Churches: Don’t run away from tough questions

I’ve seen and heard a growing concern over the phenomenon of “Leavers”–young adults who leave Christianity.  This month, even Christianity Today is talking about it. That’s not really anything new. Growing up, I heard more times than I could count in confirmation class and theology class that some of us would walk away once we graduated. What’s new is the percentage of those who are leaving, and how few ever come back.

Reasons vary. Sometimes it’s Christian beliefs getting in the way of how we want to live. Sometimes it’s the church hurting us. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. By all rights, I should have been one who left and never came back. The reason is in the article, but I think it’s glossed over.

I was confirmed in the late 1980s at a large Lutheran church in Kirkwood, Mo. But I never fit in there. Things came to a head my sophomore year in high school. I showed up for my regular accolyte duty, but I was a little late. I don’t remember why I was late. I don’t remember anymore what the pastor said to me other than to go back to my seat, but I didn’t take it well. I took off the robe, found my family and sat down. Mom said she didn’t know if I was going to cry or hit someone. But we didn’t go back.

We were all sick of every Sunday morning ending with some church worker or another telling my Dad he was going to hell for this, that, or another reason–Dad was maybe 20 years ahead of his time and tended to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions, as one who was always trying to reconcile science and Christianity, and the conflicts between medical ethics and Christian ethics–and my newfound status as a troublemaker gave us a convenient excuse to leave.

We went to a much smaller church one town over, in Sunset Hills. That didn’t last long either. I quit going first. There was a kid named Rob who bullied me every Sunday, and I got tired of it. My sister developed a reputation as a troublemaker, some of it deserved. But the end came when one of the church elders called and chewed out my Mom for my sister’s behavior at a church event. Except my sister wasn’t even at that event–she’d been sick all week and aside from a trip to the doctor’s office, hadn’t ventured out of the house. So they quit going soon after, and Dad quit not long after that.

I’ve run into that elder a couple of times in adulthood. Both times, he’s asked about my sister. But he never apologized.

A few people tried to get me to go back to church while I was in college. I went off and on for about a year, but the sermons were all rants about contemporary music, or what the Baptists were doing–wrong, of course. I quit going after my Dad died, because rants about contemporary music and Baptists didn’t help me deal with the loss any.

Some of my classmates invited me to Campus Crusade for Christ, but all they talked about were romantic relationships. I felt like I was being bribed. Give your life to Jesus Christ, and you’ll be rewarded with a Christian wife. It felt like a scam, so I didn’t go back.

Not there and not then, at least. Today I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a fixture in church, but I might miss five Sundays a year. If I’m not traveling and my kids aren’t sick and it’s Sunday, I’m there.

Why? Well, it started when I was 22.

I had a series of conversations with a pastor’s daughter. That led to me going to church again. Soon we were dating. Then she dumped me because I wasn’t Christian enough. Then I walked away from yet another church.

When we conversed via Facebook last year, she sounded at least mildly surprised I was going to church.

And this isn’t a very nice thing to say, but she should have been. She did a lot of things wrong. She did one, and perhaps only one thing right. One of the things mentioned in the Christianity Today article.

She didn’t run away from hard questions. Any time I asked a what-about-this question, she answered, and usually in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. That’s unusual, and that’s what drew me in.

What kept me from walking away from Christianity entirely once she and I lost the ability to speak to one another in a civil manner was the handful of other Christians in my life who were also willing to answer questions in a similarly non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. As years passed, those questions became fewer.

From the article:

Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them. One was slapped across the face, literally.

One of the pastors who helped put me back together again in the late 90s said it this way: “Doubt is proof that the gift God gave you between your two ears works.” It’s natural. I don’t recall that the Apostle Paul ever talked directly about doubt in his epistles, but it’s sure in there between the lines. Paul did talk about having struggles. Most of us don’t struggle with all of the things Paul did. If doubt is the only struggle someone has, he or she is doing really well.

Doubt is normal. Questions are normal. Some have more than others. Some have less fear about expressing them than others. Deal with it.

[S]cholars from the University of Connecticut and Oregon State University reported that “the most frequently mentioned role of Christians in de-conversion was in amplifying existing doubt.” De-converts reported “sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers.”

My policy when I’m doing church-related work is that anyone can ask me any question. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll look for it. And we also have to get over the idea that the Bible has every answer. The Bible’s purpose is to tell us all we need to know about our relationships with God and with each other. My NIV Bible is 1750 pages long. There isn’t enough room there to answer every question we would ever ask. What does the Bible say about dinosaurs? Nothing useful. Job understood the image of a fire-breathing Leviathan (dragon?). Does that mean he hunted dinosaurs, or does it just mean Job’s dad told him stories about dragons just like ours did?

I once told someone who was struggling with his faith that nothing he believed mattered, except for the answers to two questions: Who Jesus is, and why you need Him. If believing in dinosaurs gets in the way of that, then fine, don’t believe in them. But if what science says about dinosaurs doesn’t get in the way of that, then fine, believe what science tells you. Sometimes better science comes along and tells us we were mistaken. Until then, we stick with the best answer we have.

If someone comes asking about dinosaurs, or aliens, the perfect answer probably is a very honest “I don’t know.”

Churches often lack the appropriate resources. We have programs geared for gender- and age-groups and for those struggling with addictions or exploring the faith. But there’s precious little for Christians struggling with the faith.

I disagree that yet another program is necessarily the answer. Knowing that the youth director isn’t going to throw something at you if you ask a question that makes him or her uncomfortable goes a lot further toward solving the problem. Fix the culture. Programs can help, but getting over the fear of atom-bomb questions heads off much of the problem in the first place.

Ultimately we will have to undertake the slow but fruitful work of building relationships with those who have left the faith. This means viewing their skepticism for what it often is: the tortured language of spiritual longing. And once we’ve listened long and hard to their stories, and built bridges of trust, we will be ready to light the way back home.

True enough. But if we change the culture, we can head off some of the problem in the first place, and save everyone a lot of pain.

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One thought on “Churches: Don’t run away from tough questions

  • November 24, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Excellent post, Dave.

    // “Doubt is proof that the gift God gave you between your two ears works.” //

    I like that. One of my favorite quotes about faith comes from Anne Lamott (although she’s probably not the first to express the sentiment): “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do.”

    Oh, that we all would have the humility to admit we don’t have all the answers!

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