By Steve Carr
What I’ve learned, and what I’m still asking, after conversations with those who left the faith.
As Bill said it, he looked me straight in the eyes without blinking. I thought he was joking.
“Are you being serious,” I asked. “Santa Claus pushed you toward atheism?”
Bill nodded his head. “It sounds stupid, but that guy really did a number on me.”
If you’re like me, it’s impossible to reminisce about childhood without talking about church. Faith was the priority of my family’s social life. After home and school, I spent the majority of my childhood time in our church building. Our family was there to unlock the church doors for services and regularly locked them back up again as the last ones to leave.
Back then, my siblings and I had no choice in the matter; and yet, today, all our families are committed to Christ. This immersion in faith ultimately led me to entering the ministry.
Yet after two decades of ministry, I noticed quite a few people with a similar childhood path as mine who were living vastly different lives as adults. Although they grew up in the church, they no longer followed Christ. It wasn’t mere apathy that kept them away, but ideological disagreements with intellectual foundations.
And so I began a personal project. I would spend time with people I knew who no longer believed.
I prefaced every conversation with an offer of safety. “I’m not trying to convert you. I just really need to hear about your journey away from Christianity.” With this as a starting point, not one person turned me down, and all were brutally honest.
Even though I’m not finished with the project (and I don’t know what it will look like when I am), I want to share a few of these conversations to reveal the thinking of these folks.
Bill grew up in church as part of a faithful family and followed Christ throughout his formative years. His parents were involved in church, but it didn’t dominate their lives; they attended frequently but would miss worship for weeks at a time with no concern. But Bill absolutely loved it and would chastise his parents when they didn’t attend.
Bill talked about Santa Claus early in our conversation. “When I found out Santa didn’t exist,” he said, “I began to ask myself about the other stories I was learning—the ones from the Bible. I didn’t say anything to anyone else at the time, but secretly I started to wonder about whether these were all just stories like Santa.”
In college, Bill stopped attending church, but his interest was rekindled when he met the girl of his dreams. They went to her home church to see if they could get married there.
“We were told they didn’t ‘know us’ so we’d both have to become church members.” Not only did this include attending services every week, but giving offerings to the church as well. “They told us they’d actually track our giving over six months to see if we were actually following through. It just felt like all they really cared about was money. I was so angry we went to a Lutheran church and got married there instead.”
This bad experience increased Bill’s suspicion of all churches and Christianity, as well. A high school history teacher, Bill immersed himself in philosophy, studying critiques of faith. He still reads the Bible, but views it as solely inspirational literature, not the true Word of God.
Eventually, he and his wife divorced and they share custody of their children. While she still takes their kids to church, Bill uses every opportunity to push them to think about whether God is real. “I just don’t want them to be brainwashed like I was.”
Stacey grew up at a strong, Bible-centered church. She was deeply involved in their vibrant youth program and was even the lead in a church play. She was always inquisitive, devoting herself to apologetic issues in order to strengthen her spiritual resolve. She seriously considered attending a Christian college, but her career goals led her to an elite East Coast university.
Away at school, it was difficult for her to find a church. Eventually she connected with a local church that supported her throughout college. As a young adult, she struggled to find her footing as a single woman and longed to find another church where she could grow in her faith. She says she still believed at the time, but found herself growing increasingly jaded as she noticed glaring hypocrisy in Christ followers.
She remembers one Sunday in particular. “I visited a large megachurch my Christian friends loved. I desperately wanted to experience God that morning, but it was just a huge show that felt more like a pep rally.
“Then, leaving the church parking lot, I accidently pulled out in front of a car and the driver flipped me off. That was a game changer for me. I asked myself out loud, ‘Why am I still even trying?’”
Stacey also felt the church viewed her as a lesser person because of her gender. While she was finding relative success in her field, many of the Christian women she knew were not treated as equals. “I am from a family of strong Christian women, but I could see the ladies in my family discriminated against by men in the church.
“And it’s not like it was a generational thing: I mean, just recently some young Christian men treated my mother with disrespect and she was forced to accept it. The way the church relates to her as a woman embarrassed me. That’s not the kind of community I want to affiliate with.”
Ironically, despite these negative examples, Stacey claims she still wants to believe. She even financially supports some of her missionary friends because they inspire her. But currently, she’s angry and doesn’t see faith in her future.
David grew up a minister’s kid in a conservative part of the country. As with Bill and Stacey, he too was deeply involved in church activities growing up, but he claims it was his choice.
David was fascinated by religious study and took every opportunity he had to grow intellectually in his faith. His parents supported his deep exploration of Christian issues, even when he asked extremely difficult questions.
Ultimately, his inquisitiveness led him to pursue studies in philosophy and apologetics. His learning was cyclical: he’d resolve questions, but those answers would lead him to a slew of new questions. Eventually, David ceased exploring aspects of the broader faith and grappled with his personal beliefs. For him, there was no epiphany: one day, he just decided he no longer believed.
David cited his disgust with the cultural Christianity of his hometown. “There were all these people so certain in their own faith, but they never took the time to seriously investigate it. I respect when people arrive at a decision they’ve fully contemplated, but to follow Jesus just because you happened to be born in a certain geographical region seems silly to me.”
For David, there seems no way back to the life he once lived. “When you’re reading through the whole Bible, especially in the Old Testament, Christians conveniently ignore issues like slavery or the treatment of women. It’s inconsistent. It’s like a game that’s rigged from the beginning.”
How Do We Respond?
So how should we approach people who knew enough about Jesus to make a decision, but who chose to walk away from him? I think the first answer is a congregational issue. This doesn’t dismiss the evangelism/discipleship practices we can individually employ to reach the disillusioned, but it’s critical that the church strategize approaches for engaging people like Bill, Stacey, and David.
Some starting points:
• Take a long-term approach—In the church world, we long for quick fixes because there are so many issues that demand our attention. Unfortunately, some of our systems created the very cultures against which these doubters rebelled. Unable to distinguish between methods and essentials, the doubters walked away altogether.
Rather than searching for silver bullet solutions, leaders should focus on facilitating an environment that welcomes honesty and inquisitiveness. This demands that churches clarify a discipleship trajectory for the long haul.
Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is one church that does this. Northeast hosts a Starting Point class designed for skeptics and new Christians to ask the difficult questions surrounding belief. This is neither a membership class nor a lecture, but occurs in a conversational setting. The church discovered that transparency with difficult issues establishes an atmosphere of trust that permeates the rest of the church.
• Treat doubters respectfully—Too often our desire to be right and affirm our own faith negates our empathy for people who disagree with us. We should treat those who have walked away from the faith the same way we’d treat those who have never believed. They’re seeking compassionate ears, to be told that their concerns are valid, and that they aren’t the only people who have grappled with doubt.
Every nonbeliever I’ve approached about my project has been willing to share freely about their journey. The majority of them have given much thought to the subject and are longing to test their conclusions. If we refrain from mocking these people, and give them a chance to speak freely, we’ll likely discover the true foundations of their doubt.
• Talk to people who leave—Our focus on numbers must include tracking those devout believers who stray from our fellowship. Church hopping is commonplace these days, so we must distinguish between people who leave for better children’s programming and those who are ready to abandon faith altogether.
When people leave the church, we should check in with them (preferably in person, but a text or e-mail can often suffice) to ask why they’ve left. My experience has been that those who are merely searching for a “cooler” church rarely respond, but people with deep-seated concerns are more than willing to articulate them when asked.
And it’s more important to listen than to speak during these conversations. There’s often something deeper behind these struggles we must hone in on.
People fall away from faith for a myriad of reasons—from complex issues of cosmology to Santa Claus. Like you, I want people like Bill, Stacey, and David— and all people for that matter—to experience the transformational power of Christ; he brings fulfillment to my world, and I know he can do the same for them. Rather than leading with judgment, we will be best served if we listen patiently and respond as Jesus would.
Steve Carr (www.houseofcarr.com) is vice president of ministry development for CDF Capital.
Some names and revealing facts from these interviews have been changed to protect anonymity.