In light of Jon Steingard’s de-conversion from Christianity this blog wanted to do a post that would offer advice to pastors. How would you engage a doubter? What advice would you give and how would you respond to a doubter in your congregation or someone who shows up in your front door? There are a number of perspectives that this blog believes could be a road map for navigating the issue of doubt. Yet this blog is also realistic in knowing that its highly unlikely much of evangelicalism will be able to respond in this way. In the end many doubters will end up falling away from the evangelical church.
“I believe, help my unbelief” is thus an honest recognition of the fact that we need God’s help even for faith itself. We don’t always struggle with believing God “all the way.” But sometimes we do. When we are in such situations, the right response is to be honest with God about it and ask him to help us grow further in our faith. And, paradoxically, doing so is actually an act of incredible faith. In one sense, the ultimate act of faith is to trust God even for faith itself.”
And have mercy on those who doubt;
Jude 1:22 ESV
This is a post that come to me as I was working on the blog article about Jon Steingard’s de-conversion from Christianity. I wrote about that in, “Christian Rock Artist Jon Steingard Has De-Converted From Christianity And No Longer Believes in God: Preserving His Letter Explaining His Journey” and “Jon Steingard’s De-Conversion and a Frank Discussion on Doubt, Evangelical Culture and Pulling the Threads of Your Sweater.” The question must be asked, how would you keep someone inside the faith? What could be done to engage a doubter? How could you logically reach out to a doubter who is slipping away? This is what I would say and some advice that would be given.
Avoid Politics in Church Like Cancer
Many doubters struggle with their image of the church. Many evangelicals live in a bubble and the doubter is often leaving that culture. Their thinking is changing and experiences are changing as well. Doubters will be especially sensitive about church and faith and you don’t want to engage in behavior that can further drive them away. In the last few years there has been a resurgence of Christian nationalism and politics has become much worse inside the evangelical church. This change in evangelicalism is for the worse and its warping the faith. One of the reasons why I am pushing back from evangelicalism myself is because in the stream of faith I was in I realized that Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world. He died for a Supreme Court seat here in Washington, D.C. To watch how evangelicals have become political and care more about politics then the faith can really fuel someone’s doubts. It results in them asking, “What am I involved with?” or the larger issue, “What is truth?” What I would do as a pastor is I would avoid all politics. Avoid politics like cancer. Stay away and don’t let your church be hijacked by politics and the culture wars. Those are destructive and in the end is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Again let me re-cap, I would avoid, avoid, and avoid politics. No sermons, no Bible studies, no talk of it – keep politics divorced from faith. What one could say is why politics doesn’t belong in faith. That can be refreshingly different.
Don’t Propagate Myths or Stereotypes About Atheism
Many evangelicals buy into and propagate disinformation about atheists. Here is why that is harmful; you have a person leaving the church and faith who is interacting with different people and ideas. By seeing and interacting with people and they are realizing the way atheists have been demonized or talked about is false. They are learning that atheists are not immoral people, instead they can be kind and loving. They can show compassion and think in ways that help that person who is doubting. So when you are interacting with a doubter don’t say things like, “atheists just want to sin” or “atheists are immoral” or “atheists can’t show love and kindness.” Think carefully about what you say. Instead acknowledge that atheists can bring some issues to the table and respect that. Talk about how you respect and are grateful for their emphasis on science. Choose your words carefully so that the doubter doesn’t feel like they have to make a choice between one or the other. Also make sure others in the congregation think like this as well and can understand.
Have a Large Heart for the Doubter and Learn to Listen and Empathize
As a pastor or someone in ministry you need to have a large heart for the doubter. When engaging with a doubter one needs to have a deep ability to have compassion and incredible empathy. To listen to other people is quite the gift, and a person dealing with a doubter needs to be able to take that action well. What does that mean? It means a pastor hearing someone struggle with the problem of evil. It means a pastor listening to someone dealing with the problem of pain. It means that a pastor or ministry leader can handle the issue of creationism with sensitivity. Some of the issues that a doubter deals with are emotional. They are in emotional pain because their world has been challenged. There are two sides to doubt, there is the questions that need asking and then there is the emotional pain that goes along with the issue. A church, in theory should be a place for the doubter and the leadership of a church should be warm to a doubter.
When A Person’s Faith is Dying Respond with Unconditional Love
Another aspect that should be done by a pastor or ministry leader is that unconditional love should be practiced. A doubter is going through the process of questioning their faith. And other doubters are in the process of going through the death of their faith. Both aspects are hard and emotionally taxing. Unconditional love can result in a doubter be willing to engage a pastor or to talk with a person. The worst thing you can do is send a message to a doubter that says that they are not welcome or can not wrestle with their doubts there. Unconditional love I would argue is necessary and healthy to a faith or creating an environment for healthy faith to be nourished or grown. And if a person’s faith dies and you practice unconditional love toward them that might result in them being willing to engage or talk to you down the road. Some of these situations are not a zero sum gain. What I am saying is that they are not a once a person is done, they are done. Some of these people might pop back up on your radar a few years later and they might do so because they remember your kindness and love.
Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church
Acknowledge Scandal and Problems and Don’t Practice Tribalism. Be Aware of Your Blind Spots
Realize that scandals and problems also contribute to doubt in some ways. Be current with what is going on. Should you use that book from C.J. Mahaney for a Bible study if you know the scandal inside Sovereign Grace Ministries? Should you be using James MacDonald’s teaching on what it means to being a man if you know the issues that happened inside Harvest Bible Chapel? Should your book group be reading a book from Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church given the scandals that have taken place? For pastors this takes due diligence on your part. Scandals and problems happen across the board. They happen in Wesleyianism, they happen in other side of Arminianism, and Calvinism. They happen in the charismatic movement. Be on your game and be aware. Also make sure you are committed to the truth and not to tribalism. If you are committed to tribalism that will contribute to be an issue and the doubter will notice and it will become a burden. As a pastor you know what scripture says about making someone stumble in their faith. How about if a pastor or church helped drive a person away because of tribalism or scandal and corruption? These issues need to be addressed. By the way every theological system has its positive and negatives. Be aware of the pros and cons of your theology. As a pastor who takes comfort in the answers that God ordains suffering or more then on the flip side be prepared to discuss how how Calvinist’s view of suffering makes the problem of evil worse. Or maybe you are a pastor in an Arminian church that takes a literal view of creationism. Be prepared to discuss the issues that go along with that on different perspectives. Be aware of your blind spots and be willing to hear feedback on them.
Don’t Demonize Gays
This is another practical point I will offer. As a pastor don’t demonize gays and get hung up on them. A doubter who is struggling with faith can observe that and ask do I want to be involved in such a place? The evangelical church is going to have to find a way to deal with this issue. How this blog does not know. But by talking down on gays in a negative sense it can create problems. Choose words carefully as words can drive people away or draw them near. And is this blog asking people to capitulate? No…its asking for more words anchored in love. This blog touched on this issue up above.
Why Much of What I Wrote Above Will Be Ignored and Why People Will Still Reject Christian Faith and God
This post is written by a person who is a doubter. That is who I am and who I will always be. Its my hope that this can be a road map for many people. And yet I also have to be brutally honest. Many parts of evangelicalism will not change. Tribalism is too strong in evangelicalism and will triumph over the truth and the teachings of Jesus. Politics is too strong in denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention. Many evangelicals will still demonize gays and react in fear. Jesus says that love conquers fear but too many evangelicals have kicked Jesus to the side. The scandal of the evangelical mind which this blog accepts as fact will result in pastors pushing questionable pastors like Mark Driscoll, or James MacDonald. Another point to emphasize is that many churches and pastors do not have the patience for a doubter. The doubter may be carrying issues the pastor is afraid of or hasn’t thought about. Many of these issues are insurmountable and they can not be conquered. And the brutal truth is that many doubters will slip through your hands and will be lost. This issue will not be on your mind until later on in life. Sometimes the light bulb goes off in a pastor ten or fifteen years from now and they will realize. By then it will most likely be too late. If I were a pastor or ministry leader and I honestly cared, wherever I am at…California, Utah, Pennsylvania, Georgia or Texas I would cry in the privacy of my office. That is how serious this issue is. And the reality is that many people will not realize this until much later.