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 was a Christian (past tense) and had since 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 no doubt. She was at such a point in this process that no matter what I said, she was not open to listen.
One fascination, obsession, and focus (neurotic impulse?) I have in my life and ministry is with regard to those, like this young lady, who leave the faith. I’m sure you have noticed this. I have well 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 in the form of emails, phone calls and visits in person.
No, it is not a neurotic impulse. 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. (And this is coming from a Calvinist who does not believe that the 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 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 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: Doubt
Step two: Discouragement
Step three: Disillusionment
Step four: Apathy
Step 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. There are many reasons for the onset of this doubt. Here are the three that are primary:
Maturation: Much of the time it comes from simple maturation. People grow and begin to ask serious questions about their beliefs and that of their parents. It is the stage of intellectual maturation in which discernment becomes strong.
Intellectual challenges: Often, the doubt comes from intellectual challenges. Challenges to the Bible’s reliability. Challenges from science. Challenges to the very need for a belief in God. Tonight, Bart Erhman is speaking at the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma. I am sure that he will challenge many of the college students intellectually, causing some of them to question their faith in the Scriptures.
Experiential challenges: These type of challenges come from God’s actions (or lack thereof) in our lives. This is exemplified by prayers that don’t get answered, the apparent silence of God in a person’s experience, or (and related to the former) a tragedy out of which you or someone else was not rescued.
Any one of these (or all three together) can be the catalyst in someone’s journey away from Christianity.
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) causes them discouragement. Their church tells them that such questions are “unchristian.” Their Sunday school teacher says, “I don’t know. You just have to believe.” Others simply say, “That’s a good question, I have never thought of it before,” and then go on their way on their own leap-of-faith journey.
This causes great discouragement in the life of the person as they begin to see that their questions and concerns are legitimate enough not to have an answer among those who should. “Are others scared of these questions? If so, why?” are the thoughts of the doubter.
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 and the Bible. They feel that much of their former faith was naive since not even their most trusted mentors could (or would) answer basic questions about the Bible, history, or faith. In their thinking the intellect has become legitimized and the church is therefore an illegitimate contender for their mind. Once the mind has been lost, the turn has been made. They may still be emotionally routing for their former faith, but it will soon pass as their intellect will talk them out of their emotional conviction. This is a very sad place for the leaver as they realize that they are truly leaving. They will go through a long period of depression and indecisiveness here.
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. For some, this helps them to deal with the depression that their loss of faith has afforded. If they are never honest with themselves or others about it, they don’t have to deal with it.
However, not everyone stays in the apathy stage.
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 it 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.
This is the stage that Bart Erhman is in as he speaks tonight. His zeal is his sense of betrayal. Either he feels that he has to legitimize his departure by taking as many along with him 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 for 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, only one thing keeps 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, her issues 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 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.
Folks, we have a lot on our job description. But rooting people theologically by presenting the intellectual viability of the Evangelical faith must be top on the priority list and it must come early. While I understand this is not all there is to the Christian faith, it is an absolute 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 very 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 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 these, the epidemic of leaving Christ will only worsen. We will have more evangelists of unbelief than we do the Gospel.