Drew Dyck didn’t lose the Christian faith of his childhood when
he became an adult, but he noticed that lots of others did.
Dyck, an editor of online publications for Christianity
Today, talked to some of those who’ve left the faith for his recent book, Generation
Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … and How to Bring Them
(Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: What prompted you to write about ex-Christians?
A: My friends began leaving the faith. The first was a
friend from high school. We had grown up in the church; both of our fathers
were pastors. A few years after high school he informed me that he was no longer
a Christian. That got my attention. As I moved through my 20s, I witnessed
other friends “de-convert.” I realized that these experiences were not unique.
Q: Are a lot of young people really leaving the faith? Won’t
they just come back when they’re older?
A: The answer to the first question is “yes.” In the 2009
American Religious Identification Survey, 18- to 29-year-olds were found to be the
least religious age group: 22 percent claimed “no religion.” That was up 11
percent from 1990.
Whether or not they will return is where the scholarly
consensus breaks down. Some view the exodus from the church as a hiatus, a
matter of young Americans “slapping the snooze” on Sunday mornings. They see the
trend as a reversible life-phase phenomenon. I’m not so sure.
Q: What’s the main reason they give for leaving?
A: Most cited intellectual doubts, but there’s often more to
the story. One young woman had attended a prominent Christian college, where she’d
suffered a mental breakdown after feeling ostracized by the community and
betrayed by Christian friends. But it was only in subsequent years that she
constructed her elaborate system of doubt. Her intellectual doubts may have
prevented her from returning to
Christianity, but they were almost certainly not the reason
she left in the first place.
My challenge was to watch for those underlying experiences
that often push people from the faith. It sounds more credible to say you left
on intellectual grounds. But more often, the head follows the heart.
Q: What interesting things did you learn during the
A: I encountered some surprising signs of spiritual life. In
the interviews, I asked the ex-Christians whether they ever still prayed. Most
still did pray. They were angry, conflicted prayers, but beautiful in their
honesty and desperation: “God, where are you? Can you hear me? Do you exist? Do
you even care about me? I miss you.”
Q: You have some interesting categories of unbelievers in
your book: Can you explain what these terms mean?
A: No two “leavers” are exactly the same, but some patterns
Postmodern leavers reject Christianity because of its
exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. For them, Christian faith is just
“Recoilers” leave because they were hurt in the church. They
suffered some form of abuse at the hands of someone they saw as a spiritual
authority. God was guilty by association.
“Modernists” completely reject supernatural claims. God is a
delusion. Any truth beyond science is dismissed as superstition.
“Neo-pagans” refers to those who left for earth-based
religions such as Wicca. Not all actually cast spells or participate in pagan
rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and see earth as the locus of true spirituality.
“Spiritual Rebels” flee the faith to indulge in behavior
that conflicted with their faith. They also value autonomy and don’t want anyone
— especially a superintending deity — telling them what to do.
“Drifters” do not suffer intellectual crises or consciously
leave the faith; they simply drift away. Over time God becomes less and less important
until one day he’s no longer part of their lives.
Q: Has the church played a role in causing this trend? If
so, how can it stem the tide?
A: Over the past couple of decades, business thinking has
affected the way many churches minister to youth. The goal has become
attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained. Church
researcher Ed Stetzer describes most youth groups as “holding tanks with pizza.”
There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but they’re
tragic replacements for discipleship and catechism. Many young people have been
exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them
against authentic faith.
Q: What role does contemporary American culture play?
A: A lot of Christians fear the corrupting influence of “the
world,” but when it comes to the spiritual plights of young people, what
happens inside the church matters most. Even for those lured away by
alternative spiritualities such as Wicca, their “de-conversions” were
precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. In other
words, it was more push than pull.
Q: You’re a part of the generation you’re writing about. What
is different about those such as yourself who didn’t leave?
A: Young people who have meaningful relationships with older
Christians are much more likely to retain their faith into adulthood. I had
those connections, and have no doubt they were instrumental in my life. I also
sought out the intellectual resources to understand and defend my faith. But I
don’t give myself too much credit.
The difference between me and my friends who I now describe
as “ex-Christians” may be a matter of degree, rather than kind. We all have the
tendency to stray. But God, in his mercy, keeps drawing me back.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Richter writes for The Birmingham
News in Birmingham, Ala.)
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