The Ex-Evangelical Community
This is the introduction to my series of articles on the Ex-Evangelical Community.
We are facing a problem in the West, specifically here in America…many people have left or are leaving churches, especially millenials. Consider what Ken Ham writes in his book, “Ready to Return“:
Today, few Americans are aware of the spiritual epidemic that wiped out the land of our Christian forefathers. Even fewer are aware that the same epidemic has reached our own shores, spreading like a virus.
American Christianity could in a sense become almost extinct in less than two generations — if Christians in this country don’t act quickly and decisively. Respected pollster George Barna was one of the first to put numbers to this epidemic, finding that six out of ten 20-somethings who were involved in a church during their teen years are already gone. Since that research was published in 2000, survey after survey has confirmed the same basic trend. Many of the 20s generation are leaving the Church in droves with few returning.” (1)
Rachel Held Evans (someone who I would classify as an Ex-Evangelical) mentions the exodus from churches/Christianity as well in her book, “Searching for Sunday“:
In the United States, 59 percent of young people ages eighteen to twenty-nine with a Christian background have dropped out of church. Among those who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claim no religious affiliation at all, making us significantly more disconnected from faith than members of generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as disconnected as baby boomers were as young adults. It is estimated that eight million young adults will leave the church before their thirtieth birthday. (2)
It’s a fact that we have lost many who were raised in the church and/or in a Christian home. Many Ex-Evangelicals come from fundamentalist backgrounds. If it wasn’t for the grace of God I would probably be an Ex-Evangelical myself. I’ve lived through the American fundamentalist Christian subculture. I know the good aspects and the many bad aspects of fundamentalism. Many of the churched (people raised in the church or Christian homes) who have left Christianity or abandoned orthodoxy (is there a difference…I don’t think there is) have been through very confusing, hard things and many have been hurt in the church.
You might think people leaving the church is mainly a problem in the big cities or the postmodern, post-Christian beacons of the country (West Coast, New England). On the contrary, it’s happening minutes away from me in “religious” Lebanon County:
The number of American adults who attend church regularly is declining and weighted toward the elderly, with people born before 1946 far more likely to attend church on a weekly basis (51 percent) than millennials (27-28 percent), according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
Despite its reputation as a religious community, Lebanon County is following the trend, said Lebanon Valley College Chaplain Paul Fullmer. One reason for the attendance decline may be that people no longer feel an obligation to darken church doors unless they truly want to.
“I think there is a growing social acceptance of agnosticism and atheism,” Fullmer said.
Christ Church UCC at 200 S. White Oak St. in Annville still has about 80-90 attendees, but the congregation is aging, pastor Don Mason said.
“We’ve had a lot more funerals than we’ve had people joining the church,” Mason said.
The congregation is battling secular activities like sports leagues and television shows that compete for potential attendees’ time, the attractiveness of concert-style worship services offered at many megachurches, and negative views of church among millennials, he said.
Since many young people did not grow up attending religious services, churches often struggle to attract them if they do not make their worship experience understandable and familiar, Fullmer said.
Lifeway Church certainly meets that requirement. It worships in Regal Cinemas at the Lebanon Valley Mall, and uses movie theater seating and a portable stage that is installed each Sunday for the service.
Pastor Jimmy Nimon had 66 congregants when it started in September 2015 as a church plant of Ephrata Community Church, and it now has about 225 — enough that he’s scrambling to train other leaders to help minister to the congregation. Most of the attendees are either people without a church background or who were already unengaged in church because they had been hurt at a previous church, he said. (3)
You’ve got a problem if 75% (or higher) of attendees at your church are over 60 years of age and you don’t have many new attendees under the age of 40.
You’ve got a problem if you have more funerals than new people joining the church.
We’ve got a problem if people are being hurt in churches.
We’ve got a problem if agnosticism and atheism are rising and orthodox Christianity is on the decline.
Why the Church Lost Millenials and Many Others
I want to share why I believe we have come to our current situation of people leaving the church in droves before I begin to analyze and critique the claims of Ex-Evangelicals. I’m a Millenial. I was born in 1991 and have always been raised around the church, Christian subculture, and Christianity. I’ve lived in the very religious and conservative Bible belt Lebanon County, Pennsylvania most of my life. I’ve been actively involved in the church all my life. I’ve gone to Sunday School, Children’s Church, and VBS (where I walked up the aisle at least two years in a row because I wanted to go up to the front like everybody else…I didn’t actually know what I was doing when I went up front). We have so many churches in the area that some kids would go to multiple Vacation Bible Schools over the summer. I went to AWANA and youth group. I’ve volunteered at AWANA and VBS.
I’ve seen many fall away throughout my time in the church. I can think of hundreds of people I personally know that had gone to some church activity, their parents were Christian, or they were involved in the church that now have no interest in God and many openly reject God altogether. I’m sure you can think of at least a few people who have left Christianity. We have to wonder how it could be that so many have turned away from the truth? Why are so many de-conversion stories being shared on and off the internet?
Jesus tells us why people depart:
As a large crowd was gathering, and people were coming to Jesus from every town, he said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. As he sowed, some seed fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the sky devoured it. Other seed fell on the rock; when it grew up, it withered away, since it lacked moisture. Other seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew up with it and choked it. Still other seed fell on good ground; when it grew up, it produced fruit: a hundred times what was sown.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen.”
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. The seed along the path are those who have heard and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the seed on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy. Having no root, these believe for a while and fall away in a time of testing. As for the seed that fell among thorns, these are the ones who, when they have heard, go on their way and are choked with worries, riches, and pleasures of life, and produce no mature fruit. But the seed in the good ground—these are the ones who, having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, produce fruit. Luke 8:4-8, 11-15
While Jesus gives us the basic reasons for why people leave, I believe it is important to look more specifically at why so many today have left and are leaving. I believe there are many Ex-Evangelicals in the U.S. today because these things have happened over the past 60+ years:
1. Parents more and more relied on the church to teach their kids about God. Many kids were not well-trained by their fathers (or the church) in presuppositional apologetics, discernment, critical thinking, biblical hermeneutics, theology, and doctrine.
I think one of the saddest passages in the Bible is judges 2:10-12, “And all that generation were also gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel. . .abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them.”
After Joshua and all the first generation of parents who entered the Promise Land died, the next generation served false gods! It took only one generation to lose the spiritual legacy that should have been passed on.
What happened? In Deuteronomy 6:6-7, God had given clear instructions to the fathers: “These words that I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Obviously, the parents in Joshua’s day did not teach their children as they should have — and in one generation, the devil had those kids! While it’s ultimately a matter of God’s grace that anyone is saved, God has given parents an immense responsibility to do their part. Over and over again, the Jewish fathers were told about their crucial role but they shirked it (see Ps. 78).
Sadly, this same situation already has occurred or is happening now in Western nations once influenced by Christianity. Many fathers today are not carrying their God-given, God-commanded role to be the spiritual head of the house and to take the responsibility for training their children in spiritual matters. (1)
Or the opposite happened, fathers/mothers rammed the bible and theology into their children’s minds and did not allow critical thinking or questions. Cruel, authoritarian parents that used fear to instill Christianity into the hearts and minds of children. Paul gives fathers a wise admonition:
Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4
2. People were taught bad/poor/watered down theology and/or they were taught false teaching in the church and at home. I will briefly share examples and plan to examine them in more detail in future articles.
Examples (there are more but these come to my mind):
- A pastor telling you that you have anxiety & depression because you are harboring sin in your life, or because you have a demon.
- Hyper calvinism:
Most Calvinists reject as deplorable the following hyper-Calvinistic and destructive beliefs:
– that God is the author of sin and of evil
– that men have no will of their own, and secondary causes are of no effect
– that the number of the elect at any time may be known by men
– that it is wrong to evangelize
– that assurance of election must be sought prior to repentance and faith
– that men who have once sincerely professed belief are saved regardless of what they later do
– that God has chosen some races of men and has rejected others
– that the children of unbelievers dying in infancy are certainly damned
– that God does not command everyone to repent
– that the sacraments are not means of grace, but obstacles to salvation by faith alone.
– that the true church is only invisible, and salvation is not connected with the visible church
– that the Scriptures are intended to be interpreted by individuals only and not by the church.
– that no government is to be obeyed which does not acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord, or that Biblical Law is its source of authority
– that the grace of God does not work for the betterment of all men
– that saving faith is equivalent to belief in the doctrine of predestination
– that only Calvinists are Christians (Neo-gnostic Calvinism) (4)
- Poor teaching about the “unforgivable sin”. This leads to or has led to some Christians living with anxiety and fear about whether or not they committed the sin.
- Christian camps similar to what you would see in the documentary Jesus Camp. I didn’t go to Christian summer camp. I’m sure there are some good ones but it wouldn’t surprise me if most are bad.
- Churches poorly addressing homosexuality. Actual homophobia (I don’t agree with the claim it is homophobic to call homosexuality a sin. It’s not the only sin and it isn’t the root sin. The root sin is unbelief) …hating LGBTQ people. Calling them abominations and sodomites. Anti-LBGT preachers that end up actually being caught in homosexual activities (a simple web search will give you plenty of examples but Ted Haggard is a notable example). Conversion therapy and “Praying the gay away”:
When I was 12, I knew I liked boys. One day I was watching Six Feet Under on HBO and saw David and Keith kissing. This was the first gay couple I’d ever seen on TV and it was in that moment I realized, “Well, shit, I’m gay.” At this point I was still heavily involved in the Baptist Church. Growing up with a single mom, I had to go to daycare so she could work and support our family. I went to the church’s preschool and daycare every day after school until I was 13. I was taught that choosing to be gay was wrong, vile and against God: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” When I had this epiphany that I was one of these people I had been taught to hate, I wanted my feelings to go away. I cried and prayed for God to change me, taking this sinful carnal need away.
The next week at Sunday school, the youth worship group was advertising a summer camp to “renew your personal relationship with God.” I took this as a sign—an answer to my prayers. I asked my mom if I could go to camp, telling her I wanted to go to be with friends and be with God. So I raised the money through fundraisers and set off to for the mountains.
When I arrived, I was shown my cabin. Our days were spent at daily services and Bible study groups, broken up by activities and days at the lake. Pamphlets shared guides to passages in the Bible for sins that afflict human nature. I focused on why it was wrong to be a homosexual, searching for advice to transform myself. I flipped through the pages of scripture, highlighting and underlining passages, hoping to learn, see, and be enlightened. I questioned if this is what I believed—was it even what Jesus would have believed?
Soon after I came out, I left the church, abandoning my faith. I no longer felt welcome or accepted in the space I’d spent much of my childhood. My friend Ryan said that when I left, the other kids gossiped about me, saying, “Thomas is gay now! He stopped coming to church and isn’t a Christian anymore.” The final service I attended was during the same week as the vote on Prop. 8, the decision for marriage equality in California. The pastor talked about needing to save the sanctity of marriage at all costs, advocating against supporting gay marriage. He even said, “The church shouldn’t help find a cure for AIDS. We should just let them die from it.” These words dripped from his mouth like venom off the fangs of a snake. (5)
Rachel Held Evans shares a similar account from someone named Andrew:
“What sort of church did you grow up in?” I asked.
In response, Andrew pulled out his smartphone, scrolled through his pictures for a moment, found what he was looking for, and then handed his phone to me. On the cracked phone screen was a picture of the editorial page of a church newsletter. As I zoomed in closer, I could see the article was about the same-sex relationships, which the author described as sickening. To the left of the headline, a silver-haired man in a suit and tie looked back at me with eyes that looked familiar.
“That’s my dad,” Andrew said. He’s a pastor and he published this right afte I came out.”
My heart sank. For every teenager like me who knew only love and acceptance growing up in church, there were teenagers like Andrew who felt like strangers even in their own homes.
The sixth of seven children, Andrew grew up in a small, fundamentlist Presbyterian church in the South where his father served as a pastor. There was much Andrew loved about his tight-knit faith community—its emphasis on Scripture, its commitment to evangelism, its familylike atmosphere—but as Andrew approached his teenage years, he found himself at odds with some of the church’s more legalistic teachings, particularly his father’s ban on contemporary Christian music and insistence that only the King James version of the Bible be used in church and study. While his father emphasized reverence, righteousness, and self-control, Andrew had always displayed a tender, open spirit and an emotional connection to God. He scribbled endlessly in prayer journal during his father’s sermons, conversing with God as a close friend. Though he occasionally rebelled (the first time Andrew saw a movie in a theater, he was eighteen years old, and he snuck out with friends to catch The Hunger Games), Andrew loved Jesus deeply, passionately.
Which made his secret all the heavier.
About the time his friends started talking about girls, Andrew started noticing boys. Having been raised to believe that sexual orientation was a choice and that same-sex relationships were an abomination, Andrew feared his impulses were a result of sin, sin he begged God to purge him of night after night and day after day.
A 2012 entry from Andrew’s prayer journal reads:
I’m so scared. I don’t want to be an outcast . . . do you care what I’m going through, God? Why did you make me this way? What are you trying to teach me, God? I lift my hands to You. I’m in Your hands . . . Give me faith! Please! I can’t hold on much longer.
But no amount of prayer or Bible study, or self-discipline could change Andrew’s orientation. Finally, after struggling with bouts of depression and despair, Andrew came to terms with his sexuality. He left home to attend college in St. Loius and he found a new church that accepted him as he was. His new faith community even arranged for him to be baptized, an experience Andrew had longed for since childhood.
“I was always denied baptism and communion growing up,” Andrew said. “My dad always told me I wasn’t manifesting enough fruits of the Spirit in my life. He wanted me to wait untill I was good enough, holy enough.”
Andrew formally came out to his family on the Thanksgiving break of his freshman year. It didn’t go well. Now Andrew lives in his dorm room, cut off from his family and working to pay for his education on his own. The last time he spoke to his father, Andrew was told he was going to Hell. (2)
Stories like these make me sad and angry. Yes, homosexuality is a sin. However, I don’t believe that same-sex attraction is a sin. So many in the church have treated it as a sin that God takes away if people try harder, pray harder, and read the Bible more. We then have teens (and people of any age really) who realize that they are attracted to people of the same sex and they are told that the way to stop those feelings is to do something on their own power. A works based solution instead of a grace based solution. Churches have told them to muster up faith and stop the feelings by their own effort instead of telling them to look to Christ and His finished work on the cross. Many churches give them the law and no gospel.
There is a difference between someone approaching a pastor and saying “I realize that I am attracted to people of my sex, what should I do? I feels like it’s sin but I can’t stop my feelings” and someone who says to themselves “I am actively engaging in homosexual activities and I don’t want to give it up. So I will find a church that accepts my lifestyle so that I can continue in sin and not be obedient to God.” A pastor needs to respond to the doubter with care and with truth. Don’t call the person who says they struggle with same-sex attraction an abomination. Point them to the truths of Scripture. Pray with them. Be real with them.
Thomas ended up leaving the church altogether. Andrew found a church that accepted same-sex relationships and continued in a homosexual lifestyle. That’s what happens when the church poorly addresses homosexuality.
- Modesty Policing. By this I am referring to women that were told that they needed to be modest so that they wouldn’t tempt men with their bodies. If they were sexually abused and dressed immodestly they deserved it because of how they dressed. Certainly I believe modesty is important to some degree…but this takes it too far. The fact is, a man doesn’t need to see a woman who is dressed immodestly in order to lust. He can undress her in his mind and she could be as modest as a nun.
- Marital infidelity and abuse. Pastors that don’t or didn’t take abuse allegations seriously. Pastors that tell wives to submit to their abusive husbands and that the reason their husband is abusive must be because the wife is committing sin of some kind. “Christian” husbands that abuse their wives mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. Spouses that wreck their marriages and the family by following their lusts and having affairs. The fact that these kinds of stories exist really hurts my heart and makes me righteously angry.
- Purity Culture. Purity rings. Shame. Believing that losing your virginity before marriage is the one sin you can never truly be clean from and that if you are virgin you deserve to marry a virgin and marrying someone who isn’t a virgin is selling yourself short. Soul ties…that if you have sex with someone (consensual or nonconsensual) you are bonded to them for the rest of your life. Feeling completely dirty and used because you were sexually abused. Now you are considered “used goods” and what Christian guy wants to have used goods? Bouncing the eyes. Consider what Rebecca Lemke says about Purity Culture:
Purity Is Good, But Not Puritanism
In the 1980s and ‘90s, several organizations and figureheads within conservative Christian circles, like True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, rose up. Literature like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” brought an increased awareness to no-touch courtship and strongly advocated for young people to stay virgins until marriage. This was in response to the secular culture’s obsession with sexual perversion brought on by the Sexual Revolution and rising teen pregnancy rates. This push for purity was a good thing, at least in theory.
There is more to leading a life of sexual purity than waiting until your honeymoon to have sex, and proponents of the purity movement began addressing this as well, arguably very poorly. To say they went a little overboard would be an understatement.
In their efforts to promote purity, they endorsed no-touch courtship, a relationship in which affection of any sort was strictly reserved for the altar and beyond. Not only did this forbid kissing, hugging, and holding hands, but in some cases, it also outlawed private conversations between couples and even having a crush to begin with. The essence of the rules could be boiled down to two beliefs: that attraction was a sin and sexuality was dangerous. If one transgressed Purity Culture’s boundaries, they were said to have “given their heart away” before marriage.
Violating any of these “rules” of Purity Culture made a person the spiritual and sexual equivalent of “chewed gum,” “spit-in water,” and “a de-petaled flower.” If you committed any kind of sexual impurity by the movement’s definition (even if it wasn’t included in the Bible or was a non-consensual sexual encounter), you were “damaged goods.”
While sexual purity is a good thing and something the Bible asks us to strive for, Purity Culture does not advocate for it. Instead, it advocates for a one-size-fits-all model for handling dating and affection. It is a lazy, convenience-based solution to a complex spiritual problem, one that has cost many their mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
This model for achieving sexual purity neglects the work of the Holy Spirit to convict on spiritual decisions that are within the realm of adiaphora (a matter that is neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture). This leaves many to rely on behavioral modification rather than acting out of love for their neighbor.
We Cannot Make Ourselves Perfect
The problem with the convenience of Purity Culture is this: it puts the focus on how sinful human beings can avoid sin. This is a hopeless endeavor because we will never be perfect, even without the extra rules of no-touch courtship and purity culture. The shame inherent within the movement hinders the ability of survivors to bond with a healthy community and God.
While Purity Culture graduates continue to pay the cost of convenience through spiritual degradation and dysfunction of the body and mind, the solution is, and has always been, available to us. The problem of sexual impurity was resolved by paying the highest price that can be paid, the life of an innocent: Christ’s life.
Purity Culture glosses over one very simple fact: We aren’t pure because of anything we do. We are pure because Christ made us so in his death and resurrection. Our worth is not found in what we have done, but in what he has done for us. (6)
- Pastors that create theology from quoting Scripture out of context. Pastors that twist the Word of God (Your typical TV Evangelist, prosperity gospel huckster, or word-faith teacher)
- Any church where pastors or leaders cannot be questioned and/or demand loyal devotion.
- A church culture that looked down upon or discouraged asking questions about God or theology.
- Being taught that it is up to us to evangelize other people. Evangelism that was based on how many people you were able to convince to follow Jesus. If you didn’t get high numbers of salvation prayers you were shamed or felt like a failure. After all…those were souls headed to Hell and you probably didn’t articulate the salvation message well. Now you have to live with the guilt that others were going to Hell because you couldn’t convince them to follow Christ.
- Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about ones self.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.” (7)
- Being a Christian is about “doing the right and moral things”. WWJD. Veggie Tales theology. Being a Christian means that when you pray for God to take a sin away from you that He will do that immediately and if He doesn’t, and you still struggle with a sin (like masturbating, same sex attraction, lust, anger, etc.) it means you are not saved or in danger of losing your salvation.
- Terrible Contemporary Christian Music with vapid platitudinous lyrics. Over-emotional, sensational, “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. Rock show or hyper-emotional worship where you sang theologically barren me-centered songs with a chorus that you repeated 20 times. Youth conferences that gave you a spiritual high that was gone two days after you came back. Oceans.
Getting a Spiritual Buzz
In the aftermath, I would feel warm and spiritually buzzed. I felt drained, spent, and yet so very, very happy. In those moments I felt close to God. When people said “The spirit really showed up” I couldn’t help but echo that statement, as I knew exactly what they meant. I remember being a teen and later a young adult in a church which had a very talented worship team, and while perhaps not to the same degree as the big conferences, they were usually able to match the intensity and whip me and my friends up into a frenzy. More often than not all they needed was the right Hillsong song and we were good to go.
But those moments of being buzzed and feeling close to God did not last too long. When we would have youth on Friday, I was high all night. That feeling would wane a little on Saturday, got a small uptick on Sunday, sag on Monday, and then by Tuesday it had all but dissipated. I did not feel close to God. I did not feel spiritual. Half the time I didn’t even feel like a Christian.
I found myself longing for that spiritual high that I felt. Instead of basking in it, I found myself chasing it. Needing it. Coveting it. I found myself counting the hours until Friday would come, so that I could worship and get back those feelings that I had lost. On Friday I was loved by God and I knew he was happy with me — on Monday I was depressed and sensed his disapproval. On Friday he was pleased with me — on Monday his disappointment was tangible. Because, after all, if God and I were tight then I wouldn’t be feeling so disconnected from him. I would feel the same way I did during worship.
This was, upon much reflection, a very strange time.
Worship as a Weapon?
Yet in the years since then I have learned some valuable lessons. Chief among them is the realization than an emotional high is no substitute for true spirituality. No one tells Church-kids that, but its true. I’ve learned that absent knowledge, even the worship of Christ can be used as a weapon against me. When we treat the worship-high like heroin in an addict’s hands, people are going to get hurt.
I’ve learned that often worship music can be little more than manipulation and is used that way to varying degrees consciously or unconsciously. I’ve learned that most variations of the expression “the holy spirit really showed up” in particularly intense worship session is a Christological joke and is theological poison.
I’ve learned that a kid can attend youth group, spend two hours in heaving sobs while on her knees with hands raised, and not once have tasted anything close to a true, legitimate encounter with the Holy Spirit. I’ve learned those experiences can mess her up, and that same kid can, after youth is over, smoke a joint and have sex with her boyfriend, the last two hours seemingly forgotten.
I’ve learned that the point of worship can be not to teach doctrine and to deepen our knowledge of God, but rather to recite silly and shallow lyrics about nothing.
I’ve learned that chasing the emotional high can crush a soul. That it makes people think such experiences are normative for the Christian life. When they fail to experience it consistently, they grow bitter and disillusioned. It can foster depression and angst and whets the sharpening stone for the knife that slaughters the sheep. Instead of developing depth it breeds shallowness, immaturity, and confusion.
I’ve learned that because worship can become the biggest draw for the church, worship nights will steamroll over Bible studies and adult Sunday school. That a church oftentimes will pour much more resources, energy, thought and time into making a killer worship service than they will into developing deep, thoughtful, meaty, mature, theologically precise and provoking Bible studies.
Warning: Worship in Progress!
I’ve learned that parents and pastors will send their children away to youth group and conferences without ensuring that they have solid teaching on what worship is, how it functions, and how it relates to the gospel and God’s pleasure with you. There are no warnings of “Don’t mistake the spiritual high for biblical sanctification. Its not real!” but rather they will tacitly endorse that sort of confusion. They’ll let the seedy underbelly of mainstream evangelical goofiness swallow up their kids and spit out the bones. Then they’ll wonder why their sons and daughters leave the Church after high school.
I’ve learned that there are tons of people out there like me who have been burned by this sort of thing — who have been beat up and are fellow bruised reeds — victims of men and women with good intentions but no discernment. They thought they were doing us a favor but should have known better. (8)
- The influence of Charles Finney. Altar Calls. Sinner’s Prayer. Asking Jesus into your heart. Legalistic obsession with the sacred and secular divide. KJV Only. Cultural Fundamentalism such as not being able to listen to “secular” rock music. Claiming that songs like Highway to Hell by AC/DC and Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden are satanic (Hint…they’re not satanic. Just look at the background to the writing of the songs). People who see evil symbols everywhere. I personally remember reading some article saying that the symbol on Monster energy drinks represents the number of the beast (666). Kids not being allowed to play Pokemon because it promoted evolution and was influenced by the Egyptian book of the dead (I experienced this one).
- End-times obsessed Christians that use fear mongering about the rapture. Left Behind. Thief in the Night. Omega Code. This:
- Evidential/classical apologetics. I’m not intending to say that the classical apologetic method is sinful or false but I believe it is ineffective. I grew up with classical and have tried using the arguments from evidence in the past. However, when I learned about presuppositional apologetics (Are You Epistemologically Self-Conscious? 9), I realized the ineffectiveness of classical apologetics. I was intrigued when I read what Jerry Proctor wrote regarding his de-conversion and apologetics:
Faith was a beautiful thing, and I miss it sometimes. I finished my degree in Evangelism with a concentration in apologetics twenty-two years ago. I learned to read the New Testament in the original Koine Greek. I served as a missionary in China and Mexico. I’ve done street preaching, and I’ve walked up to perfect strangers and asked them if they know Jesus.
I now identify myself as an agnostic. It’s been fourteen years since I left.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Youth pastors and well-meaning friends said, in matters of religion, it’s best not to think too hard. When I showed an interest in philosophy and apologetics, some shrugged, and said, “Well if that is where God leads you.” My motives were pure. But it’s an open secret that many who delve into theology and the science of answering doubts and arguments with an apologia seek to convince themselves. Many of us aren’t successful. Even those who remain sometimes use convincing others as a means of avoiding their own questions and doubts.
Apologetics are a dangerous terrain for faith. When most people think of the subject, they think of CS Lewis, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias. You have a doubt or a nagging question, or some quandary that won’t go away. Then, someone hands you a book, or sends you a Youtube video where someone answers that question. Your faith is renewed. We know how to handle these things in the church. Get some extra rest, read this book, and call me in the morning.
The truth is more complicated.
Why are apologetics so dangerous? Is faith something we can only murder to dissect?
For many questions, there are no easy answers.
This seems obvious to me, now. But as a young theology student, I had the confidence of youth combined with a toxic inexperience of the questions mature people really ask. You can blow through the major arguments for the existence of God in an hour. But as a student of philosophy, I know that philosophers have been tearing down and reconstructing the ontological argument, the teleological argument, and the cosmological argument for thousands of years. That’s not even addressing modal or symbolic logic. The only way to use those arguments to convince anyone that God exists – especially your particular God, out of all the possible choices – is to hope they haven’t delved too far into the matter. Go for the low-hanging fruit. Hope that you planted seeds with the others.
If you read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity carefully, the first half of the book could be titled Mere Theism. It could just as easily be used as a preface to Judaism or Islam, or any monotheistic, morals-based believe system. At some point in the book, Lewis does a little two-step shuffle and starts talking about Christianity. But wait a minute? Even if I grant that my morals point me to a Moral Giver, how did we arrive at the conclusion Christianity is true? That’s an awful lot of baggage someone snuck in the door.
There are so many questions. Why does God allow suffering? More specifically, why does God allow suffering in my life? Which inevitably leads to a story about death, or pain, or events like the Holocaust or the slaughter of various peoples during Christian conquests. Maybe a loved one who died. The answers I was trained to give, like the free will defense, tasted like sand in my mouth. I found the most useful tool often wasn’t any of the clever arguments I’d read, but shutting up and listening.
But why should I continue to believe this stuff, if the answers it gives are so unsatisfying? Listening is a human response. It’s not uniquely Christian. Listening certainly wasn’t a skill they taught in my classes. The danger of listening is that you may realize the question the other person is asking is superior to any answer you have to offer. That’s what happened to me. (10)
Proctor very rightly sees the flaw of this method of apologetics when he says that the Christian God is not proved by the existence of a Moral Giver. It’s true…there is a very big difference between believing in the existence of a god (a Moral Giver) and believing in the God of the Bible. The problem is that you can’t convince anyone that God exists. The reality is that everyone already knows God exists but they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-32). The problem isn’t lack of compelling evidence…the problem is rejection of the truth and rebellion. In the Classical method of apologetics, evidence is viewed as neutral ground: “I have my evidence and you have your evidence. We will debate and see whose evidence is more reasonable to believe.”. I think of the movie God’s Not Dead, when the main character says to the class,”We’re going to put God on trial”. In reality, there is no neutral ground. The unbeliever knows God exists but suppresses that truth. God is not to be put on trial. God is the judge. Therefore we must expose and refute their inconsistent worldview and point them to the gospel truths of Scripture (http://www.proofthatgodexists.org/ 11).
- Seeker sensitive/church growth movements which had come under the influnce of Charles Finney and Peter Drucker. Purpose Driven Life.
In this article I will show that Warren’s book teaches an approach to the gospel that is not Biblical. His teaching is in keeping with popular, American, evangelical pietism so it is no wonder most evangelicals cannot see what is wrong with it. It comes from a stream of theology that can be traced back to Charles Finney who popularized a methodological “how to” approach to the gospel that puts spiritual revival in the hands of man to work at will. In doing so neither the message nor the method of Jesus Christ and His apostles is followed. To help show the difference between Warren’s method and the gospel message I will cite John MacArthur’s book Hard to Believe which explains the unadulterated gospel better than any book I have recently read.2There is a chasm between the teachings of Warren and those of MacArthur. They cannot both be right. Let’s begin. (12)
- Running the church like a business and using marketing strategies to meet the felt needs of people. Vision casting. Making church for the unchurched. Rock show worship. Sermons that are 99% personal stories and 1% Scripture. Positive thinking Chirstianity.
- Hyper-Charismatic Christianity, Seeing demons everywhere and in people. Slaying in the Spirit. Fake faith healers. Holy laughter. Prophetic words. Breakthrough. New Apostolic Reformation, Bethel Church, Jesus Culture, YWAM, IHOP, etc.
- Hyperpatriotic Christians. U.S.A. idolatry. The belief that the U.S. is God’s chosen nation (quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14 out of context).
3. People saw hypocritical Christians in the church and at home.
- Either having experienced sexual abuse by a “Christian” or having heard about sexual abuse perpetrated by “Christians”.
- Moral failure of (popular) Christians like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and most recently Andy Savage (I’m sure there are many others). Moral failure of parents who claimed to be Christians. Moral failure of local church pastors and/or leaders.
- Strict parents who imposed strict moral rules on kids. Often parents lived hypocritical lives.
There often is a blending of bad theology and hypocrisy, of which the effects are catastrophic to people and to the image of the church/Christianity:
- Think Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen and word-faith/prosperity gospel hucksters living lives of luxury, profiting off of and deceiving people. They peddle false teaching and live hypocritical lives.
- Abusers that quote Scripture and say God told them to abuse. Abusers that “God is happy when you do X for me”.
4. The church for too long has had a reputation of not being willing to talk about the real difficulties of life. Church is a place where “good” people go. People are fake. People don’t open up. You exchange the cliche greeting:
“How are you?”
“I’m good” (when, more often than not…you’re not good. In fact, you are miserable. You are depressed and doubting your faith. But people don’t expect that as an answer)
You don’t talk about sex. You don’t talk about doubts. You don’t talk about your depression. And you hear from the pulpit and from parents that doubts are sinful, that homosexuality is an abomination. This especially happens in your more fundamentalist churches.
5. Outliers. Now, certainly there are outliers. Those who had perfectly fine parents and grew up around good doctrine and theology that simply did not believe. It’s easy to grow up in Christianity and think you are saved when you might not really be a genuine believer. It’s almost better for someone to be converted from a non-Christian background than it is to be raised in Christianity.
The Church Needs a Reformation
Bad theology and hypocrisy results in people getting hurt in the church. Many who have been hurt reject anything related to their previous experience in Christianity. For example, you have people who have been badly burned by their experience in fundamentalism and purity culture and they now see God as abusive and doctrines like original sin and total depravity as abusive. Thus we have the rising community of Ex-Evangelicals online and offline. They can see the bad side of Christianity and to that end they are right in being angry about these kinds of things. Where they err is in their rejection of God based on the bad theology and hypocrisy they have experienced. They reject God’s authority and make their own moral autonomy the supreme authority for their lives.
We’ve got a big problem. There are many people leaving Christianity and we have a Church littered with false teachings. We need a return to the Bible. We need a return to fathers instructing their children in the faith. We need pastors who preach the Word faithfully (expositionally). We need humble shepherds to watch over the flock rather than take advantage of congregants. We need leaders to equip the saints for ministry. We need young and faithful leaders in our churches. We need a biblically literate church. We need congregants that are discerning truth from error. We don’t need to change the culture…we need change within the church. We need to hold fast to Scripture and grow every way into Christ.
Lastly, don’t blindly believe what people say (especially on the internet). Be a Berean. Compare what people say to the Bible (in the proper context). It’s easy to read an article, especially an emotional story and just accept it as true without doing any research or critical thinking. I especially don’t want you to just believe what I say. I want to point you to the truth of Scripture. I want to point you to Jesus.
“I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am,so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation. Righteous Father, the world has not known you. However, I have known you, and they have known that you sent me. I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them.” John 17:20-26
- Ham, Ken, et al. Ready to Return: Bringing Back the Church’s Lost Generation. Master Books, 2015.
- Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Thomas Nelson Inc, 2015
- Walmer, Daniel. “How Lebanon County Churches Are Growing.” Lebanon Daily News, Lebanon Daily News, 25 Mar. 2016, http://www.ldnews.com/story/news/local/2016/03/25/how-lebanon-county-churches-growing-good-shepherd-missionary/81650050/.
- “Hyper-Calvinism.” Monergismcom Blog, http://www.monergism.com/topics/hyper-calvinism.
- High, Thomas. “I Went to Church Camp to ‘Pray the Gay Away’.” OUT, Out Magazine, 9 June 2017, http://www.out.com/news-opinion/2017/6/09/i-went-church-camp-pray-gay-away.
- Lemke, Rebecca. “Purity Culture Isn’t Wrong For Loving Chastity, But For Weaponizing It.”The Federalist, 12 July 2017, thefederalist.com/2017/07/12/purity-culture-isnt-wrong-loving-chastity-using-weapon/.
- Mohler, Albert. “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism–the New American Religion.” AlbertMohler.com, 11 Apr. 2005, albertmohler.com/2005/04/11/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion-2/.
- Blankschaen, Bill. “How Worship Music Destroyed Me: From Bitterness to Blessing.”FaithWalkers, 28 June 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithwalkers/2012/07/how-worship-music-destroyed-me-from-bitterness-to-blessing/
- Lisle, Dr. Jason. “Are You Epistemologically Self-Consious.” Jason Lisles Blog Are You Epistemologically SelfConscious Comments, http://www.jasonlisle.com/2013/09/06/are-you-epistemologically-self-conscious/.
- Proctor, Jerry. “Apologetics and Deconversion: How We Murder to Dissect.” Fundamentally Free, 7 Mar. 2018, http://www.fundamentallyfreeblog.com/read/2018/3/7/apologetics-and-deconversion-how-we-murder-to-dissect.
- The Gospel: A Method or a Message?: How the Purpose Driven Life Obscures the Gospel, cicministry.org/commentary/issue80.htm.