Losing Faith in Church
A young man in the circle decided to be vulnerable: “I have never seen an example of a Christian life in church that I want to follow.” What happened next shocked me. One by one, the others in the circle nodded their agreement. I shook my head in astonishment and they shook their heads in wonder that I found this unanimous sentiment surprising.
We had gathered a group of young people to talk about their experiences of church.
The conversation had started off with the expected themes: the sermons, the music, the youth group, and the conflicts. But the mood changed when the “I have never seen…” voice spoke up. I reflexively brought up mental images of the many faithful exemplars who had invested in me. I couldn’t imagine my own life apart from all that they had taught me by their (very different) examples. So what was I to make of this poor young man who hadn’t been steeped among such saints? Was he just blind to what surrounded him?
One of the “me, either” voices elaborated on the theme: “It’s not just church. My parents are Christians, too, but their messy divorce said something very different to me.” Stories and experiences began to flow, with one common element: The Christian lives around them hadn’t reflected the words preached, the Scripture read, and the professions spoken. These young people perceived that something was terribly wrong with the faith spoken or the faith lived…or both.
Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. Something was missing around the circle that evening. There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing.
Upon hearing such complaints, it would be easy to accuse them of hypocrisy or laziness. Shouldn’t they attend to their own spiritual lives rather than judging those around them? We might do well, however, to listen carefully and ask ourselves how their doubt could be a gift that challenges us to live a more plausible faith.
In a recent book, Walter Moberly incisively explores the importance of the lived existence of the church as a plausibility structure for faith. Drawing on Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge, Moberly argues that the church “is indispensable for giving content to, and making accessible, the enduring and universal significance of the biblical witness.” For us to become Christians in the first place, there must be a community that persuasively embodies the faith. We come to faith not merely by evaluating the Christian worldview as philosophically viable, but through significant people in our lives who live it out in rich, compelling, and beautiful ways.
Beyond our entrance into the faith, these models are also required for remaining in the faith. As Berger puts it, “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.” For the young people in that circle, the church’s performance of the faith was a crumbling plausibility structure.
One doesn’t need to look far for possible sources of disappointment in the church. We are assailed almost daily by headlines of sexual abuse by Christian leaders from all strands of the church. As horrible as the abuse itself is, the more damning parts of the story are the follow-on efforts at keeping everything quiet, image control, and protecting leaders and institutions. As the holy-sounding words of confession, repentance, and forgiveness are trotted out, young people are watching carefully, and they have sensitive baloney detectors (to put it mildly). When the secular media lead the way in caring for the downtrodden and naming the problems, and when the state decides it must enact mandatory reporting laws to force church leaders to do the right thing, is it any wonder that these other secular structures of life have more plausibility?
While not everyone has a connection to sexual abuse (though far too many do), most young people today have LGBT friends. They know that many Christian sexual minorities are struggling to faithfully bring their inner experiences into harmony with their religious commitments. Are the adults in their churches offering a pathway to Christian flourishing for these friends? Dogmatic proclamations must sometimes be made, but also important is the manner of life that leads up to, through, and beyond such proclamations. If the church fails to provide a plausible vision for these friends, no wonder doubt about its plausibility for one’s own life, which is similarly complex in its own way, might not be far behind.
Examples could be multiplied. Research by the Barna Group has revealed six themes young people cite in their explanations for their disconnection from the church. They characterize the church as overprotective, shallow, invalidly exclusive, anti-science, simplistic and judgmental about sex, and intolerant of doubt. One way of drawing this together is that they find Christians unwilling to engage the complexities of the world as it really is. What do they see Christians doing when the uncertainties and pressures of life mount? Do we, at that point, leave our faith at the door and tap different resources to make sense of the world and guide our action? If we do, we inadvertently testify to the implausibility of our faith.
A Way Forward
In such times, what might it look like to testify to the adequacy of Christ? Has God truly given us everything we need (2 Peter 1:3), even when facing the truly complex challenges of life?
If it is indeed true that the lived experience of the Christian community is important for making the claims of the Christian faith plausible, then our first responsibility to those doubting their faith is clear: We must be the church. We must live as the Christian community we claim to be. If we are to be persuasive about the truth of the Christian faith, we must live true, persuasive lives. But what could this possibly mean?
Our first reaction to such a mandate might well be to humbly confess that we have both failed to do so and, then, that we cannot help but fail. A truly faithful life “worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1) might well seem to be beyond our grasp and even our comprehension. Who can live out the mandates of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)? When has anyone lived up to the “simple” command to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34)? Which Christian community has fulfilled Paul’s summons to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” as he emptied himself and became a servant unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11)? If the plausibility of the faith depends on our performance, we may well wonder if the faith must remain forever implausible.
However, the challenge we face is not to become what we cannot be. Rather, it is to speak honestly as we continue our pursuit. We can speak truthfully because we are confident in Christ, not ourselves. That the church is filled with flawed disciples should surprise no one. That such a church might dare to tell the truth about it, just might. Moberly acknowledges that the people of God make the faith plausible despite how “disappointing and frustrating their performance often is.”
Where does that leave us? If we accept our first obligation of “being the church,” our second obligation is then to invite others, perhaps especially the doubting, to observe and participate in this life of the church. As Moberly observes, this shared life of the church will always be under negotiation, which is a nice way of saying it will be filled with conflict. If our faith is to truly intersect with reality, the complexities and conflicts must be received as part of that truth. It must be that Christ will, somehow, graciously glorify himself exactly there. We don’t have the option of inviting doubters into an unspoiled church, only a conflicted, challenged one. This is exactly the place where plausible testimony to Christ originates.
The New Testament church was filled with conflict and failure. Even a quick scan of Acts and the epistles reveals this plainly. The scriptural testimony assures us that Christ isn’t defeated by conflict within his body. Rather, his presence in the midst of it opens up new possibilities for witness even amidst the brokenness. Indeed, perhaps the beauty of the gospel shines most brightly in the midst of our conflicts handled openly and honestly, with full trust that God will work alongside us to restore what we have broken. Recapitulating the examples above, perhaps Christian faithfulness is not negated but becomes apparent particularly in the midst of our pained attempts at responding honestly to the plague of sexual abuse within the church, our faltering handling of our sexuality, and the crucible-intensity that can arise within marriage. In our hard-pressed situations, the life of Jesus is revealed, if only we will testify truthfully (2 Corinthians 4).
I was formed as an adult Christian in a church where it was well-known that marriage was a difficult road. This was talked about in sermons and by couples who were taking it one day at a time. Marital challenges were one of many places where Christian commitments became decisive on the journey of life. This was important to me, not only to prepare for marriage, but as a plausibility structure for the way of Jesus, which sustains the inevitable collisions between covenant love and human sinfulness.
What shouldn’t be an option for us is lying and covering up the difficulties and conflicts. The real church—the one that gives plausibility to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is messy, complicated, contested, and plausible. My mother likes to tell the story of my 5-year old commentary on her scurrying around to tidy the house for guests. I am said to have asked, “Why don’t we let them see how we really live?” Yes, why not let the doubters see how Christians really live?
Even if this sounds like a good direction, in my experience it is always difficult at any given moment to take a step toward vulnerable transparency. Each messy situation has its own excuse. “We should wait until we know better what we are doing.” “Being honest about these particular things would only tear people’s faith down.” “There is too much at stake in this case to say what is truly going on.” But it is exactly in these toughest of situations that the opportunity is richest. Are we willing to testify to the difference the way of cross and resurrection makes when we are facing our own crucifying challenges?
For some reason, we too often think that faith is bolstered by hiding the difficulties Christians face. Quite the opposite. Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from a mile away. The world is filled with people offering quick fixes and easy answers. Christian communities have the possibility of offering a richer vision of human flourishing, one that rings truer. When we confess our lack of easy answers and vulnerably invite others into our difficult places of struggle, the difference the gospel makes becomes apparent. The little miracles we so often overlook—humbly asking for forgiveness, praying without seeing results, receiving communion, caring for an ailing spouse, and on and on—become apparent as the miracles they are when they flow from Christ’s presence in our midst, especially when we’re simply doing what Jesus commands and not trying to impress anyone.
When we invite doubters to “come and see,” to come up close and inspect the body of Christ, wounds and all, we offer a testimony that is more than intellectual argument and manicured image. We offer an example of Christian faithfulness fit for the real world. Such a faith marks out a pathway worth following as it points forward to Christ as the only one truly worth following.
 R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith (Baker Academic, 2018). This concept was suggested earlier by Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP Academic, 1995), 182-93.
 Moberly, 101.
 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor, 1967), 158.
 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith (Baker Books, 2011), 91-93.
 Kinnaman, 98.
 Moberly, 101.
 Moberly, 153.
Rob Barrett is the Director of Forums and Scholarship at The Colossian Forum.