Pastors if You Want to Keep People in the Christian Faith, This is What I Would Do…

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.”

Matt Perman 

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.

 

23 thoughts on “Pastors if You Want to Keep People in the Christian Faith, This is What I Would Do…

  1. What a refreshing blog post, thank you. I have atheism as a hashtag that I follow. I’d estimate that around 70% of the posts I read on WordPress are from the more right wing end of the evangelical side of Christians (which “right-wing Christian”, always seems like an oxymoron to me, given Jesus’s teachings). The posts tend to nearly always focus on atheists being immoral etc. Which makes me think if they at best are ignorant or worse, just damn right liars, what else are they ignorant of or willing to spread lies about to young or vulnerable/impressionable congregation members?

    Liked by 2 people

    • (which “right-wing Christian”, always seems like an oxymoron to me, given Jesus’s teachings)

      With “The Gospel According to Rush Limbaugh” and Jesus Christ becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc — it’s become What’s NORMAL.

      Long ago, Fundagelicals redefined Christian(TM) without any modifiers to mean themselves and themselves alone. Compared to that, a further redefinition to Trump-Is-LORD is not much of a stretch.

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      • It may have been around before (search Internet Monk archives for “Limbaugh” to find “The Limbaugh-ization of Christianity”) but this has given it momentum to the point of critical mass.

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    • (which “right-wing Christian”, always seems like an oxymoron to me, given Jesus’s teachings)

      Does “left-wing Christian” also seem to be an oxymoron to you, given Jesus’s teachings? 🙂

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      • I’ve no idea if you’ve read the Bible, but greed is a sin, and modern capitalism is a classic example of greed.

        Jesus didn’t charge the 9000 when he fed them during the feeding of the multitude. I’m not sure Jesus asked the leper if he had health insurance.

        If you haven’t had chance to read the whole bible or even the whole New Testament, I recommend starting with just the Gospels. In particular Matthew 25:31-46z

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      • I remember a few essays (Chesterton?) on how that Rabbi from Nazareth sounded hard right on some subjects and hard left on others. Enough so both right and left could point and claim His sanction. However, both have to prune out some in order for the remainder to fit.

        This tells me that that Rabbi was a lot more complex than either right or left give Him credit for. (More like they only give credit to the parts that already agree with them.) Reality is more complex than black-and-white Ideology.

        And from experience, when you’re on the right path you’re probably taking friendly fire from both sides.

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    • Thanks Spamndanwee you are welcome to hang around here. I try and cover a wide range of topics. From atheism to doubt to problems in religion. I also write about different denominations but you are welcome to speak your mind and engage.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There are some good thoughts here, and practical advice.

    I would add one: Have an attitude of humility. Don’t act like you have all the answers, that you have everything perfectly neatly tied up in a systematic theology. As you point out in the section on doubt, acknowledge that there are some hard questions that none of us have a perfect answer to. And acknowledge your own struggles, don’t act like you have it all together. I went to a church where I ultimately came to recognize that over 25 years, the pastor had never once in his sermons mentioned a struggle or weakness or doubt that he had. Everything was presented as if “when you do X, Y, and Z, everything works out perfectly and you have no struggles.” When we left and started visiting other churches and heard some pastors humbly acknowledging their own struggles or failures, it was such a refreshing change.

    I would also clarify the point about politics to be, avoid political partisanship. If you totally avoid “politics” in and of itself, you can end up failing to acknowledge important issues and questions that society is facing and your congregation is wrestling with. You can end up focusing on mere theology without any real-world application. Address and discuss the issues of the day, but not in a way that you are campaigning for a political party or candidate. Don’t be basing your hope in a party or a politician, suggesting that the “salvation” of the church or society lies in a specific political outcome. That is what so many churches and leaders are doing today, and it is driving many people out the doors of the church, and serving as a wall that prevents others from even looking in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you totally avoid “politics” in and of itself, you can end up failing to acknowledge important issues and questions that society is facing and your congregation is wrestling with.

      i.e. “First they came for the Jews, but that was a political thing and we’re above politics…”

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    • I would add one: Have an attitude of humility.

      Unfortunately, humility and Righteousness seem to be opposing forces.
      Especially with our present definition of RIGHTeousness.

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  3. These are great tips. Some more:

    Multiple churches that I have attended have framed theological positions using some kind of circle analogy, and I think this can be very helpful when talking with a doubter. There are different ways to describe it, but the idea is that there is an inner circle of core beliefs that are essential for Christianity (for existence, God exists), then another circle of beliefs that are important but not critical, and then a third circle of beliefs that are less important still. How Christians allocate their beliefs between the different circles varies, but the point is that a lot of beliefs are not actually super important and it’s OK to agree to disagree about some things. For example, nobody’s going to hell because they baptize with sprinkling vs immersion. One of the things that I like about the EFCA is that they purposely try to keep the inner circle small, and they even recently made it a little smaller by removing a statement about premillennialism. My innermost circle smaller yet, but that’s OK, because lots of churches have what I consider to be second-circle items in their statement of beliefs.

    Biblical literalism and pedestalization have caused many people to lose their faith. The fact is, you don’t actually need very much of the Bible to be true to have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In historical times there have been churches that only had a fragment of the New Testament and managed to survive for thousands of years. Some of the earliest fragments of the Bible disagree with each other, and we’re not sure which are original, but those discrepancies don’t change anything important. A literal interpretation of Genesis is not required to be a Christ follower, and on the flip side, it is OK to have a literal interpretation of Genesis — it doesn’t make you stupid, or not a Christ follower. It’s important that we worship God, not the Bible.

    On any given issue, there will be someone smarter than you who disagrees with you. When a theological issue gets down to the level of arguing about Greek word usage, it’s time to be gracious and accept that Christians could legitimately hold either position.

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    • Unfortunately, Fundamentalist TRVTH! makes no distinction between inner-circle beliefs and outer-circle beliefs. ALL are of Equal Cosmic-level Importance. If any cracks, then all fall as one. Rigid — and BRITTLE.

      And when something brittle cracks or stresses in any way, it Shatters. Completely. All or Nothing.

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  4. Does “left-wing Christian” also seem to be an oxymoron to you, given Jesus’s teachings? 🙂

    No, not at all. Does it to you?

    Yes, it does. The centerpiece of modern left-wing thought is using the power of the state, with a side helping of infanticide and a double portion of bureaucratic inefficency. (Centralized administration is inherently less capable due to lack of information.) Jesus is about people unilaterally doing what is right, not coercing people or wasting resources. (Insert rant here about the church that spent a million dollars on a foyer, or the social safety net that dramatically increased poverty.) Obviously, none of this diminishes the problems that right-wing politics has. It’s not zero sum.

    The best way for a Christian to approach politics is carefully, with no tribalism, evaluating each case or issue on its own merits, with an emphasis on how they personally should behave. By far the easiest method is to just opt out entirely. If you don’t, you pretty much have to choose the lesser of two evils, and you get tarred with the misdeeds of whatever side you endorse.

    I am not a Trump fan, but I have to admit that I like the fact that he panders to me instead of against me.

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    • I’d rather help those in need, than those with greed. But I guess empathy and compassion are rare traits in today’s western societies. We always seem to find money for unnecessary wars, but never to give education or healthcare

      Liked by 1 person

  5. modern capitalism is a classic example of greed.

    It’s also the most effective way yet discovered by humans to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and treat the sick. It also has a refreshing lack of gulags compared to its recent rivals. Prosperity is a good thing.

    Capitalism is allowing people to spend their own resources on what they want. Some of them will then do something good with those resources. The alternatives involve governments forcing resources into directions that are not good.

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    • Prosperity is a good thing: For the few, not the many.

      I realise I’m heading way off topic, and therefore don’t want to be accused of being a troll. I do apologise to WonderingEagle.

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    • And both have their Dark Sides.
      Dark Sides based on redefining one of the Seven Deadly Sins as Cardinal Virtues.
      (Into their “diabolical meanings”, Eh, My Dear Wormwood?)
      With Capitalism, it’s Greed (more for ME) as a Virtue.
      With Socialism, it’s Envy (of anyone with more than ME) as a Virtue.
      And both Dark Sides have to do with Selfishness.

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      • Yup, agreed. (A greed? There’s a dad joke trying to escape, I can tell.) Selfishness is such a powerful sin. It’s the root cause behind so many of the scandals reported here.

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  6. Pingback: Recommended Read: Jon Steingard Tells Esquire Magazine Why He No Longer Believes in God | Wondering Eagle

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