Two weeks ago, Josh Harris, the author of the controversial Christian bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced that he and his wife, Shannon, were ending their marriage. Last week, Harris published another Instagram post, this time about the state of his faith:
I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.
Harris’s announcement caught editor Drew Dyck off guard.
“I think my shock probably pales in comparison to the shock and even the grief that the people that sat under his ministry for over a decade would feel,” said Dyck, the author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Church … and how to Bring Them Back. “There's a lot of consternation when your pastor says he's ‘falling away’ from faith because it's an implicit threat to your own faith.”
Dyck joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and CT Pastors editor Kyle Rohane to discuss why people are leaving the church today, why you should react differently to your friend departing the faith than your child, and how to process our emotions and reactions we learn that public figures and loved ones have left Christianity.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Promise Keepers. The Christian men’s ministry that filled stadiums across America is, once again, calling on men to stand up and be counted. For more information, go to promisekeepers.org.
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 171
As a somewhat contemporary of Josh Harris, what was your initial reaction to Josh Harris's news?
Drew Dyck: Like a lot of people, I was shocked. I'm not close to Josh, but we have exchanged messages a few times over the years and he once wrote a piece for CT Pastors. I knew that he had taken a sort of unconventional route, but I didn't really have an inkling that he was going through such a dramatic deconstruction of his faith until we all saw this post on Instagram. So yeah, it was shocking.
But I think my shock probably pales in comparison to the shock and even the grief that the people that sat under his ministry for over a decade would feel. There's a lot of consternation when your pastor says he's “falling away” from faith because it's an implicit threat to your own faith. I think especially when it's someone you admired, that you learned from, that you looked up to, has such a dramatic shift away from faith, you kind of wonder about yourself. So I think that accounts for some of the grief, some of the shock, and even some of the shrill tone that I have seen from people responding to this online. And I don't think that's the right approach, but at the same time, I want to be charitable, especially to people who were part of his church or read his books. I can understand the reaction.
What's the normal range of emotions that Christians are going to feel when a public figure announces that they're leaving the faith?
Drew Dyck: I think it kind of follows a trajectory. First of all, they're surprised that this would happen. You don't expect that. You might expect it from an angsty teenager or young adult who goes off to college and encounters different ideas and falls away from the faith of their childhood. That's a little more typical. This is pretty shocking. And then there's grief, there's a sense of loss. And then often that can morph into anger because you feel a little bit of betrayal, especially if you had a personal connection to this person. Some of the reactions that I've seen that are probably a little unhelpful fall almost in two extremes. I've seen some people, online at least, kind of praising this decision that he's made just for its honesty and authenticity. And yeah, that's good that he's being honest about it, but at the same time, I wouldn't be one of the ones that joins the chorus of praising someone for walking away from the faith.
I do think it's sad and I think it's okay to acknowledge that. On the other hand, the opposite reaction of lashing out at that person, saying they were always duplicitous, or just starting to bash them, write them off entirely, or import all kinds of bad motivations on their part—that's not helpful at either because it's important to remember that there are people watching us. Unbelievers, people that have walked away, other Christians that may be doubting, and when we react like that, it can actually push people further away.
I think when someone's prominent or famous, at least within our sphere of the Christian world, it's easy to think of that person not as a real person but just sort of a figurehead, and just lash out as if they're not paying attention when I think they often are. And of course, that's a very vulnerable moment when you've announced that you've walked away from the faith. And so we would want to be gentle even as we express our grief and shock.
Do you think that any of these emotions or reactions are different from when one hears this news from a loved one?
Drew Dyck: I think what makes it different when it's a loved one, a family member or close friend, it's a little trickier. The stakes are higher obviously, right? If it's your son or daughter or spouse, it impacts your life on a whole different level. And there's a whole relational history there. I've talked to a lot of parents that have had their grown children make a decision to leave the church or even the faith, and often the ways they respond are very counterproductive. You think you can tell them what they need to do or start preaching at them or get incredibly defensive. So while it's great that there's that relational connection, it can actually sabotage it because there's a lot of white-hot emotions that arise—especially in the immediate aftermath of someone saying, "I'm out. I'm not a Christian anymore." So it's really important to take a deep breath, take a step back, and really be careful in how you approach the topic of faith going forward.
What are some things you should absolutely never say to someone who's just decided to disclose to you that they've left Christianity?
Drew Dyck: There's probably a large range of things, but I think one of the common ones that I've seen is starting to hazard guesses as to why they left or just telling them why you believe they left. Saying something like, "You're just doing that because you're compromising morally, and you can't hack it as a Christian anymore. So you're changing your creed to match your conduct." That's not helpful. Even if you're right, it's not going to be helpful for facilitating productive dialogue with that person going forward.
I think another thing people get wrong is they immediately try to argue. I love apologetics; they are absolutely essential. We have to study, know why we believe what we believe, but when you just jump into that after someone tells you they no longer believe, that can be unhelpful as well.
I think the first thing to say instead is to just affirm your love for them. Say to them, "I understand that you're changing your stance on faith. This doesn't change our relationship. I love you. I'm not going anywhere." That's huge because that's what they need to hear because they're in a very vulnerable state at that point. So to hear that kind of affirmation from you is essential.
If we suspect that someone is leaving, in the process of leaving, or has left it in some way, is this something that we should always wait for them to bring up and to disclose with us? Or is there a way that might be healthier for us to kind of be vulnerable first?
Drew Dyck: I think it's okay to broach the topic if you suspect that someone has been on a certain trajectory. You don't want to be accusatory, obviously, because that can be threatening, and they may not be ready to open up to you. But if you can ask open-ended questions like, "Hey, where are you at these days spiritually?" Just be curious to find out. And then if they do open up, it's really important to hear them out entirely without jumping in, without interrupting, without arguing.
For my first book, I tracked down dozens of mainly 20-somethings that had walked away from the faith, and it was a good practice for me because I love to argue, love to get in there and try to mix it up, but I was, you know, playing the journalist so I had to kind of bite my tongue and just kind of listen to their entire story for an hour or two. And it was incredible to me. Some of them even said, "It's so good to have someone listen to my story, to actually get this all out." Because often when it comes up, someone jumps in and starts to argue with them rather than hearing out the whole story. And often the very first things they say aren't the real issues. They might have an intellectual objection to the faith, but then you dig into the story a little more and you hear a little more about their journey, and they had some awful experience—even in their childhood—in the church, and that's maybe the core issue.
So it's really important to kind of get the full story at first—without judgment, without arguing—because if you're going to have a productive conversation going forward, it has to start that way.
Josh Harris said he was in the process of deconstruction and he equated that with falling away. Do you think it's appropriate to say that deconstruction is synonymous with leaving the church or leaving the faith or is that something different?
Drew Dyck: I think it's something different. I think "deconstruction" and "falling away" are different. I was a little surprised to see him equating those two. Often people use a term like "deconstruction" to mean a rejection of the faith, but I think more often they don't. I think usually they're talking about inheriting a faith from parents or childhood and realizing that the older they get, as they study, the more they need to make it their own. And so it's going to change. I mean how many of us can say that our faith is identical to what it was when we were teenagers, right? That's incredibly rare. I think in some way we all go through subtle deconstructions in our faith, and that's okay as long as there's a construction. I mean, the term deconstruction comes from literary criticism, and it doesn't mean to tear down something. It actually means to expose the tensions within a text and kind of see how it's put together, what power dynamics are at play. And so in the best sense, deconstruction of faith can actually be a positive thing. Where you're just giving it a closer analysis and truly trying to understand how your faith works, what's essential, what's inessential, what's cultural, what's truly biblical.
I do think that people can go through a healthy deconstruction that ends up with a stronger faith. I think it's especially hard for people that come from a little more fundamentalist background because they think that if they're going to depart from what they believed in their childhood, it’s almost an all-or-nothing proposition when, of course, there are many ways to be a faithful Christian. So yeah, I think deconstruction can be a healthy thing and is not synonymous with falling away.
When somebody is saying that they've left the church and decided they're not a Christian anymore, it's easy to treat that as the final word on the subject. What would you say to people who are tempted to treat it as the last word in the conversation?
Drew Dyck: Obviously, if someone has totally rejected the faith and walked away and made that announcement, it's hard to get them to come back to church and open to coming back to the faith. I'm not going to pretend it isn't, but it's also not hopeless. If that person at one point was a passionate believer and really ascribed to these things and they changed their minds, who's to say that they won't change their mind again in the future? People certainly aren't static in their faith journey, so I encourage people not to give up even when it seems hopeless. When I did my interviews with all these self-described ex-Christians, one of the questions I asked was if they ever still pray. And I was amazed. Most of them, with a couple of exceptions, admitted that at times they still do. And they were these angry, very honest, desperate sorts of prayers, yet for me that was encouraging. I do believe that God still works in people's hearts, even when they seem like they have left the fold. So yeah, we don't want to give up on these people, and I believe God hasn't given up on them. He's the Good Shepherd that leaves the 99 to go searching for the one, and we have to have that same heart, that same commitment, and that same hope.
There is a caveat. You certainly don't want to say things like, "God will bring you back." First of all, you don't know that, if we're being honest. And secondly, it's kind of patronizing and dismissive of the current position that they're in. I know that I feel the same way when I've talked with atheists that say, "You'll see the light. Once you get smart enough, you read enough, you're going to disavow your faith." It's like, thanks for speaking over my voice and telling me what I'm going to do, right? And so that's certainly not helpful either. You can express your desire that they would come back to their faith, and yet to tell them it's going to happen, I think it's a mistake.
Can you tell us statistically why people leave Christianity here in the West? And what's different about the numbers of people who are leaving Christianity today as opposed to 50 or 60 years ago?
Drew Dyck: There has definitely been an acceleration in the number of people in the West claiming to have no religion. When I wrote my book in 2010, 22 percent in the younger cohort of 18 to 30 claimed to have no religion. Many of those had grown up in Christian homes. And that was a huge spike because the numbers before that were from 1990 that showed 11 percent. Today, it's at 34 to 36 percent.
As far as why they leave, that's a tough one. You might assume that they all leave because they read Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and became angry atheists. But statistically speaking, the vast majority of people who leave the faith of their childhood do so because "they gradually drifted away"—71 percent, according to one Pew study, reported they just gradually drifted away. And those people often don't have huge barriers to belief. They aren't angry at God or have huge intellectual objections to Christian beliefs and practices. It may just mean they need a Christian friend or family member to come alongside them and kind of pull them back into the church and kind of a challenge them to take a second look at the faith.
What is a posture that you would recommend friends take to friends with regards to this? What are good questions to ask? Or what are good ways to talk about this in a way that respects the relationship and respects the other person but also lets them know that you care deeply about keeping this part about them engaged?
Drew Dyck: The words that come to mind for me are empathy and curiosity. You don't want to be too aggressive and come out swinging when you learn that a friend has walked away from their faith. On the other hand, don't say, "That's your journey. This is mine. You do you; I'll do me." That kind of attitude can actually convey a sort of indifference. You don't want to hit them with a lot of grief either, but you want to say, "That's concerning to me. I'm curious about where you're at. Can you tell me more about your journey and where you're at and how you got there?" I think that it's good for them to know that you care and that you're interested and that you want to maintain that relationship.
So many of these stories of people leaving their faith, if you dig down deep enough into them, the break from their faith actually happened in the context of a relationship. They felt maybe alienated in their youth group, or they were abused by a spiritual authority, or they have relational issues with their parents. Whatever it is, it often plays a role. I think to maintain those relational bonds are crucial so that when that person does have a crisis in their life, or they start doubting their doubts, you are that person that they turn to and it's a huge honor if you can retain that relationship and be the person that they want to have spiritual conversations with.
What advice do you give to parents?
Drew Dyck: That's a dicey one. Beware of how you have an incredibly close relationship with this person as their parent. Often when they're walking away from their faith, sometimes they're pushing back against you a little bit. You don't want to make the relationship they have with you a referendum on God. And so this is where you really have to be careful in affirming and loving them as your son, as your daughter.
I've talked to so many people that will not have these conversations with their parents because their parents have preached at them, they told them they're going to hell, they have just ripped into them, and it becomes the sore point even if they stay connected to their parents. It's just like a no-go topic for them. So really work hard to be gentle, sensitive, and open. And you can even just say, "Hey, I'm concerned. I know we're at different places when it comes to God. I'd love to continue the conversation. I'm not here to judge you. I'm not here to preach at you. But anytime you want to talk about it, I'm here."
I think so often a lot of people when they have a loved one that leaves the faith, it's incredibly disconcerting to you and instead of joyfully living out your faith you actually adopt this dour demeanor because you are so concerned about it. And so whenever you're around this person, you're like an Eeyore or something. You want to show that you're still enjoying your faith, that it's something that's enriching your life, and that you're still passionately following Jesus. Because ultimately the best apologetic is a life lived for Christ. And so if you can demonstrate that to the people that you love, that's huge.
What kind of ownership do you think a person of faith should take for the failings that somebody experienced that may have led them to renounce their faith? Do you think it's appropriate to apologize?
Drew Dyck: I think it is appropriate to apologize for it. When someone was abused by someone they looked up to as a Christian or they are treated unfairly, it's absolutely essential to express that empathy. I think it's very healing for them to hear from a Christian that that was wrong, that shouldn’t have happened. Because the biggest danger when it comes to these topics is that they kind of conflate the abuser with God and toss everything out.
And so if you can help them, even emotionally, make that crucial differentiation between God and the person who mistreated them in God's name, that's huge. So I think that's the first thing to do: just to acknowledge that what happened is wrong. And then don't also jump right in to argue that that's not like Jesus or that's not true Christianity. Because they may not be ready to hear that quite yet, but just an unqualified “That was wrong. I feel angry for you. I'm sad for you. I hear you.”
Obviously, it's going to be a little bit strange for pastors to publicly dialogue with their congregations about where they are with their faith at any given time. But what are ways for congregants to support their pastors even unknowingly as they might be wrestling?
Kyle Rohane: I think it's really important that while we accept the fact that our pastor is in the role of shepherd, is in the role of spiritual parent, that they are still human. That they may have had a bad week and that bad week has an effect on their relationship with Christ and with God, that pastors aren't shielded from those things just by virtue of having the title pastor. And offering their pastor encouragement, when the pastor doesn't have to ask for it. That you can go unsolicited and say, "Hey, I see that you look tired this week. I just know that my family and I are praying for you and we care for you deeply." I think that is amazingly helpful for a pastor, just as it would be for anybody.
Drew Dyck: Yeah, I love that. Not only are pastors just like the rest of us and susceptible to doubt and discouragement, but ministry comes with even extra challenges to your faith. Tending to the souls of others can, if you're not careful, really be hard on yours. But I really don't I think there’s much we can do as congregants. I think pastors need dialogue partners, people with whom they can be completely honest with to air their doubts. They need to find other leaders, maybe even people outside of their own congregation, that they can be completely transparent with. Because that relationship between the parishioner pastors is so fraught.