These days we find a growing number of people deconstructing their Christian faith, while others say they no longer believe or have deconverted. The former lops off things that are deemed excess baggage to the true faith, while the latter is a full-fledged leaving of the Christian faith. We could debate whether those deconstructing are also deconverting, but that is not the purpose of this piece. Rather, my desire is to call us to remember what we seem to have forgotten. We Christians need to make a few things mainstays of our faith lest we keep losing our way.
I have my own frustrations with the American church, but I prefer to remain within the historic Christian faith among a community of thoughtful friends. Loyal and wise friends are indispensable to a healthy walk with God.
I often jest that I am a serial doubter, but it is hardly a joke. Doubts about certain teachings of the Christian faith have nagged me for four decades. My first book on the Christian understanding of hell was borne out of a personal struggle. Though I wrote that book nearly thirty years ago, my struggle with hell persists. I assume it and other questions will continue to plague me until the day I die. I take encouragement from Christian, the lead character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only did Christian get waylaid by Doubting Castle, but at the end of his life this true believer’s last steps were fraught with terror. Christian and his friend Hopeful are crossing the final river before entering the Celestial City (=heaven). Christian is struggling with all kinds of doubt about whether he will make it across the river. Ironically, Christian is confident Hopeful is going to make it safely to the other side because Hopeful always had a sure and steady faith. Things are different for Christian. He is convinced that he will drown. Hopeful seeks to encourage Christian by saying that the river’s bottom can be “felt and that it is firm.” That is not immediately apparent to Christian, but he finally finds the river is indeed “shallow and solid.” With indescribable joy, but quite different experiences, the two friends arrive safely on the shores of heaven.
To put it crudely, just because you are a true Christian does not mean that you will die with a smile on your face. Heaven is yours, but you just may go through one final trial to get there. Not easy words to hear, but true ones. Anyone who has been around for the last days of a Christian’s life knows that there can be intense suffering both physically and sometimes even spiritually.
I believe in eternal security, but that does not necessarily mean that one’s pilgrimage here on earth will be free of struggles, fears, or even doubts. I am encouraged that my God promises to hold me regardless of the doubts that at times assail my sanity and stability.
Again, my motivation in writing this piece is not to describe the dynamics per se of deconstruction and deconversion. Plenty of ink has already been spilled in that regard, and even if you have not read about these things, you probably have a family member or friend who is a poignant testimony to this growing trend. My purpose in writing is to remind us of some things that are not getting the attention they deserve.
In keeping with the theme of sanity and stability, it is good to remember that there is a difference between Christianity and what Christians will say the Christian faith entails. This is especially acute since many “Bible-believing” Christians (as all the polling data shows) have minimal engagement with the Bible. Biblical illiteracy among those who tout their high view of Scripture is something I have witnessed in several places over nearly four decades of ministry. It is stunning when self-professed Christians mix a toxic brew of ignorance and arrogance. They may not know much, but some of these folks still demand that you listen to them. I am old enough to know I need not listen to such nonsense.
Here then are four areas that I believe we Christians must remember to take seriously. The erosion of all four is found broadly in places that name the name of Christ. All four of the following areas offer a powerful prophylactic against the temptation to deconstruct and/or deconvert. All four of these are also indispensable for the rest of us!
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CHRISTIAN EDUCATION?
In a podcast interview for my most recent book (Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians), the host asked if I was finding it easier these days to persuade Christians about the importance of learning. The host thought my need to persuade others might not be as great these days because all the present challenges both in and out of the church are so obvious and alarming. Perhaps I was seeing greater eagerness to learn about the Christian faith. Sadly, I responded that my need to persuade Christians to learn is as great as ever. Instead of the present challenges making Christians more eager to learn, I am finding that many are content to stay in their safe silos where one can supposedly be protected from the complex challenges of our day. The promise of pseudo safety trumps the embarrassment of being superficial. Fear trumps the risk of learning. And true learning is risky because you will find out how much you don’t know. When our youngest son taught philosophy, he told me that his number one priority was to convince his students how little they knew. Such exposure is embarrassing, so it is easier to hunker down in echo chambers where learning is limited.
I have asked different Christian groups whether anyone can give me the biblical texts that describe the proper boundaries of “faith, hope, and love.” In other words, what are the Bible verses that describe the difference between biblical faith and presumption, hope and wish-fulfillment, love, and a secular version of therapeutic well-being. Other than my wife, I have found most admit that they can’t do it. If the biblical boundaries of “faith, hope, and love” are not clearly understood, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know how pervasive the ignorance must be on other important Christian teachings.
The late J.I. Packer “mourned the eclipse” of Christian education (he used the word catechesis). Packer believed that its low priority was a main contributor to “the deepest root of immaturity that is so widespread in evangelical circles…” I agree. I believe our downplaying its importance makes people vulnerable to leaving the Christian faith for poor, but understandable reasons.
There are several factors that may lead to deconversion, but there is one that has not sobered enough Christian parents. I’ve seen it up close in a Christian school context, in parachurch ministry, and in pastoral work. It is a surefire recipe for disheartening your children about the Christian faith. They may still walk with God, but parents can make things more difficult for their children by failing to address an all-too-common problem.
It is not uncommon to find parents who desperately desire their children to be grounded in the Christian faith, but they themselves are apathetic. Years ago, while I was teaching at a Christian school, two high school seniors complained about their parent’s lackluster approach in following Jesus. One asked, “Mr. Moore, my father wants me to love Jesus first and foremost, but he is consumed with his brand-new BMW. What should I do?” The other said, “When I come home my mom makes it clear that I need to get studying Latin, but she is reading Glamour magazine.”
By the grace of God, children may still walk with God despite their parents’ hypocrisy. On the other side of things, I know parents who continue to grow in the “grace and knowledge of the Lord” despite having spiritually wayward children. These parents inspire me.
The late Dallas Willard used to say that he had a tough time finding churches who were committed to building disciples or apprentices of Jesus. People of all ages need to be formed in a more serious and comprehensive ministry of Christian education. Most of the Sunday school classes I have observed don’t come close to doing the job. Neither do the small groups I have observed. The research on small groups by the eminent sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, confirms my own observations. Focused attention must be given to equipping Christians to be lifelong disciples or learners. Church leaders need to provide an atmosphere where this sort of expectation is the normative path for all Christians. It must be an environment where everyone has the freedom to pose their most difficult or troubling questions. This assumes that churches have qualified leaders in both training and temperament.
I recently saw a quote being retweeted by those who heartily agreed with it. The quote came from a pastor I hold in esteem. He said, “The vast majority of Christians are educated past their level of obedience. If you would just do what you already knew, your life would change.” This pastor (and those who retweeted his quote) believes the answer to the spiritual doldrums is to stop putting such an emphasis on learning. What is needed is to get off one’s spiritual duff and go do something with what one already “knows.”
It’s a popular sentiment that I have heard a number of times before, but it misses some critical truths. For one, most American Christians don’t really have a good understanding of their faith. Again, the polling data shows this and my own varied experience over nearly forty years of teaching confirms it. In addition, the Bible makes clear that true knowledge of God leads to love. Finally, we should promote obedience but obedience that honors God is fueled by a maturing knowledge of God. The best love for God (and for human beings) is borne out of a deep understanding of who it is we are loving.
Consider the rigorous preparation of an NFL football player or of someone in the military who is headed to the front lines of battle. Why should we Christians settle for so much less in our own preparation?
MANY CHRISTIANS ARE NOT DESPERATE
I have read several books that seek to motivate Christians to read the Bible. What I believe is the biggest impediment to being an avid reader/student of the Bible has never been mentioned in any of these books. I am waiting to see it. It is this: if you are not putting yourself in situations where you need the resources of God or else you are keenly aware you will sink, you are not going to be an active learner of the Christian faith. You may be in that small percent that likes to learn for learning’s sake, but true Christian learning is meant to be lived and shared. Let me give one example.
If you share your faith on a regular basis, you will come across non-Christians wanting to know all kinds of things like why we Christians only honor the books that are in our Bibles. Why are these books so special? Didn’t powerful bishops in the fourth century use their power to ramrod the books of the Bible they wanted for inclusion in the canon? I have found few Christians able to give an answer to this question. Why is this? It’s quite simple and it is not because you must be a scholar to have a satisfactory answer. Rather, there is no urgent need to know this sort of thing if you steer clear of talking about Jesus with non-Christians. The engagement I find most common among Christians who do read their Bibles is to gain personal inspiration for the decidedly private faith that they are interested in living.
Christians have admitted to me that they avoid ministry opportunities to bear witness due to fear that they will not have a good answer to a non-Christian’s question. Nobody likes to be stumped, especially over a subject where good answers can be found.
I have various areas of disagreement with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), but I am indebted to how this ministry instilled the importance of putting yourself in places outside your “circle of confidence.” Early on, I was talking to people from different religions and cults. It motivated me to find better answers which then served as a catalyst to go out witness again. I was desperate to find better answers. Again, too many claiming the name of Christ aren’t desperate for better answers because they are not putting themselves in situations where they must bear testimony to why they believe what they believe.
I have some ideas for how churches could create a greater sense of desperation, but space limits me. Suffice it to say, pastors and church leaders would find it time well spent to brainstorm ideas for helping those under their care have more of a sense of desperation. They must first assess how desperate they are themselves.
Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert saw an abundance of Christians seeking to live supernaturally. Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert observed many Christians saying no to American consumerism and individualism. Instead, these Christians were eager to trust God in faith-stretching endeavors all while displaying an attractive joy and confidence in the truth. I believe it would make those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert reconsider what they might lose by doing so.
MAKE CHRISTIANITY BEAUTIFUL AGAIN
Another thing I jest about, but it too is deadly serious, is that if I had to believe everything I hear on Christian radio, I would have to bail on the faith. Fortunately, I do not have to believe these things. Fortunate too that there remains some great music and lyrics on Christian radio, but buyer beware!
Other examples of “Christian art” too easily fall under the category of kitsch. Whether fiction, art, or music, too much is sentimental, superficial, and sloppy.
In the areas of biblical studies and theology, we have lots of competent people doing excellent work. I am grateful for these faithful Christians. Our large library bears testimony to the value my wife and I place on such scholarship. In general, I would give high marks to these scholars and the rest of us “conservative” Protestants when it comes to describing and defending the Christian faith. However, I would not give us high marks on how well we Christians demonstrate the beauty of biblical truth.
My favorite writers of the past, people like Augustine, Pascal, Bunyan, Chesterton, Lewis, and Edwards, appreciated both the truth and beauty of God. We need to learn from them. Showcasing the beauty of the Christian faith along with its truthfulness would make people less tempted to deconstruct or deconvert.
Along with the need for more robust learning/discipleship and being in touch with our desperate need to grow, beauty provides a gracious power that addresses needs that we are not always aware we have. All three of these things are critical, but none have any lasting value if we fail to remember that Jesus is central to everything.
WHERE DID JESUS GO? LOVING FADS, LOSING JESUS
A few years back I went to the graduation ceremony for those who completed a rigorous drug rehabilitation program. The testimonies of the graduates were stunning tributes to a great and gracious God. When the ceremony was over, I asked the founder a few questions about the program. He said people did not have to be Christians to participate. They did need to commit to be in a small group where members slowly read and discussed the gospels. What he next told me is one of the best things I have ever heard about Jesus. He said, “They are not always convinced that Jesus is who he claimed to be, but they want him to be.” Seeing how Jesus treated people with dignity and respect was compelling for these addicts. The beautiful compassion of Jesus captivated them.
In Tim Larson’s fascinating book, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, he mentions various Christians (including pastors living in the Victorian era) who deconverted from the Christian faith. Several did so due to the attacks on the Bible by the “higher critics.” That part of the story has already been told by A.N. Wilson in his influential book, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. What had not been well known is that a number of these deconverts came back to the Christian faith due to a fresh engagement with the Bible. They found that the Bible has a thicker, more realistic view on reality than the views promulgated by the skeptics. Several reconverted after finding the Christian faith described life more accurately than the descriptions of the most ferocious critics.
It is far past the time for American Christians to settle for a faith that could easily be gathered from a collection of pithy quotes on bumper stickers. Jesus and the faith that centers on him is true, compelling, worth giving our life for, and beautiful.
If you pay careful attention to the conversations of American Christians, you may start to wonder what happened to Jesus. Jesus supposedly undergirds and empowers all that we do, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to what most of us talk about. He is assumed to be central to everything, but our conversations seem to be animated by ministry strategy and leadership principles along with a host of other things. Things like ministry strategy and leadership principles have their place, but if we are not “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus” we are in deep waters. We might end up being unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. We may be drowning, and we may be unaware of the danger.
A few months back, my own pastor preached a terrific sermon from Colossians. Peter made it crystal clear that Jesus is central to everything. He winsomely teased out some important implications that flow from this reality. Preaching that reminds us of the central place of Jesus is always critical. I’m afraid that it is not common these days. Alan Jacobs said pastors could legitimately warn their congregations every week about the dangers of technology. In the same vein, pastors should regularly make it clear that Jesus is central to everything. If the person, work, and yes, beauty of Jesus are not clearly brought before the body of Christ on a regular basis, we should not wonder why so many wander (I Cor. 14:8).
As Rev. 2:4 tells us, we need to remember from where we have fallen and “go back and do the things we once did.” Repentance that leads to remembering what really matters is the answer for all of us, whether we be the person who is deconstructing our faith or the larger amount of us who still sit dutifully in church pews but are increasingly not sure why we remain.
David George Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books
I am grateful to David Campbell who read an earlier version of this post. Several of David’s suggestions made it a better piece. Any errors in judgment and/or style are mine alone.