When Christian Superstars Struggle with Faith

As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Marty Sampson, former Hillsong songwriter and worship leader, recently announced on Instagram that he is “genuinely losing his faith.” In his post, the Australian Christian music star opens up for some “real talk,” and raises some of the issues that are leading him to question his Christian faith. “How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it.”

While Sampson’s statement is not true of all Christian communities, his more than 20-year experience in his particular mega church circle is that people avoid these complicated topics. Questions like his are often met with pat answers, with judgment, with avoidance of ongoing discussion. He is not the only former Christian superstar to articulate this sentiment. In a Youtube video entitled “How I Lost My Faith in the Mega Church”, former Christian musician and mega church employee Lisa Gungor states that in the church “if you have doubts, you’re a dangerous person.” It seems that evangelical Christian leaders are telling us it is difficult for them to truly explore their theological questions.

Another Christian celebrity, best-selling author and purity culture advocate Joshua Harris, recently also used Instagram to reveal that “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” (Interesting that social media has become a platform to announce such important life decisions. Could it be that many feel safer in the vastness of social media than in churches and Christian media outlets?)

Over and over again it seems Christian leaders who have been shaped by rigid faith structures are eventually hitting a wall where they can no longer hold in their scepticism. The silent questions build and build until the dam breaks. They feel they have to choose between faith or science, literalism or apostasy, inclusivity or orthodoxy.

As disappointing as it is to see renowned Christian leaders walk away from faith, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on why this might be happening. When we make Christianity about being right, about having the answers, about certainty, rather than about love, humility, truth and mystery, it seems the inevitable conclusion is that, when people find their faith challenged, they feel the need to leave.

Often these declarations of faith shifts from Christian leaders are met with anger, frustration or defensiveness from other leaders or media. Lisa Gungor explains that as she and her husband were dealing with the discovery their newborn daughter had Down Syndrome and heart defects, a social media blow-up erupted about the couple’s changing beliefs. There were “stories all over the internet about our heresy. . . We were completely pushed out of the church world, and this tribe that we really loved, and [it was] really painful and devastating.”

What if we didn’t jump to push people out of the church when they ask questions that make us uncomfortable? Could we, instead of seeing a loss of faith as an attack on the church, respond with grace and compassion? It is painful for us to see people leave the church. We can, and should, leave room to mourn this. But we can also recognize with empathy that any major faith transition is not arrived at lightly or casually, and almost always involves a great degree of pain and grieving. We must ask ourselves what it means to be a community that follows a shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one who wandered away on the journey.

We would do better to greet people with a spirit of inquiry rather than condemnation. What led to this rift in your faith? How are you doing in the midst of this transition? What questions about faith have you asked and felt you couldn’t get sufficient answers to? How can we continue to support you in this journey?

Important to note here is that both Harris and Sampson’s statements hold a degree of openness. Sampson uses the phrase “shaky ground” to describe his position. Harris says, “Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith, and I want to remain open to this.” They’ve said that Christianity, as it’s been presented to them, does not make sense to them at this time. We face the temptation as a Christian community to create firm lines in the sand: you’re in or you’re out. Pick a side. Choose your camp. But if instead of battle or club imagery, we use metaphors for faith development that seem more in line with the Bible and Christian history—metaphors of a journey or an ongoing process—there is room for contours and ups and downs in our faith. I can only imagine that leaders in Christian communities who have been held up on pedestals might be tempted to entirely shed all expectations around what they believe and start rebuilding from scratch. Public declarations like Sampson’s and Harris’s allow them this kind of redefinition and fresh start. Instead of jumping to label someone and creating viral headlines, we might give them some time to work through what this next stage might look like for them.

A university chaplain and mentor of mine speaks about how we as Christians often hold our beliefs tightly in closed fists. When we do this we feel safe because other ideas and voices can’t get in. But then our views also can’t be changed by God or shared generously with others. It’s when we vulnerably open our hands and hold our convictions before God that they can continually be shaped and passed along.

About the Author

Melissa is a writer and CRC chaplain to Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont.

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