Over the past few years, I’ve been hearing a slow but steady stream of conversations, blogs, and podcasts that more or less narrate an overarching story of leaving the Christian faith. People are finding one another around online movements like #ExVangelical, and a common narrative begins to emerge in the stories shared there: I don’t really agree with the teachings of the faith anymore, and I think I’ve found a way forward that makes more sense to me and where I am now.
Sometimes the participants in these conversations are complete strangers to me, but sometimes they are dear friends, and reading their stories makes me sad. Not in the “oh no, we lost another one, and if this keeps up we are going to lose our religious grip on society” kind of way. After all, the church was never ours to construct so I’m not terribly fearful that it will ever disappear. Instead, my sadness arises about the time they start describing the kind of faith they’ve turned away from. Most of the time, I’ll hear one of these stories through and think, If what they’ve just described was truly the Christian faith, I’d probably leave it behind too.
Hearing these stories makes me wonder what has happened. How could a faith that offers such a compelling and truly interesting way of living in the world have been reduced to a cheapened version of itself that’s hollow enough to be dismissed? I know everyone’s story is different and that not all those who have made a decision to turn away from their Christian faith have done so for the same reasons. As someone who spends a lot of time studying, teaching, and thinking through the dynamics of Christian faith, though, I think I’m starting to see a few similarities emerge in these stories. We might call them common threads, and I’d like to name some of them here, not for the sake of trying to argue with those who have resigned their faith but to encourage those who continue to tell the Christian story to do so in a way that doesn’t make the story so quick, cheap, and easy that it loses its native challenge, audacity, and beauty.
Telling the story of Jesus well saves us from reducing, confusing, or cheapening the thing we call Christian faith until it’s little more than a shadow of itself.
One of the best ways to tell the Christian story, I think, is to have the courage to keep telling the unsettling story of its central figure, Jesus. Telling the story of Jesus well saves us from reducing, confusing, or cheapening the thing we call Christian faith until it’s little more than a shadow of itself. When our account of the story neglects Jesus, his singular life and daring challenge, we are left with a version of the story bearing the following characteristics:
It’s primarily about propositions and truth claims. According to Pew Research, one of the most prevalent reasons folks give for leaving the Christian faith is that they simply don’t agree with the teachings anymore. But what if the Christian faith wasn’t primarily about merely agreeing with ideas? Maybe another way to say this is that forgetting Jesus as central to Christian faith makes Christianity mostly about what one believes—as if belief is simply agreeing with ideas or concepts. If Christian faith is primarily about agreeing with propositions, it becomes disconnected from the daily rhythms of life and what we actually do as people.
It’s generic. Christian faith is understood to be about some religious principles that everyone agrees with, more or less. Concepts like love and justice are celebrated but not really attached to a specific vision of what they are. If these concepts remain general enough, they can be just as easily found in other religions, political movements, or lifestyle trends.
It’s a piece of your individual identity. “I just found something that made more sense for me.” As much as I resonate with that sentiment, I suspect that the version of Christian faith that was passed on to those who are walking away from it now is that it’s something meant to be added to your life. You are primary, and if faith helps, go ahead and use it. Missing here is the notion of Christian faith being something that makes a claim upon us, probably because the idea of being claimed by anything cuts against our modern sensibilities and rings offensively in our ears. The faith that comes to us like this is small enough to fit into one’s life, but it probably isn’t big enough to help our lives make sense.
It’s intermixed with other stories. The flimsiest versions of the Christian faith, I think, are those that attempt to make discipleship work for the sake of some other story. If we are Christians for the sake of being better employees, for example, I think we are probably dealing with a version that can be fairly easily replaced by a training session or some self-help curriculum.
So what might it mean to learn to tell the story well? When I was working on Following Jesus: Prophet, Priest, King, every contributing author challenged me to tell the story well. In their own distinctive ways, each of them refused to let me get away with reducing the Christian faith to nebulous concepts or vague moralities. They reminded me that the story of Christian faith is interesting because it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. They pointed me back to an event that was truly unique in the world’s history, and to a man who calls us into a way that defies categories. My friends’ work in that book challenged me to tell a story that doesn’t reduce the Christian faith to a cheap imitation. What they showed me was an account of the gospel story that took on the following four characteristics:
It’s primarily about a person. Rather than vague concepts or ideas you can either agree with or dismiss, Jesus offers us truth in the flesh. He doesn’t offer to use teachings about the truth because he is truth. The challenge here is that Jesus made some very specific and unique claims on his followers. He calls them not just to agree with ideas but to join themselves to his costly way and give themselves to it entirely. This isn’t about what ideas you agree with but whether your life is joined to this utterly strange, distinct, and self-giving way. If faith is about holding certain ideas in mind, you can do that and also live in ways that aren’t aligned to those truths. But when truth is a person, you either follow that person or not. There’s no way to inauthentically follow Jesus.
It’s particular. Christian faith is so interesting to me because it’s so particular. It doesn’t traffic in vague principles. Concepts like love take on very distinct definitions because they are shaped in very specific ways by Jesus. “And this is how we know what love is” is a statement that can live in a story that has seen an in-the-flesh person give himself over to be crucified. Justice, too, takes on a very specific character when it’s shaped like a particular person. The way Jesus took on the political and social realities of his day, for example, gives us a particular vision of justice. Jesus introduces us to a way of love and justice that aren’t generic but are actually quite specific. That kind of unique specificity is part of what makes Christian life so interesting.
It makes sense of our lives. Rather than being something that gets added to our lives, the Christian faith is a centuries-long story that has the capacity to make sense of our lives. We find ourselves within the Christian story. That means, then, that it’s going to go far beyond functioning as a kind of helpful additive that gets mixed in to the materials of a lifelong identity-construction project.
Let Jesus shape our God concepts. I think a lot of us tend to start with a God concept that is based on what we think a big, powerful divine figure ought to do and ought to be like—and then we tend to try to cram Jesus in on the side. What if we let Jesus shape our God concepts, though? What if we let his utterly unique way of engaging the world shape the way we talk about God and engage the Christian story? The longer I hang around the church, the more I’m convinced that our story only gets more compelling if we allow Jesus to challenge and shape the ways we think and talk about God. In so many ways, Jesus surprises us with what he does, what he says, and whom he interacts with. He doesn’t make a grab for political power. He does take the way of a servant. His power is used in ways to aid those whom no one else would touch. What if that wasn’t an anomaly? What if he isn’t doing and saying that stuff in spite of being God? What if the things he does really are God’s way? That’s a story that is truly interesting, and it’s one I think is worth giving my life to.
Timothy Gaines is the co-author of Following Jesus: Prophet, Priest, King. Tim Gaines, Kara Lyons-Pardue, and other biblical scholars, pastors, and theologians from around the globe, invite us to re-envision a cross-bearing Jesus—the prophet, priest, and king who upends our preconceptions about his life and ministry.