A couple of high-profile people in the Evangelical ecosphere have recently released statements explaining that their faith is changing and they no longer identify as Christians. These announcements from author-turned-pastor-turned-seminary-student Josh Harris and pop worship songwriter Marty Sampson have provoked plenty of discussion in the circles in which I travel. Their stories echo ones we’ve been hearing for the last couple of decades in the world of leavers and #exvangelicals.
While a few Christians have engaged in blame-shifting and judge-y name-calling of those who’ve declared their independence from the Church and/or Jesus, I think most of us are feeling the same sorrows over the current spiritual condition of the Church in this country. Emotionally-toxic or foolish, immature leaders, #churchtoo sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups, the unholy alliance between politics and religion (particularly between the Republican party and those who identify as conservative Christians), addictive habits of culture warring, and the sense that there is no place for those plagued by doubt or confusion have left many of us trying to navigate a very complicated spiritual landscape.
I feel as though I’ve been living adjacent to the community of leavers for a long, long time. By 2004, I’d survived a couple of decades of young adult faith formation that included spiritual abuse, an excruciating church split in the place that seemed to promise healing, and the emotional mess and excess (with a side of epic nepotism) of a once-moribund congregation experiencing spiritual renewal. At the same time, I was experiencing midlife crisis and many significant challenges in my family life.
It was the peak of what was then called the Emerging Church Movement, and I devoured books by authors who articulated my concerns about the Church and captured some of the questions I was asking about God. It was comforting at first to find out I wasn’t alone. Writers back then had plenty of empathy for people like me who’d been hurt by the Church, but seemed woefully short on solutions, relying instead on theory about how to move forward in the faith instead of showcasing time-tried practice. In other words, it felt as though most of them were experimenting on the rest of us.
That said, there was no doubt I was in spiritual motion, propelled from the congregations and practices that had shaped my early experience of faith. And as Newton’s First Law reminds us, an object in motion will remain in motion until it meets something more powerful than itself to stop or redirect it.
When I reflect on what was happening in my soul fifteen years ago, I now recognize that I was in a period that was at once a “dark night of the soul” and a time of faith transition. And I recognize that we in the Church don’t really know how to make space for this process of change and growth. We hasten to call it “falling away from the faith”, or apostasy – and yes, in some cases, it is. We’re seeing it in spades.
But in other cases, we would do well in the Church to recognize that sometimes, this trajectory away from certainty about every single jot and tittle is not decline, but may be a mark of spiritual growth. One small example: I learned from the fundamentalist folk with whom I hung around in my early years of faith that drinking alcohol was a sin.* Period. Full stop. I never had to think about the issue because my leaders did my thinking for me. Eventually, as I grew, I started to consider for myself the question of whether a margarita was Wrong. I came to the conclusion that enjoying an occasional adult beverage with friends was not a sin, but that loving God meant I always needed to prioritize and respect the convictions and temptations of others.
We must recognize that growth may look like the fire of young love for Jesus has been drowned in malaise and compromise. (Throw an extra lime wedge in my margarita.) But we’d do well to ask the Holy Spirit to help us discern the difference between apostasy and a dark night of the soul. Hint: at first glance, they may not look all that different from one another.
Please note that I am not talking here about the kind of total deconstruction that results in adopting another faith altogether, such as atheism or Buddhism, but of the kind of growth that looks like what Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” My core convictions – captured well in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds – held me during several dark, confusing years, even when it felt like the tether had been cut to my youthful faith expression. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go back to that kind of margarita-free simplicity or I would have lost the wisdom God was teaching me through those difficult early experiences in the Church. He was calling me to grow up.
I learned 15 years ago that many church leaders don’t put much thought into what the growth process looks like, or the implications it may have on their congregation or ministry. (As I have before, I commend to you this chart as a helpful introduction to recognizing that faith will look different as it – and we – grow.)
Too many have made faith into a zero-sum game: you’re either all in with us, or you’re not. I understand that congregations and denominations must define themselves by what they believe and how they practice their faith. But at least for some of those who’ve come to the end of their tether, it might be helpful to recognize that some aren’t quitting the faith but may in fact be maturing. If the faith communities around them can learn to recognize that some are leaving behind non-essentials that have once served as spiritual training wheels, then those who are telling us they’re deconstructing their faith may find that the tether that holds them to the God who loves them is longer and stronger than they might have imagined.
* You guys, this post is not about drinking; it is about outgrowing the sometimes-rigid expressions of faith we learn as young believers and instead growing into greater faithfulness to both Jesus and his Bride. If you’re fuzzy on what I’m trying to say, please leave me a comment or send me a note here.