A lengthy and very thought-provoking article from Drew Dyck in Christianity Today entitled “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church,” looking at the current wave of 20- and 30-something “de-conversions.” Dyck thankfully avoids the alarmist rhetoric that usually characterizes these articles and offers instead a fairly thorough analysis (he recently published a full-length discussion of the topic with his book Generation Ex-Christian), some of the more relevant segments of which are below. I would be interested to hear the “reasons” you’ve heard for (young) people bailing on their faith. Mockingbird is obviously very interested in this question, and I’ve tried to summarize some of our thoughts at the bottom (ht RR):

When I ask church people [why so many young people are walking away from their faith], I receive some variation of this answer: moral compromise. A teenage girl goes off to college and starts to party. A young man moves in with his girlfriend. Soon the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable. Tired of dealing with a guilty conscience and unwilling to abandon their sinful lifestyles, they drop their Christian commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but these are smokescreens designed to hide the reason. “They change their creed to match their deeds,” as my parents would say.

I think there’s some truth to this—more than most young leavers would care to admit. The Christian life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations. Over the past year, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Christians. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures. Many experienced intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality.

A sizable minority of leavers have adopted alternative spiritualities. A popular choice is Wicca. Morninghawk Apollo (who renamed himself as is common in Wiccan practice) discussed his rejection of Christianity with candor. “Ultimately why I left is that the Christian God demands that you submit to his will. In Wicca, it’s just the other way around. Your will is paramount. We believe in gods and goddesses, but the deities we choose to serve are based on our wills.” That Morninghawk had a Christian past was hardly unique among his friends. “It is rare to meet a new Wiccan who wasn’t raised in the church,” he told me.

In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to “youthful rebellion.” Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.

Christians often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions when they talk with someone who has left the faith: they go on the offensive, delivering a homespun, judgmental sermon, or they freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all.

Another unsettling pattern emerged during my interviews. Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them. One was slapped across the face, literally.

…The answer, of course, lies in more than offering another program. Nor should we overestimate the efficacy of slicker services or edgy outreach. Only with prayer and thoughtful engagement will at least some of the current exodus be stemmed…

Ultimately we will have to undertake the slow but fruitful work of building relationships with those who have left the faith. This means viewing their skepticism for what it often is: the tortured language of spiritual longing. And once we’ve listened long and hard to their stories, and built bridges of trust, we will be ready to light the way back home.

I think this is partly true, but I might argue that we actually give “de-converts” the space (and opportunity) to build relationships with us, not the other way around, that the whole culture of conversion has already done enough damage… But that may just be a matter of semantics. Incidentally, this is also where the internet can serve a peculiarly constructive purpose: allowing disenfranchised folks to engage with the material on their own terms, and without any social cost. On our end, we simply work to expunge the superficial distinctions between Christian and non- (ergo the “us vs them” mentality) as much as humanly possible, acknowledging the many areas of our lives that are “de-converted,” dwelling instead on the common ground of human suffering and, as Dyck suggests, longing. So we don’t shy away from honest historical proclamation, but we also don’t trumpet it point-blank in insecure/defensive/heavy-handed ways either. We live our lives openly and with some degree of self-understanding, trusting that the good news will come to others as it comes to us – from the outside. As clunky as it sounds, this is where I would say “the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel” comes in, big time. After all, what is the whole “moral compromise” phenomenon if not a fundamental confusion of the two?

Cryin Shames–Please Stay

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