Churches: No Country for Doubters (Gospelbound)

Churches: No Country for Doubters (Gospelbound) April 23, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we checked out a podcast called Gospelbound (archive link). It’s a creation of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), an authoritarian, generally-Calvinist evangelical site. That episode featured a recent book written by a bunch of TGC contributors and published by TGC, Before You Lose Your Faith. We weren’t impressed at all by how these folks discussed their book. One thing they kept saying caught my attention: a suggestion that the TGC folks kept pushing on during their podcast. TGC’s people think that churches need to step up to be safe harbors for Christians struggling with their faith. That’s an impossible demand, but also a very safe one for them to make. And it reveals both their actual intended audience and the marketing promise they’re making with their new book.

the doubters just keep leaving
(Dan Meyers.) A ghost town in Oregon.

(Previous posts touching on doubt: When Christians Express Serious Doubts to Each Other; The Trendy New Christian Doubt; Redefining ‘Faith;’ Christian Equivocation About Faith; How Reality Drained My Faith Pool; The Day My Prayers Changed.)

TGC Plays the “Should” Game With Doubters.

Early in the Gospelbound podcast about the TGC book Before You Lose Your Faith, an intro lays down a very familiar game for Christians:

It might be tempting to leave the church in order to find answers, but the new book Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (The Gospel Coalition) argues that church should be the best place to deal with doubts.

And immediately, this intro prompts some big questions — from me, at least:

Really? Should it, now? How so? In what ways? Since the church is a building, who inside that church will be helping doubters — the pastor, elders, other congregants, who? What processes will “the church” use to help settle doubters’ issues? What happens if when those processes fail to work?

Most of all, why shouldn’t doubters “leave the church” to find their answers? If “the church” is fostering issues to faith, then it’s silly to think “the church” can solve them. That’s circular thinking at its Christian finest — but then, so is most apologetics.

Just cuz.

For that matter, at what point does King TGC graciously allow doubters to handle their doubts however seems best to them? Or are doubters never allowed to do that?

Who sets these rules up, and who enforces them, and how do they actually help doubters?

Maybe the podcast will tell us!

(Spoiler voice-over: No, it will not.)

How “the Church” Should Work for Doubters, in TGC-Land.

In the podcast, host Collin Hansen says of TGC’s new book:

Really it’s more of an encouragement to churches to be safe places for young people to be able to work these things out, to equip them as ministers, as leaders, as parents to be able to respond when this is happening so that young people don’t feel as though they have to leave the church to find answers to questions. And that I think really is more of the expected readership of this book in a lot of different ways.

Oh, okay. Love the ongoing equivocation going on in this podcast with the word “church.” TGC wants churches to “equip” various subgroups within their congregation to know how to respond to young adults’ questions in particular, since that’s the group they’re most worried about losing as members.

And this new book is supposed to “equip” them with those answers. Gee, I wonder if it’s just solid debunked apologetics hand-waving?

No, of course not. It’s totally not like every other apologetics book out there.

This one will really do the job it claims to be able to do. Totally.

(The above quote illustrates another point. Like all apologetics materials, this book isn’t aimed directly at us heathens or even at doubting Christians. It may be titled in the 2nd person, Before YOU Lose YOUR Faith, but it’s not written for actual doubters to read. TGC expects most of its purchasers and readers to be firm, fervent evangelicals. They expect their actual purchasers to use their book in lieu of real communication with doubters — or to thrust it at doubters as yet another tedious homework assignment.)

TGC’s “Should” Game Tries to Strong-Arm Doubters.

Later on in the interview, Jay Kim (one of the book’s contributors and also another TGC contributor) outlines what he perceives as the function of churches:

For many of us I think a healthy step would be to invert what is normative, which is to wake up and open up our Twitter feed or some other social media feed and try to get our information there rather to plunge ourselves into the depths of Scripture, to commit to a church community to find God beyond that through long-format reading and the beauty of the world around us, and then to see the internet and social media as sort of small, peripheral, supplemental guides.

So a “church community” is just something Christians need to “commit to” so they can “find God beyond that” by performing homework assignments.

Alas for Jay Kim, the most Bible-illiterate people around are evangelical Christians. Even being a longtime church member does not in any way guarantee that someone knows even the most basic myths in the book — much less is capable of critically examining it through the lens of scholarship. And TGC wrote about this exact situation just over a year ago, so you’d think they know that.

As well, the implications are quite clear:

Christians who aren’t part of a church community can’t possibly do this “long-format” homework correctly.

How is this stuff supposed to help doubters? Does Kim mean to just wear doubters down till they give in from exhaustion? Does he even know that reading the Bible actually deconverts people on its own?

(My last night as a Christian was largely spent studying the Bible.)

The Reality of Churches and Doubters.

Also alas for TGC in general, in this podcast Derek Rishmawy offers a mealy-mouthed, rambling concession about the reality of that “should” game they’re playing with churches:

[W]e have to reckon with this is a lot of people are having the same experiences in our churches. So, if a lot of people keep saying the same thing, then people need to reckon with the fact that, okay, well maybe our churches aren’t asking these questions properly.

He regretfully concedes that “maybe” evangelical churches aren’t “dealing with our politics” properly — or their disgraceful abuse scandal. Maybe. Just maybe.

Over and over again, the podcaster and his guests accidentally reveal that their “should” is nothing but an illusion. Yes, maybe churches should be the best place for doubters to handle doubts. But they are not at all. Collin Hansen says:

And one of the bigger narratives we find is that churches are not a safe place to be able to deal with these things [. . .]

FINALLY someone admits it.

But none of them really get close or cuddly with this striking concession. Instead, they’re just setting up a sales pitch: 

Yes yes, churches “should” be sanctuaries for doubters — but alas, they are not. Buy our book to fix that!

Argument From OMG LOOK OVER THAT WAY!

In the end, the podcast punts to distraction. Instead of dealing with the very real and ugly problems in their religion, its numerous dealbreakers, and its utter inability to meaningfully and positively address a single one of its issues, the podcasters start rhapsodizing about their imaginary friend Jesus. In mid-gallop, Derek Rishmawy jumps so quickly to this deflection it just about gave me whiplash:

You may dislocate churches, you may dislocate political ideology, you may dislocate a lot of things, right?

But you’ll get a blessing because Jesus is the blessing. Jesus is the gospel, Jesus is good. So look at him.

WTF? How is this supposed to solve any of “the church’s” problems? How is this supposed to ease doubters’ doubts or make doubting Christians content to keep their butts parked in church pews a bit longer (to give their Dear Leaders more BIPs)? All he’s doing is pointing out the window and shrieking SQUIRREL! during a serious discussion, in hopes that’ll distract everyone.

When the squirrel’s gone, meaning when they’re done rhapsodizing about their imaginary friend, the doubter’s doubts haven’t even been acknowledged, much less addressed.

If one of those doubts concerns the very existence of that imaginary friend, then this rhapsodizing will look very obviously like a distraction tactic.

Dishonesty Defined: Setting Aside Sacred Beliefs.

Repeatedly, Gospelbound sets aside certain unnamed beliefs that absolutely cannot be questioned, much less rejected. Immediately in the introduction, this setting-aside process gets special attention:

[Jay] Kim explained that since we stand on the shoulders of giants over 2,000 years of church history, we know the basic contours of the faith that we must not discard. And with these essentials in place, we can work through details that owe more to our place and time than the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

So whatever these “basic contours of the faith” involve, doubters cannot question or reject them.

I suspect that one of those “basic contours” involves inerrancy, that most-darling love-child of Calvinists and naked political ambition. Calvinists (and the huge chunk of evangelicalism that’s been warped by Calvinists) use that one doctrine to slam through all the other cruel, misogynistic, hyper-politicized, culture-warring, and control-hungry doctrines in their end of Christianity (like church discipline).

I’m pretty sure other “basic contours” will touch on the existence of Jesus and the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD), the Bible’s usefulness as an ancient book of mythology, a particular vision of the afterlife as presented in most flavors of Christianity, a whole set of behavioral rules, and the necessity of becoming and staying an active member in the correct flavor of church.

The podcasters do not once mention what these “basic contours” might be, beyond (I’m guessing) belief in Jesus’ divinity and goodness anyway. They keep insisting that there is some basic set of essential doctrines that cannot be doubted or rejected, but don’t reveal what they are.

Nor do they say what “the church” should do if when doubts arise about those “basic contours.”

Fixing Doubters, or Not.

At no point in this podcast do I see a single instance of anybody actually talking about how “the church” should be addressing doubters. Nor do they once ever actually reveal any specific way to address doubt. I get the distinct impression that their “equipping” process is just loading church leaders and parents down with apologetics blahblah and non-answers.

One speaker seems to think that doubters should just attend church and study the Bible and shut up till the doubts go away. Another offers extremely dishonest-sounding sorta-acceptance of doubters discarding swathes of evangelical thinking, as long as they adhere to whatever the essentials of Christianity might be. They all seem to accept that there really isn’t any quick or satisfactory explanation that can address serious doubt in anything in Christianity.

Mostly, the folks I heard on this podcast seem like they just want to set conditions and parameters for how doubters will be allowed to pursue doubt.

But if Christian leaders refuse to allow doubters to pursue doubts about anything and everything, and to allow doubters to follow those doubts to their conclusions no matter where that trail goes, then they aren’t honestly engaging with doubt or the doubters. They’re just trying to control and defang doubt, so it falls under the bar of what they feel they actually can defeat.

No wonder doubters don’t think “the church” is a safe place for them to express doubts. It isn’t. Nor will it become so under TGC’s careful instruction — not as long as there’s any set of beliefs that doubters may not critically examine and find wanting.

Why Demands of Churches Are Both Common and Safe.

As I said earlier, apologists make a lot of demands of churches.

However, those church leaders are increasingly busy. Good ones are stretched too thin to function on decreasing funds for shrinking church congregations. Bad ones are too busy jockeying for power to care about individual doubters much. I don’t think I’ve ever once heard of a pastor who responded well or meaningfully to any doubter showing up to their office. At best, they might tell the doubter that it’s okay to doubt and that answers do exist (but then never find or offer those answers). At worst, they load the doubter down with shame and apologetics hand-waving.

Still, it’s perfectly safe for apologists to play the “should” game with churches. That’s the safest shunting of responsibility that anybody in Christendom could possibly make. Once they make their suggestions, they may lean back on their laurels and nod smugly: they’ve nailed this! If nothing whatsoever changes, as indeed it won’t for any Christian author or agitator, they can pout over nobody listening to them.

Church leaders have no clue in the world how to handle big questions from doubters, and they never have. (That’s why “the Problem of Evil” and “the Problem of Hell” remain unsolved in any satisfactory way.)

TGC won’t change that reality. All they’ll do is give Christians a warm fuzzy feeling that someone, somewhere has well and truly Dealt With This Big Problem Here At Last.

And maybe that’s all anybody in Christianity can do at this point: make whatever money they still can while the gravy train’s still sputtering along.

NEXT UP: I want to see what else Gospelbound offers those doubting. These folks are just too funny. Will they fulfill their own hype about offering Christians “firm faith in an anxious age?” For that matter, what are Christian leaders actually doing to prevent churn? Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow — see you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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