When Christian Superstars Struggle with Faith

As I Was Saying

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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 Kuipers writes fiction and non-fiction. She is also director of discipleship ministries at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont

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Comments

This is so important! "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." I've sadly seen this happen so often, even with dear friends. Thanks for the story - may the Lord make our churches welcoming places for questions and exploration and may we remember that we serve a God who is beyond anyone's understanding, so we need to leave room for mystery. No one has it all right, so we need to leave room for humility too.

I agree. The prewar situation in the Netherlands was that Reformed folk thought they had it all together. After my Dad's 4 year time in Dachau he changed his tune. The war did challenge a lot of people in their faith and post war prosperity seemed to destroy it even more.

I am not sure on what basis Ms. Kuipers thinks anyone "jumped to push people out of the church". The fact is in both of her examples, these men left rather shallow megachurch culture. Hillsong in particular is know for being doctrinally weak. The admonition we ought to look to is 1 Peter 3:15 "15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,". I am sure that at times believers have neglected the gentleness and respect aspect, but many other times the problem is a soft headed "Sola Feels" approach to discipleship in the first place.

I think the first problem with this article is that is presupposes there are "Christian superstars."  I don't think there is such a thing, and if there were, the last place is expect to find them is within the leadership group of a megachurch.

This first problem leads to a second, which is to supposed that what a purported "Christian superstar" says is so, is so (because he's a superstar after all).

This superstar is quoted as saying "nobody talks about it" as to a number of "problems" he sees with accepting the Christian faith.  I'm not sure where this superstar has been, but I've seen everything on his list of "not being talked about" being talked about, a lot actually.  Maybe he's been too busy being a superstar to get in on those conversations.

In a very real way, Christianity is about "being right," about acknowledging that God exists, that he entered human history in the form of Jesus Christ, that he communicates with us via a written word, etc.  We confess (declare these propositions to be true, that is, "right") when we confess the Apostles Creed and other creeds and confessions.  Does that mean "Christianity is only about 'being right'" or that any of us "knows everything"?  Certainly not.  But it does mean we ought not walk away from confessing "truths" in our zeal to not claim truth.

We can be humble and yet stake, by faith, claims of truth.  And none of needs to be a "Christian superstar" to do that.  But we also ought not be discouraged when some purported "Christian superstar" says he is walking away from the Christian faith.

Well, first of all, WE NEED TO STOP EQUATING DOUBT WITH UNBELIEF.  I know it's translated that way in the NIV in the story of one of Jesus' miracles, but it's probably a bad translation, and if theologians reconsidered it, they might find a better way to put it.  Asking questions may make some people anxious or insecure, but if you can't handle somebody's question because you feel threatened, refer them to someone who can.

Second, what I'm reading fits in with what I'm eading in the book Prophetic Lament : A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, by Soong-Chan Rah about preachers in the white evangelical church who preach a message of success by worldly standards and give easy answers that don't meet the needs of grieving people.  I'm sorry for people who give up on their faith because of such preachers or because some people want to avoid difficult questions that make them insecure about their own faith.  I wish I clould have conversations with the doubters so I could tell them that it's okay to question God.  He can handle it.  After all He dealt with Jeremiah and many Old Testament prophets who complained to Him of what they had to go through, and none of them lost their faith.  Neither did I even though I went through years of hell because of schizophrenia before my psychiatrist and I found a medication and dosage that controlled my symptoms.  Losing one's faith in hard times is NOT inevitable.  Tell God how you feel.  He can handle it and He will take it in stride.  God, unlike people, is not fragile and He won't break into pieces.  If that should have happened He'd be in pieces now.  After all, look at what the psalmists wrote, and Job and countless others.  I pray for those doubters that they will find people who will listen to them openly and with compassion, so they DON'T feel they have no other option but to walk out on their faith.

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