Friday, September 12, 2008

Leaving Christ(ianity)

A few months ago I recieved an email from Reclaiming the Mind minsitries. I came across it again while looking through my emails at work and have decided to share it with you here today. I believe that the point this gentleman makes is an excellent one--we simply cannot allow ourselves to fail to think about and think through our faith. Our faith is not a blind faith. Our faith is based on truth that can be known through the word of God. While certainly God is soverign in salvation and will save those whom He wills to save that does not absolve us of responsibility to study to show ourselves approved to God (2 Timothy 2:15).

Leaving Christ(ianity) - A Christian Epidemic

I sat down with a young lady a couple of weeks 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 suspicious. She began by telling me that she was a Christian (past tense) and had sense left the faith. Christ was once a part of her confession, but, as she recounted to me, after a long voyage of not finding sufficient answers for her doubts, she believes that she had no choice but to follow her own integrity and renounce Christ all together. I asked her what her problems were and she became very emotional. It was like I represented Christianity and she was ready to take it all out on me.

Ignorance. Pity. Shame. These are all good descriptions of what she thought of Christianity. But the primary description that I felt coming from here was “betrayal.” She had been betrayed by the Church because they duped her into a belief not unlike that of the tooth fairy. When she discovered this betrayal, no one had a valid answer or excuse. So she left. She is now an unbeliever—a soon-to-be evangelistic unbeliever.

One fascination, obsession, and focus (neurotic pulse?) I have in my life and ministry is with regard to those, like this young lady, who leave the faith. You may have noticed this. I have over a dozen books giving autobiographical sketches of those who once proclaimed to be Christian and are now evangelistic atheists, agnostics, or skeptics, with their goal to convert or, rather, unconvert others. I have been in contact with many people who either have already left or are on the verge of leaving. I get emails, phone calls, and visits from the same.

No, it is not a neurotic pulse. I believe that it is the recognition of an extremely serious issue that we are facing today. We are facing an epidemic in Christianity—an epidemic of unbelief among our own. Crowding our churches are those who are somewhere in the process of leaving. No, I am not talking about leaving a denomination. I am not talking about abandoning some institutionalized expression of Christianity. I am not talking about leaving the church (though related). And I am not even talking about renouncing religion. I am talking about those who are leaving Christ.

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 church is many times the first visible step in one’s pilgrimage away from Christ.

The question that we must ask is a very simple one: Why? Why are people leaving the faith at this epidemic and alarming rate? In my studies, I have found that the two primary reasons people leave the faith are 1) intellectual challenges and 2) bad theology or misplaced beliefs.

First, I want to explain this transition process, focusing on the first: intellectual challenges. You might even find yourself somewhere on this journey.
Step one: DoubtStep two: DiscouragementStep three: DisillusionmentStep four: ApathyStep five: Departure

Step One: Doubt
Here is where the person begins to examine his or her faith more critically by asking questions, expressing concerns, and becoming transparent with their doubt. This doubt is not wholesale, but expresses an inner longing to have questions answered and the intellect satisfied to some degree. Normally this person will inquire of mentors in the faith, requesting an audience for their doubt.

Step Two: Discouragement
This is where the person becomes frustrated because they are not finding the answers. They ask questions but the answer (or lack thereof) brings them to discouragement. Their church tells them that such questions are “unchristian.” Their Sunday school teachers say “I don’t know. You just have to believe.” Others simply say, “That’s a good questions; I have never thought of it before,” and then go on their way on their own leap-of-faith journey.

Step Three: Disillusionment
Now the person begins to become disillusioned with Christianity in general and proceeds to doubt much more deeply. They feel betrayed by those who made them believe the story about Christ. They feel that much of their former faith was naive since not even their most trusted mentors could (or would) answer the most basic questions about the Bible, history, or faith. In their thinking the intellect has become illegitimized and the church is therefore an illegitimate contender for their mind.

Step Four: Apathy
At this point in the journey, the disillusioned Christian becomes apathetic to finding the answers, believing that the answers don’t exist. They are firmly on their way to atheism, agnosticism, or pure skepticism but don’t have the courage to admit it to themselves or others. Many times those in this stage live as closet unbelievers, believing it is not worth it to come clean about their departure from the faith. They want a peaceful existence in their unbelief without creating controversy. Therefore, they are content to remain closet unbelievers.

Step Five: Departure
Here is where I meet this young lady I told you about. (Really, she was somewhere in-between apathy and departure.) At this stage the fact that they have left the faith has become real to them and they are willing to announce to the world. Because of their sense of betrayal, they feel as if it is their duty to become evangelists for the cause of unbelief. Their goal and mission becomes to unconvert the converted.
Of course, as one who believes that a true Christian cannot ever lose their salvation, I believe that one who leaves the faith was not truly ever of the faith (1 John 2:19).

“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 over the last week, only one thing keeps coming to mind: how was she a part of the church for so long without the church engaging her on these issues. You see, her issues were numerous, but foundational. She doubted the resurrection of Christ, the inspiration, inerrancy, and 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 from an intellectual front I can’t help but think, from a human point of view, things might have been different. But once she reaches the point of apathy, this seems to be a point of no return.

My life and my ministry is committed to one thing: rooting people theologically by presenting the intellectual viability of the Evangelical faith. 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 the 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 the faith. The Church needs to rethink its education program. Expositional preaching, while important, is not enough. Did you hear that? Expositional preaching is not enough. It does not provide the discipleship venue 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 with a gluttonous promotion of entertainment, numbers, and fast-food Christianity that can produce nothing more than a veneer of faith seasoned for departure?

The solution: to reform our educational program in the church; to lay theological foundations through critical thinking; to understand that the great commission is to make disciples, not simply to make converts. And most importantly, we must pray that God will grant a revival of the mind knowing that without the power of the Holy Spirit, no amount of intellectual persuasion can change an antagonistic heart. Without this, the epidemic of leaving Christ(ianity) will only worsen.

“The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” —Jonathan Edwards

Michael PattonPresident, Reclaiming the Mind Ministries


Trish said...

In reading this post, I am reminded of myself. The last year or two of high school, I was often MIA both in church services and Christian service. Once I got to college, the digression was further assisted by denominational associations, (that were more interested in maintaining an appearance of something more akin to a fraternity/sorority than leading students to a deeper relationship with Christ) and professors who had their own agendas. By the end of my college time, my life held nothing that would indicate I had ever been a Christian. Nothing that is but a Savior that was not going to let me go. I was His, and nothing, no one, could or would pluck me from His hand.

When I read this post, then the previous post, I thought, that's it. Perhaps a person could say a prayer, and attend church, then become dilillusioned and separate himself/herself from Christ. Yet, someone who had had the lifechanging, will altering, mind-transforming experience of accepting Christ as Lord and Savior cannot ever escape the all-encompassing grace, presence, and call of Christ. Even through my years of wandering, and experimenting, I heard my Savior, saw His hand, constantly drawing, and pleading back into service and worship. I guess what I'm trying to say is if we as Christ's ambassadors are doing the job he's called us to, (that is discipling the lost) the Word (as so plainly stated in the previous post) is all important. It's not just a group of kids coming forward at VBS, or children's church, it's not just sitting in a pew saying a prayer. It is the person laying down his sinful, hopeless life; picking up the Christian daily walk of prayer, living in the Word, and dying to self daily. If that is truly the testimony of a person, their "Leaving Christ" will end either with their return, or their death.

Joe Blackmon said...


You said it. I totally agree.