There is an awful lot of talk these days about why so many people are leaving the church. One of the things we are not discussing as much is why some people are staying. I would like to explore one aspect of that Christian retention.
My friend Derek is a lifelong churchgoer. He is smart, articulate, and has an inquisitive mind. He was raised in a conservative church and spent his college years as an active member of a famous parachurch organization. He even spent a few years in seminary, though he never completed his degree. Derek spent all the way up into his 30s in the loving arms of evangelicalism. Their relationship was not always one of romantic bliss but his conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ always managed to overshadow his existential angst.
Where did his angst come from? Well, truth be told, that is a complicated topic, but one of his most poignant issues was his loss of assurance. When I say assurance, I am not primarily talking about the popular evangelical phrase "assurance of salvation," though I am sure that also comes into play. What I am talking about is assurance in a more ultimate sense. Derek couldn't figure out what was ultimately true. The resulting chaotic assurance-void left was more than Derek could bear.
Desperate for answers
For smart guys like Derek, the evangelical church (at least the particular subculture in which he was raised) had left him with an untenable paradigm for authority. This paradigm had been delivered to him through multiple channels.
At first, the tension was mostly anecdotal. He became exhausted by the intellectually insulting positions that so many people in religious circles take. Derek wanted to slap people who passionately espoused that there are no intellectual quagmires in the Bible. (He wasn't saying that the Bible was false or flawed, he just wanted authorities to stop treating the Bible like a Pollyanna script.) He was annoyed by absolutist beliefs in a 6,000-year-old earth or that Jesus never drank wine, only grape juice. There were also more fundamental quibbles. How could the meaning of the cross be limited to humanity's heavenly destination, when the Bible contains literally thousands of passages about injustice and the poor?
Part of Derek's epistemological crisis was caused by the epistemology of his religious authorities. Citing the reformation-based belief in Sola Scriptura, his leaders taught that he didn't need any external authority to know ultimate truth. Truth was found in the Bible alone with no need for tradition or history. This, coupled a theological individualism, left the center of authority ultimately in, well, Derek. Derek knew "I think therefore I am" and his church told him that all answers could be discovered by any person, if only they obtained the tools to study. (Let's just set aside the fact that these beliefs make God's truth more accessible to the educated elite.)
Ultimately Derek was left to trust himself to logically discern God's truth. Derek is smart, but he knew he wasn't that smart.
Derek wanted to seek help, but where could he go? There are approximately 30,000 Protestant denominations in the world. Which was right? Which held the truth?
Well, Derek did what a growing slice of disillusioned evangelicals do: Derek turned to the ancient.
I have watched a dozen of my friends take this journey. They felt overwhelmed by the authority placed on the individual's ability to discern God or to place that authority in a particular Protestant sect (note: the act of choosing the right sect also resides with the individual.) This led my friends to put their spiritual trust in the ancient church, either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.