What is up with Christians leaving the faith?
In July, Joshua Harris – pastor and famed author of ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ – announced he is no longer a Christian, and he’s leaving his wife.
Two weeks ago, Marty Sampson – writer and song leader for Hillsong United – followed suit.
This seems to be an increasing trend in the American church. It’s even been given a label: “deconversion stories.”
Deconversion stories are something like reverse testimonies, and they typically go just about like this:
‘I used to be a Christian. Then something bad happened, or several bad things happened. And I realized that I just didn’t believe this God stuff anymore.’
Yet we know from The Parable of the Sower that this is not an original or wholly newfangled trend. And it does not take God by surprise. Indeed, God in Christ Jesus is precisely who warned us these sorts of things would happen.
What is more, Christ not only taught that this would happen. He also explained why it happens.
The Parable of the Sower
Matthew 13 records the parable of the sower.
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
He who has ears, let him hear.”
A Friend’s Deconversion
I was reminded of The Parable of the Sower yesterday when contemplating the tragedy of a friend who has walked away from the Christian faith. He says he doesn’t believe God is real anymore, and he doesn’t believe the Bible is true.
When I met him, it was just the opposite. He was “on fire for the Lord,” as they say. That is to say, he was as passionate as anyone could be about living out and sharing the Christian faith.
But then came trials and troubles. Life got hard – really hard. Disappointments hit, one after another.
Unfortunately, my friend found that he wasn’t firmly rooted in a conviction of God’s goodness; the faith he had been discipled into did not satisfyingly account for the problem of evil and suffering in the world.
Now he either is falling away or has already.
The Parable of the Sower Explained
Again, in the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus teaches us.
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
And as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Birds, Rocky Ground, and Thorns
So we know from this that not everyone who hears the gospel is going to be saved. And we know also that not everyone that initially welcomes the good news is going to endure and prove themselves Christians.
In another place, in the seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks again.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Again, we know that not everyone who even thinks themselves a Christian is one. And whatever we want to self-identify as, Christ reserves the final judgment on declaring what we in fact are.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
It naturally follows that if we do not keep the commandments of Jesus, we do not love him. And if we say we have faith apart from works, James is there to remind us that kind of faith is worthless.
Yet Jesus says many will plead their own cases on the last day by citing the marvelous works they did – prophesying, exorcising demons, and other such. And even so, that will not be proof that they and the good Lord above knew one another in a real way.
Counterfeits and Genuine Articles
It is important to note here that the Apostle Peter denied Christ three times at the pivotal hour. He abandoned the faith also.
Painful, disappointing, and evil things happened which rocked Peter’s faulty assumptions. His convictions were tested against his desire for self-preservation. And before the end, he was cursing at a servant girl for associating him with Jesus as even a former disciple.
Yet Christ pursued Peter after the fact, after his own resurrection from the dead. Christ reconciled Peter to himself.
That is to say – to my mind, anyway – that a supposed Christian abandoning the faith is not proof that God is finished with them, or that they are eternally lost.
On the other hand, the question is oft asked at this juncture. If someone appears to have walked away from the Christian faith, were they ever really a Christian to begin with?
But to that I ask whether Peter was a disciple before he denied Christ three times. I also ask what it is to us, and whether we need to know the answers to such questions in order to know how we ought to conduct ourselves.
Folly versus Faith
As I have contemplated Joshua Harris, Marty Sampson, and my friend abandoning or contemplating abandonment of the Christian faith and their families, I will make a confession to you. I have been depressed.
How could they? Why would they do such a thing?
In an apparent attempt to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, these men are inflicting great pain – on themselves, on their families – both now and in the future. But there is more. They are also forgoing the pursuit of the most satisfying and enduring of pleasures.
I recall a quote from missionary Jim Elliot here, martyred for his faith along with four others while trying to bring the gospel to tribes who had never heard it.
“He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose.”
Yet it is tragic folly to work in the opposite direction, and to give up that which one cannot lose in exchange for pleasures and securities which are transient, illusory, and fleeting.
But the Apostle Paul writes on this as well in First Corinthians 15:19-20, when countering those who were teaching that there was no resurrection from the dead.
“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Infidelity versus Perseverance
Why did Christ leave us the Parable of the Sower? And why did he tell us that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven? It was so we would not be caught off-guard by these things. He did not want us to become discouraged as if such things proved hollow the faith of those who remained.
Set aside the question of whether those for whom the soil was rocky, or thorn-ridden, or sun-scorched, or bird-infested ever really were Christians to begin with when they initially said they were, then later renounced the faith.
Are we in Christ? And if we are, do we live according to knowledge? Are we following the Lord, and truly submitting ourselves to him as disciples?
When we see men – even those who were set up as supposed examples and leaders – abandon Christ and their families to chase after their own sin and folly, we should renew our commitment to fidelity.
And in the wake of their faltering or faithlessness, we should ask the Lord for greater faith. In the wake of sin and folly, we should pray for God’s grace to live a blameless life, and we should ask for wisdom.
If examples of infidelity can wound and discourage, then testimonies of perseverance can bolster and build up.
Truth Over Sensation
After news broke that Hillsong United’s Marty Sampson was renouncing the Christian faith and his marriage vows, a bright spot appeared. John Cooper, the lead singer for the popular Christian rock band ‘Skillet’ spoke up.
“We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word.”
Yet even if John Cooper had remained silent, and even if he were not a cool, successful young Christian entertainer himself, this truth would stand. We need to diligently study God’s Word rather than pursuing a constant emotional high, then mistaking lofty sensations for “feeling close to God.”
God made us emotional creatures. This is true. But the modern church, desperately trying to appeal to those who do not know Christ, has put a disproportionate amount of energy and attention into creating and preserving sensations.
I say this as someone who attended a “seeker-friendly” church for a number of years. I was in production meetings where sermons and services were planned exhaustively. And while planning is a good thing, the question of ‘Why’ we plan along certain lines needs to always be at the forefront.
Why are we putting so much energy and attention into having the coolest music, the best light show, the edgiest and most with-it topics? And, tragically, why are we so quick to cite our liberty when attending to those details, yet so timid when it comes to the plain truth of Scripture?
Unfortunately, many Christian leaders harbor an insecurity about the sufficiency of the gospel message. Rather than presenting it as it is, they feel the need to spice it up.
But does the gospel need spiced up, or is it sufficient unto itself?
The church in America sets the lost up for disillusionment, confusion, and faithlessness when it pursues sensations more vigorously and attentively than pursuing the plain truth and goodness of God’s Word, in word and in deed.
Consider a not uncommon situation in America’s churches.
A young man grew up in a broken home. He’s attended public schools his entire life where he’s received a literally godless education. In his teenage years, he gets into trouble. He starts smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and fooling around. Then he gets invited to youth group where he hears about Jesus. And the young man starts attending church regularly.
Every Sunday and Wednesday night are like a rock concert. His friends are there. The pastors are talking about practical problems. And he learns that Christianity is not only cool, he can feel better about himself by becoming a Christian. He can turn his back on the things that are tearing his life apart. He can have healthy, meaningful relationships with a community of men and women. And they become the family he always wanted.
But the services and messages are contrived in such a way to keep him comfortable. He begins chasing a feeling, the emotional high he associates with God’s presence.
Hard truths and the full counsel of God found in the Scriptures are shied away from, meanwhile. We wouldn’t want to scare away the ‘truth seekers,’ so we’re going to be extremely cautious sharing truth at the expense of sentiment.
The young man has an emotional experience and is told he can become a Christian. Is this young man receiving Biblical discipleship, though?
Fast-Forward to Deconversion
Suppose the young man is talented in some way that’s useful to the production of the church’s multimedia programs. Can he play an instrument or sing? Perhaps he is at ease in front of a crowd. Maybe he is good at making the audience – I mean, congregation – feel relaxed or amused.
The young man, a novice in the faith, and not receiving meaningful discipleship or instruction in the Scriptures, but pursuing an emotional high, is invited onto the stage to become a leader.
He is successful, after a fashion. That is to say, attendance grows as a result of his becoming a front-man. So the young man is given ever more visibility in the church.
If he’s a wordsmith, he begins writing books on dating and courtship. If he’s a musician, he starts writing and recording music, selling albums and playing on the radio.
But what happens when troubles come? The young man encounters pain and disappointment. Someone close to him dies or is suffering. Perhaps things don’t go the way he wanted them to.
If he associated an emotional high with being close to God, he assume suffering means God has abandoned him. Or maybe God doesn’t even exist.
Because his elevation wasn’t primarily due to his maturity or character, but rather because of his useful talents and skills, he flounders.
And because he wasn’t meaningfully discipled, and because studying the Scriptures played second-fiddle to an emotional-spiritual experience for the audience, or congregation, he and those looking to him for leadership are forlorn in the face of crisis.
But the show must go on until one day he grows tired of pretending, of wearing a mask and facade.
Next thing you know, we have another deconversion story on our hands.