Leaving Christianity?

I’ve been a pastor in three widely different contexts, and each has brought the same kind of dispiriting and frustrating conversation.  Too many times, I’ve listened as disgruntled or despairing men and women have wondered, nervously, whether or not they could remain Christian.  I’m tired of these conversations not because I don’t sympathize with the doubters but because of the predictable pattern that has emerged over the years.

Their faith has been nurtured within a clearly demarcated Christian subculture.

They hold their faith with suspicion not because of some theological or philosophical dilemma.  Neither is it the case that their idealism about Jesus has been trampled on by the church; these are smart and gracious people who understand the flawed nature of people, including Christian people.  There are many factors that would lead to a person questioning her faith but, again, there is one theme I’ve heard repeatedly.

Most of these people have lived as Christians for a long time; some can’t remember not being Christian.  More to the point, their faith has been nurtured within a clearly demarcated Christian subculture.  This is the pattern and the problem.

There are different versions of the Christian subculture, but the unifying factor is a strong belief that this is what it means to live as a Christian.  Anything other than this is suspect, written off, or disparaged.  This can look different in Chicago’s affluent suburbs than it does on the South Side.  This can look different depending on denomination.  You get the idea.

Like any subculture, these self-consciously distinct Christian enclaves develop traditions, expectations, norms, opinions, and language that set them apart.  Whether or not it was ever explicitly stated, my conversation partners over the years understood that this subculture, with all of its priorities, embodied orthodox Christianity.

Balancing on the edge of the paradigm, he must consider whether or not he can remain a Christian.

As an example, imagine growing up within a Christian subculture where it is assumed that discipleship to Jesus requires voting exclusively Republican, disbelieving any science that doesn’t support a certain literal reading of the Bible, and limiting one’s serious engagement with the world to saving souls.  Now imagine a collection of magazines, radio programs, books, and the occasional movie that all affirm the notion that to be Christian is to be and believe these things.  This wasn’t the environment in which I was raised, but based on the number of people who’ve shared this version of their childhood with me, there are plenty of people for whom it was.

What happens when a person raised within this subculture encounters questions, information, experiences, and perspectives that don’t fit within the only version of Christianity they’ve known to be true?  A paradigm shift.  But as I’ve been told too many times, it is exceedingly difficult for the new paradigm to include Christianity because of how thoroughly the subculture claimed that theirs alone was genuine Christianity.  And so, balancing on the edge of the paradigm, this person must consider whether or not they can remain a Christian.

In our pluralistic, modern world, there will always be serious challenges to Christian faith.  I’m OK with this.  I’m not OK with how insulated Christian enclaves make it difficult (or as some of my conversation partners have said, impossible) for someone to remain a Christian once they’ve peered beyond the walls of the subculture.

Have you experienced a paradigm shift that seems to require leaving behind your faith?  How do you explain the tendency of Christian subcultures to so strongly identify their priorities with the essence of Christianity?  How can Christians hold strong opinions about issues (politics, for example) while remaining hospitable to Christians with divergent opinions?

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David Swanson
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville] on Chicago's South Side. He blogs often and has authored countless articles for prominent Christian publications.