Christianity Today publishes an article about hardship, doubt and even agnosticism in the missionary field. It addresses the problems and challenges that are faced, and the harm in making missionaries idols. Plus I also explain why I support Recovering from Religion’s Hotline project, and why this Christian is going to make a donation to it the next time I get paid. Recovering From Religion by manning a hot line is doing something that the evangelical Christian churchs should do, but are failing at doing.
“…could not escape the thought that it was God who had failed.”
“Look I don’t know whether God exists. I don’t know that. And I tell you one thing. I am not frightened of my beleifs. If there is a God who is threatening me with damnation because I don’t believe in Him, so be it. I’ve lived my life in conscious, and I will suffer damnation willingly in conscious against a tyrannical God who would damn me because, on the basis of the intelligence He gave me. I have come to a conclusion doubting his existence, and I will continue to be a skeptic all of my life.”
Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding.29 He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. 30 Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion.31 But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary.They will walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:28-31 NLT
Today’s post is going to feature two components that I would like to link together. I hope this works and that I can tie them into each other. They both are dealing with doubt in differing forms, and adversity in regards to faith. One deals with challenges and problems of missionary work, while the other deals with those who lose their faith and efforts to support those in a faith crisis.
Saying Goodbye to the Missionary Hero
When I was at Marquette University involved with Cru I read the book “Through the Gates of Splendor.” What took me as a Marquette student was to know that Ed McCully was not only from Milwaukee but that he attended law school at Marquette before dropping out to go to South America with Jim Elliot. To this day I can recall laying in bed in the Gilman building and reading that book. I was taken by the book and wondered and speculated as I lived my life at the Marquette campus did I walk in the same foot steps at Ed McCully? Yes…a little crazy, but that is what I thought. Missionary work is very much exclaimed and idolized. But missionary work I would suggest is not all that it is painted out to be. I remember some of the talks James Crestwood had with me about him and his wife going to Kenya. Then I also recall him speaking very frankly about a few things after the fact. There was the time he was thrown in jail by a corrupt cop demanding a bribe. Then there was the other time when he tried to help someone through his agency and in the end the guy hurt himself and lost his business or way of life.
Christianity Today had a fascinating article that was refreshing to read about the dangers of making missionaries idols and the challenges missionaries face in the field. The article dealt with the way missionaries are glamorized or painted in a light that is far from realistic. It also talked about how Christian culture kind of props this up over the course of time. The article starts out by discussing David Brainerd who was a missionary to the Indians and Jonathan Edward’s abrupt description, which really is impressive. I really like and respect what Jonatan Edwards did here, and note, its probably going to be one of the few times that I agree with Edwards.
“Western Christians have long been fascinated by the missionary biography, beginning with The Life of David Brainerd, published by Jonathan Edwards in 1749. Brainerd spent three years trying to evangelize Native American tribes in the 1740s. When a bout of consumption sidelined him from missions work, Brainerd lived with the Edwards family.”
“After his death, Edwards edited Brainerd’s diaries into a tale of a sickly, orphaned missionary who persevered against physical, spiritual, and emotional hardships. This book became one of Edwards’s most popular, remaining to this day his most frequently reprinted work. Brainerd became a folk hero: Stories circulated of a frontier saint subsisting on bear meat and Indian cornmeal, encountering poisonous snakes that refused to attack, and kneeling so long in prayer that he couldn’t stand to walk.”
It then goes on and discusses the challenges and doubts that Elisabeth Elliot had in her life. By the way that is why I chose a clip from Beyond the Gates of Splendor for this post.
“Elisabeth Elliot, probably the best-known missionary writer of the 20th century, who passed away this June, sometimes wrote candidly about the complexities of cross-cultural work. Books focusing on her martyred husband, Jim, tend to follow long-established patterns of the genre—valorizing the missionary and emphasizing trust in God over doubt. But accounts of her own life are different. These Strange Ashes (1975) covers her first year in missions, spent in language study with an Ecuadorian tribe. She’s frank about loneliness, doubts, and struggles with self-discipline. After the death of her friend Maruja, she writes that she “could not escape the thought that it was God who had failed.” Later, when her language informant dies, she starts questioning her own calling.”
In the article it continues to discuss that of Rachel Stone a Presbyterian missionary who warns against missionary work being glamorized. Instead she asks why not tell stories of good intentions that fail? Or of well meaning projects that didn’t work out? As Rachel says that, “might be the best way to build hopeful skepticism—and the best antidote to a well-intentioned, but quite possibly wrongheaded, triumphalism.” As the article continues it talks about the challenges or missionary work in the 20th century and how the internet and blogging is leveling the playing field. I don’t want to tinker with trying to summarize what is said, I think it’s too golden in its current form. But here is what is said in looking at the problem from differing perspectives.
“At the website A Life Overseas, more than 20 missionaries and expats regularly write about their cross-cultural lives in ways that poke holes in missionary folklore. In one post, Rachel Pieh Jones doubts the insistence of Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone that they never made sacrifices. All missionaries make sacrifices, she argues. For her, sometimes that feels like “not being sure you will get through the day.”
“In another post, Danielle Wheeler describes how living in a small home in a polluted city of 22 million left her and her husband feeling like their “souls were withering” and their relationships with God were suffering. At another collective, Velvet Ashes, many women write openly about their difficulties. “The cost is so very real,” writes Patty Stallings. Jessica Hoover shares about missionaries’ need for mental-health counseling. Commenters chime in with stories about postpartum depression overseas and the ways that institutions sometimes protect their systems more than their people.”
“Some missionaries openly regard the established in-field rhetoric as dangerous. Jonathan Trotter, a missionary with Team Expansion in Southeast Asia, challenges “The Idolatry of Missions” in a post viewed nearly 25,000 times. Idealizing missionaries as the church’s “special forces” and “cream of the crop” is actually harmful, Trotter writes. If they come to believe they are super-Christians, they can grow arrogant. Or, if they fall short of high expectations, they might become discouraged or depressed. Meanwhile, Trotter says, we are prone to miss the glory of faith-filled older people and believers with “regular jobs” sitting in the pews. Unmediated blogs can bring the freedom of grace for missionaries and senders alike.”
I would encourage you to read the entire article. I write about all this because I think this needs to be promoted and I hope it can be a bridge to discuss other issues in Christianity, which is where I want to take this post into the next section.
Saying Goodbye to the Idolized Christian Life; Why this Needs to be Applied Elsewhere…
What is happening in the missionary field with missionaries being bold about hardship, problems, and difficulties so desperately needs to happen here in the Christian church in the United States. The images that play out of the sanctified Christian, or the perfect marriage that showcases the 1950 nuclear family with the stepford wives really needs to come to a close. I would liken it to “Christian pornography” in that it is fantasy, myth, harmful and gives people unrealistic expectations. Let’s be honest…the world can see through our façade. No one is being fooled. Evangelicals deal with doubt, alcoholism, drug addiction, gluttony, anger, greed, pornography, broken families, divorce, wayward kids, mistakes, etc… Its life and life is broken. An image is being fed in evangelical Christian culture that is far from healthy and sets up people for failure. I already realized this prior to my faith crisis, but it took a severe faith crisis and a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington who gave birth to a false accusation that threatened my name and livelihood to realize that this is a major problem in the Christian faith. I think that if evangelical Christians were more forthcoming about their difficulty and problems the world would not only see but acknowledge their honesty. This is long overdue, and with the internet age eliminating privacy and giving a level playing field this issue needs to be tackled. If they are not going to tackle it the internet will force them to do so.
Furthermore one point that bothers me is the following. Many evangelicals have made missionaries into idols. I believe it both to be damning and that it creates problems for both the missionary and the church. And let me state this point blank for those Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritans out there. Do I think missionary work is planting an Acts 29 church in Fairfax, Bethesda, Rockville, Warrenton, Leesburg, Baltimore, Alexandria, or Annapolis? No….planting a church in a rich, affluent suburb where the median income is $100,000 is not missionary work. That is going where the money is at and milking the system. Sorry Acts 29….but I don’t buy that as missionary work. However continuing with my train of thought….I think many people get the idea that in order to serve the Lord you need to become a missionary, become a pastor, etc… There are so many ways one can remain faithful and it can happen through ordinary and common ways. One can serve the Lord by going into the banking industry, working in government, signing up for the military, working as a nurse practitioner, being an engineer for the Department of Transportation in your state, or teaching. The list goes on and on…but many people have immense talents and gifts and I think those God given gifts are denied and spurned when people are in a culture that tells them that to serve the Lord one must go a certain path in life. There’s another thought I would like to emphasize as well, when a person goes the secular route they are going to be more likely to interact with people who are broken and hurting. You’ll have an office colleague whose marriage is ending due to an affair. You’ll have a partner on your business project who has a kid dealing with substance addiction issues. The secular workforce is vast and ripe and the number of people who have pain is immense. When the church creates a culture that encourages people to go the missionary or pastoral route all of this in the secular realm is being ignored. This is something that so desperately needs to be changed.
Encouraging Christians to Support Recovering from Religion’s 1-84-I DOUBT IT
I’ve written many open letters on this blog. The purpose of my open letters has been very diverse. They have included wanting to apologize to someone who is homeless from National Community Church. They have also included letters thanking Danny Risch, Scott Van Swernigan, and James Crestwood for their love and grace while I was in a faith crisis for half my thirties. Then I have written open letters like this one to my former Senior Pastor Rod Stafford in which I challenged him on the direction of my former church and handling of a situation with high risk violent sex offender in a key position at Fairfax Community Church. Then when the Village Church situation erupted with Karen Hinkley and Matt Younger disciplined her for annulling her marriage to a pedophile addicted to child pornography I wrote the following open letter in which I challenged him and pushed back hard. So why am I writing all this? In the course of time I would like to tell the stories and write two open letters to two different people whose lives have been deeply affected by the Southern Baptist Convention. In response to what happened they each went different ways with their faith. One involves Dee Parsons and what happened to her at David Horner’s Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh. In the midst of an alleged child sex abuse cover up her experience at Providence led her to write about church corruption, expose the problems and call it out at The Wartburg Watch. Then there is Sarah Morehead. I read parts of her story on Richard Dawkins blog. Sarah dealt with domestic abuse in a marriage in a SBC church and was told to submit to her abuser. She not only left the SBC but the Christian faith as well and is currently the Executive Director for Recovering from Religion. After her experience I don’t blame her for leaving Christianity. When I read her story and how the SBC church handled the abuse my blood pressure soared through roof when I saw what they did. I remember sitting in a Silver Diner restaurant in the DC area, eating an omelet, reading that she was encouraged to go back to her abusive husband and becoming enraged. What the hell? Who tells someone to submit to her abuser? In all honesty I don’t blame her or anyone who leaves the Christian faith. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for pushing back from the Christian faith. I want to talk about this a little bit below. Sarah left a comment on this post here, and from what I understand she is helping to organize the Reason Rally at the National Mall in 2016. I attended the Reason Rally as an agnostic in 2012, this time I would like to attend as a Christian and just reflect on my life and where it has gone. I’m unique in that I am probably one of the few Christians who goes to church and from time to time listens attentively to Seth Andrews in the car.
Up above I spoke about both problems and doubt experienced in the mission field and how I appreciate people opening up and speaking about to that issue. In this part of the post I want to talk about those who left the faith, and why we need to have more conversations in the Christian community and actually listen to what those who left have to say. I also want to encourage people here to get behind a campaign at Neil Carter’s blog which I will get into shortly.
I want to get into something here that will be difficult for some Christians to handle but I think its something that should be said. Sometimes, people can be so hurt, so burned, and so fried from fundamentalism the best course of action is to leave the Christian faith. Please hear me out and don’t dismiss me. I think many evangelicals are in strong denial about spiritual abuse, pain and the harm that comes from fundamentalism. I believe it to be deeper, more of a problem, and a major issue that is sitting under the surface. To make matters worse many evangelical churches have not addressed it or dealt with it effectively or at all. They keep it under the carpet, hide, and go forward acting like its not an issue. Fairfax Community Church taught me this as have other parts of evangelicalism. From Mark Driscoll to CJ Mahaney to Sovereign Grace Fairfax and Covenant Life Church many places or leaders plow on and act like nothing happens. Its like having a heart attack and walking forward in pain and acting like nothing has happened to your health. You’re in pain, your body is wounded, and its ability to function is threatened yet you walk forward and act like nothing has happened. How can you possibly heal under those circumstances? Is that healthy or good? The amount of pain just underneath the surface is startling and we are fools if we think we can go forward and ignore it. Its in light of this problem that I propose the following thought.
Sometimes people are so hurt, so wounded that I think God desires them to be in atheism or agnosticism and be away from the Christian faith entirely so that they can heal. I think in many ways atheism can allow some people to heal and a way to step back. There’s no pressure to attend church, be in a small group, tithe, give money, or conform. If you make a moral mistakes its not the end of your well being. Its with this in mind that I think that atheism and agnosticism can be used by God to help others heal and to give some people peace. Here’s what I think…some people will leave Christianity and never come back. Others I think will leave Christianity and after 5 years or a decade something may prompt them to come back, or some of the issues they struggled with they were able to work through. Personally I love the atheist and agnostic community. I love their intellectual wit, sharp edge and the way they go about doing things. Even as a Christian today I still miss it, maybe that’s why I still listen and watch atheist material. There is an intellectual component to it that is missing in evangelical Christianity.
Its with the above said that I would like to state something that needs to be said. We need to have an honest discussion about faith crisis and doubt. Evangelicals do neither plus they have a hard time admitting that evangelical corruption can also feed faith crisis or doubt. That is what the Sovereign Grace movement and an Air Force academy graduate taught me in inviting me to Sovereign Grace. My faith crisis was hell. There are no words to describe how terrifying it was. To the best of my ability I wrote about it in two posts you can read here and here. Going through a faith crisis or a loss of faith is traumatic and challenging. It is frightening, difficult and terrifying. It is something that needs discussion and quite frankly its something that evangelicals are not discussing. Its with that in mind I want to draw your attention to something I recently saw on Neil Carter’s Godless in Dixie.
They did a fundraiser for Recovering from Religion and while they met their goal they are still taking donations. I’m going to make a small donation to Recovering from Religion the next time I get paid and I’m going to ask others to join if you feel led. Here’s the reason why I am going to give and why I support Recovering from Religion. They run a hotline called 1-84-I DOUBT IT. I wrote about this hotline in this post here. It runs regularly and is staffed by trained volunteers to discuss and help people out in a faith crisis. I honestly wished this would have existed when I was having my faith crisis. It would have been welcome and helpful. Now part of the reason why I support this is because they are talking about something that many Christians should be talking about but are not discussing. A faith crisis or losing your faith is traumatic and its one of those things you will not understand unless you have experienced it. I hope you will read the prior posts I have linked that explain this. Anyhow I appreciate the fact that Recovering from Religion has this hotline and its something that I believe is long overdue. When someone is having a faith crisis in this context someone is there to support and listen. When I showed up at churches in the DC area pleading for help, none of them were able to help me. Recovering from Religion by being there and listening and helping is doing something that the evangelical Christian church should be doing, but is not doing. That is why I support this project, and even though they met their fundraising goals I am letting people know about this in case they want to donate.
As I wind this down I want to say that I look forward to writing that Open Letter to Sarah Morehead. It will be in the months to come and probably right before the Reason Rally 2016. What my open letter will be is basically the following…I want to tell here how sorry I am for what she endured. For having an abusive husband, a church that failed to help her, protect her kids, and one that failed to meet her needs in a time in her life when she most desperately needed help. Sarah I am sorry. Sarah if I ever meet you I’ll probably hug you and cry on your shoulder for what you endured. Please note I am not the usual evangelical I am a guy who not only experienced a faith crisis and I am a guy with deep wounds from fundamentalism. You can read what I did to my mother under the John Piper kool aid, and you can also read what I endured from a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington, in the form of a false accusation here. Sarah individuals like you need an apology from the Christian church. Its owed, overdue, and is needed. I can’t stand to hear all this garbage about the Gospel by individuals who want to plant churches when they can’t even master the basics. But that will be coming down the pike.
In closing I would like to leave you with a video of Neil Carter explaining his faith life. I found this on Youtube. Then I also want to leave you with Steven Curtis Chapman’s “God is God.” If you’re an atheist please note I am not trying to piss you off, I am trying to tie together a post with many different themes. Since this song references and deals with the story of Jim Elliot and since I talk about that up above that is why I am using it. As always I love you guys!