I sat down with a young lady not too long ago and had a conversation. This was a conversation about faith—her faith. Better put, this was a conversation about a faith that once was and is no more. She was a very interesting and bright lady—inquisitive, well-read, and very suspicious. She began by telling me that she had been a Christian, but had since left the faith. Christ was once a part of her confession. However, after a long voyage of not finding sufficient answers for her doubts, she came to the conclusion that she believes she has had no choice but to follow her own integrity and renounce Christ all together. That said, when I asked her to share with me what her particular problems were, she became very emotional. It was just as if I represented Christianity, and she was ready to take all of it out on me.
Ignorance. Pity. Shame. These are all word descriptions she associated with Christianity. However, through these superficial word descriptions, it was evident that the best root word to describe her feelings was “betrayal”. She had been betrayed by the Church, because they duped her into a belief not unlike that of the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. When she discovered this “betrayal,” no one could provide a valid answer or excuse. So she left. She is now an unbeliever—a soon-to-be evangelistic unbeliever no doubt. I discussed the issue with her for quite a while. However, she seemed to have come to the point in this process that she was no longer open to counsel, no matter what I said.
As many of you know, a part of my ministry is dealing with people who doubt their faith just like this young lady. I possess well over a dozen books containing a plethora of autobiographical sketches of people who once proclaimed to be Christians. Yet, these same individuals are now professing evangelistic atheism, agnosticism, or skepticism. They are “evangelistic” in that their avowed goal is to convert, or rather “unconvert”, others to their world view system of unbelief. I have received e-mails, phone calls, and personal visits from numerous people who have either already, or are on the verge of leaving the Christian faith. On a positive note, may I say that many of those individuals have been restored to a faith in Christ.
Leaving Christianity is one of the most serious issues facing the Church today. Right under our noses, an epidemic is confronting Christianity— the “disease” of unbelief spreading among our very own. The ironic fact is that there is a great assembly of people in our churches who are somewhere in the process of leaving. No, I am not talking about them leaving one denomination, only to join another Christian group. I am not talking about abandoning some institutionalized notion of Christianity. I am not even talking about the explicit renunciation of their expressed beliefs. I am talking about those who are leaving Christ. (And this is coming from a Calvinist who does not believe that those who are truly elect will ever leave).
Over 31 million Americans are saying “check please” to the church, and are off to find answers elsewhere. Jeff Schadt, coordinator of Youth Transition Network, says thousands of youth fall away from the church when transitioning from high school to college. He and other youth leaders estimate that 65 to 94 percent of high school students stop attending church after graduating. From my studies and experience I find that leaving the church is, on many occasions, the first visible step in one’s pilgrimage away from Christ.
There are so many complicated reasons why people “leave Christ” and I don’t propose to do justice to them here. However, I do want to discuss the observations I have made of the steps that people take in leaving Christianity.
Step One: Doubt
This is the case when a person begins to examine his or her faith more critically by asking questions, expressing concerns, and becoming transparent with their doubt. One normally finds this step coming from teenagers, or those in the process of transitioning from adolescence to their teen years. However, this step frequently applies to individuals included in demographics that reach much farther out than the teen years. This step of doubt is not wholesale, but expresses an inner longing to have questions answered and the intellect satisfied, at least to some degree. Normally, a person experiencing this step will seek out mentors in the faith, someone he respects who will listen to his “doubt.”
While there are several diverse reasons that are responsible for the initiation of this doubt, three primary causes stand out:
Maturation: Much of the time, the cause is purely reflective of one’s age progression, a phase in life we like to call “simple maturation.” As people grow older, they begin to ask more serious questions about their beliefs (and their parents’ beliefs as well). During this stage of life, intellectual maturation, or at least what we perceive to be such, becomes a stronger motivator in our life. We begin to grow in our critical thinking, and discernment skills grow stronger.
Intellectual challenges: Often, the doubt comes from intellectual challenges in the form of questions. “Is the Bible truly reliable?” “Does science demonstrate that there is no proof of God?” “Why do I even need to believe in God?”
Experiential challenges: These types of challenges come from God’s actions (or lack thereof) in our lives. This is exemplified through prayers that don’t get answered, the apparent silence of God in a person’s experience, or a tragedy from which the doubter or someone else was not rescued. These experiential challenges can be catalysts which ignite intellectual challenges.
Any one of these (or all three together) can fire the starting gun on the voyage away from Christianity.
Step Two: Discouragement
This follows doubt, as a person becomes frustrated because he is not finding the answers to his questions. The answers (or lack thereof) cause his discouragement. He becomes further discouraged because he has little or no hope that acceptable answers to his questions will ever be found. His church tells him that merely raising said questions is “unchristian.” A Sunday school teacher may offer an ambivalent response such as, “I don’t know. You just have to believe.” Another might simply say, “That’s a good question, I have never thought of that before. . .” and then proceed on their own way, their own leap-of-faith journey, totally oblivious, just as if the question had never been asked.
These experiences cause obvious and great discouragement in the life of the beginning doubter, who sees his questions and concerns as legitimate, and they deserve to be answered. “Are others scared of these questions? If so, why?” are the doubter’s thoughts.
Step Three: Disillusionment
It is at this step that disillusionment sets in the mind of the doubter. He becomes disillusioned with Christianity in general and proceeds to engage in more serious doubt. He feels genuinely betrayed by those he had trusted most when he first believed. He becomes skeptical not only of what is, in his mind, an unwarranted story about Christ and the Bible, but also of the very people who encouraged and influenced him to believe such an untrustworthy myth. He is further disillusioned that the faith which he had been persuaded to believe was so saturated with naivete that not even his most trusted mentors could (or would) answer basic, elementary questions about the Bible, history, or faith. In his thinking, a person’s “legitimate” intellect was discarded out of hand, supplanted by the church becoming an “illegitimate” contender for the minds of gullible believers. Once the mind of the “Disillusioned Doubter” has been lost, the turn has been made. He may still be emotionally rooting for his former faith, but this will soon pass as his “intellect” talks him out of his emotional conviction. What a very sad place this is for the doubting “leaver,” as he realizes for the first time that he is truly leaving Christ. It is at this point that he will likely go through an indefinite period of depression, despondency, and indecisiveness.
Step Four: Apathy
At this stage in his journey away from the Christian faith, the disillusioned “former Christian” becomes apathetic to finding answers, as he is convinced that the answers don’t exist. He is treading headlong down the path of skepticism, agnosticism, or all-out atheism, but he doesn’t have the courage to admit it to himself or others. An individual in this stage frequently lives as a “closet unbeliever.” He is convinced that it is not worth the risk to come clean about his departure from the faith. He desires an uneventful and peaceful existence in his state of unbelief, without creating any controversy. This may help him to cope with the depression that his loss of faith has brought about. If he isn’t honest with himself or others about it, he won’t have to deal with it. Surely, he may continue to hand out bulletins at church, sing in the choir, show up to socials, take a mission trip here and there, and even teach a Sunday School class, but he no longer believes. He is content, for now, to stay in the closet.
However, not everyone stays in the apathy stage.
Step Five: Departure
(This is where I met the young lady I introduced to you at the beginning of this post. In actuality, she was somewhere in between apathy and departure.) At this stage in the process, the fact that one has left the faith has become real to him, and he is ready and willing to announce the fact to the world. Because of his sense of betrayal, he feels as if it is his duty to become an “evangelist of unbelief.” His goal and mission now becomes to “unconvert” the converted.
This is the stage where many former Christians, such as Bart Erhman, reside. In my opinion, Dr. Erhman is full of zeal due to his sense of betrayal. Either he feels that he has to legitimize his departure by taking with him as many as he can, or he is truly attempting to help people quit living a lie out of true concern. Either way, his emotional commitment to Christianity is gone and reversed. He is now an evangelist of unbelief.
“I don’t really even care what you have to say to me,” she told me that day. “I just don’t believe anymore and there is nothing anyone can do about it.” As I thought about this young lady, one thing kept coming to mind: How was she a part of the church for so long without the church ever engaging her on these issues? You see, the issues she confronted were numerous, but foundational. She doubted the resurrection of Christ; the inspiration, inerrancy, canon of Scripture; and the historicity of the Christian faith in general. If the church had legitimized her questions during the doubting phase and truly engaged her on an intellectual front, I can’t help but think things might have been different. But once one reaches the apathy stage, that seems to be that point of no return.
Folks, we have a lot in our job description. But rooting people theologically by presenting the intellectual viability of the Evangelical faith must be at the top of the priority list and it must come early. While I understand this is not all there is to the Christian faith, it is an absolutely vital part of discipleship and foundational to everything else.
Everyone will go through the doubt phase. Everyone should ask questions about their faith. If you have not asked the “How do you know?” questions about the message of the Gospel, this is not “a good thing.” We should be challenged to think through these questions early in our faith walk. (Taking my own advice, I am reading this to my 14-year-old daughter right now. Why? She needs to hear it.) The Church needs to rethink its educational programs. Expositional preaching, while very important, is not enough. Did you hear me? Expositional preaching is not enough. It is not the correct venue for the discipleship that is vital for us to prevent and overcome this epidemic. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that it does.
The church has been on an intellectual diet for the last century and we are suffering from theological atrophy. What else do you expect when we have replaced theological discipleship, instead prioritizing entertainment, numbers, and fast-food Christianity that can produce nothing more than a veneer of faith seasoned for departure?
The solution: We must reform our educational programs in the church. We must lay theological foundations through critical thinking. We must understand that the “Great Commission” is to make disciples, not simply converts. And most importantly, we must pray that God will grant a revival of the mind and the spirit, knowing that without the power of the Holy Spirit, no amount of intellectual persuasion can change an antagonistic heart.
Absent these solutions, the epidemic of leaving Christ will only worsen. We will (if we don’t already) have more evangelists of unbelief than we do the Gospel.