The national EFCA blog had an article by Paul Chamberlain on Christians who lose faith. I read this blog post and wanted to do a response. I have written about faith crisis and loss of faith. This is an issue that is near and dear to me given my own experience. Above all else its The Wondering Eagle’s hope that the EFCA will honestly listen to those who have lost faith to try and understand them better.
“It isn’t fair how I doubt him, and I wonder if he’ll ever gather that my loss of faith extends further than I’d ever known it would, severing lines of trust and leveling my confidence like a city-flattening tornado.”
“I believe that the dark night of the soul is a common spiritual experience. I believe, too, that the answer is continued seeking and perseverance. It helps to know that others have endured a loss of faith.”
Be merciful to those who doubt
Dan Barker from the Freedom From Religion Foundation
The Wondering Eagle likes to write about faith crisis and doubt. In many ways that is because of my personal experience with the topic. When I was being recruited to Redeemer Arlington, a former Sovereign Grace Ministries church I was in the depths of a faith crisis. After going through that faith crisis I look at this topic very differently than the way I did before hand. Its my contention that many evangelicals misunderstand those in faith crisis. Losing faith which I will explore below is not always bad. In many ways it can be a gift. A faith crisis also is not for the timid of heart, instead it is for the brave as you will be wrestling with issues that many evangelicals are terrified of exploring. That was what I learned, and its why I embrace it and appreciate it. Before we go forward let’s look at what was said in this EFCA post. The title of the post by Paul Chamberlain is, “Why People Stop Believing.” My comments below will be in red.
William* came to Jesus in his teens and found his life radically changed. He began studying his Bible and going out of his way to tell others about Christ. He went on to study in two evangelical seminaries, earning master’s degrees from both, and even pursued further studies at the doctoral level. He preached in churches for more than 10 years and also did some teaching and writing for Christian magazines.
Then things began to change. First came a series of personal difficulties. Then doubts began to enter, and as time went on, William found himself no longer convinced by the arguments he had formerly found so compelling. In the end, he left the faith altogether and wrote a widely endorsed book describing his journey from Christianity to atheism. Today, William devotes his life to debunking Christianity.
Most of us are acquainted with someone who disagrees with Christianity. Today, however, there is a new and increasingly passionate breed of person challenging the faith. They are people like William who were once devout members of the Christian community, worshipping alongside others in their churches. They include former pastors, theologians, authors, church planters and graduates of Bible colleges and seminaries, and when they leave the fold, they often become some of Christianity’s most adamant and well-informed critics.
They often know their Bibles, theology, and history of Christianity better than the Christians to whom they speak. And when they lay out their list of objections to the faith, they are aware of the typical replies Christians are likely to give since they once used the same answers themselves. Furthermore, these critics are often granted special credibility in our culture because, unlike most others, they were once part of the group they are now critiquing. Who could know it better than they?
One of the things I learned from the atheist community is that many know the Bible. In many cases they know it better than Christians. If you read this and disagree I challenge you to befriend and know one. Many who come from an evangelical Christian background know the Bible inside and out, and are aware of its shortcomings or cultural issues. They also are aware of the issues that are problematic for Christianity from the issue evolution, to genocide in the Bible to the problem of evil. But in all honesty there are many theological problems that can be problematic. They often do have special credibility and in honest I think that’s okay. They know the topic and they have wrestled with it. What I don’t understand is why people feel afraid of former Christians, not atheists. You can disagree with Dan Barker but why be afraid? This is something that I ask in all honesty?
This wave of skeptics is accompanied by a growing number of organizations devoted to supporting Christians who choose to leave the faith they once embraced. The websites of these groups are filled with the testimonials of people who claim to have been set free from the shackles of religion.
These organizations are like Clergy Project. Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins among others helped grow it, you can read more here. You also have websites like Steve Hilliker’s Voices of Deconversion. You have forums like Ex-Christian.net which is a refuge for many former evangelicals/fundamentalists. What also is growing is closed Facebook groups for former evangelicals. Even today I remain involved and read them to see what people are saying and thinking. This is the positive side of the internet as it always people to meet and share ideas. It allows people to connect in new ways. A couple of these groups I would like to explore in time in a post or two.
Perhaps you’ve met people like this. If so, you will know that their take on Christianity is different from that of most other people. They do not need to be told what it’s like to be a Christian because they were once on the inside themselves.
Why do people leave the faith?
The reasons people leave Christianity are as varied as the individuals.
Some feel that Christianity stifled free and honest rational inquiry. Others had a traumatic negative experience or a sense of having been let down by the church or by God. Certain people, after a personal or moral failure, have difficulty finding renewed acceptance among former Christian friends, and some speak of unresolved questions that ate away at their confidence in the truth of Christianity.
Usually there is a complex combination of factors that in the end moves people away from the faith they once believed and promoted.
I agree with this, and will write more below.
Responding with grace and love
Our initial response must be to surprise these folks with our grace and love. I say “surprise” because we, as Christians, simply do not have the best record here, whether in our dealings with our own brothers and sisters or with those on the outside.
One of my students who interacts deeply with Mormon missionaries commented recently that during their two-year period of service, many Mormons shared that they experienced so much unfriendliness, even hostility, from evangelical Christians that they have come to view evangelicals as an antagonistic group. As my student put it, if Christians would just love those who come to their doors, it would make it easier for people like him to have conversations with them later.
A perceived or experienced lack of love and acceptance in the midst of a low time has contributed to the departure of some of our brothers and sisters. We have an opportunity here to love a very special kind of neighbor as ourselves.
Let me be honest here. I don’t think Paul Chamberlain understands the depth of the problem. I am not trying to be arrogant. But evangelicals are not known for their love. Today there is a love deficit inside evangelicalism. Evangelicalism for some is a program and for others a political party. The opposite of love is fear, and that explains those evangelical Christians who have no problem with the current political scene. Its a problem that has gotten substantially worse with the passage of time. To be honest I don’t think people realize how love is devoid inside modern evangelical Christianity. I find myself grappling with this issue regularly, especially with some of what I write.
Responding with deeper dialogue
We also would be wise to prepare for meaningful dialogue with those who have turned from the faith and then begin to reach out to them. Given the recent wave of such people, we will likely experience this kind of conversation whether we go looking for it or not. We can all advance one or two steps in our understanding of the journeys and stated reasons people like this give for leaving.
Some among us, of course, can go further and study these issues deeply in order to provide much-needed assistance to the Christian community. A good place to start would be to read books like the following:
- Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, John M. Frame (P&R Publishing, 2015)
- Dawkins’ God: From the Selfish Gene to the God Delusion, Alister McGrath (Wiley, 2015)
- Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan (Baker Books, 2014)
- Did the Resurrection Happen?: A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, ed. David Baggett (Intervarsity Press, 2012)
- God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism, William Lane Craig (Oxford University Press, 2016)
- The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges in Evangelical Christian Beliefs, Craig L. Blomberg (B&H Academic, 2016)
- Knowledge and Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga (William B. Eerdmans, 2015)
- How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth, Christopher J.H. Wright (Zondervan, 2016)
- Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, Michael R. Licona (Oxford University Press, 2016)
These writers and theologians, among many others, have provided helpful resources that target the very issues that have caused some to leave the faith.
Let me just say that I understand the evangelical desire to have an answer. But before evangelicals give answers it is far better if they sit down and honestly listen to those who walked away from Christianity. Its easy to talk, its harder to listen. But that is where I propose evangelicals should start.
Peter calls us to “always be prepared to give a reason,” but now this comes with an added urgency. We do it not simply to share the faith but to keep it too.
Somewhere in our conversations, we may get the opportunity to ask what, precisely, these folks were rejecting when they turned from Christianity. Whether we like their answers or not, nothing is gained from avoiding this information. We would do well to listen carefully at this point. Then we may need to do some further reading ourselves.
As graciously as we can, it is often worth pointing out that rejecting Christianity, or any other set of ideas, because one finds its teachings restrictive or unappealing, is to play a dangerous game since it entirely ignores the question of truth. If it turns out that Christianity’s teachings are true, then it will not matter that one finds them restrictive or unappealing any more than if I find it restrictive to be told that I must follow the rules of the road or I will not get home safely.
This part I believe reflects the concept of the author living inside the bubble. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying this, but the fact of the matter is that those who walk away will not take what Paul is saying kindly. Many will say, “He still doesn’t get it…” Truth can be relative and in the context of religion it can be subjective. For those who walks away they will respond in that frame of mind. What is true?
Responding with open environments
Let us also strive to create an environment in our churches, small groups and retreats where people are free to think and question what they are taught, just as the Berean Christians were commended for doing when the apostle Paul came to town (Acts 17:11-12). This is especially critical because a large number of those who reject Christianity claim they are leaving to find exactly this freedom, the freedom to honestly think and reason. Christianity, they say, inhibited this liberty by prescribing their beliefs.
While much can be said on this, let us remember that as a worldview, Christianity does include certain beliefs and, thus, rules out others. But this is true of all worldviews, including atheism. In the case of Christianity, we are urged to ask good questions, search for the truth and embrace it when we find it. Amazingly, Christianity even goes so far as to invite the world to test its own foundational truth claims, particularly the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and accept it only if it is found to be true (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). I find this both refreshing and gutsy at the same time.
I applaud what is stated here, I honestly do. But here is the problem, in reality this will not work. Evangelical Christianity can be hostile to academics, intellectuals and those who have questions. As I reflect back on my Campus Crusade experience in Wisconsin how much of it was creating a bubble inside a university setting to withdraw from the “threat” of academia? Plus in a movement that hasn’t been open and honest about Mark Noll’s thesis of the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” is this open environment which Paul Chamberlain writes about even possible?
Responding with prayer
Finally, let us not accept the myth that atheism is the final intellectual stop for any serious, educated person who wants to assess the world objectively.
As church historian John Woodbridge points out in a recent article, there are many Christian scholars and thinkers who have moved from disbelief to faith, not in spite of their intellectual study, but as a result of it. Such people include C.S. Lewis; John Warwick Montgomery, apologist and church historian; Kenneth S. Kantzer, theologian and editor of Christianity Today; Carl F.H. Henry, another theologian and editor of Christianity Today; and Alister McGrath, scientist and theologian. Their work can provide valuable insights into some of the difficult questions they were forced to navigate and we would be wise to examine their responses before assuming that no good answers exist.
Let’s pray for those who find it in their hearts to walk away, and let’s remember they are not the enemy. We may find opportunities to befriend and even engage them. When we do so, let’s allow Peter’s instruction to guide our approach: Let’s address with gentleness, respect, and with a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:15). Who knows what God will choose to do with our efforts?
Prayer is good. But I will say be warned and realize that this will be for the long haul. How many evangelicals can brace for the prospect of years? In my faith crisis I felt people pray for me. Today it means a lot to me, but this is rare because many evangelicals just won’t do this for the long term.
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is a Serious Problem
There is one issue that the article doesn’t really raise. Actually as I view it, the topic is missed all together. Its disappointing because in the article it calls for open environments. One thing not addressed is what Mark Noll calls the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. What Mark Noll proposed is that evangelicalism is intellectually shallow and has no really no mind. Or the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that there is no mind. The evangelical faith needs to adapt and change. Its needs to become more intellectual, and embrace science. It needs to understand that you can be a Christian and still be committed to evolution. It needs to find new ways to address these problems. It needs to understand history and look at faith in the broader perspective. If it were intellectual it would allow people people to wrestle with difficult topics. When I had my faith crisis, which I believe is a gift, I went to a number of churches and asked them if they can explain how a loving God could allow so much evil? From a terrorist flying a 767 into a skyscraper to Adam Lanza going into an elementary school in Connecticut and massacring close to 30. Really no one could give me an answer nor engage. In every situation people mostly couldn’t discuss the issue. What would be a healthy start is if evangelicals admitted there is a problem in this area. But I keep seeing this issue pop up on a regular basis, and when I reflect on my life it has always stood there. I didn’t know it until much later. “From Mormonism in Montana to Sovereign Grace in the Washington, D.C. Area; The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Comes Full Circle.”
Evangelical Christians Who Do Not Own Mistakes and Help Those They Hurt is a Serious Problem
There is another major defect that exists with evangelical Christianity, and it also influences and keeps other people away. This is the problem. Evangelical Christians do not own their mistakes. They do not seek forgiveness or admit error. This issue is undermining the core of Christianity I would propose. Not only is it leaving people stuck. But it gives fodder to the atheists and former Christians who have walked away. This is especially true for those who were hurt who then walked away, as Paul explains in his article. This I have learned not only from my own story from Redeemer Arlington but also from the churches I have written about. From Pennsylvania, to Tennessee out to California many people say, “I would like to hear __________ say that this ____________ was wrong. I would like for him to know what he did and the pain he caused. I just want to hear him say I’m sorry and work to undo the damage.” I hear this regularly, I heard it the other day. For many this behavior affirms that evangelical Christianity is flawed. For myself I can’t tell you what this would have done for me. If Redeemer Arlington owned their mess and if an Air Force Captain approached me and said something to the following. “Dave its hard for me to comprehend what I did to you. Its hard to hear this. But will you be patient with me and can we talk again in the near future and slowly work this out.” I would weep with joy if those steps were taken. I would stop writing about them. But the sad reality is that they will not be taken. My mess, combined with so many others that I write about will never be resolved. That is the reality of the situation.
What the EFCA Should Pay Close Attention to: William Lobdell’s “Losing My Religion.”
Well I appreciate the books recommended there is one error with Paul that I would like to point out. Paul writes about giving answers, and I think there is one thing he should have done. The first thing that should happen is that Paul and others should listen to those who walked away. I read and listen to the Voices of Deconversion podcast. I appreciate and am grateful for it. But Christians should stop and listen to those who walked away. A good place to start would be someone like William Lobdell. For those of you who do not know, William Lobdell is the former religion writer for the Los Angeles Times. He spent years writing about the Christian faith. For William Lobdell he started out as a born-again in Christian, and over the period of time he went from evangelical to exploring mainstream Presbyterian to Catholicism and eventually he de-converted to atheism. His story is a must-read to understand how a person loses faith in God. What contributed to his loss of faith were covering evangelical scandal, writing about prosperity theologians to covering the child sex abuse situation in the Roman Catholic faith. It helped him to process out of religion and become comfortable with not being religious. When he ended his religion reporting in the Los Angeles Times he wrote a page one article. It was about how he lost faith in God. You can read that article in, “He had faith in his job.” It would become the most responded story in the history of the newspaper. He later wrote a book in 2009 called, “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace.” People like William Lobdell should be listened to. What he says is what I write about frequently. But if you want to know the long term effects of scandal, and more on a person, this will help you comprehend.
What I Wish People Would Have Known from My Faith Crisis
After all this writing then I came to the last section of this post. For me this is the hardest because of the reflection I have to draw from. When I had my faith crisis and pushed away from Christianity for years this is what I wished people had know. I wish people knew how it felt. How the situation was pure hell and hard. When I was difficult and combative I wish people would have been sympathetic and understand how controlling the doubts became. I wish people would not have felt threatened by a doubter. I wish people would have responded with love and patience. Another aspect is that it would have been wonderful it people stepped in my shoes for a day and tried to see the mess from my point of view. I wish people would have known the tears that were shed, the pain and the feeling of loss. During my faith crisis I felt like I was dying. I don’t know how else I can say this. If people would have only known and I think they would have more sympathy and greater understanding. Today I stand at the edge, with one foot in, and one foot outside. Nervous and scared after seeing the dark side of religion. What I wish others would have understood is that losing faith is not so bad. Its a doorway to a journey to exploring one self. And if a person goes back it can lead to a much deeper faith that has wrestled with difficult issues. In order to find yourself sometimes you have to be lost. My faith crisis was a gift. It helped me to look at things from multiple angles. So with that said I would also state that a faith crisis is not always bad. Losing faith is not bad. Another plus is that it can allow you to purse toxic theology from your system. From prosperity theology to what John Piper teaches. If you want to read more I wrote some articles that I will insert below that will give people another point of view. If you want to read more about a faith crisis you can do so here.
- “What Does a Faith Crisis Feel Like?“
- “Eagle Writes a Journal Entry Inspired from Neil Carter’s Godless in Dixie on Grieving the Loss of Your Faith.”
- “Order of Elijah’s Shannon Low De-Converts from the Christian Faith: When it Becomes Necessary to Leave.”
These are difficult conversations and they need to addressed and written about. If I could implore one thing on the EFCA it would be this. Listen to those who have walked away. Its important to learn and listen. By listening you could learn so much. That is it for the day guys, please know that you are loved.