From Parchment and Pen, a theology blog [edited]

Leaving (Christ)ianity – An Evangelical Epidemic ~ C Michael Patton ~

I had a conversation with a young lady about faith—her faith, 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 since left the faith. Christ was once a part of her confession, but 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. 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. Primarily she felt 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.

I have over a dozen books giving autobiographical sketches of those who once claimed to be Christian, but now are 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.

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 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 65-94% 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.

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.

The transition process, focusing first on the intellectual challenges:

Progression: Doubt; Discouragement; Disillusionment; Apathy; Departure

Step One: Doubt - 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 - 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.

Step Three: Disillusionment - 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 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 - 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 – the young lady I spoke of was somewhere 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.

“I don’t really even care what you have to say to me, I just don’t believe anymore and there is nothing anyone can do about it.” How was she a part of the church for so long without the church engaging her on these issues. 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. I can’t help but think, from a human point of view, things might have been different if the church had legitimized her questions during the doubting phase and truly engaged her from an intellectual front. But the point of apathy seems to mark a point of no return.

My life 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 absolute vital part of discipleship and foundational to everything else. [Francis Schaeffer dealt with this extensively.  He worked to help “orthodox evangelicalism” become “a thing of strength and beauty” by: (1) clearly maintaining the full doctrinal position of historic Christianity; (2) giving honest answers to honest questions; (3) individually and corporately exhibiting the existence of God.  “We have had many Christians’ children who are honestly confused, coming from many different countries.  They find so often that the answers they have been given simply do not touch the problems which are their problems.” (Appendix B, The God Who Is There)  He was dedicated to the idea that “knowledge precedes faith…only that faith which believes God on the basis of knowledge is true faith.”]

Many 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 [see The Key to the Bible, sessions 1 & 2]. Expositional preaching, while important, is not enough. Did you hear that? Expositional preaching 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 a non-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; the great commission is to make disciples, not simply converts; 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 departure from Christ will only worsen. “The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” — Jonathan Edwards

 Right Beliefs, Wrong Reasons ~ C Michael Patton ~

Sometimes it is frustrating to introduce yourself to theological issues. Most people who get deeply involved in theology quickly realize how much they don’t know. Confident seminary students enter their training thinking that they are going to breeze their way through as they have their prejudices confirmed by their soon to be impressed professors. After the first year, their countenance is soured as their confidence turns into an insecure angel (or devil) on their shoulder who says, “Who did you think you were presuming God called you into ministry?” They begin to realize that they came to seminary to find out how much they did not know! Some get discouraged and leave, others harden in their categories becoming unable to learn. But the best adjust their expectations, knowing that an admission of ignorance is a fundamental foundation to learning.

There is an old dictum to knowledge that says there are four types of people:

1. The one who doesn’t know, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. He is a fool–shun him.

2. The one who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know. He is a student–help him learn.

3. The one who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows. He is an unenlightened person–enlighten him.

4. The one who knows and knows that he knows. He is a wise man–follow him.

I would add a fifth:

5. The one who knows but does not know how he knows. He is naive—deconstruct him.

This fifth category refers to those who have all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons. This is very common in theological circles. I believe that it is prevalent within Evangelicalism as a creedal confession takes the place of doctrinal understanding. I know of many people who confess belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, but really don’t know why they believe in this doctrine. I know of many people who believe that Christ rose bodily from the grave, but they could not give you even the most basic defense of their confession. Both the bodily resurrection of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity are good and right beliefs, but if someone cannot justify these beliefs, do they really believe them?  [The motto of the White Horse Inn weekly program is “know what you believe and why you believe it.”]

The fidest (defines faith as a blind leap into the dark) would answer with an unqualified, “Yes.” The evidentialist (believes that evidence plays a vital role in faith) would say, “Maybe, maybe not.” I side with the evidentialist. There is a large chasm between assent to a proposition and being convicted of that proposition. And there is a fine line between emotional conviction and conviction of the Holy Spirit. To answer the question, “How do you know that Christ rose from the grave?” with “I just know that I know!” is both insufficient and sinfully neglectful of our duty to engage our minds. It creates an unjustified dichotomy between the mind and the heart.

I believe it is true that the heart will not accept what the mind rejects. The one who knows but does not know how he knows is in great danger of one day losing what he knew. Why, because the justification for this knowledge is unqualified and insufficient. Creating a dichotomy between the mind and the heart is a self-defense mechanism for those who are truly insecure about their faith. They don’t have enough confidence in their faith to subject it to the scrutiny that the mind demands. For these people, an introduction of the mind’s interrogation to their beliefs is like playing the lottery. There is a good chance that it will not survive, so it is better not to take that chance. They simply “know that they know that they know.” Or, they know because they have a “burning in their bosom”—that’s enough for them.

The problem with this fidestic approach to faith is that, in the end, everyone can claim this “burning in the bosom.” No one and no belief system is disqualified from its epistemological methodology. Two people with completely different belief systems can both have this subjective confidence with hearts on fire. Both can (and often do) claim that their conviction is from the Holy Spirit. Yet at least one (and maybe both) is wrong.

I believe that there is a subjective conviction of the Holy Spirit. But I believe that the conviction that the Holy Spirit brings is based upon the objective realities of the truths He represents. These truths are not acquired by a sound method of meditation or a blind adherence to what mom and dad taught you, but by wrestling with the issues and coming to your faith on your own. There has to be a deconstruction process that allows the Holy Spirit to bring about a conviction that we can truly credit to Him. We don’t have to disassociate His conviction with our studies. [see Preface to True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer] It is not an either/or but a both/and. God brings about conviction through our studies. This is the medium He uses. Yet unfortunately we often justify our lazy minds by placing the blame on Him for our intellectual disassociation.

Having all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons is not a good thing. The reasons provide the foundation for our beliefs. If we do not construct a method of inquiry that has integrity, our beliefs will lack integrity. If our beliefs lack integrity, how can we truly believe them?

We must learn to deconstruct our beliefs, but not in the postmodern sense of the term. Postmodernism seeks to deconstruct without the intention of reconstructing since that would be self-defeating. We however, deconstruct in faith so that we can truly believe [see Reading and Discussing Scripture and Teaching in Contradiction at] -so that we don’t have a faith of hibernated fear. Deconstructing in faith reveals that our reasons for holding many beliefs were not justified. The two processes work together to rebuild our faith upon solid Scriptural grounds. The beliefs themselves may have been true, but our reasons for holding them were not. We may not have proper understanding for our faith at all. So deconstruction in this sense is the very heart of Anselm’s suggestion. We deconstruct so that when our fortress is rebuilt, it can weather any trial, internal or external - so that we can [get a handle on the truth and thus] glorify God by loving Him with all our mind.

I know that this is difficult for many to hear - the proposition is a fearful one. We are much more comfortable in our naive existence. But we must graduate our faith and encourage others to do the same. We must have the right beliefs for the right reasons. Failure to do so, from a human standpoint, sets people up for their journey away from Christianity.

From Easter, 09