These days I’m noticing a lot of friends who are turning from the faith. These are people with apparent, even convincing previous commitments to Christianity who now welcome the label of unbelief.
I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon. Why so many? Why now?
One possibility, I suppose, is a culturally driven one–that the apparent increase in deconversions is an optical illusion, that there are no more today than there have been in the past. The illusion comes because most of my friends now have and use a personal publishing platform, and they live in a culture that encourages “authenticity” in the form of controversial public pronouncements and the consequent wave of affirmation, in the form of “likes,” from fellow travelers. In that environment, deconversions that in another time would have been kept relatively private are now out there for all the world to see.
Possible, I suppose. Though survey data seem to show that the number of professing evangelicals is indeed shrinking.
Another possibility is theologically driven. For those of us who find—with all due respect to our Arminian brothers and sisters—the Bible to be teaching that a genuine believer cannot finally be lost, the conclusion that someone who deconverts—and persists—was never genuinely a believer to begin with is pretty much unavoidable. And if that’s the case, what could explain all those false professions?
I offer a possibility.
For my increasingly lengthening lifetime, American evangelicalism has prioritized evangelism; it’s one of Bebbington’s four essentials of the movement. In a culture that values efficiency and effectiveness, after the model of Henry Ford, we want to make the process of evangelism fool-proof, so that any believer of any experience can successfully carry out the Great Commission. So we develop methods, and we teach them in little pamphlets in simple language. The Romans Road. The Wordless Book. Sunday school. And lots of others.
And Christian parents, who more than anything want their children to live without the noxiousness of sinful decisions and eventually to go to heaven, lay that simple process on their beloved ones from the earliest ages.
Now, at the age of 4 or 5, any child is going to follow the instructions of an authority figure that he loves and trusts, particularly if there’s no real cost to it.
“Do you want to burn in hell forever?”
“Well, um, no, I’d rather not.”
What sane person would answer any other way?
“Then you need to pray this prayer.”
And the “Amen” is followed by the fervent statement, “You’ve asked Jesus into your heart! Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not going to heaven!”
Scripture tells us that salvation is a divine work. The Spirit convicts of sin (Jn 16.8) and illumines the mind; the Father draws the convert to the Son (Jn 6.44). Unless God is acting on this convert, he’s not a convert at all.
Is it possible that we have a generation of people who grew up in Christian homes and made a “decision” that you’d have to be an idiot to say no to, but have never felt the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and the drawing (and keeping) power of the Father, the covenant-keeping God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? A generation that today sees professing “evangelicals” by the thousands engaging in behavior that they find deeply disgusting—most notably abusive sexual behavior, hypocrisy, lack of empathy, and the apotheoses of celebrities with prominent character flaws—and they say to themselves, and to their social circles, “Why am I associating with these people? What reason do I have to stay in a relationship to which I’ve never had any commitment beyond an intellectual one, and in my immature years at that?”
Of course it’s possible.
Maybe we should watch for evidence of God’s working in a young person before encouraging him to “pray the prayer.” Maybe we should show our devotion to carrying out the Great Commission by seeking genuine, not facile, conversions. Maybe we should be God’s servants, rather than his pushy facilitators, in this important work. Maybe we should be less frantic, less desperate, and more trusting and confident.
Good intentions don’t seem to be good enough.