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 and 5.
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.”
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Leah MarieAnn Klett