How Preaching Might Be Contributing to Deconversions

We must be open to questions, dialogue and differing opinions if we are going to reach our postmodern culture.

It’s the hope of almost every preacher I’ve ever met that people will embrace Jesus.

That’s been my hope every time I preach.

And yet the opposite seems to be happening: More people than ever before seem to be walking away from Christ. It’s not that they haven’t been to church, they have. And they’ve left.

The wave of deconversions among Christians seems to be growing every day.

While the stories of high profile Christian leaders walking away from their Christianity and others who are questioning their faith abound, the headlines are symptomatic of a deeper trend: Atheism and spirituality not connected to any orthodox understanding of Christianity are on the rise. In fact, as the Barna Group reported, atheism has doubled in Generation Z compared to other generations.

I don’t want to be part of any Twitter mob or comment gang that piles on leaders who share their deconversions publicly. I honestly can’t see what good comes of that. Anyone who thinks judgment and hatred will win people back to the Christian faith needs to think again. Judgment is a terrible evangelism strategy.

I feel some empathy for people who are deconverting. I too have gone through some deep questioning of my Christian faith.

Ironically, in college, my questions didn’t lead to an abandoning, but instead to an embrace of Jesus and the Christian faith. Since then, my own questions and my consideration of other viewpoints, faiths and worldviews keep drawing me back even more deeply into the embrace of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean the questions people are asking aren’t legitimate or real.

The paradox for me personally is that my questioning of Christian assumptions over the years has deepened my faith, not eroded it. But I also realize this isn’t what’s happening for many people. They question, explore and then leave.

So the question becomes why.

While the answer is complex, I think some of it may have to do with the state of preaching today.

I want to offer a few reflections on what might be contributing to the rise in atheism, agnosticism and the rather astonishing deconversions we keep seeing—namely, the way we preach. Obviously, that’s not the sole cause of the deconversions happening, but at some level, it has to be a contributing factor.

Preaching is one of the central features of our public worship times, and Gallup indicated that 76% of people still choose a church based on the quality of the preaching. Clearly, the way we teach and preach still has an impact, for better or worse. It’s also why my friend Mark Clark and I put this together for preachers.

There are at least three factors about our preaching that might be spurring deconversions. I share these out not to point fingers, but just to say that our current approach isn’t working nearly as well as it should or could. I also offer them as a preacher.

Preaching should help people find faith, not cause people to lose it. And it haunts me that there are tens of thousands of people who grew up in church listening to sermons who have walked away.

Here are three ways preaching is perhaps contributing to the rash of deconversion stories we’re seeing.

1. Our Preaching Can Seem Shallow and Unresearched Because Often It Is.

The Christian faith is hardly simplistic or trivial. But sometimes our sermons are.

People today have access to ideas, insights, arguments and data most didn’t have access to even a decade ago.

Why? Well, in a single word: the internet.

Think back to the early 2000s. The average person listening to a message didn’t have easy, instant access to information about whatever subject was being covered on a given Sunday.

Perhaps they went to college. Some, of course, were well-read. But the average person mostly only had access to what they saw, heard and read in the mainstream media and what they might hear at church.

Today, virtually everyone you’re speaking to has a phone with them, and not only are some of them fact-checking you when you speak, but many (especially the unchurched and curious) have also already googled and more deeply researched what you’re talking about.

Many have read books and even more have listened to podcasts that debate the very subject you’re covering. While you might say that’s not true of Christians in your church (maybe they only listen to Christian media), I promise it’s 100% true of any unchurched people exploring faith and Christians who are questioning their faith.

And please hear me. I am not saying Google is the most reliable or scholarly way to get great information or that the information they’re accessing online is unbiased, research-based or even helpful. But I am saying it’s real.

And compared to the intellectual depth of a lot of preaching today, the other sources people are reading and accessing, it’s not that hard for preachers to come off as shallow or unresearched.

Many of us who preach haven’t changed our study or research methods much. We’re teaching and preaching as though the internet doesn’t exist, and as if people should blindly accept whatever we’re saying. I promise you they won’t.

I’ve found over the last decade in particular that I’m reading more, not less—not just commentaries and theological books (which, of course, you need to), but far more widely.

Truthfully, at first, I was a little nervous to get outside of my little Christian echo chamber and school of the already-convinced. I wondered if reading alternative viewpoints would erode or destroy my faith. (It didn’t.)

But over the last decade as I’ve read leading authors as varied as Yuval Noah Harrari, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Eckhart Tolle, Robert White, Dan Harris, Sam Harris, Mark Manson and many others (all of whom are not Christian, and some of whom are scathing in their critique of Christianity), I have a much better appreciation of the questions and objections people are carrying with them when they access a sermon, and as a result I can address them.

I’ve also listened to hundreds of podcast episodes featuring people who don’t share my worldview or faith at all (like Tara Brach for example), and while I may not agree, it’s helped me understand what other people are listening to, exploring and increasingly embracing.

I’m not sure today’s preachers are winning the intellectual war. To simply offer advice or insight and a clever line or two isn’t cutting it anymore, at least if you’re speaking to people who are exploring other worldviews—which I assume you are.

To use the line “just preach the Word and trust God” is a denial of responsibility. There is a power in the text and a power in the Holy Spirit that is undeniable, and for which I am deeply grateful and rely on greatly in my preaching. But that doesn’t mean you just fail to prepare and hope it all works out.

Perhaps one of the reasons God used the apostle Paul so powerfully is that he was deeply schooled not just in Judaism, but he also understood the mind of the Epicureans, Stoics and Greek philosophers. He understood differing worldviews and used that knowledge to draw people into the embrace of Jesus as Lord.

If God created the mind, then thinking isn’t inherently an enemy of faith. In fact, good thinking can just as easily lead back to Christ as it does away from him. I would, of course, argue even more so does good thinking lead to Christ than it leads away from him.

Thinking more deeply and praying more deeply are both needed in preaching today.

2. Knocking Down Straw Men Doesn’t Impress Anyone. Shoot for Steel.

It’s a classic debating tactic to set up the opposing point of view as a straw argument or straw man (a bad argument), and then knock it/him down to show how compelling your point of view is. A slight variation is to reduce and ridicule the other side until it seems only fools could believe it.

Classic example:

“To believe Darwinian explanations of unguided evolution is like believing a tornado swept through a junkyard and randomly assembled a fully functional 747 jet.”

That’s actually a moderately decent analogy with some truth behind it, but you have not nearly made your case. Finding a clever metaphor like that can help, but it is not a complete argument. A lot of preachers pretend it is, and with one clever analogy feel they’ve buried unguided evolution.

Hardly.

Leaving it at a simplistic, dismissive level gives the impression that people who believe unguided evolution are unintelligent, which they clearly are not. Atheists, skeptics and people who embrace alternate spiritualities are not stupid people. Many of them are incredibly intelligent. All of them are made in the image of God.

Taking opposing views seriously is one of the best ways to respect people who think differently than you and perhaps gain a hearing.

I haven’t always done this well, but fast-forward to a more recent example when I tried to engage the opposing view more seriously. Below is the description I wrote for a message I preached earlier this year in a series I called Undrink the Kool-Aid. The message is about science and faith:

“Religion is basically how ancients understood the world, but science has taken us so far beyond that. Between what we know about evolution, astronomy, genetics, biology and so many other sciences, we’ve explained what we used to attribute to God. If science explains or will explain everything, why do we really need God?”

I wrote the summary of the message not from a Christian viewpoint, but from an opposing viewpoint because that’s exactly how I’ve heard many atheists and skeptics talk about religion and science. When they read that, they are far more likely to be surprised and say to themselves A church actually understands what I think? Furthermore, a growing number of Christians in your congregation are thinking the same thing. They just haven’t said it out loud.

Of course, during the message I argue that a deep understanding of science can just as easily lead toward faith as away from it, and quote not only Scripture but a number of scientists, and then explore the thinking of the 17th-century physicist, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. (You can watch the message here if you’re interested.)

Taking the counterargument seriously and presenting some of its strongest points makes your argument stronger. And, of course, if you can’t counter the counterargument with strong points, well, that’s a whole other issue.

Taking the opposing view seriously makes people who hold the opposing view take you more seriously. Ridiculing your opponent makes you less persuasive, not more persuasive.

And it makes your viewpoint seem like a far more plausible alternative to theirs.

Ridiculing someone rarely makes them want to embrace you or what you stand for.

For bonus points, think about how this principle could change the current political discourse. It’s really what we all long for, but no one seems to be leading the way. So lead.

3. Being Closed to Questions and Conversation Closes Doors.

Sometimes I wonder how many times people would have stuck around if Christians had been better with questions and conversations. But we seem more interested in making a point, defending what we believe or winning arguments.

Sure, whenever you speak from any point of view, you’re making an argument—hence my first two points)—but ultimately, the point isn’t to win an argument; it’s to win the person. There’s no point in winning an argument and losing people.

Yes, logic matters. Yes, truth and being firm in your convictions matters, a lot. But people matter even more. And you don’t have to sacrifice one to keep the other.

If you win arguments and lose people, have you really won?

The reality is everyone has questions. You do. I do. Everybody who’s ever listened to a sermon has questions.

The issue is: Where can you bring those questions? And too often in the church, the answer is nowhere.

You asked about evolution, science, reincarnation or sexuality and got a pat answer. Or no answer. Or worse, you got judged for asking the question.

I don’t know about you, sometimes when I’m asking a question I’m not really even looking for an answer nearly as much as I’m looking for a conversation or simply for someone to listen.

In my personal conversations with atheists, agnostics and others who don’t share my faith perspective, I’m trying much harder to hold my tongue, listen, not rush in with pat answers, honor their questions—or at least the intent behind them—and show respect. Do you know what happens a remarkable number of times? They talk themselves out of their question or make the point I would have made anyway. They just needed someone to listen long enough.

Furthermore, when you listen, give them credit and tell them they’re really thinking—which in most cases, they really are—and you appreciate the questions, they are shocked to find an open-minded Christian. And usually what they want is another conversation.

Preaching works that way too.

• Let people know their questions are important.

• If you don’t know the answer, don’t make one up. That does a disservice to God and to them. And if the answer is unknowable (as sometimes it is, tell them that while we can’t be certain of issue X, here’s what we’re thinking about issue Y.)

• If they have a good point, tell them.

• And of course, in the process, share the hope that’s in you too.

Being open to dialogue makes people open to you. And being open to questions ultimately helps people be open to different answers.

Embracing people’s questions makes them far more open to embracing different answers.

So what happens if you can’t handle questions, conversations and dialogue?

Easy. People leave. They’ll take their questions elsewhere.

Someone else will listen, empathize and over time, perhaps even persuade them of a new way to think and believe. And you won’t.

In fact, that may be exactly what’s happening.

And then you’re left with your absolutist friends believing you’re right and everyone else is wrong.

3 THINGS YOU CAN DO

Before I end this article, let me reiterate that I am firmly convinced that Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life and that I hold an orthodox view of the Christian faith.

I just think we’re losing people like crazy in our new, postmodern reality.

If you want to grow in this area further, try these things. They’re easy to understand, really hard to do, but so worth it.

1. Read, study and understand opposing points of view. Some of the authors/podcasters mentioned in this article are great places to start. You can’t address a different point of view if you don’t understand it.

2. Become friends with a thoughtful atheist, agnostic or someone entirely different than you. I have a few atheists and agnostics in my life I hang out with regularly. They’re smart, well-read and push me to new levels of my faith and ability to articulate it that would never happen if I didn’t have those relationships. I am learning loads. So, they tell me, are they.

3. Embrace questions. When you embrace a question, you embrace the questioner. Similarly, when you’re open to hearing people, they’re far more open to hearing you.

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This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.