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Why do some Christians leave the faith of their youth?


We all have stories of friends and loved ones whose once-vibrant faith is now a distant memory. As church leaders and hurt family members watch them leave the faith of their upbringing, they are often left asking, “Why are they falling away?”
Brian Simmons, professor of communications at Cascade College in Portland, Ore., brings his sociological training to bear on that exact question.
“Falling Away” presents sociological research to explain why people leave the faith of their youth. The sociological model directs the book, with the addition of two chapters about biblical texts, and undergirds the book’s premise that apostasy is real and can be recognized and lessened.
A lifelong member of Churches of Christ, a graduate of two Christian colleges and now professor at a third, Simmons illustrates his points with stories from his real-life interaction with people, especially students during their formative college years.
Simmons defines the process variously called “falling away” or “backsliding,” using three subgroups of those who leave their faith (with corresponding sociological terms). The first group includes those who completely abandon their once-authentic faith in Christ (“lower religiosity”). The second group includes those who change faith traditions, such as moving from a Methodist church to a Baptist one (“disaffiliation”). The third group includes those who disassociate themselves from any congregation but maintain faith, such as those no longer attending worship while still thinking of themselves as Christians (“apostasy”).
This helpful, three-fold definition goes underutilized, though, because the term “apostasy” is often used generically, not just when referring to the third subgroup.
The book flows from defining apostasy, using both secular research and biblical texts, to identifying the people likely to fall away. It closes on two notes of hope, one reminding readers that many who fall away eventually return to faith and another suggesting goals for strengthening faith in families and congregations.
Simmons writes for a non-technical audience, seeking to “start a conversation among concerned Christians about this vital issue.” The book seems appropriate, therefore, for church leaders. Also, adult classes might take advantage of the study questions provided at the end of each chapter. Even a college or young adult class might use the book, since it provides many insights into that stage of life. It might also help those hurting after watching loved ones abandon their faith, but the book gives more insight and challenge than word of comfort. Although the tone is generally positive, the book is not primarily pastoral.
Readers will not find quick fixes here. It is to Simmons’ credit that, rather than simply offering tips and techniques, he offers goals that demand spiritual discernment and godly leadership, such as building authentic community and sharing faith and doubts honestly. Simmons places the onus for faith building on parents, arguing that a positive family faith experience is foundational to faith persistence. The health of the congregation is also a significant factor.
Even with assertions that it reports “recent research,” do not look to “Falling Away” for up-to-date information on the status of apostasy. Most of the references are 10-20 years old, often reporting data even older.
For more current data, explore the Barna Group. Our fellowship’s Flavil Yeakley (referred to by Simmons in a footnote) has rich statistical data illuminating our situation. And Church Growth Magazine provides real-life solutions from Church of Christ leaders.
Despite chapters devoted to biblical verses, “Falling Away” does not integrate theology into its method. Therefore, an unspoken assumption of the book, necessitated by the sociological approach, goes unchecked: the belief that humans can identify and solve human problems. In churches, this belief quickly reduces “faithfulness” to “church attendance.”
It would have been helpful to have a reminder that faith is an interaction with God himself, an interaction aided by — not created by — family, church, youth group, college, and worship services. Studies on emerging church, missional church and spiritual formation will help readers fill this gap.
“Falling Away” is a sociological interpretation of a phenomenon sweeping all Christian traditions. The book’s largest contribution, however, will not be data reporting, but its powerful reminder that the loss of faith is real, serious and a matter of vital importance for the church.
MARK PARKER is assistant vice president of Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., and deacon of marriage mentoring for the White Station church in Memphis.

  • Feedback
    It is one thing to be committed to a local church, a historic movement, or a theological ideal. It is quite another to be born again from above. In my view, many who are thought to have lost thier faith never had it. According to 1st John and a host of other passages, the mark of ones who are in Christ is that they will persevere.
    On the other hand, in many cases salvation has been so defined that what appears to be “falling away” or even “apostosy” might just be growth. Those converted by God are safe, those we converted are not.
    ,
    November, 13 2008

    Linda, I too am humbled to my knees with what you say. As my wife continues to say that us men see the big picture. That is what I will address. The brotherhood & “all” who walk through that door are in need of love & support like never before. I must also say that we have been through it also but chose not to leave after being begged not to.
    If this is appropriate also I have seen that change to a loving congregation. It can happen but not overnight. Again, we have no other choice but to love just as Jesus did.
    I have served as an elder since Dec. & as a deacon for 22 years prior in a congregation in the North Texas area.
    James Waggoner
    ,
    July, 28 2008

    Terry, Thank you so much for your response. When you push ‘send’ on something like this you always wonder if you went too far. We call ourselves walking wounded and apparently you know how that feels.
    We know all about the Contact Church of Christ but we live too far away to attend there. We have known Ron and Judy for years and my husband went to OC with Ron. We love them dearly and know they are involved in something that has God’s hand on it and would love to be closer. Please give them our love and thank you again for your comments.
    ,
    July, 25 2008

    Linda,
    Your comments were the most powerful words I have read in a long time. Anyone who reads them will come away with a better understanding of (and compassion for) people who have been driven away from churches.
    I hope this is appropriate. If you and your husband live near Tulsa, I would like to invite you to be with us in the Contact Church of Christ. Please check out the web site www.contactchurch.net to see whether you would feel comfortable visiting us. Over 10 years ago, my wife and I were in somewhat similar circumstances in being forced to leave a bad church situation. If we could help you, we would love to do so.
    ,
    July, 25 2008

    My husband and I are among those who were raised in the church of Christ and have not left God but have left the flock. He has been a Youth Minister and an Elder and I worked in the church office so we do not take our beliefs or the blood that was shed for us lightly. We never dreamed this would happen to us.
    It is easier to blame this phenomenon on the people who fall away or on their parents than it is to look within the core of the church. The church leadership has become a place for people who cannot be powerful in their professions or at home. Within the church “government” they have found their thrones and have managed to convince themselves that they rule the kingdom. Humility leaves the room and arrogance takes over. Due to job transfers, we have been members of several congregations and have observed this over and over again. We have also witnessed Elderships on their knees searching for God�s blessings on their service to Him. Every decision they make begins with prayer and humility. Until this happens across the brotherhood, healing will not begin and membership will not grow.
    My husband was exactly what an Elder should be. We talked many times about how, as an Elder, he was connected to those men talked about in the Bible. He believed he was not worthy to walk the same path they walked so he was very humble with the task given to him of shepherding the flock. He understood that God was watching him and that he would be judged according to his service to his Heavenly Father. I cannot tell you how respected and loved he was by his flock. He now says, given the opportunity, he would never put himself in that position again.
    We left our home town 3 1/2 years ago and moved to a small town in NE Oklahoma to retire. We began our search for a congregation where people loved each other and where worship would take us to the throne of God. We did not find what we were looking for so we stayed home out of fear of being damaged more than we already were and began the healing process. As much as we love our home, we are now selling it and will move to another community with the hope of finding a place to worship to fill the void we can no longer deny.
    If anyone thinks it is easy to step away from something that is a part of everything you have been taught and everything that goes deep into the core of who you are and what you believe, they are wrong. We know we are not alone since we have talked to others in the same boat. Until “the church” gets back to the heart of worship and stops judging and controlling every aspect of our brother’s and sister’s lives instead of loving them and standing beside them as we all strive for the same home in Heaven with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, membership will continue to go down and doors will close.
    With God’s help, the knives in our backs are gone and the wounds have healed but the sad thing is that our three adult children observed what happened to their parents and say they will never step foot in a church of Christ again. My prayer is that eventually, when studies like this are done, someone will get deep into the hearts of the people who leave instead of focusing on the statistics. We pray for His guidance as we search for a place to worship and serve Him.
    ,
    July, 24 2008

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