When Christians Publicly Renounce the Faith: Three Important Takeaways
Recently, Jonathan Steingard—lead singer and guitarist for the popular Christian pop-punk/rock band Hawk Nelson—shockingly shared on Instagram that he no longer believes in God.
For whatever reason, it seems that a steady stream of notable “public” Christians have been renouncing their faith. Certainly, social media has made such decisions more immediate and widely accessible. There are two ways to approach these unfortunate scenarios. We can point our finger at the individuals and attempt to assess the damage they have done (ie. “How many of your young fans will follow you down the road of unbelief?”). Or we can look at ourselves as the Church and examine what “went wrong” and how we can learn and grow from the experience. I think the second approach is a far more fruitful and important conversation to have. Here are three important takeaways for the Church from Steingard’s post:
The Church Must Allow Space for Doubts and Difficult Questions
I have seen some online criticism of Steingard for making his decision so public. I find this attitude hypocritical and a part of the problem. As the Church, do we truly value honesty and transparency? Do we “meet people where they are” only so long as they haven’t ventured to places we’re uncomfortable going?
Steingard’s testimony is common. Several recent studies (by Barna Group and others) have revealed that many young adults agree that the Church is simply not a safe place to voice doubts or ask difficult questions. This intimidation needs to change. People are responsible for their actions. But the Church is responsible for fostering an environment where sincere doubts can be expressed and met with love, encouragement, and support instead of shame and scorn. Doubts do not make someone a bad Christian. Rather, doubts confronted with honesty and love produce a stronger faith.
Apologetics is Important
In Steingard’s Instagram post, he shared a lengthy list of the intellectual barriers and philosophical problems that contributed to his doubt. While his journey is certainly personal, these problems are by no means unique. They’re the same issues people have encountered for centuries.
These issues and questions are valid. They don’t always have easy answers. A danger for Christians with a long-held, firmly grounded faith is that we overlook the difficulties these dilemmas raise.
The Church needs to take apologetics seriously, and I don’t mean merely equipping congregations with half-baked, pre-canned apologetic arguments to “own” atheists in debates. Rather, the Church needs to be willing to get messy. We need to go to hard places, address difficult questions, and confront the issues that lead people to doubt.
Apologetics is Not the Answer
Apologetics is important, but it isn’t the answer. When I read through Jonathan’s post, this was the most heartbreaking section:
Only God knows his heart, but it seems that the problem wasn’t that he didn’t have enough intellectual knowledge about God, but that he had only intellectual knowledge.
The remedy for unbelief is not philosophical arguments; it’s an experience with God Himself. A person can walk away from an idea or a concept or exchange one worldview for another; but it is much more difficult to walk away from a loving relationship with a person.
Despite what we pretend, we are not rational beings; we are deeply emotional beings. We use reason to support, prop up, and validate our existing emotional convictions. We are convinced by arguments that support our worldview and unimpressed by those that don’t. The intellectual components of our worldview are symptoms of our belief rather than the source.
What does all this mean? It means that once we lose the heart of the Christian faith—the personal, emotional connection—then the intellectual pillars propping it up inevitably crumble inward as well. No amount of apologetic training or arguments can substitute for a personal relationship with Jesus. If apologetic arguments help people get there, by all means, let’s do our homework and use them. But, in the end, let’s not forget that a lasting faith must be built on far more than that.