How Can We Instill a Faith that Endures?

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My colleague at Biola University, Robert Marriot, recently wrote a book entitled, A Recipe For Disaster: Four Ways Parents and Churches Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith And How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures. Given that this topic is near and dear to my heart, I asked him to answer a few questions about his research. His answers were revealing and important:

J. Warner: What motivated you to write this book? Why was this topic so important to you personally?

Robert: I was motivated to write the book because of what I discovered while doing research for my doctoral dissertation. In 2013 I was doing a PhD on the ethics of Buddhism. One night while I was online doing research I stumbled across a website that hosted hundreds of stories posted by former Christians concerning their loss of faith. Although it had nothing to do with my doctoral research I decided to give it a look. The more I read the more intrigued I was. Pastors, missionaries, worship leaders, seminary students and Bible college professors were all represented among the deconversion narratives. The stories were so captivating to me that I eventually decided to turn my attention away from Buddhist ethics and focus on deconversion from Christianity as the subject of my doctoral research.

As I continued to research deconversion stories I realized that the number of individuals who once identified as Christians but who now no longer do is both large and increasing. As you are aware, the statistics are quite shocking. In 2001, the Southern Baptist Convention reported they were losing between 70-88% of their youth after their freshman year in college.[1] At the same time 70% of SBC teenagers involved in church youth groups stopped attending church within two years of their high school graduation[2]. The following year the SBC also reported that 88% of children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18.[3] And that’s just a few of the studies that have been done. I could cite many, many more that say similar statistics about this growing problem.

The book grew out of what I discovered from reading deconversion stories and listening to former Christians who shared with me their loss of faith journeys. One of the big take-a-ways I discovered is that the church and parents unwittingly often played a role in the deconversion process. I wanted to share how that happens in order to help parents and church leaders avoid setting up believers for a crisis of faith that can lead to a loss of faith.

J. Warner: What cautions do we have to consider when evaluating why people de-convert?

Robert: That’s a great question. There are several that come to mind. First, we have to be careful not to assume that deconversion is ever simple. By that I mean it is impossible to identify just one reason why someone lost his or her faith. In the same way that people come to Christ for a complex combination of reasons, so too do people lose their faith. If you read a few deconversion narratives it might seem to be the case that the reason why individuals lose their faith is because they came to the conclusion the Bible had errors or that they lost confidence in arguments for the existence of God. But if you continue to read more stories it becomes apparent that there is always more going on than just one simple reason. This is not to criticize deconverts for how they tell their stories, It’s just to say that when it comes to major life transitions such as conversion to or from faith, there is much more going on.

Second, it’s tempting to explain deconversion by claiming that an individual lost their faith because they wanted to sin with a clear conscience. In my experience talking with former believers I have met some folks who this does seem to be true of. However, there are many others for whom it does not seem to be the case. In most instances the conscious reasons given for leaving Christianity are cognitive. If sinning is really why they are leaving the faith, it seems they are unaware of it. I have no doubt that sin is probably in the mix somewhere. The heart is deceitful, who can know it? But I trust former believers when they say that for them it was at least on a conscious level a truth issue, not that they wanted to do something the Bible forbids.

Third, a common explanation for why someone left the faith is to charge that they were never saved to being with. Whether that is the case or not, it isn’t helpful to explain away deconversion by dismissing the doubts and challenges that deconverts themselves point to as playing a role in their loss of faith. Whether a Christian can lose their salvation or not is an important theological issue. Perhaps it is the case that such persons were never born again by the Spirit of God. But you would be surprised to discover that many folks who lose their faith describe their Christian experience as being devoted to Jesus. Telling them they never truly believed can be insulting. If one is convinced that such persons were never saved because they never believed in a biblical way that leads to salvation then raising that issue needs to be done gently and in love.

J. Warner: You’ve used an analogy of cooking in you book. Can you explain this to my readers? Why did you use this analogy?

Robert: The title of the book is A Recipe for Disaster. I chose the metaphor of a recipe because just as recipes have three elements, so do deconversions. Every recipe has ingredients, a way of preparing the ingredients, and an environment where the prepared ingredients are cooked. The same is true for deconversions.

The ingredients in deconversions are those personality traits and personal values possessed by individuals. Studies show that there are certain traits and values that if an individual possesses make them more likely (statistically speaking) of leaving the faith. The preparation phase corresponds to how parents and churches socialize or disciple individuals into the faith. The third aspect of the Recipe for Disaster is the cooking environment of our increasingly secular culture.

The heart of the book concerns the preparation phase and focuses on the four errors parents and churches make as they pass on the faith. The reason for paying close attention to this aspect of the recipe is because it is the only aspect of the recipe we have any control over. The ingredients and the cooking environment are largely out of our control.

J. Warner: You’ve identified a number of causal factors that play a role in someone losing their faith. Can you briefly describe some of these factors?

Robert: Sure, the first is by being over prepared. Over prepared believers have been passed on a version of Christianity that is inflexible and fragile because it is bloated with doctrines and practices that are taken to be essential. Questioning one doctrine or taboo behavior results in the entire edifice being questioned. Rejecting one doctrine or practice results in the entire edifice collapsing. Unfortunately many of these doctrines and practices are not at all essential to being a Christian. Ultimately, over prepared believers become former believers when they can no longer affirm all the beliefs and practices that according to their community must be affirmed in order to be a true “Christian.”

The second factor is being an under prepared believer. Under preparation occurs when believers try to live in the world of the 21st century with only a Sunday school level understanding of the faith. Consistently, deconversion narratives reveal that many of the intellectual objections with the Bible or the existence of God are the result of having a poor understanding of the doctrines of the Bible and God. Believers need to be exposed to the great thinkers throughout history who have articulated sophisticated theological portraits that withstand shallow scrutiny of folks like the New Atheists.

We also need to do more than to help intelligent, educated, moderns living in the increasingly secular West to be able to relate their faith to the world they live in. On one hand, the modern world we live in has landed a rover on Mars, mapped the human genome and created a super computer that can compute 200 quadrillion calculations a second. On the other hand, the ancient world of the Bible is populated with talking snakes, giants, and bodily resurrections. On the surface such things sound more like myths than sober history. Former Christians who are educated, and culturally savvy wonder how adults can believe such things? We need to find ways of equipping Christians to have a high view of the Bible that is both faithful to what it teaches and which makes sense out their world.

Being ill prepared is the third factor. Believers who are ill prepared are those who have expectations of God and the Bible that go unmet because their conception of both is ill formed. Former Christians frequently express that they were disappointed with God. It seems they had a conception of him that led them to expect that he would behave in certain ways. When he did not, they were let down. The problem of evil is always lurking here. God doesn’t heal a relative, answer a prayer about a child, or meet a financial burden. This leads to a sense of betrayal by God and when that happens trust is broken. It is not a big step from losing one’s trust in God to losing one’s belief in his existence. We need to be intentional as parents and teachers to instill a well-balanced and biblical portrait of God and what we can expect from him as his followers.

The final factor is what I call being painfully prepared. This occurs when believers wound each other. Over, and over again individuals who leave the faith complain that a catalyst in their journey to unbelief was the example of fellow Christians or the mistreatment they received at their hands. Hypocrisy, judgementalism, and mean spiritedness characterized those in their churches. I have heard many versions of the following complaint from the lips of deconverts, “If this is the kind of people Christianity produces it can’t be true and if it is I don’t want anything to do with it.” How we treat each other matters. Mistreatment at the hands of those who say they are followers of Jesus can have tragic consequences in the lives of young Christians.

J. Warner: In addition to providing examples of why people leave the faith, you’ve also tried to address “recipes for success”. Can you explain one for us?

Robert: The recipe for success is not a guarantee. But it does offer ways to avoid and replace the four ways that we inadvertently prepare believers for a crisis of faith. The first way is to counter being over prepared by going deep on those beliefs that make up the core of the Faith and allowing believers flexibility and freedom on those doctrines that are not core truths. I see the early creeds as good places to start. They emphasize the boundary beliefs one has to hold to be a believer and to be orthodox in belief.

Second, to counter being under prepared I suggest that we work hard to contextualize the biblical narrative for a time such as this. This requires being faithful to the Scripture as the inspired word of God and communicating it in manner that makes sense to individuals living in our disenchanted, technological, and increasing secular culture. This will take work but needs to be done in order to speak faithfully and meaningfully to our culture. A good example of someone who is doing this is Tim Keller.

The third element in a recipe for success is to teach the whole counsel of God not just the comforting parts. Doing so will avoid believers who are ill prepared with concepts of God that are only partially accurate. Disillusionment sets in when believers feel that God has let them down because they expected him to do things he has never promised. There is an underlying assumption they possess that following God will lead to a life that is blessed. Blessed in this case means something like “pleasurable, prosperous and healthy.” Well, following God will produce a life that is blessed, but it may not look anything like that. In fact the Lord has repeatedly told us in his word to expect hardship, loss, and persecution. God is good but he is not beholden to our expectations of what his goodness should look like. We need to be reminded of that.

Finally, we need to treat each other with grace. God in his kindness treated us better than we deserved when he sent Jesus. Because of Jesus, God can now treat us better than we deserve our sin has been judged. Like God, we too should treat other brothers and sisters better than they deserve. Despite their perceived sins and shortcomings we should relate to other believers by treating them better than what we think their shortcomings deserve. In doing so we will not only avoid hurting them, but like God we will extend grace that can be restorative. Of course this doesn’t mean that we ignore sin or sweep it under the rug. It just means that we make sure that those issues we are willing to confront each other over really are sin and not just annoyances to us. And when we do confront it is done in love and with the other’s best interest in mind.

The recipe for success is not a guarantee. But it does offer ways to avoid and replace the four ways that we inadvertently prepare believers for a crisis of faith. Click To Tweet

J. Warner: Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work in general?

Robert: The best place to go is my website, www.johnmarriott.org there they can read the first chapter of the book. If they are interested in getting a copy it’s the best place to order it since I offer it for less than the Amazon list price. They can also find many other resources, both for those who are trying to understand the loss of faith and those who are trying to retain it. I have a free ebook, some videos, articles posted and my blog is there as well.

If you’re like me, you’re concerned about the challenges young Christians face and the number of young people who are leaving the Church. While it’s easy to “ring the alarmist bell,” there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of Christianity in America, especially if we are willing to embrace a “Forensic Faith” and begin training young believers so they can grow in their confidence and passion. Robert Marriot’s new book is an important contribution to that mission.

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Apologetics at Biola University, author of Cold-Case ChristianityGod’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.

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[1] http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc02/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=261

[2] Remarks to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee by T. C.  Pinckney Nashville, TN, September 18, 2001 http://www.schoolandstate.org/SBC/Pinckney-WeAreLosingOurChildren.htm

[3] http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc02/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=261

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