Why Do Christians Leave the Faith? The Problem of Responding Badly to Doubt

by Bradley Wright

Part 3 in a series on deconversion

PatDoes Christians’ bad behavior cause people to leave the faith? When we started this research project deconversion, I assumed that the most frequently-referenced cause would be Christians’ misbehavior—something along the lines of “I left the Church because Christians don’t act like Christians.” After all, this “Christians don’t act like Christians” narrative is extremely popular among Christian writers.

A majority (42 out of 50) of the deconverts that we studied did mention frustration with the Christians they knew, but it usually wasn’t misbehavior, per se, rather it was something that I never would have guessed: Frustration with how their fellow Christians reacted to their doubts.

The way that Christians react to the doubts of others can, inadvertently, amplify existing doubt. Many of the writers told of sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers. These answers, in turn, moved them further away from Christianity.

For example, a former Southern Baptist, rather harshly, identified this tendency among the Christians that he had known: “Christians have their PAT phrases for every little whim. . . Christians always use the word “faith” as their last word when they are too stupid to answer a question.”

Standard pat answers included statements such as: “God will never put more on you than you can bear,” “God works in mysterious ways,” “it was God’s will,” “your faith wasn’t strong enough,” “God wanted him in heaven,” and “God is testing you – stand firm!”

Frequently, such statements are not Biblical quotations but are common interpretations and understandings among Christians. One writer recounted, “I asked questions that no one else dared to ask, like ‘What about all the starving people in the third world?’ The answer I got was, ‘They are just as culpable as we are.’”

Ex-Christians were not only critical of fellow parishioners, but also of clergy’s and church lay-leadership’s failure to address the doubter’s questions. One ex-Christian wrote: “And to top all of it off, I could get no satisfying answers to my questions (they call them sinful doubts) even from the pastors and elders. I was told not to read the bible to try to find problems, that was a sin.”

In sum, the absence of thoughtful answers and the lack of listening carefully to questions were interpreted as both anti-intellectualism and a lack of empathy, leading the writers to feel trivialized…

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Generation Ex-ChristianYoung people aren’t walking away from the church—they’re sprinting. According to a recent study by Ranier Research, 70 percent of youth leave church by the time they are 22 years old. Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29 years old. Those who leave the faith are often downright cynical. To make matters worse, parents generally react poorly when their children go astray. This is where Generation Ex-Christian will lend a hand. It will equip and inspire parents, church leaders, and everyday Christians to reawaken the prodigal’s desire for God and set him or her back on the road to a dynamic faith. The heart of the book will be the raw profiles of real-world, young ex-Christians. No two leavers are identical, but upon close observation some categories emerge. The book will identify seven different kinds of leavers and offer practical advice for how to connect with each type. Shrewd tips will also intersperse the chapters alerting readers to opportunities for engagement, and to hidden landmines they must sidestep to effectively reach leavers.

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