Prone To Wander: The Allure of Deconversion Testimonies

On July 26, 2019, Joshua Harris, former megachurch pastor and author of the infamous purity culture bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced to his Instagram followers that he was no longer a Christian.

“By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian,” Harris wrote. “I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful.”

In the midst of the uproar, Albert Molher, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, released a response titled, “The Tragedy of Joshua Harris.”

“Can one be a Christian and then at some point not be a Christian?” Molher wrote. “The answer is no. The Bible is very clear about that.”

Molher goes on to write that if Harris doesn’t “return [to Christianity] by repentance at some point” then he wasn’t truly a Christian and probably only a “pretend believer.”

A couple of weeks later, Marty Sampson, a former songwriter for prolific Hillsong megachurch, posted on Instagram that he was in the process of disassociating himself from Christianity.

I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me,” Sampson wrote. “All I know is what’s true to me right now, and Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point.”

Like Harris, Sampson’s announcement ignited a flurry of responses from Christian leaders and armchair theologians – including the viral Facebook post, “What In God’s Name Is Happening to Christianity?,” from lead singer of the Christian rock band Skillet, and an op-ed from Michael Brown of Christianity Today, “Reaching Out to a Hillsong Leader Who is Renouncing His Faith.”

In the wake of the fervor surrounding his announcement, Sampson deleted the post and released a statement in which he clarified that he hadn’t renounced his Christian faith, but that it’s on “shaky ground.”

“I have and continue to analyze the arguments of prominent Christian apologists and biblical scholars, and am open minded enough to consider the arguments of atheist debaters and debaters from other religions,” Sampson wrote. “If the truth is true, it will remain so regardless of my understanding of it.”

As someone who has written extensively about my struggles with doubt in the context of my faith, I empathize with Harris and Sampson. In their stories, I heard echoes of my own fears, questions, and regrets.

And in the rebuttals penned by their critics, I felt the same callous judgement and willful ignorance of the people from my past who didn’t understand why I found some aspects of conservative evangelicalism so difficult to accept.

You should pray more.
Here’s a book on apologetics.
You’re just being divisive.
Why is this so hard for you to believe?

In recent years, other prolific Christians artists and intellectuals – like Michael Gungor of the worship band Gungor, Aaron Gillespie and Spencer Chamberlain of Christian rock band Underoath, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, and fiction writer Anne Rice – have publicly announced their deconversion from Christianity.

We enthusiastically broadcast “atheist-turned-Christian” testimonies, but turn a blind eye (and deaf ear) toward “Christian-turned-atheist” stories.

People leaving Christianity and renouncing their faith is nothing new. Church history is littered with heretics and apostates who abandoned the beliefs they once held dear.

But in a culture of celebrity and intimacy facilitated by social media, the news of recent apostates feels much more jarring and personal.

Gungor and Sampson wrote worship set staples like “Beautiful Things” and “O Praise the Name.” Harris led a megachurch in Maryland for eleven years.

It’s disturbing to think that someone who preached from the pulpit, wrote a bestselling Christian book, or led a worship gathering could turn their back on a belief system that gives you so much comfort, purpose, and security.

People on our team aren’t suppose to quit and join their team.
It’s a betrayal. A violation of trust. And a devastating blow to morale.

With the advent of social media, it’s becoming harder to deny the frequency and influence of deconversion stories. And it’s not just former Christian artists or pastors. Young people who grew up in the faith are leaving the Church in dramatic numbers.

Therefore, we need to ask ourselves: Why are deconversion stories so compelling, and why are we so afraid of them? And, ultimately, how can the Church learn from them?


Sharing Is Caring

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When I was growing up, I was taught a simple formula for sharing my personal testimony.

A testimony is “Christian-speak” for the story of how you became a Christian. Like an elevator pitch for your faith, a testimony should be short, easy to memorize, and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The testimony formula traditionally ahderes to familiar four-act structure:

  • Act I: Your life before Jesus.
  • Act II: The introduction of thoughts and feelings like “There has to be more to life than this” and “The world isn’t satisfying my deepest desires.”
  • Act III: The moment you decide to become a Christian and follow Jesus.
  • Act IV: Your life after you’ve trusted Jesus as your personal savior.

Deconversion testimonies unfold across a similar four-act structure as their religious counterparts:

  • Act I: Your life as a committed Jesus follower.
  • Act II: The introduction of doubts and concerns that weren’t welcomed by your religious community.
  • Act III: The moment you decided to walk away from your faith.
  • Act IV: Your life after leaving Christianity.

A deconversion testimony functions as a funhouse-mirror inversion of a traditional testimony. The narrative beats are identical, and both testimonies climax with a revelation, liberation, and a promise of a better life.

And that’s not where the similarities end.

Christians emphasize the first act of their testimony to foster relatability (“I was just like you”) and establish credibility as a former “sinner” – not just a goody-two shoes who had their faith handed to them by their parents.

Likewise, in a deconversion testimony, the first act establishes relatability (“I was just like you”) and credibility as a former “true believer” – not just an in-name only Christian warming the pew every Sunday morning.

Also, a traditional and deconversion testimony both hinge on a “I was blind, but now I see” hook in the second and third acts. And, honestly, it’s one hell of a hook. It invites you into the perspective of the protagonist or storyteller.

Additionally, it’s pretty common for the person sharing the testimony to present a rose-tinted version of the final act in order to draw a clear distinction the between the first and fourth acts.

Well, geeze, you probably thinking, all this sounds pretty manipulative.
And you’re not wrong.

But all stories are a form of manipulation.
And this is especially true of testimonies.

We respond better to stories than we do facts. By design, testimonies are relatable, intriguing, and inspirational (Why else would companies rely so heavily on them in advertisements?). Most Christians already know the best way to introduce someone to Jesus is through interpersonal relationships and storytelling.

But what happens when someone starts telling a more compelling story?

In addition to following a predictable pattern and offering a tantalizing peek behind the post-faith curtain, deconversion testimonies capture our attention because they speak to our generational distrust of large institutions and established knowledge.

And you probably can’t find a larger or more established public institution that Christianity.


Our Own Worst Enemy

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A few months ago, I grabbed lunch with a high school friend who renounced his faith in college. He said that when he first told his mentor he was struggling with doubt, his mentor accused him of wanting to leave Christianity so he could untether himself from the Christian sexual ethic.

(My friend joked: “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it’s definitely easier to get laid as a Christian in America than it is as an atheist.”)

A deconversion doesn’t happen overnight – it’s a gradual process motivated by an authentic pursuit of truth and preceded by rigorous self-examination and honesty. And it often happens in isolation in fear of doubt shaming.

Doubt shaming can be overt or subtle thoughts, attitudes, or actions a faith community expresses to protect the theological purity or ideological boundaries of the flock. Doubt shaming can be hostile (like my friend’s experience with his mentor) or passive aggressive (making jokes at the expense of people outside of your theological tribe).

But it can also be what is not said or expressed.

When was the last time your pastor shared their doubts with the congregation? When was the last time you sang a worship song that honestly wrestled with uncertainty and ambiguity?

Why do both of those scenarios sound so scandalous?

If our churches refuse to model how to process doubt in a healthy and supportive way, why would we assume we’ve created a welcoming environment for the skeptical or the doubtful?

Instead, as mainstream Christianity morphs into something more experiential and therapeutic to compete with cultural trends, a shallow expression of faith becomes preferable to a faith rigorously examined in light of modern science, history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy.

So, again, I ask you: Does your faith community create space for doubt, or it viewed as a threat to the integrity of the institution?

“This is what we believe because it’s what we’ve always believed” isn’t going to cut it in a pluralistic and technologically-savvy postmodern world. A hundred years ago, your primary source of Biblical knowledge was your local pastor. Today, a comprehensive list of contradictions in the Bible is only a Google search away.

And, like someone publicly announcing a divorce, people who deconvert from Christianity have a right to share the story of their uncoupling from our faith.

Why would Michael Gungor and Marty Sampson want to associate their brand and image with the Contemporary Christian Music scene when they no longer consider themselves Christian?

Why would Josh Harris want to continue to be associated with a book and ministry he wrote and led twenty years ago, especially if he doesn’t hold those views anymore?

I have a gay friend who came out on social media a few years ago. When I asked him what prompted his Facebook post, he told me he’d rather make one big announcement than feel as if he had to explain his dating life to hundreds of people over a long period of time.

And I get that.

Who would want their present and future defined by other people’s perception of you from your past?

As someone who writes a lot about my struggles with Christianity and faith, I’m constantly weighing the potential consequences of my words (for example, I’ve written an unpublished blog post about Hell that may be the most faith-crippling thing I’ve ever written – time will tell if it’ll ever see the light of the day).

Between the angry questioning of Job, the laments of David, and the condemnation of the self-righteous religious leaders, I think the Bible makes it clear that God values authentic doubt over fabricated faith.

At the end of the day, a person’s faith journey is their own responsibility. While we may occasionally serve as guides, mentors, and teachers, the desire to shape someone else’s faith journey into a mirror image of your own is a recipe for disaster.

Most people who leave Christianity have very thoughtful and nuanced reasons for doing so, and the Church would be doing itself a huge disservice if it glibly dismisses or fails to carefully consider the grievances raised by those who decide to leave the fold.

Like an exit interview for a resigning employee, deconversion testimonies are our most honest appraisals of modern Christianity’s blind spots and weaknesses. They’re not uninformed outsider critiques; they’re honest assessments shaped by personal experience.

Because here’s the uncomfortable truth: Every prominent “Christian celebrity” who renounces their faith represents hundreds (if not thousands) of Christians who are struggling in similar ways.


The Two Halves of Life

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In Falling Upward, Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr explores what he calls “the two halves of life” and applies them to our spiritual journey.

In the first half of our spiritual life, we learn the basic tenants of our faith – the rules, processes, rituals, and doctrine that undergird our behavior and beliefs. This stage of spiritual development is motivated by security, boundary, and containment.

And this stage is very important. After all, you have to learn to crawl (and walk) before you can run.

In the second half of our spiritual life, we explore the boundaries of our religious “container” and begin to grapple with the fact that our understanding of God is limited by the scope of our language and imagination. This stage of spiritual development is motivated by mystery, wonder, and transformation.

Not only are these two halves of life seen in our personal faith journeys and transition into adulthood, it’s also crux of the entire narrative arc of the Bible.

The first half of our spiritual life is the Old Testament.
The second half of our spiritual life is the New Testament.

However, Rohr argues that most modern Christian teachings (sermons, Bible studies, books, etc) are primarily focused with keeping people constrained within the first half of the spiritual journey.

In Falling Upward, Rohr writes,

If change and growth are programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warning about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshipping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage – as if it were God!”

Overemphasizing the first half of the spiritual journey at the expense of the second half will not only discourage spiritual development, it’ll foster an environment in which fundamentalism thrives and spiritual exploration is discouraged.

When someone finds the courage to admit they’re losing their faith or overwhelmed with doubt, our first response shouldn’t be to recommend an apologetics book or chastise them for not praying hard enough.

Spiritual writer Anne Lamott says the most powerful sermon in the world is as simple as two words: “Me too.”

Because when your faith is hanging by a thread, the last thing you need is another lecture, rebuke, warning, or stack of book recommendations.

You just want somebody to look you in the eyes and tell you they understand your struggle because they’ve been there to.

Trust me.

And if you can’t tell someone that, if you don’t have any doubts of our own to share, you may need to go out and find some.

In my experience, a faith without doubt is faith more preoccupied with escaping the realities of the world than engaging with them.

Robert Robinson, the 18th-century pastor who penned the famous hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” was famously fickle about his faith and questions linger about whether he had renounced Christianity at the time of his death.

To this day, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is my favorite hymn (and the Sufjan Stevens version will forever reign supreme), and the song’s complicated backstory only makes it resonate more with me.

However, it’s a stanza in the song’s fourth verse that I believe fully encapsulates the never-ending battle between belief and unbelief that rages within every believer:

“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”

Let that be our confession, our prayer, and our hope.


Best Songs About Doubt

Please Be My Strength” – Gungor

Believe” – Mumford & Sons

A Prayer” – Kings Kaleidoscope

Oh God Where Are You Now?” – David Crowder Band

The Doubtful One” – The Collection

Cloud’s Song” – Brent Walsh

Mercy” – The Brilliance

The Maze” – Manchester Orchestra

Any Other Way” – Tomberlin

 

4 thoughts on “Prone To Wander: The Allure of Deconversion Testimonies

  1. I really appreciate your honesty and bravery in posting this. I’ve been going through that second half of spiritual life recently, and the questions and mistrust and doubts can be very difficult to deal with. It isn’t even that I am doubting the Bible or God’s existence or what Jesus did. A lot of it is just doubts and mistrust for current Christian leadership. And it is frustrating when you listen in on a sermon that makes you question whether it is even remotely biblical in any way, and whether it is truthful. So in a different way, I totally resonate with this. Truth be told, I thought I was just being a problematic Christian by asking so many questions and by doubting so much. But in reality, it has grown me closer to Christ, so I am grateful for it.

    Like

    1. re Emily and “current Christian leadership”
      Yeah – a bit of a problem with a complete abandonment to the ethics of Christ in order to become partisan tools…. that and simply regurgitating the highly simplified, traditional same-o over again…without actually doing the leg-work or challenging themselves.

      Like

  2. re Emily and “current Christian leadership”
    Yeah – a bit of a problem with a complete abandonment to the ethics of Christ in order to become partisan tools…. that and simply regurgitating the highly simplified, traditional same-o over again…without actually doing the leg-work or challenging themselves.

    re: Terrell and “Progressive” Christianity
    To be honest, as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ – I really dislike this term “progressive”…. one is either a follower of Christ … or not…. (cf the “born-again Christian” thing about 40 years ago…). The issue of what a “follower of Christ” means? Fair enough – a bit more tricky – though ardently supporting an inveterate liar and serial adulterer definitely does not compute…. And, of course, what does the standard protestant canon have to do with it…:-).

    Wonder if we can eliminate this “progressive” thing – which is just fodder for people steeped in simplified religious tradition and blather….

    Like

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