There is a crisis of faith formation in the modern church. It has produced a generation of Christians with an emotionally based faith that is ill-equipped to respond to the intellectual challenges and objections raised by an increasingly secular society. The recent faith renunciations of several high-profile Christians are indicative of an endemic lack of rigorous philosophical and theological grounding. Four weeks ago, Joshua Harris, pastor and author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, announced in an Instagram post that he was no longer a Christian, and that he and his wife of 20 years were separating. More recently Marty Sampson, the prolific Hillsong songwriter and worship leader, also announced his loss of faith on Instagram.
These two instances are merely the tip of the iceberg of a problem that has been brewing for decades and which is now reaching crisis point. The level of theological understanding of the average Christian today, as well as their ability to defend their faith with articulate, robust theological answers, is significantly diminished compared to thirty or forty years ago. For those of us who have been Christians for more than a few decades, the difference is stark and, quite frankly, shocking. And the problem is not confined to the Pentecostal church: it is endemic across all denominations.
What has changed? What are the key antecedents of this crisis? The issues highlighted by Marty Sampson’s Instagram post provide a window into several key elements of this crisis.
FIRSTLY, Sampson reveals a disengaged faith. He claimed that “science keeps piercing the truth of every religion”. Here he seems to be buying into the classic “faith versus science” narrative; the idea that science and faith are somehow diametrically opposed. This is the classic premise promoted by atheists and evolutionists, but it simply isn’t true. It was never true historically, and it is still not true today. There is a huge number of prominent Ph.D. scientists around the world who regard the scientific evidence within the physical universe as overwhelmingly supportive of belief in a creator God. Sadly, Sampson seems ignorant of this. It is clear that the teaching he has sat under for many years has never adequately addressed this issue. His Christian education has apparently been disengaged from such practical issues – a faith bubble that has not engaged with the intellectual challenges raised by science and philosophy. (My new book, “No More Monkey Business: Evolution in Crisis” offers an informed discussion of the reasonableness of the Christian faith in the light of the latest scientific evidence)
SECONDLY, Sampson reveals a theologically uneducated faith. He claims that “no one talks about” the apparent “contradictions in the Bible” or the apparent conflict between a loving God and the existence of hell. Once again,it simply isn’t true that no one is talking about these issues. In churches where deep theology is faithfully taught – churches which dare to go beyond the easily digested “you are awesome, and God has a wonderful plan for your life” diet of teaching – these issues ARE being addressed at depth. Christians who are fortunate to be in such churches are helped to develop an intellectually robust, theologically sound faith that is able to articulate clear answers to these and other complex questions. Sadly, Sampson has apparently not been in such a church – or perhaps he was absent on those rare occasions when these issues were addressed. And, equally sadly, he is by no means alone in this.
Let me ask you: When was the last time you heard a sermon that offered a robust apologetic for the existence of hell? Or that examined the nature of hell as an essential extension of the severe justice and love of God? Or that dealt with the many apparent contradictions in the Bible and reconciled these apparent “contradictions” with a more mature, complex understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture? Christians who haven’t had this kind of theological education will have their faith seriously challenged when they encounter an intelligent atheist who can sprout off one apparent Bible contradiction after another.
(For example: Contradictions regarding the time of the crucifixion between the Gospels of Mark [9 am] and John [12 noon]. And was Jesus taken to Caiphas for his trial [Matthew, Mark and Luke] or to Annas [John]? Was the colour of Jesus’ robe red [Matthew] or purple [Mark and John]? Did two criminals abuse him on the cross [Matthew and Mark] or just one [Luke]? Did Jesus “make no reply, even to a single charge” [Matthew] or did he reply three times [John]? And what about the completely different wording of the sign nailed to the top of Jesus’ cross – different in all four Gospels?)
There are answers to these and literally dozens of other apparent contradictions within the Bible – answers which require that we develop a more sophisticated view of the inerrancy of the Bible. But if you haven’t been in a church which deals with biblical theology at any depth, you will be ill-equipped to deal with these issues, and could have your faith seriously challenged when you encounter an intelligent sceptic. (See my book, “Making Sense of the Bible: Surprising Insights That Will Change Your Perspective”).
THIRDLY, Sampson expressed the opinion that “lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of the truth.” In stating this, he reveals a self-focused, relativistic faith. Sociologist, Christian Smith, refers to this as “moralistic therapeutic deism”. To put it more simply, self-fulfilment is the primary focus of this kind of faith, and a relationship with God simply becomes the means to that end. Sadly, this subtly redefined view of faith is what many churches today are promoting. It is a “me-centred” gospel where the primary goal of my faith is defined as finding and fulfilling my awesome destiny in Christ, unlocking my potential, reaching my fulfilment and living a life of victory. Consequently, if this is one’s concept of faith, then the value and validity of that faith is primarily assessed by whether it achieves the goal of self-actualisation, rather than assessing its absolute truth via objectively verifiable evidence such as the resurrection of Christ. Marty Sampson’s comment about “not just one version of the truth” reveals this kind of relativism. Ultimately, this “me-centred” approach to faith means that any truth is valid and valuable, provided it achieves the desired result – my own fulfilment.
While it is true that Jesus did, on one occasion, say that he had come to give us abundant life (John 10:10), the abundant life he was speaking of is meant to be a BY-PRODUCT of our faith, not the FOCUS of it. It is not something we are meant to pursue as our primary goal. The overwhelmingly consistent focus of Jesus’ call to discipleship was his uncompromising demand for self-sacrifice and complete obedience to him as Lord. He repeatedly demanded that his followers deny themselves and take up their cross in order to follow him. He required great sacrifice of his closest followers. They had to give up their businesses, leave their homes, leave their families, and, in some cases, sell their possessions and give all their money away, before they were permitted to follow him. Apparently, the abundant life that Jesus was speaking of did not involve financial success, vocational triumph, material wealth, good health or even a long life (11 of the 12 Apostles met violent deaths). The abundant life he was speaking of is simply that quiet inner joy of knowing that you are serving the King of Kings. Simply put, Jesus commands us to seek first the Kingdom of God, rather than our own fulfilment.
One of the problems with the “me-centred” gospel is that it only works well as long as everything is rosy in your life. But as soon as the wheels fall off and you encounter significant hardship of some kind, it is possible to reach the conclusion that Christianity “doesn’t work”. When the self-actualising hype that is fed to people from the pulpit doesn’t align with their experience of reality, they conclude that Christianity isn’t true. This is why so many Christians seem to flourish for a while and then fall away. It is the parable of the sower coming to life in our own times. And my response to those who conclude that Christianity “doesn’t work”, is to say, “I agree! YOUR version of Christianity definitely doesn’t work! Because it’s a false gospel!” Jesus did not offer a sugar-coated promise of triumphalism. Instead, he said, “In this life you will have many troubles. But take heart – I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The overcoming that he speaks of here, is not the absence of problems or heartache or pain, but the promise of his abiding presence with us through those troubles and, ultimately, our deliverance from them in eternity.
My heart breaks for the Marty Sampson’s and Joshua Harris’s of our world – people who have been raised on a superficial, sugary diet that lacks theological depth and which leaves them perplexed and shaken when they finally confront the intellectual challenges and hard truths of the real world. In his book, “The Fabric of Faithfulness”, Steve Garber wrote that the reason why so many young Christians lose their faith is that their worldview isn’t “big enough” for the real world, and he laments the fact that the church has neglected the intellectual faith formation of a whole generation of Christians.
It is my prayer that today’s church will start to take seriously the urgent need to equip young Christians with a faith that is intellectually robust and theologically sound, so that they might be able to stand strong in a world which is increasingly hostile to the gospel. Then, instead of being the victims of society’s rampant secularism, they might become God’s agents to challenge it, through the truth of his Word and the power of his Spirit.
“We demolish every argument and pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”(2 Corinthians 10:5)