The big news flying around my social media lately is about yet another delusional, brainless, manipulative opinion piece from a fundagelical pretending to address their huge, pressing, catastrophic churn problem. Andy Stanley illustrates some potent takeaways in his essay. Today, let’s walk together through “Five reasons people leave the church.” I’ll show you why his list is complete horse-hockey, and then we’ll look at why it matters.
Everyone, Say Hi to Andy Stanley.
Andy Stanley founded North Point Community Church in the Atlanta area. It eventually grew to encompass six churches total dotted around the area, so it’s a megachurch. In fact, North Point is a basic fundagelical megachurch: Trinitarian, inerrantist, small groups, vague on specifics, blah blah blah.
A couple of years ago, he came to our group’s attention through a link someone gave to a Patheos Evangelical blog criticizing him. The blogger, Grayson Gilbert, accused Stanley of being “infamous” for his stream of “foolish statements” regarding Christianity. This time, however, Stanley had gone too far, too far.
Gilbert demanded that Stanley recant the offending statements (which concerned the supposed Virgin Birth of Jesus–a topic that always makes me think of Christopher Hitchens’ famous quote1). If Stanley couldn’t manage that, then King Grayson graciously and magnanimously allowed him another option. His enemy could “step down from pastoral ministry.” (Ain’t he a
A Controversy-Seeking Missile.
Man, it sure seems like this guy Stanley has pissed off just about everybody in fundagelicalism. Apparently he knows that the Bible doesn’t particularly sway people who don’t believe in it. That’s a dangerous idea for fundagelicals, who take it as read that the Bible has some kind of supernatural power to persuade all on its own. They snarl words like “postmodern” and “anathema” about him (though to be fair it’s their weird misunderstood version of postmodernism that they mean, and it doesn’t seem like they use the word anathema correctly either). In a sure demonstration of Christian love, they stomp on him like he’s on fire–which he kind of is, for them.
So it’s weird that Andy Stanley wrote this op-ed for Faux Noise lately that completely parrots the fundagelical party line about why people leave his religion so often nowadays. Based on his earlier controversies, I wouldn’t have thought he’d so shamefully mischaracterize people like that.
I suppose Christians are full of surprises these days.
I Wave the Unclear Language Flag.
Andy Stanley titled the op-ed piece “Five reasons why people leave the church.” Nothing in it will sound even remotely familiar to people who have left the church. (FanofNeri found it, and then Chiropter/Abby did a great job recently fisking it. I highly recommend you check out her examination–it’s top-notch. Consider my observations as running alongside hers.)
The first problem we see in this piece involves the headline’s baffling language. Andy Stanley seems ignorant of this point, but it’s important. He’s saying he’s talking about people who leave “the church.” He might mean people who leave his particular megachurch, or evangelical churches in general. He could be referring to people who disengage from his religion’s prescribed observances and rituals. Essentially, they just stop doing Christian things, but probably still think of themselves as Christians. They may even still feel very fervent, but they just don’t pray, go to church, evangelize, tithe, or any of that stuff. Or he could mean people who deconvert from the religion altogether and no longer believe the religion’s claims.
Though often a disengagement eventually leads to a deconversion, it doesn’t always go that way. Some folks who disengage never deconvert, while a lot of folks who deconvert must keep their non-belief on the down-low and can’t disengage for a while–if ever (see: Christian love).
We don’t know which of those groups Andy Stanley is about to shamefully mischaracterize in his race to gain internet approval from toxic Christians. In his first paragraph, however, he specifically names “folks who’ve left the Christian faith,” so it sounds like he might be aiming more at ex-Christians.
And that is a problem.
When in Doubt, Strawman.
In that first paragraph, he tells us that he’s talked to “dozens of folks who’ve left the Christian faith.”
WOW, dozens? That technically makes him a world expert, doesn’t it?
But as we will see shortly, nothing he says sounds like anything ex-Christians say when they talk about deconverting.
That’s very common. Fundagelicals maintain a library of misconceptions they sell and share among themselves about the people they’ve identified as tribal enemies. The debased version of atheism in that library looks nothing whatsoever like actual atheism. LGBT people and feminists rarely see themselves in fundagelicals’ descriptions. People who struggle with unapproved doubt similarly don’t recognize themselves there. College campuses and science itself don’t look a single bit like how fundagelicals paint them.
These descriptions serve vital functions in fundagelicalism, enough to make their creation and maintenance a vital priority.
They reinforce fundagelicals’ biases against these groups and people. More importantly, these debased versions stop fundagelicals from getting to know too much about those folks or what they think. And possibly even more importantly still, they make gung-ho fundagelicals feel even more belligerent, self-pitying, arrogant, and chest-thumpy about their tribe.
So now, let’s whisk through these totally for realsies reasons.
1: “We tell people that the Bible is the basis of Christianity.”
Yes. That would be because it is.
Without the Bible, nobody would have the faintest idea what Christianity was. Certainly nobody would independently come to its creation. The matter rests as Penn Jillette famously painted it years ago: If we lost all the scientific knowledge in the world, people would eventually recreate it all and then move forward again. But if that happened with all the religions in the world, people would never recreate any of them the same way a second time. That’s part of how we know Christianity isn’t based on anything true and real.
But Andy Stanley huffs that people fuss too much with the Bible and forget that Jesus is the real heart of Christianity. It’s like he totally forgot that we only know about Jesus because of the Bible. And then we start asking a lot of inevitable questions about all the Bible’s various contradictions and errors. Some are relatively small. Some are HUGE.
Andy Stanley, being a standard-issue fundagelical, can’t even begin to address those questions. So he hand-waves them away: yes, of course the Bible is full of contradictions. But he insists that Jesus himself isn’t contradictory. So people need to concentrate more on Jesus and not worry about the Bible’s contradictions.
That’s a big part of why people find that stuff out and then start second-guessing their entire belief system. He’s trying to assert that there exists an objective Jesus who exists completely independently of the Bible, and that Christians can meaningfully discover that version of Jesus. Sorry, but no.
The effect he’s hoping to achieve is very clearly a drilling-down on the kind of expression of Christianity he thinks is best. But he only raises more uncomfortable questions with this accusation.
Translation: Y’all aren’t Jesus-y enough and it’s chasing off our marks.
2: “They believe suffering disproves the existence of God.”
That’s because it does.
Nobody can square the sheer amount of suffering in our world with any kind of god like Christians dream up for themselves. No way, no how would Christians themselves deal with so much misery if their god really did love them and provide for them, help them in times of trouble, and bring them a nonstop stream of miracles to ease their pain and suffering.
Andy Stanley’s solution to the Problem of Suffering is to dismiss it. Yes, great suffering exists in the world. He says his god has promised that yes, there will be suffering until the end of the world when he finally puts everything right again. Of course, what he means is that the Bible has his god promising that, but he can’t really say that because he’s already pooh-poohed the notion of the Bible as a source of information about his god. Unless he is the first Christian in history to have credible evidence to the contrary, I firmly and confidently assert that no gods have personally contacted him to tell him anything.
I can only imagine Stanley wants his audience to angrily denounce ex-Christians as little hothouse orchids who ran away when the heat in the kitchen got too intense. Certainly the commenters on the original un-archived piece took it that way.
Translation: Gyah, they just can’t handle TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ like we can.
3: “They had a bad church experience.”
Christians do a lot of church-hopping these days, to their leaders’ consternation. Often a bad church experience prompts that decision. They sometimes even withdraw from church culture as a result. But nobody who’s deconverted–and again, that appears to be his target here–talks like that. Ever.
If anything, a series of bad experiences might prompt someone to start questioning the religion’s claims, but I’ve never heard of a full-on deconversion caused only by bad experiences. Of course, even if it did, nobody has to answer to King Andy Stanley for their decision; we’re allowed to come and go as we please, and do not owe anybody any explanation.
Stanley huffs that obviously the bad Christians aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and moves on, satisfied with blaming victims for prioritizing their own safety over their church membership. This dismissal sounds very much like a demonization of those who’ve left, and his commenters certainly took it that way. Every one of them concedes that yes, Bad Christians exist aplenty in their ranks. But none of them allows it as a satisfactory reason to leave their groups or their religion.
It gets worse, though.
A lot of these bad experiences involve horrific crimes and unthinkable manipulation. No Christian, anywhere, can promise that their groups will always be free of Christians who victimize others. Instead of making their groups safer, they simply demonize those who’ve been victimized–and blame them for running away.
Translation: Bless their hearts. They just lost focus. Must be not enough Jesus Power.
4: “We’re bad at making people feel welcome.”
True, because no omnimax gods inform Christians’ behavior.
In fact, Christians act exactly like we’d expect a tribe to act. They have a strong in-group identification, consider themselves superior to outsiders to their group, maintain a ferocious and vicious rivalry with identified out-groups, and brutally punish dissenters, heretics, and apostates. Literally the only reason they managed to maintain a position of dominance is the political and coercive social powers they enjoyed for centuries. They sure didn’t manage the trick on the basis of their (nonexistent) Jesus Auras.
You’d think Andy Stanley would know at least some of that, considering he’s run afoul of that tribalism himself in the past. But now he weaponizes it to serve his own interests.
He hand-waves this one away similarly, denouncing these unwelcoming Christians as not being TRUE CHRISTIANS™. If these Christians would simply Jesus harder, then everything would be great. This unwelcoming quality does make a lot of Christians start wondering about the religion’s claims, but again, nobody deconverts because their peers didn’t blow enough sunshine up their butt.
Translation: TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are the most wonderful people alive and always do everything right in relating to others. Thankfully, we’re all TRUE CHRISTIANS™. But lots of other Christians are fake Christians. We must teach them what we know.
5: “We made ekklesia (the church) a building.”
This one piggybacks off the previous one. Stanley sees people who leave his religion as leaving their houses of worship. By that term he means the literal church building. Because people don’t have a strong connections to their specific groups, they don’t hesitate to leave.
However, literally nobody leaves Christianity for anything like that reason. When I look back at my own feelings of disconnectedness and isolation in churches, the buildings don’t figure into those memories. Aside from being impressed with particular decorations and cleanliness (and that strange scent that makes Catholic churches so evocative to me), I barely remember the buildings. None of my groups–in my entire time as a Christian–focused much on buildings.
But he’s using double meanings here.
He thinks that The Big Problem Here is that too many churches aren’t Jesus-ing hard enough. He ends by hinting that if Christians would all get back to this vision of Original Christianity he has in his head, then they’d be tight-knit, harmonious groups. Obviously, at that point nobody would want to leave such wonderful groups.
Why His Post Matters.
When all is said and done, ultimately Andy Stanley’s list does illustrate two truths of great interest. And this is huge, make no mistake.
First, he shows us that not only is Christianity dying as a power in America, but that its biggest leaders still have no idea why it’s happening. They’re miles away from addressing the problem. They don’t even understand what the problem is. I’m not sure they ever will, either.
Second, he shows us that Christian leaders still pursue the exact same strategies I mocked five years ago. They haven’t progressed a single inch further. Just over five years ago, in 2013, I began talking about the astonishing surveys I was starting to notice about evangelical churn. That was two years before the Pew survey came out. I wrote then,
Christian leaders don’t have the luxury of time for self-indulgent self-deception. The clock’s ticking, the lightning’s about to strike the tower, and they’re idling in the car fooling around with the stereo and arguing about what music to play.
And if anything, I know now that I was being overly generous. They’re way out of time. The stakes are even greater now than I imagined in 2013. And here’s Andy Stanley, fussing with the stereo and arguing about the music while the car plunges off a cliff.
Tickling Their Ears.
But that’s the approach Christians want now. They don’t want someone telling them the truth about why their religion is losing so many people and why it’s experiencing a catastrophic loss in credibility nationwide. They definitely don’t want any real advice about fixing the situation (at least to prevent further losses, if not to gain again). Every bit of that would run counter to their tribal narratives.
Instead, they want someone to tell them that their slide can still be fixed. They want to hear that they’re in the right, while everyone opposing them is in the wrong. Their enemies are stupid and dense and foolish. And by Jesus-ing hard enough, they can totally make their plunging car fly.
Look at the comments on the original post by Andy Stanley, if you can stomach it. Those comments are filled with sanctimonious, chest-thumping, belligerent Christians. They ate up his foul message with a filthy spoon, belched, and demanded a second helping.
Two years ago, Stanley told them something they didn’t want to hear. His tribe strung him up from the highest yardarm for it. This time, he told them exactly what they wanted to hear. In response, they showered him with adoration. I bet barely five in a hundred even remember all the criticism he got two years ago.
That’s the sorry state of Christianity today, in a nutshell. And that’s why Andy Stanley’s pandering post will only cause more Christians on the fence to make tracks for the doors. Consider today’s post a thank-you note.
NEXT UP: Did you catch that reference to Original Christianity in Andy Stanley’s post? We’re going there next. Later on, I’ll show you why I think Christianity’s really having trouble. See you soon!
1 During a debate in 2007 against Al Sharpton regarding the question “Is God great?” he said this almost as an aside: “I think it was David Hume who put it slightly vulgarly, this was again about the virgin birth I think: which is more likely, that the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?” (Back to the post!)
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