The Rise & Fall of Faith

Excerpt: Prologue

It was the afternoon of Thursday, March 26, 2015. I was on the campus of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago and sitting with a seminary student named Mike. Ten years earlier I had served on pastoral staff at the fairly large Chicago church where Mike and his family were active participants. I knew him and his family well. And now Mike was attending Moody Theological Seminary and acquiring an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

Meanwhile, those ten years had seen me take the next in my ever-ongoing series of evangelical Christian adventures. For nearly twenty years I had lived and breathed nothing but Jesus. From ages fifteen to thirty-three, I followed “Him” as hard as I could with everything I had. The sojourn of faith had consumed my entire life as I devoted every waking breath to the pleasure and service of the King of Kings. And it was more than exciting. It was rich with majesty and wonder. It was intimately personal, adamantly hopeful, and saturated with purpose. Eventually I followed the call of Jesus into pastoral ministry, where I served him tirelessly for twelve years at two churches, first at Mike’s church and then at the one that followed.

But then something began to change.

As those years trudged on, as I continued on my journey, I grew increasingly plagued by the reality that my faith had fallen short of all it had promised, troubled by the realization that this lacking had been covered up by an endless circle of shallow explanations and trite responses. The more I noticed, the less I could deny . . . and the more the unraveling of my faith revealed its hollowed center.

And eventually the word had spread to Mike and the rest of my former congregants.

I had become an atheist.

And here we find ourselves in the early months of 2015, where our young evangelical seminarian studying Christian clinical counseling was assigned a group project that would eventually bring him to the intersection where I was standing. And in the process, his project pulled me back to my very own alma mater, where I sat, coffee in hand, before a rolling video camera.

The challenge of Mike’s class was to create Christian therapists who were able to counsel clients without letting personal bias get in the way of providing genuine assistance, even if it meant setting aside their own personal religious views. Each group was to select a segment of the population markedly unlike its group members and consider what it would be like to provide them treatment. What would it take to understand such a client’s perspective, to see the world as they see it, and to therefore enter into it and counsel them as they attempt to navigate their lives in truly beneficial and meaningful ways? Each student cluster selected its own demographic to study. Mike’s group chose atheists.

That’s when I received a text message from Mike asking if I still remembered him.

And that’s when just a few weeks later, we sat down for our nearly two-hour interview on everything from common misconceptions and societal challenges atheists face to the reasons an atheist might willingly choose to see a Christian counselor. Honestly, I told Mike, it’s hard for me to envision an atheist ever actively choosing an overtly Christian counselor instead of a secular one. But maybe that was beside the point.

But before Mike and I spent any time talking about all this stuff, he first asked me to share my story, the story of how I had become an unbeliever. Mike then went on to ask about the influences that had led me to atheism, about the books I had read or the other atheists that had gotten me thinking in that direction. I shared with Mike how, prior to my deconversion from Christianity, I hadn’t read a single book on atheism by a single atheist author. I shared how there wasn’t even one single atheist friend who had challenged my thinking and gotten me going. And I shared how the number one book prodding me to question and reevaluate my beliefs was, of all things, the Christian Bible.

And it was then, about a quarter of the way through the interview, after I had shared my story and dismantled the system of influences that he had been taught to assume, when my interviewer released the most insightful comment made the entire day. After this particular question, Mike turned his camera off and took a step back, starring slightly off to the side and apparently out the window. His eyes widened, his head tilted to the side, and even as he still seemed to be processing the syllables falling from his mouth, Mike said: “Wow, this disproves everything we normally believe about atheism.”

He paused again, stared through the floor for a moment, and after attempting to rein in his thoughts, looked up, turned the camera back on, and returned to the business of the interview.

What you have in your hands is more than just my story. It is a bridge to understanding. And like all bridges, it extends both ways. To any atheists in the room, it may seem clear that Christians (and other religionists alike) hold many false assumptions about nonbelievers. Just one of which—and it can often seem a foundational one at that—is the declaration that a former Christian could never have actually been a “true” Christian to begin with. It comes from this Calvinist theological belief called Perseverance of the Saints and is often referred to with the tagline “Once Saved, Always Saved.”

This idea stems from the belief that true Christians are those who have experienced the right kind of “saving faith,” which has led to a supernatural transformation wielded by the Holy Spirit of God—the equivalent of saying God Himself—and once God wields such a fundamental reconstruction of the individual, it cannot be undone. Therefore, if anyone ever proclaims that they have forsaken Christ, clearly their faith was never actually transformative to begin with. Once saved, always saved. And so if Drew is an atheist today, we can know for sure that he was never truly a Christian in the first place.

Or so the thinking goes.

That’s just one assumption often made of atheists by Christians. But there are others. That they are immoral. That they just want an excuse to sin. That they are mad at God. That they are bitter and angry. Or maybe that they’re just sad and lonely and destined to walk the earth without a valid sense of purpose. Some equate atheists with Satanists. Others with Communists. Or they simply believe atheism to be a force that threatens to undermine the very fabric of human civilization itself.

But maybe the biggest false assumption of them all is that a flourishing and fulfilling, committed and devout, Bible-centered faith could never lead to complete disbelief all on its own. And as we’re about to discover in the chapters that lie ahead, this assertion is most patently false.

In my story, I will walk you step-by-step along the journey I have taken. You will see what I saw and feel what I felt as my faith built to the point of being completely “sold out” for Jesus. Those of faith can compare my thoughts and feelings with their own to see how they hold up and judge for themselves, if they so dare, whether or not the state of my simple childlike faith was genuine. But you will then also discover what it looks like for a committed and zealous evangelical pastor to lose his faith even as he works tirelessly each and every day to hold it in check, even as its final grains slip as sand through his tightly gripped fingers. In so doing, you will peer into the heart and mind of a moment-by-moment crisis of faith.

But the bridge truly does extend both ways. And the truth is that atheists may be prone to making just as many assumptions about Christians, specifically those of the evangelical variety, of which I represent. Some, for instance, might find it odd that an evangelical seminary would even attempt to train their student therapists in how to set aside religious bias in an effort to provide nonbelievers with genuine help. Some might assume there have to be ulterior motives behind the “unbiased” therapy. Others might be shocked to even hear of such an institution embracing mainstream psychology to begin with.

And this says nothing of the political assumptions normally made of Christians—that all evangelicals are presumably fused with the Religious Right and its Grand Old Party of Republicans. And so it may be surprising to learn of the fact that while a student in the very institution mentioned above, I was first challenged by professors to consider voting Democrat and that while employing the very framework I picked up here, I decided to help elect Senator Barack Obama to the presidency. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find room for such perspectives within evangelical Christianity, let alone from one of its own pastors trained at one of the world’s flagship Bible colleges. But this is just a shadow of the misconceptions often made of evangelicals. And here they were all confronted in just one brief story in the prologue of many more to come.

Now I suppose you could say that if it’s worth writing about something and worth reading about it, then it’s also worth using it to provoke a discussion. I’d love to think maybe—just maybe—this little pile of ramblings might give us cause to do more of this very thing. That it might give you cause to engage in such discussion yourself.

I suppose you could say that the fundamental purpose of this book is to take you inside the heart and mind of an evangelical pastor in the midst of losing is faith. What does he see? What does he feel? What are his thoughts and struggles? And what would the story look like if he were you?
Even more fundamentally, my hope is that we would all ask ourselves: What would YOU see and hear and taste and feel? What would be YOUR sticking points? And what about your BREAKING point? What would hold YOU together and keep YOU sane? And, most importantly, how can you really be sure, until you’ve been there yourself?

More questions will come later. More discussion points. And, hopefully, more actual conversations fueled by this story and others like it. There are many. Some in print. Others via podcast. And for this reason, each chapter spills into a set of questions provided for dialogue. Some of them are aimed specifically at Christian readers, others at atheists, but all are offered in an effort to get us thinking and talking more directly. And in conversation with one another.

So anyway, welcome to my story.

And welcome to your own. Even if for no other reason than that your story includes you reading mine. But it’s not just the story of yours and mine. It’s the story of all humanity in our grand and epic search for meaning and truth and even for God Himself. It’s the story of a searching people. And in this sense, it is most certainly a story much bigger than my own. It is ours.

Welcome to the Story of Faith.