How should we respond when Christian celebrities abandon their evangelical faith? In June of 2018, musicians Michael and Lisa Gungor publicly acknowledged their temporary atheism.
More recently, former megachurch pastor and author Joshua Harris posted on Instagram, “By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
And former Hillsong composer Marty Sampson posted what seemed to be a hesitant farewell speech to Christianity: “I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me.”
It may not bother Sampson, but it sure bothers the rest of us. While some may shrug off these announcements as casualties of living in the end times, the majority of Christians are wondering how to respond. How do we yell, “Man overboard!” without … well … going overboard?
As a doubter, I can tell you that the Christian community’s response to these moments is pivotal. Public reactions to such news sets the groundwork for those who are wrestling with their faith in secret, suspicious that doubters are not welcome at the table. Unless we embrace the doubter, and hold ground for them, more rocks of the faith will start to come down in the avalanche of disbelief and shaky foundations.
It is normal to feel disoriented, angry and weakened by their loss of faith. We often underestimate the impact another’s faith has on our own. Contrary to what we may like to think, we rely heavily on the emotional and intellectual commitment of the worldwide community of believers. We are weak. We do not realize how much we are leaning on another’s faith until their stumbling makes us lose our footing as well.
When we trust people, their words have a natural weight to them. And any sort of renouncement of the faith is the weightiest of all. These were the pioneers. These were seemingly the most committed of the bunch. Simply put, these were the talented representatives of Christ. Still, there is an authentic, positive response to it all. Here are five things we can do:
1. Consider the foundation of your faith. I went through a major time of doubt and disbelief with my Christian faith. During that time, I realized that nothing else can be as foundational to my relationship with God than my faith in Jesus Christ. There are many things that are foundational, but only He can be the foundation.
In fact, there is a haunting inadequacy to placing our hope in anyone other than Jesus. That frees me up to read biblical texts I don’t fully grasp, paired with science that is above my head, without worrying that a lack of understanding will topple my faith.
Some may say it is ignorant and dismissive to practice my faith this way. On the contrary! It’s the exorable mystery of Christ’s love for me, as evidenced by His death and resurrection, that is the foundation upon which I build my entire Christian faith. Therefore, unmet expectations and difficult passages may be disorienting, but they are never devastating.
So many of the reasons people leave the faith arise from a faulty foundation. Jesus predicted this. He predicted storms would come and foundations would be tested (Matthew 7:24-27).
There is a haunting inadequacy to placing our hope in anyone other than Jesus.
The entire edifice of our faith cannot depend on whether God answers a prayer for healing. Nor can it be based on our interpretation of passages such as Genesis 1. Jesus is the “cornerstone” the “builders rejected” (1 Peter 2:6-7). Suffering and uncertainties in the world will crack any other foundation over time. Unless it is Christ, it is insufficient.
2. Think about what you need to think about. Disbelief and doubt are two entirely different categories. Disbelief is the dismissal of faith. It’s an intellectual fortitude against the option in front of you. It’s the hardened heart of Pharaoh. Doubt, on the other hand, is uncertainty. It is an awareness of, a clinging to, the tension between what we feel and what we know. Doubters realize the complexity of the world, feel perplexed at times, but, with a nudge in the right direction, move toward humility.
Therefore, let yourself wrestle with doubt. It is a grace of God to have you at the table with all your questions. If God is truth, the closer we get to truth, the closer we get to God! May the community of God make room for your processing. In Isaiah 1:18, the Lord said, “Come, let us reason together.” Those who are closest to God will utter the same invitation.
3. Speak honestly about the situation, but never lose hope. Within a year of coming back into the faith, my pastor stepped down from ministry for using drugs and having an affair. My confusion and anger were not directed toward God, but toward my friend’s actions and the situation. This allowed me to stay hopeful for the situation. You see, we can feel the impact of a person’s disbelief without them imparting their disbelief on us.
4. Stop following them. Luke 8:13 talks about people who fall away from faith in times of testing: “Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”
People gain the right to be followed by how they withstand times of testing. This is not to say we are to identify people with their greatest mistake. Every person is worth more than their greatest mistake. However, if the testing of life proves someone’s faith to be without roots, they should not be followed for the time being. This is a danger of publicly abandoning faith; it makes our theology suspect.
5. Let Jesus in. On the road to Emmaus, two men walked away from Jerusalem. Scripture says they were kept from recognizing Jesus (Luke 24:16). As they were talking to one another about their uncertainties, Jesus arrived on the scene and walked with them away from the place of their faith. As He reasoned with them about the Scriptures, they invited Him to keep journeying with them. “But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over’” (verse 29).
When doubters experience Jesus, they invite Him into the journey, wherever it may lead.
After they admitted that the presence of Christ made their hearts “burn within” them (verse 32), they returned to Jerusalem, declaring, “It is true! The Lord has risen” (verse 34). Take note of the foundation of their newly constructed faith.
When we welcome Jesus into the impact made by another’s disbelief, we are welcoming the reconstructing power of the resurrection. Deconstruction is only beneficial if the reconstruction is better.