For Whom The Bell Tolls

Why are so many Christian leaders leaving the Church?

In the last couple of months, the evangelical Christian community has been hit with some notable departures from the ranks: author Josh Harris and singer/song-writer Marty Sampson. It’s been quite the buzz across the social media scene. My own friend and colleague, Aaron Crider, has also addressed this from his seat as the Director of the Music and Worship program at The King’s University

Folks falling away from the faith is nothing new. Thankfully, the number of those who cease to believe is far less than the number who come to a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ every single day around the world. Nevertheless, when someone occupies a kind of “celebrity” status in Western Christianity, we watch their movements keenly. In that way, we are no different from the rest of Americans who find entertainment by living vicariously through the glamorous. That is its own set of problems.

However, we should ask, “What does this say about the formation of Christian leaders?” 

Harris delivered his announcement in articulate words drenched with the vocabulary and imagery of the Christian faith. He apologized to a long list of groups of people he has offended through his “self-righteousness” and “fear-based approach to life.” He declared he can no longer be called a “Christian” and has found no other way to practice his faith. Still he proceeded to quote historic Christian luminaries as affirmation of his actions and sources of how he currently feels “hopeful.” I find that strange.

Harris also announced his departure from Christianity over Instagram. Then he retracted it to say that he was on “shaky ground.” For him, he has a difficult time reconciling the problems of evil with the faith as well as other intellectual struggles and the “judgmental” attitude of Christians. His most recent posts indicate he’s continued his departure.

I said folks falling away is nothing new. Struggling with the faith is also common. Most Christians have, in some way, wrestled intensely with experience not matching what they believed. For some, it might be intellectual challenges, while for others it might be witnessing hypocrisy, or for still others it might be the question of why God doesn’t heal someone. It is not only normal but also an essential part of the human experience. Read the Psalms or Paul’s theological wrestling matches or even Jesus’ own agony in the garden. It’s right there.

I know neither of these men, so I will only mention what I don’t see in their posts: community. I am not saying it does not exist for them; I am saying I don’t see it referenced. One publicly comes forward and says he has decided he is not a Christian. Another publicly and painfully wrestles with his faith. Both say they have received words of affirmation and rebuke from their people (i.e., their followers on Instagram). Yet neither of them speak about how they wrestled with these questions with their brothers and sisters in Christ or with their fathers and mothers in the church. Maybe they did and don’t mention it. Maybe I missed it. But my experience is that folks like this often don’t. Sampson tells us that “no one” is talking about the problems he has with the Bible. The clues suggest to me their Christian family has been excluded from their most intimate quests. They have settled for the pseudo-community of social media and career Christian relationships. Few, if any, knew the gritty truth until it publicly erupted.

This is an area we must address in the formation of our Christian leaders. I know for myself how easy it is to slip into routines where my professional relationships with other Christians at work in a Christian university connected with a mega church can fool me into thinking I have Christian community. Nice words spoken to one another masquerade as fellowship. Meetings that open in prayer stand in for prayer meetings. Somehow we allow ourselves to think we are exempted from the kind of raw honest relationships of discipleship that we promote to the congregation. We buy into the modern destructive narrative of the lone leader launched upon a quest to find oneself and resolve one’s own questions. 

That kind of thinking is poisonous. It is a denial of an essential aspect our humanity: we are communal creatures. We physically exist because of relationship. We are born into family. When born again, it is into the family of God. No one baptizes himself. 

It is no accident that the Greek word for “person” is prosopon, which is also used for “face.” We know ourselves as persons and are perceived as persons because we meet others face to face. We are made to relate. When we try to go off on our own to construct our own identity or resolve our own issues of formation, we deny what we are. We get lost.

As we form the next generation of Christian leaders and as we give attention to our own formation, we would do well to give heed to the words of John Donne, the English mystical poet:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”