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Why people are leaving the evangelical church

Posted February 6, 2020 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

Why people are leaving the evangelical church

Posted February 6, 2020 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

Tony and Bart Campolo’s 2017 book Why I Left, Why I Stayed helps us understand why people are leaving the church. It tells why a father and son disagreed sharply over Christianity’s truth.

Their book also attests to their abiding love for each other and their exemplary determination to listen without attacking or judging.[1]

Frankly, Bart’s newfound faith in reason and science strikes me as out of all proportion to what they can reasonably deliver. And his embrace of secular humanism leaves me stone cold. To me, Bart wants to have his cake and eat it too—to market the love ethic that flows from Jesus’ cross, while labeling Jesus’ death for sinners immoral.[2] But Bart Campolo certainly isn’t alone in kissing Christianity goodbye.[3]

This article makes no effort to psychoanalyze Bart or his fellow quitters. Neither does it attempt to rebut their arguments. Rather, I aim to step back and look at the big picture of why so many are giving up on their faith—especially people like Bart, who have grown up in the church.

What’s going on?

I suppose there could be as many reasons for rejecting Christ as there are unbelievers. Many post-Christians may not even know the real reason themselves. We so easily think we’ve done something for one reason, only later to see we weren’t being entirely honest with ourselves.

It’s true that no one can believe without God’s grace being poured out on them. But that doesn’t mean the reverse is true—that people reject Christianity because God somehow deprived them of his grace. Frankly, Bart’s claim that he “was never given the gift of faith” seems to me a case of his blaming God for his own choices.[4]

Very difficult roadJesus urges us to struggle to believe. He warns that the road that leads to life—the road less travelled—is hard to find.[5] It’s also rough going, with enough jagged stones, gaping sinkholes and sudden drop-offs to make even the bravest lose heart. But Jesus implicitly warns against thinking there’s safety in numbers since the broad, well-paved road most people take leads to destruction.

Many post-Christians owe their departure to a failure to grasp the range of challenges facing Christians.

This article surveys those challenges.

Christian road fill and stumbling stones

Many so-called Christians say and do many stupid or selfish things, which act like road fill they throw down to smooth out their way. But the rubble they use is sharp enough to shred your shoes and contains stones that gash your calves if you stumble on them. I mean things like:

  • Claiming that “God must have had a purpose in allowing that little girl to be gang raped”
  • Saying, “You must thank God for your little boy’s cancer,” or alternately, “Your boy would be healed if you only had enough faith”
  • Buttonholing unbelievers about their need to repent or escape the fires of hell
  • Turning faith into legalism or, alternately, a glorified Ponzi scheme where a televangelist hawks false hopes in exchange for your money and adulation
  • Claiming to love God while acting as if sexism, racism or raw political expediency were next to godliness
  • Church leaders abusing you or others in their care, betraying your trust or rejecting you for committing some “unpardonable” sin

Rough road fillBy these and a million other unworthy words and deeds, so-called Christians unwittingly turn God into a monster, as it were.

I say “so-called Christians” because calling yourself a Christian doesn’t make you Jesus’ follower.[6] The problem isn’t just that these people are twisted in their thinking, though they certainly are that. No, the bigger problem by far is with their hearts, which have long since turned back or at least turned aside. But their lovelessness cannot represent the God who is love, nor their ugliness deface his peerless beauty as seen in the Gospels.

This brings me to another key point. Like every other worldview, Christianity is communal, in the sense that we embrace it in company with other companions on the road. What so often happens is that people stop going to church after having been offended or hurt by the words and actions of fellow believers. Sometimes they’re deeply disappointed by a Christian (or Christians) they looked up to. Sometimes they just don’t feel seen or heard or like they matter to anyone in their church—beyond their availability to usher or teach Sunday school. Seeing that and deciding that they don’t personally identify closely with other members of their church, they eventually stop going. Often gradually.

That’s the beginning of the end for most people. Because, as Tony says, by dropping out of church, they attempt the impossible: to produce an individualistic version of what is in essence a communal event. Doing that, they also unwittingly sign on to the other project—that of the unbelief so pervasive in our society. The point is, we’re part of one or the other community, whether we realize it or not. To drift out of the church is automatically to join the community of unbelief, even if we don’t yet share most of its tenets. And like every other marketing scheme, unbelief offers free, no-obligation membership to begin.

Cultural sinkholes big enough to swallow you

Our culture has many ways of making it far easier to give up on faith than press on toward the prize. These are sinkholes in the road big enough to take you down, if not take you out. Our culture skews things on us or makes truth look insignificant, stupid or inhuman by

  • Idolizing money, sex and power
  • Rejecting spirituality, the supernatural or objective truth wholesale
  • Mocking the idea that the God of the universe would make us the object of his saving love
  • Rejecting the Bible for its nastiness, real or perceived—whether Mosaic laws, Israelite genocide, Jesus’ exclusivity, his talk of hell or his dying for our sins
  • Falsely pitting science or art against religious faith

Like every culture before it, ours has blind spots, distortions and false fronts we don’t see. And it’s always easier to go with the popular thinking of the day, though much that an ascendant culture deems true is seen to be false when that culture declines. While we may not want to see it, Western civilization has already begun its descent to dystopia. Its bright, expansive phase is ending, to be followed soon by catastrophic burnout.

Mountain road with hairpin turns and drop-offs

But the shrinking of the West’s star isn’t yet visible to most people, which is why many still bind themselves to its dazzling brightness, sure it will always outshine God.

Personal hairpin turns and sudden drop-offs

As if the evils of so-called Christians and the hostility of a culture that negates what we believe aren’t challenging enough, we have our own weaknesses to contend with too. Our failure to grasp the nature of the journey, our feelings of unworthiness and our proneness to take offence at God can leave us unable to go on. We may feel unable to forgive God for failing to “show up” when we needed him—for apparently

  • Taking our only child from us, or the love relationship we felt sure would work
  • Sitting idly by while we blew our only chance at the job we’d always dreamed of having
  • Letting something we put all our hope, energy and money into utterly fail
  • Withholding the house, car or whatever else we felt we needed
  • Leaving us and others we care about to languish in pain, brokenness or inadequacy

Failing to grasp all we’re up against can easily lead us to over-extend ourselves, to take on challenges far beyond our spiritual capacity.[7]

Life looks very different when there’s no high-octane youth group—complete with rock band and laser light show—backing us up. Alone in the dark, it may take just one major disappointment with God to make us decide we can’t make the turn or take another step. Exhausted, we conclude that whoever mapped this road out must be crazy, and our faith goes crashing down and us with it.

Busy freeway by the shoreHaving blamed God for our—or other people’s—pain or for not caring enough to answer the prayer we’d made the deal breaker, we demote him. But that puts us in the place of God, which makes us one with the crowd on the broad, smooth road below. So we join the crowd.

One benefit of publicly professing post-Christianity is that it can make you an instant hero or even authority[8] to other post-Christians since scorners delight in fellow scorners. We should all applaud everyone’s honesty, regardless of their faith or unbelief. And giving up the faith that bound you to family, friends or especially livelihood can be very hard. Yet to be made a hero for rejecting a long since marginalized faith, institution or lifestyle seems overblown. We aren’t living in the Middle Ages when the Church ruled supreme.

The wisdom of Jesus’ way

Whatever else anyone says about Jesus, no one can ever accuse him of bait and switch. He never promised an easy road—always one so difficult it left his disciples gasping for breath.[9] He said no one could follow him without shouldering their cross on the road to their own execution.[10] In today’s terms, he invites us to live on death row—the electric chair just down the hall. Still today, you find life only by giving your life away, saying no to yourself and living for Jesus alone. Yet remarkably, nothing compares with that exchange.[11]

Bart Campolo envisions secular humanism as the new substitute for religion, with science standing in for God (Why I Left, Why I Stayed, 62-74). But “the church of Christ without Christ” has never proven very exciting.

Jesus washes his disciples' feet
Van Baburen’s “Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet”

We humans are wired for story. So keeping Christianity’s love ethic, but not its quintessential story is like asking people to live in a gutted building they can never refurbish.

They may be glad to get rid of the Gospel story’s complications. But you can’t invent a secular replacement for that story, which is actually its best part, properly understood. That seems to be the main reason Unitarianism has never really taken off.[12] Nothing Bart says about humanism-as-religion leads me to believe it will ever do more than tread water, but never really swim.

Jesus pulled no punches because the last thing he wanted was to mislead anyone. And in all the intervening years, the journey has become no easier. So no one should accept his invitation unless they

  • Believe Jesus truly is the smartest man who ever lived
  • Are willing to soak in his unmatched wisdom and listen to Jesus’ voice continually
  • Are prepared to join a body of like-minded believers who will keep them accountable and encourage them along the way
  • Have the courage to fail and allow Jesus to be the hero in their story
  • Return to him often for grace and forgiveness

Following Jesus is so hard that none of us can do it on our own. But we were never meant to. That’s where Jesus, paradoxically, invites all who are weary and weighed down to come and find rest in him. He says:

Shoulder my yoke and learn from me. For I’m gentle and humble in heart and you’ll find rest of soul…  My yoke is easy and my burden light.[13]

The secret of following Jesus lies in knowing him and letting him teach us how to walk, listening to him moment by moment.

Nothing in Tony and Bart’s book suggests that Bart was shallow. Not at all. Nothing suggests he didn’t have a heart of gold or wasn’t in earnest about pleasing God. But ironically, while the biblical Mary and Martha both earnestly wanted to please Jesus, only one of them was truly focused on him. Jesus cut through all of Martha’s distractions when he told her, “Only one thing matters.” Still today, what matters is giving him our undivided attention.

Vermeer's painting of Jesus, Mary and Martha
Vermeer’s “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”

It’s very easy for any of us—especially people working in inner-city ministry, like Bart was—to lose our focus on Jesus. In listening at Jesus’ feet, Mary chose a treasure no one could take from her.[14] Without a single-minded focus on Jesus, his voice gets drowned out by a million other voices, making the journey impossibly hard. But if we truly learn from him, he makes the impossible possible.

Sometimes it takes years for us to grasp this. Sometimes we see it only to forget it soon after. Wonderfully, Jesus invites all who turn away to return to him again. Peter’s flat denial of him in his darkest hour couldn’t make him abandon Peter. Jesus went out of his way to restore Peter.[15] Even the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers by Saul—later called Paul—couldn’t make Jesus give up on Saul.[16] That’s because God’s love is far wider than any chasm we put between us and him. Still today, nothing brings greater joy to his heart than finding his lost sheep and welcoming his lost daughters and sons home.[17]


[1] Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

[2] I refer here to his calling Jesus’ death for helpless humans immoral (Why I Left, 95).

[3] However, the rates of church attendance haven’t changed much over the last few decades. This suggests that many, if not most, of those who have become religious “nones” had stopped attending church before they abandoned Christianity. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

[4] The mystery of how God’s sovereign will works in tandem with our will is just that: a mystery, beyond human comprehension. The Bible says God is in complete control and that no one comes to him unless he invites them to come (John 6:44). This fits with the idea of faith as a gift (Ephesians 2:8). Seeing how God has worked in my life, I have no problem accepting that. But the Bible also says God wants absolutely no one to perish and invites all who are willing to come (2 Peter 3:9, Revelation 22:17). Nothing at all about the Gospel story makes me question that either.

We need to accept both as paradoxically true. God’s sovereignty, the breadth of his love and human responsibility or freedom of choice all fit together in him. We shouldn’t let our inability to see how they fit together keep us from believing it’s true.

A declaration like Bart’s all too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not because God hasn’t invited them to the party, but rather because their self-justification blocks the way (Luke 14:15-24).

[5] Matthew 7:13-14.

[6] The word Christian covers a lot of ground nowadays. But biblically, it means a disciple or apprentice of Jesus.

[7] The entire walk of faith is about knowing God personally (John 17:3). Tragically, many people don’t get this. And because evil’s power is real, they may engage in spiritual exploits that far exceed their knowledge of God. Knowing Christian lingo and other Christian norms and having an impressive Christian lineage can never substitute for knowing God (Dan. 11:32). Without such intimate knowledge of Jesus, we can easily set ourselves up for debilitating failure (Acts 19:11-20).

[8] That is, an apologist for and a troubadour of the logic and the benefits of losing one’s religion.

[9] Matthew 19:25-26.

[10] Luke 9:23.

[11] Matthew 16:25-26.

[12] There are still fewer than 200,000 Unitarians in all of America, though they’ve been promoting their views in America for about 2 centuries.

[13] Matthew 11:28-30.

[14] Luke 10:38-42. N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

This may seem contradictory to those who pursue Jesus single-mindedly in the face of the poor. Christianity’s social justice tradition has done a wonderful job of stressing Jesus’ vision in Matthew 25:31-46. But as vital as that vision is, we don’t encounter Jesus solely in ministry to the poor and in one another. To try to do so risks burnout and distraction. Divorced from Christianity’s contemplative tradition, Christianity’s social justice tradition warps our relationship to God, just as the converse is true.

[15] Matthew 26:69-75, John 21:15-19.

[16] Acts 9:1-19.

[17] Luke 15:3-7, 15:11-23.


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