Leaving Christianity?

I’ve been a pastor in three widely different contexts and each has brought the same kind of dispiriting and frustrating conversation.  Too many times I’ve listened as disgruntled or despairing men and women have wondered, nervously, whether or not they could remain Christian.  I’m tired of these conversations not because I don’t sympathize with the doubters but because of the predictable pattern that has emerged over the years.

Their faith has been nurtured within a clearly demarcated Christian subculture.

They hold their faith with suspicion not because of some theological or philosophical dilemma.  Neither is it the case that their idealism about Jesus has been trampled on by the church; these are smart and gracious people who understand the flawed nature of people, including Christian people.  There are many factors that would lead to a person questioning her faith but, again, there is one theme I’ve heard repeatedly.

Most of these people have lived as Christians for a long time; some can’t remember not being Christian.  More to the point, their faith has been nurtured within a clearly demarcated Christian subculture.  This is the pattern and the problem.

There are different versions of the Christian subculture but the unifying factor is a strong belief that this is what it means to live as a Christian.  Anything other than this is suspect, written off, or disparaged.  This can look different in Chicago’s affluent suburbs than it does on the South Side.  This can look different depending on denomination.  You get the idea.

Like any subculture, these self-consciously distinct Christian enclaves develop traditions, expectations, norms, opinions and language that sets them apart.  Whether or not it was ever explicitly stated, my conversation partners over the years understood that this subculture, with all of its priorities, embodied orthodox Christianity.

Balancing on the edge of the paradigm, he must consider whether or not he can remain a Christian.

As an example, imagine growing up within a Christian subculture where it is assumed that discipleship to Jesus requires voting exclusively Republican, disbelieving any science that doesn’t support a certain literal reading of of the Bible, and limiting one’s serious engagement with the world to saving souls. Now imagine a collection of magazines, radio programs, books, and the occasional movie which all affirm the notion that to be Christian is to be and believe these things.  This wasn’t the environment in which I was raised but, based on the number of people who’ve shared this version of their childhood with me, there are plenty of people for whom it was.

What happens when a person raised within this subculture encounters questions, information, experiences, and perspectives that don’t fit within the only version of Christianity they’ve known to be true?  A paradigm shift.  But, as I’ve been told too many times, it is exceedingly difficult for the new paradigm to include Christianity because of how thoroughly the subculture claimed that theirs alone was genuine Christianity.  And so, balancing on the edge of the paradigm, this person must consider whether or not they can remain a Christian.

In our pluralistic, modern world there will always be serious challenges to Christian faith.  I’m OK with this.  I’m not OK with how insulated Christian enclaves make it difficult (or, as some of my conversations partners have said, impossible) for someone to remain a Christian once they’ve peered beyond the walls of the subculture.

Have you experienced a paradigm shift that seems to require leaving behind your faith?  How do you explain the tendency of Christian subcultures to so strongly identify their priorities with the essence of Christianity?  How can Christians hold strong opinions about issues (politics, for example) while remaining hospitable to Christians with divergent opinions?

19 comments

  1. Josh S

    I have a friend, Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a book on precisely these topics of doubt and convention-shattering experiences. It’s called “Evolving in Monkey Town”, and is something of a memoir of her path through doubt at a strict this version of Christianity to a more nuanced view of orthodoxy. Good read. She also has a blog (which has moved on somewhat to other topics because of her current project) that can be found at rachelheldevans.com. I recommend it (especially some of the older posts, like this one: http://rachelheldevans.com/article-1211491372 ) as a resource for those going through this difficult period of questioning and doubting whether their faith can survive their paradigm shift.

  2. Rev. Jason Haas

    as always a great read David. I used this illustration in a sermon at a community MLK worship service: university comes from “unity in diversity”. Our subcultures within Christianity are like colleges in a university, every college is needed to make up the university and your diploma comes from the university, not just that particular school. Within each college there are certain ways of experiencing and seeing the world, but we can only be well rounded if we begin walking around the campus learning from each college, all the while, appreciating ours more than the others. We should not be antagonistic of the other schools, but appreciative of what they contribute knowing there are shortcomings to every subculture.

    • David Swanson

      Really helpful illustration Jason; thanks. I appreciate that you point out that our awareness and respect for the larger Christian world doesn’t mean that we can’t still exist comfortably within one corner of it.

  3. rkollbocker

    Your observations are sadly accurate my good friend. Ironically, It makes me thankful I didn’t grow up in a Christian environment. The challenge for those who do what we do is to not get sucked into any one of the various Christian “enclaves” that threaten to absorb and recreate us in their image. I hope to never really “fit in.”

    • David Swanson

      I’ve heard good things about this book Tonya, though I’ve not read it. Would you be interested in writing your reflections/review for the blog once you’ve finished the book?

      • Tonya

        I think I could do that. Would you consider giving me some feedback/critique on the books I’ve done so far? I did all of them for this year. You convinced me. :)

  4. HopefulLeigh

    I feel rather qualified to chime in as I was raised in the subculture you mentioned in your example. By the time I left for college, I had become apathetic toward God and just wanted to have fun and do all the supposedly bad things the church told me not to do. So I did my own thing for awhile and realized that didn’t help anything. At the same time, I was asking questions that hadn’t been encouraged or nurtured in my childhood questions so I didn’t feel faith and my new beliefs (not just political but that played a big part) could be compatible. But I kept seeking after God and through open-minded, civil discussions with friends, along with resources from Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren, I truly made my faith my own. I’ll never fit directly into any Christian subculture again but I think that’s how it should be. Outside of the unifying belief that Christ died to save us, I don’t think Christians should be aligned with any particular camp. The minute that “this” becomes what Christianity “looks like,” we take strides toward division and exclusivity, neither of which should be connected with our faith. When I realize that I have much to learn, then I don’t have to be right and I’m more open in discussions with people who believe differently. I just read the book Raised Right, which greatly adds to this topic, if you’re looking for more recommendations, David.

  5. Jeff

    David, as someone who both grew up in the church and works for a “Christian” organization, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. I could probably go on forever on the topic, but that might not be helpful. I guess the big question that comes to mind for me is this: Wasn’t it the religious sub-culture of His day that Jesus regularly fought against?

  6. Susan Richmond

    Great job, David, in addressing this common problem/issue. I also appreciate the link that Josh S gave to Rachel Held Evans blog where she also nails the crux with this sentence worth pondering.
    “I think it’s important to distinguish between doubting God and doubting what one believes about God”.

  7. Tony G

    Impeccable timing. I recently had a great discussion with my wife on this topic. What I have just come to realize is that this has been a struggle for me, and I haven’t fully understood it. Personally, it becomes an epistemological problem: Christian Culture A thought they knew what was important, but B has incompatible opinions. So what else did Christian Culture A think they knew? And while I’d rather stay away from a “right and wrong” discussion, to simplify: “if they were so wrong about what they thought was so right, what else were they wrong about?” And that question turns to fear. What if where I’m at right now… what if I’m making a similar mistake? What measure do I use? I understand that Christianity isn’t about getting everything right, but I don’t want to contribute to the Christian sub-culture mess out of ignorance. It is a mess, or am I being pessimistic?

  8. Olivia

    This phrase struck me. It lead me to your letter Leaving Christianity. My first thought was how could anyone leave Christianity? Isn’t that like leaving Christ, turning ones back on the Lord Himself? God never leaves us. He never turns His back on us (even when we feel He has). How could we reach the juncture in our lives to make the decision to walk away? Then I remember that for some, Christianity falls under the category of a type of “Religion.” But does it need to? Looking to the Scriptures with prayer takes ones focus away from religion. There is so much in the Word that should, ideally, keep us on the road to being Christ-followers (Christians). Reading today in 1Corinthians 10 brought much clarity for me on this very topic. Looking back to Exodus, Paul reminds the church of Corinth about the early children of Isreal called to follow God. He gave them the hope of being led to the promised land; He gave them food to sustain them; And a cloud to shade them from the drying sun; A pillar of fire kept them warm at night. In the end of the journey only two of the hundreds of thousands from that generation actually made it into the promised land. Even Moses was not allowed to enter in because he misrepresented God at the rock at Meribah in Numbers 20. Our journey through life is one in faith. When we don’t have it we cannot thrive for very long. (KJV) 1 Corinthians 10:9, ” Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.” Our loss in doing so is eternal. We find hope in knowing that God is faithful. He will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear. So why should we turn away? (KJV) 1 Corinthians 10:13 “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 1) No temptation exists that is uncommon to any man and Christ was tempted to the utmost. 2) God IS faithful. 3) God will not allow you to be tempted more than you can handle. 4) Along with every temptation, God provides an escape for us. (NIV) Hebrews 5:11-12 “We have to much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s Word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (NIV) Hewbrews 6:4-6 “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the Heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace.” This could be all I could I could say about the matter, but I find also relevance in James, as well. James 1 focuses on our many trials and temptations. We are encouraged by a reminder that we will find joy in knowing that perseverance develops through our trials. However, we must not doubt or disbelieve it, lest we be like waves in the sea, unstable and double-minded. (KJV) James 1:12 “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him.” I say, who could walk away from this promise?! Verses 16-18 continue, “Do not err, my beloved brethren, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” Our beloved pastor Dave told a story of his goats escaping from their fenced area. We are likened to the goats in this way: We have gleaned all that we desire from our pasture and seek the tastier grasses on the outside of the fence. Those blades of grass on the outside have been within our reach for a short time. We press against our boundaries to reach it until we loosen our fence posts enough to find escape. Once we are out, will we find our way back in? It’s important to have the faith in knowing that if we wait, we will be blessed with the sweetest in eternity.

  9. Karen

    Good post, Dave. Good questions, too. Is this experience you describe true across the generations (because it sounds a bit foreign to my own mindset, though I grew up going to church—I’m now in my “golden” years)? Maybe my experience would be of interest.

    I, too, grew up in a Christian subculture, but in the beginning I would say it was more “classically Christian” than strongly American Evangelical (my childhood through high school experience was among Bible-believing Methodists, mostly in Great Britain). During those early years, my parents had their beliefs, but they generally respected other kinds of Christians. Beyond catechism at my Methodist Sunday school and my mom reading me Bible stories and requiring a basic respect for others especially my elders from me, I wasn’t told what to believe (like some in more Fundamentalist traditions). I simply absorbed it from the life of my church, its hymns and sacraments, and in a less explicit way, from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. Gradually, though, my parents became disillusioned with United Methodists’ slide into liberalism. After I left the nest, they joined a Presbyterian church and for many years now have belonged to a conservative non-denominational Evangelical church, and I think their understanding of what constitutes a genuine Christian has, accordingly, narrowed somewhat.

    Meanwhile after high school, I attended Wheaton College, and began attending an Assemblies of God church, having been awakened to that view of the Bible’s teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit by a high school fellowship group leader. At Wheaton there were believers from many backgrounds. I had my own convictions about how to understand the Scriptures (shaped by charismatic and “Radical Reformation” Evangelical distinctives—“believer” baptism, Lord’s Supper as memorial, etc.), but I retained the tolerant attitude modeled from my parents in my youth and appreciated many aspects of other Christian traditions. I didn’t tend to strongly prejudge someone’s personal relationship with the Lord based solely on their church affiliation (or those other issues you mentioned)—especially as I matured—because I saw qualities I admired in Christians from other traditions and I didn’t think it wise to limit God’s transcendence of our human failings that way.

    On the other hand, I was very puzzled about how the older historic churches got their liturgical forms and sacramental understandings and, like many modern Evangelicals, assumed some level of human error, pagan infiltration, and corruption. I was quite confirmed in my Baptist faith, yet I had to acknowledge this left a very puzzling void in making sense of all the competing views among Protestant Christians of different denominational backgrounds and in the accounts of Church history I had, especially in view of Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church he was establishing through his Apostles. Much later I realized I had no good answer to the question of how that promise can profit us in any practical way today if there is no historically identifiable continuous community sacramentally tied together as that Church.

    After college, I spent a couple years on the mission field as a short-termer and burned out, having slowly over the years in my A/G context slid into a “performance” for Christ mentality. Notable and disillusioning on the mission field for me was the bad-mouthing by the group I was with of the other Christians (Protestants and some Roman Catholic believers) with whom we occasionally fellowshipped. There was a real sense that the missionaries from the different sectarian Protestant traditions were “empire building” for their own group, which they considered to have the full or correct gospel! After all that, I needed a return to grace and found it in the Conservative Baptist Church my supervisor at work attended. That was good for many years, but eventually my questions about doctrinal differences from group to group kept niggling. I never considered denying the basics of the Apostle’s Creed (the historic Creed with which I was most familiar), but I struggled to understand what the truth really was concerning the nature of things as basic and central to the NT Christian faith practices as baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the different answers given to the question of why exactly it was that Jesus, God’s Son, had to suffer and die on the Cross for our sins, and how exactly this effects our salvation. I did, after many years of searching for a more coherent and cohesive interpretive context for Scripture and understanding of Church history, end up making a significant transition from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy, so I know some Evangelicals (mainly Reformed of a more rigorist persuasion) would effectively declare me “not Christian” now, but I have never, and would never, consider renouncing my confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, God and the only Savior of the world.

  10. Pingback: Stunted Faith | signs of life

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