts would sometimes be catechized for up to two or three years before they were baptized and there were certain things they were taught early and certain things about the faith that were reserved until they demonstrated more maturity," Hinson said. "There was an understanding that conversion was a necessary part of a much larger process or putting off the old self and putting on the new self and that required many years of formation.”
Modern evangelicalism has highly focused on conversion in the past century but there has been a remarkably low focus on anything after, he noted.
When Hinson realized the scope of this institutional weakness, he changed his approach to teaching membership classes in his own parish.
Whereas the class was once a one day class, held on Saturdays, that had a light touch on core aspects of Christian faith, he now teaches a membership class that is 13 weeks long, and if attendees miss more than two classes they are dropped. Included in the class are homework and reading assignments.
Initially afraid no one would want to come, he has been surprised to find deep interest and has had to cap it at 20 people per class. Hinson now teaches two sections of it in the fall and two in the spring, and for the past four years there has been a waiting list.
"We need to stop treating our people like they're dumb. They're smart,” he said. “They ask great questions. And if you give them the space, they want to go there. And they'll go with you to some deep places but you need to be willing to do it.”
But many churches — particularly theologically conservative ones — don’t offer that space for questions.
Pastors have established a clear set of doctrines that are reinforced in a variety of ways and where probing deeper is off-limits, Hinson pointed out. And if congregants dare to inquire, they will be, in various ways, shut down.
By contrast, in more progressive churches, so many questions are asked to the point where deconstruction is seen as an end in itself, and the message is communicated that almost nothing about the Christian faith is actually knowable.
"It's almost as if you're replacing the cross with the question mark as the symbol of your faith, that a true, authentic faith means only ever asking questions,” Hinson said of the latter side.
"And I actually think that both are motivated by the same thing, which is a kind of fear. Because as you look at the world, and it's incredibly complex, there are a lot of very good questions that don't have easy answers, like the question of suffering. There are no easy answers there."
One way of responding is to not allow questions, the other way is to only ask questions but never land on anything solid or never be willing to take a stand, he went on to say, noting that both approaches are self-protective.
"And I think the hardest thing to do is actually what we are called to do, which is to do both, which is to stand firmly in our convictions based on what has been revealed to us, and yet be open to the fact that the Bible is not a manual that gives us all the answers. In fact, some of life's deepest questions are not explicitly addressed or answered in the Bible," he said.
"The purpose of the Bible is not to answer all of our questions. The purpose of the Bible is to invite us into a way of being human through Christ. It is to invite us into a Story that is unfolding and leading to a renewed world.
“A lot of [our questions] have to get worked out in that process."
And that approach — that of saying "I'm going to enter into this life, this way of being human that Jesus has made possible for us" — is not satisfying for people who just want the answers, Hinson noted.
Such a desire to have everything figured out and to have all the answers is rooted in a post-Enlightenment rationalist Christianity "and I don't think that's what the Gospel is about," he said.
"The Gospel is not saying: Here are all the answers, like the rationalists want. The Gospel is saying here's a way of being human. And being a human being is inherently messy, that there are a lot of things that you just have to sort of experience."
How does one hold together that Jesus is 100 percent human and 100 percent divine, that human beings are simultaneously both capable of sin and are yet holy saints, that God's Kingdom is already here yet still not yet here in its fullness, that God is one yet three? Hinson believes that it comes by acknowledging the inherent tension in it all.
"In every case, you are either willing to inhabit that tension and all of the discomfort that it brings, or prematurely resolve the tension, and I would say that latter is the seedbed of many of the heresies that have arisen over the years. People trying to reduce and simplify and do away with the tension at the heart of the Christian faith," he said.
"I want us as a church to be constantly putting ourselves in the perspective of and trying to understand and empathize with people who are skeptical, wounded, searching, or even closed off and angry, furious at the church. Most people who feel those things have really good reasons. And we need to understand why people feel that way.”
His thoughts echo those of Carey Nieuwhof, lead pastor of Connexus Community Church, a multicampus church north of Toronto.
"Sometimes I wonder how many times people would have stuck around if Christians had been better with questions and conversations. But we seem more interested in making a point, defending what we believe or winning arguments," Nieuwhof wrote in response to how preaching may be contributing to the deconversions happening among Christians with notable public profiles.
"Sure, whenever you speak from any point of view, you’re making an argument … but ultimately, the point isn’t to win an argument; it’s to win the person. There’s no point in winning an argument and losing people."
In the pulpit, Hinson doesn’t try to give the impression that he has it all figured out.
His approach in teaching the Bible is: “Here's what we know, here's what we can believe and build our lives upon, and here are the things that are, frankly, unclear. And here are the things that I as a pastor don't fully understand; I'm still figuring this out myself.”
“That takes a tremendous amount of courage and humility,” he admitted, “but what it communicates to our people is a sense of genuineness that let's them know that they can trust us.
"I'm not here to sell you a car. I'm here to present Christ to you. But I don't fully understand everything about Christ. If I did fully understand Christ, then I'm probably confusing a figment of my imagination with the real thing."
Deconstruction as a good thing
“Deconstruction” is the term Harris cited when he announced in July that he was no longer a Christian.
But Hinson doesn’t view deconstruction as something bad. In fact, he finds it “can be a really good thing.”
"Because I think what is often happening is somebody [who is deconstructing] is coming face to face with the reality that their vision of God, their understanding of God, and their understanding of the Christian life is too small. And deconstruction can lead to a breaking down of that very small vision of God, a kind of golden calf that we have built in God's place to be what we think He should be."
Behind such deconstruction is an opportunity to encounter "a bigger, much more real, much more wild God, a much less easily domesticated God," he emphasized.
"And so I pray for people who are going through this that that's where it may lead."
When Jesus is speaking to the churches in Revelation he recognizes that his church is broken and flawed, far from perfect, Hinson said.
"Yet what you see is that Jesus loves relentlessly. And He will not stop until the bride is perfected, beautified, adorned, and presented pure and spotless at the Marriage supper of the Lamb," he elaborated.
"What we see in that is that, yes, the Church is broken, but that Jesus has committed Himself like a faithful husband to His church for eternity. And if Jesus can make that kind of commitment to His church, I think we can."