by Kent Philpott
This is the title of an article in the November 2010 issue of Christianity Today. The author, Drew Dyck, 1 draws attention to the fact that 20- and 30-somethings are leaving the church in rather large numbers. Where once they identified with a Christian church, these young people have "de-converted." 2 One quote from the article sums it up: "The vast majority of outsiders [to the Christian faith] in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually dechurched individuals." 3
A summary of the article
Though there is no reliable way to answer the question as to why and how young adults were abandoning a faith they once held, the following possibilities are given by Mr. Dyck:
- During their twenties and thirties young adults focus their attention on education, family, and career, but will return to the faith at a later point.
- Young adults who opt for alternative lifestyles - following the culture rather than Christ -are conflicted with guilt and shame and leave the source of the unpleasant feelings, which source is thought to be the churches.
- Perhaps due to the success of the arguments of the new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchins, many have concluded that Christianity does not measure up intellectually.
- Others who de-converted were hurt by Christians and/or churches and therefore departed from the source of the pain.
- Given the spiritual marketplace of Western culture, some have moved to alternative spiritualities. Wicca is cited as one of these, and the reason given is that Christianity has to do with a submission to the will of God, whereas Wicca is about making paramount your own will.
- Exposure of the de-converted to a weak, superficial, and ultimately unsatisfying form of Christianity essentially "inoculated them against authentic faith."
- When seeking for answers, young adults "were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts." He goes on, "De-converts reported 'sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers.'"
Mr. Dyck's summary is: "The reasons that 20- and 30-somethings are leaving are complex."
Perhaps there is another way of explaining the reality that many 20- and 30-somethings are leaving Christian churches. Could it be that these persons were never born again of the Spirit of God? Could the real issue be false conversion?
In my book, Are you really born again? published by Evangelical Press in 1997, I discuss the difference between true and false conversion. The methodology of evangelical Christianity since the 1830s and the advent of the ministry of Charles G. Finney, who emphasized an individual's capacity to make a decision for Christ and thus effect conversion, raises the disturbingly real possibility of false conversion. Rather than depending on the working of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin and repentance toward God, revealing Jesus as Savior and Lord and bringing faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 which is genuine conversion, Christian evangelistic focus has been upon persuasive mechanisms to obtain "conversions."
There are many methods that can be used to secure a "decision" or "commitment" to Christ. For nearly three decades I depended upon a logical presentation of the gospel followed by a request to pray the sinner's prayer. Few objected, and this "success" was not spiritual in nature but due to psychological and emotional reasons. The contemporary use of sad stories, mood altering music, fear tactics ("If you leave here tonight without Christ and are killed driving home you will find yourself burning in a devil's hell."), are considered acceptable in obtaining the desired statistics. Then there is psychological and/or social bonding with a small group, manipulations applied during times of emotional vulnerability such as after suffering a significant loss, and other strategies. It is as though we simply cannot depend on the Holy Spirit to act through the preaching of the gospel. No, we must do our utmost to "wring" a decision out of a person. What else can be the result in such a circumstance but a false conversion?
When I was a little boy growing up in Portland, Oregon, a neighbor lady had a Child Evangelism camp at her home every summer. My brothers and I attended year after year. Over and over, year by year, we prayed for a white heart. We were scared of dying with a black heart. We were converts for Mrs. Barlow, but when we could get away with telling our parents that we didn't want to go to the summer camp anymore, that was the end of our Christianity. The fact is that we were not converted at all.
As a pastor I was very good at getting confessions of faith out of kids. At Bible camps I could get every boy and girl up front praying the sinner's prayer. What about those kids later on, when they got to be 20- and 30-somethings--might some of them have walked away from Christianity to be counted among the de-converted? They had been told as children that they were now Christians and needed only to be baptized and join the church. Many did, and some may have been genuinely converted, but I suspect many were not. They must walk away at some point, for to be in a church would be uncomfortable at best. I surmise that most pastors, those who have been at it for awhile, will echo my experience.
1 John 2:19
Perhaps the Apostle John, an experienced pastor, summed it up best: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us."
Family remains family no matter what. Human beings are human beings no matter what. Nothing can change these facts. Likewise, born again into the family of God--nothing can undo this either. "It is what it is," or so the saying goes. It must be that leaving is not really leaving; it is never having been there in the first place.
There is an awful truth here, but it is better to face it head on. De-converted is, I claim, an inaccurate description; falsely converted is the truer term. As a parent, grandparent, and pastor I would rather not look this truth in the face. Are some who supposed they are/were Christians actually not converted at all, and not due to anything amiss in them, that is, not due to something they did or did not do, since salvation belongs totally to God's sovereign grace?
When it is plain that someone is not born from above, what is left? There is prayer. There is welcoming and acceptance. There is listening and patience. There is agape loving. There is the gospel clearly and intelligently presented. There is the trusting that the Word of God is correct when it says, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).
Only God can bring back those who have left.