Why Are So Many Christians Walking Away From Their Faith?

And what can we do about it?

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Over the past decade, I have watched several of my Christian friends walk away from their faith. And these were no laissez-fair Christians either – they were passionate Jesus lovers who ran after God and seized every opportunity to share His love with others. But now, some of these same friends deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and have embraced a form of religious pluralism instead (the belief that there are many ways to God and we will all end up in heaven). So what happened - how did they get derailed? And what can we do to safeguard our faith so that we do not end up following this same path?

In observing the different journeys my friends (and other prominent Christian figures) have taken in departing from the faith, I have noticed some similarities among them. For starters, they are typically compassionate individuals – people who refuse to impose legalistic religion on others or judge someone at face value. They see the worth in others no matter one’s race, economic status, sexual identity, or any other potential label that could make someone an outcast. At some point, these kind-hearted individuals begin to question the discrepancy between church behavior and the life Jesus actually modeled for us. They become weary of just going through the motions at church without truly impacting society for the better, and become disheartened by the “church club” exclusivity that can easily lead to shunning. Some of these individuals have been victims of spiritual abuse in “the name of God,” and are finally rejecting the guilt-based manipulation and power-driven agendas at hand. They want no part of a powerless and loveless church that shows no evidence of change over time, especially one that tries to control people in the process. Brian McLaren captured it well in his book, “The Great Spiritual Migration:”

What happened to Christianity? What happened to Jesus and his beautiful message? We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant, and anti-science (not to mention pro-torture, pro-inequality, pro-violence, pro-death penalty, and pro-war). That’s not the Jesus of the Gospels! That’s not the Jesus who won our hearts!

So there is a spiritual migration going on. People are searching for a better way to be Christian, one that resonates more with the true heart of Christ . . . otherwise they want nothing to do with it. They are done with an apathetic, naïve, impotent form of religion. As Jonathan Martin stated, “If we hand our sons and daughters a faith exposed as misogynistic, racist, unconcerned about creation and the poor, they aren’t wrong to leave it.” 

And I could not agree more. We absolutely need to separate ourselves from the falsehoods, the dead religious traditions, and the harsh judgments that inaccurately portray the Christ we follow . . . but what we migrate to is of enormous importance. Is the authority of Scripture still revered, and is Jesus still Lord in that new paradigm?

We tend to like things black and white, so we often settle more heavily on one side of an argument (sometimes teetering from one extreme view to another). This is what can happen when people recognize the “wrongs” within a church; instead of sorting out which elements should be tossed aside, they pull to the opposite extreme and throw out everything connected with God and the church. But unchallenged tolerance (the opposite extreme) is not the best approach either - authentic faith and wholehearted love is not steeped in denial, appeasement, or the refusal to question or anything. As Kris Vollotton wrote, "We must love others MORE THAN we love our convictions, but we can’t love others INSTEAD OF our convictions." We should not encourage an “anything goes” mentality of freedom (Romans 6:15), but at the same time, it is not our job to involve ourselves in “sin management.” 

It all comes down to the paradox of faith - we live in a balance between two apparently contradictory ideas that are actually complimentary. So in the end, if we end up pursuing just knowledge, or just love, we abandon the healthy tension that is required for us to walk in wisdom. As we each search for truth, and the loving application of it in our culture today, it is imperative that we use discernment (James 1:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, Philippians 1:9-10, Hebrews 5:14, Romans 12:2, John 7:24, Proverbs 2:1-5, Colossians 2:8, Hosea 14:9). We must learn how to eat the meat and spit out the bones. 

It is no secret that we are in the midst of a cultural revolution (inside and outside the church) regarding the topic of homosexuality. I only bring this up because I have noticed that the current shift in people’s core beliefs can often be traced back to this subject matter. The questioning of God, church, inclusion, grace, love, and the validity of Scripture often begin around this topic. Some Christians have labeled this sin as greater than other sins, and practiced a form of prejudice against homosexuals (which has in turn stripped the church of her voice and influence amidst this cultural shift). Other believers have risen up in anger at this injustice, because if the church cannot be a safe place for people to wrestle through their struggles and identity in Christ, where are they to go?

Jesus came to set us free (Galatians 5:1), so if our Christian faith ever starts to feel oppressive, then we need to take a second look. The truth is we should be angered by bigotry within the church, but as believers seek to exemplify God’s true heart to the gay population, some end up in a dilemma between their esteem for the authority of Scripture and the esteem they have for these people (thinking a contradiction exists). In his article “Isn’t Christianity Arrogant?” Andy Bannister points out, “It’s very easy to slip from the true claim—‘all people have equal value’—to the false claim that ‘all ideas have equal merit.’ But those are two very different ideas indeed.”

Some Christians shift their stance on homosexuality after getting to know gay people personally (or after a beloved family member or friend “comes out”). When these individuals encounter wise, kind-hearted gay people, who genuinely love God and contribute to society in meaningful ways, they realize their former stereotypes were defective. And it is wonderful when inaccurate typecasts are shattered! But some of these believers then conclude that in order to lovingly engage with this population, they must endorse their lifestyle too . . . and they end up sanctioning alternative forms of sexuality as God-given. As a result, Scriptures get reinterpreted in ways that only condemn homosexual relationships outside of monogamy and marriage.

I have watched this line of questioning lead many people down a similar path of thinking and revision of beliefs, one that eventually confounds their faith in Christ:

  • A Christian feels compassion for an outcast or nonbeliever, and after watching the church exclude or look down on certain groups of people as “less than,” the Christian rightfully begins to question this behavior, seeking to rectify such wrongs by finding a way to express God’s love to the marginalized.
  • These individuals end up wrestling through their Christian faith and heritage, but since they love Jesus and believe the Bible to be true, they go searching for a Scriptural way to rectify the perceived contradictions.
  • As these individuals search for understanding, and their feelings and opinions overshadow the process, they can end up looking for answers through a biased lens, concentrating only on books and sermons, etc. that confirm what they want to believe (which we are all susceptible to doing).
  • These individuals try to reconcile the God in the Bible with what they believe love and mercy should look like, and they end up throwing out certain portions of Scripture as misunderstood or translation errors . . . or reinterpreting them within a new framework.
  • Some people end up walking away from the Bible and Christianity all together, but many of these individuals still claim to love Jesus and believe in the authority of Scripture . . . though their new framework allows for exceptions in Scripture. The enemy eventually exploits this, provoking them to scrutinize other major passages of Scripture in the light of God’s goodness (like the reality of a hell created by a loving God).
  • Since previous compromises with Scripture were made, it is easy to continue down this trajectory . . . and now everything in the Bible is up for reinterpretation (through our lens of what seems logical and loving). In time, it becomes comfortable to reframe the definition of a loving God without standards of holiness, and thus Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf becomes unnecessary . . . and multiple paths to God are rationalized as acceptable.

In the end, if there appears to be a contradiction between Scripture and the merciful nature of God, we should seek out understanding. But if we truly know God to be good and loving (which He proved by sending His son to die for us while we were still sinners) then maybe it is not Scripture that is wrong, but our understanding of it (Romans 5:8).

The real danger enters when we begin to question the validity of Scripture, because people will then use their own standards to form a version of God who does not disagree with them. Eventually everyone is accepted for whatever they believe (as long as they are sincere), but this tolerance is actually a masked form of universalism. It becomes rude and unloving to question someone’s beliefs or lifestyle, and thus a postmodern church is established . . . one where everyone can live by their own version of truth, all in the name of “acceptance, love, and grace.” And the gospel disintegrates.

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. – attributed to St. Augustine

The enemy is targeting compassionate Christians as they wake up to the injustices within the church and distorting their journey for truth by pushing them away from the safety of God’s Word and community. The enemy does not mislead us through blatant expressions of evil; instead he comes disguised in a form of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). He will use any means possible to destroy the Church, and I believe he is currently doing this by exploiting people’s mercy heart (2 Timothy 4:3, 1 Peter 5:8). Some may refer to it as operating in unsanctified mercy . . . when we end up doing the wrong thing for the right reason. We must be so careful what we are tolerating and defining as “good,” because the wisdom of the world is very different from the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 3:19, 1 Corinthians 1:20, Isaiah 5:20-21).

I unknowingly lived many years of my life in a place of distorted mercy and truth, and my family suffered greatly as a result. We ended up in a blanket of deception that eventually tore my family apart and took my dad away from his true calling as a pastor and deliverance minister. And through it all, we never stopped loving God or seeking truth in His Word . . . yet still we were misled (Matthew 10:16).

Reverend Ashley Null explains, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” Though we did not realize it at the time, this is exactly what happened. We reinterpreted Scripture to explain our experiences, shaping it to affirm our biased beliefs. We used our own standards to form a version of Christianity that aligned with our way of thinking . . . and though it was not initially evident, eventually the fruit of our flawed theology was devastating.

Thankfully, God sees the motives of our heart even when we make a huge mess of things, and He has a beautiful way of redeeming these dark places in our life when we let Him. His grace is big enough to cover every one of our mistakes, whether we are aware of them or not (Lamentations 3:22-23, Hebrews 4:16).

I am determined not to let my mistakes define me or destroy me, but instead to grow from them (Genesis 50:20). Because of my own failures, I am now particularly sensitive when Christians embrace ideas that appear to be in love, but in reality may be a distortion (and could eventually lead them away from God’s best). However, this does not mean I need to shove my convictions in their face! 

I heard Dallas Willard teach that we should encourage people to follow Jesus, but if they find a better way to take it. Someone asked him if this was dangerous to do and his response was, “It is dangerous for us not to do this! Because then you have people whose tongue proclaims one thing but their heart another.” Willard explained that our tongue often follows social conformity, because what often rules today is the social pressure of the best professional opinion . . . but our heart follows truth (what we really believe). Sadly, many churches are content if their members just agree to a checklist of beliefs (even if they struggle internally with their faith) . . . as if that were the extent of salvation.

Dallas Willard explains, “Faith was never meant to exist outside of knowledge, where knowledge is possible” (Hosea 4:6). Blind faith (based on mere tradition or feelings) will not yield a truly victorious life, so it is healthy to confront any inconsistencies between our heart and our head. As believers, we need to create space for people to ask the honest and hard questions, but grace for agreeing to disagree through that process. It helps if we can also recognize there is something sacred to the mystery of God, so if we do not arrive at all the answers, we can simply rest in His goodness and leave room for God to be God (Isaiah 55:8-9). In the end, God cares much more about our friendship than He cares about us getting everything right (John 15:15).

I know now that even under the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), it is not my job to convert people - if God wants someone to change then that part is up to Him. So I can stop pulling “authoritarian” on everyone and trying to indoctrinate them to my beliefs . . . and instead just enter a dialogue with them. As Dallas Willard put it, “We can be joint seekers of truth together.” It should never be about winning an argument; it is about listening well (Proverbs 18:13), and simply loving people right where they are (1 Peter 4:8, Romans 2:4).

An open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart. Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.– David Augsburger

A.J. Swoboda once said, “The world is changed by listeners,” so I am just wondering if there are any fellow world changers out there who want to join me?

Further Reading:

A Letter To My God-Fearing (Conservative) Parents by Carlos Rodriguez

How To Hold Fast To The Real Gospel Without Watering Down Love by Kris Vallotton

Worth a Listen:

Andley Stanley's sermon: "Reclaiming Irresistible" about the current generation that is losing confidence in the Bible and walking away from their faith

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

*Please comment respectfully. I welcome honesty as you share your thoughts and feelings. However, since many of these subjects are controversial, I ask that you take care to honor others in the process. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriate comments.