A prominent pastor said people leave their faith because it's a 'sexy thing to do.' But if gaining the approval of others had been our goal, we'd have stayed

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A few weeks ago, Texas pastor and Acts 29 leader Matt Chandler sparked a small internet fire with a clip from a sermon he preached at his church last year. Like most evangelical Christian ministers, he’s concerned about the number of people posting on social media about deconstructing their religious beliefs.

“You and I are in a day and age where deconstruction and the turning away from and leaving the faith has become some sort of sexy thing to do. I contend that if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, actually—that that’s really impossible to deconstruct from. But if all you ever understand Christianity to be is a moral code, then I totally get it.”

Leaving aside the quibbling over semantics, his posture towards the topic made me bristle for the same reasons it did most other exvangelicals: There is nothing sexy about deconstruction. It is a gut-wrenching, disorienting experience, and no one who has walked through it would ever portray it in the glib, shallow way Chandler did.

He rounded up the usual suspects in his effort to invalidate the process, assuring his listeners that people only leave because they didn’t really understand their faith correctly. Surely they are rejecting some other form of Christianity, most likely a shallow, legalistic version gleaned from a superficial reading of the Bible. Or maybe somebody was mean to them, yada yada. I’ll spare you my rants about those theological scapegoats today.

What gets me most is how naturally Chandler falls back on peer pressure as the culprit. Like we’re back in youth group again. He’s convinced people are only doing this because everyone else is doing it and they want to be cool, too.

I wonder which of our tactics gave us away? Was it the way we enroll our children in weekly group lessons aimed at convincing them to disbelieve in his religion, teaching them songs to go along with each topic? Or maybe it’s the weekend-long retreats where we all hold each other, crying around a campfire as we each talk about how our rejection of faith has made our lives complete?

Perhaps it was the way every member of our family expects each other to make regular public demonstrations of solidarity with our belief system, ostracizing those who drift away or lose interest? Or maybe it’s the way we use every MLM scheme imaginable to solicit new members for our mass gatherings in our oversized, conspicuously-located buildings?

I trust you get my point. But somehow Chandler doesn’t understand that leaving the Christian faith is nothing like entering it. The rocky, uphill path out of our faith was fundamentally opposite from the greased rails that brought us in.

For one thing, we joined the faith as a part of a group, but we tend to leave the faith completely alone. For most, it’s a solitary, even private struggle from start to finish. Also, when we became Christians, we received a ton of help once inside. When we left, there was no one. Thankfully, more people are speaking out and the number of voices online is growing. That’s precisely why the guardians of orthodoxy like Chandler feel the need to address it directly.

When we first committed our lives to our faith, our friends and family cheered; our departure, on the other hand, was met with disappointment and sometimes angry disapproval. They always take it very personally, somehow making it about them.

Leaving the Christian faith is nothing like entering it. The rocky, uphill path out of our faith was fundamentally opposite from the greased rails that brought us in.

Another difference is that our conversion was sudden—many of us can point to the date we “got saved”—while our deconversion takes years. Our entrance into the kingdom of God was met with so much fanfare, so much pomp and circumstance. But like with divorce, few people announce their departure publicly, and the ones who do are causing a scene.

Preachers always get it twisted the other way around. But they’re projecting. Their faith has earned them tremendous approval from within their respective groups, and they can’t imagine anyone would dismantle their lives to follow something that doesn’t come with a supportive community.

Where I come from, all the peer pressure is aimed at keeping you in, not at pushing you out. And it’s remarkably clueless for someone to talk as if it’s really the other way around. So why does Chandler think it is?

I know this is a common talking point for preachers. It’s customary for them to see “the world” as a unified, hivemind that’s out to get the Christian church in particular. But that’s just a construct they made up because it makes such a good bogeyman AND…big bonus…it pits them against everyone else in a way that makes them the central protagonists for the entire universe.

What I’m trying to say is that there is a collective narcissism that’s baked into the core of the Christian message. It’s inextricable, written into their DNA as a religion. Their heavily appropriated origin story begins with a group of people deciding God instructed them to invade neighboring city-states because that land was their land and they had a kind of manifest destiny to have it for themselves. Sound familiar?

They would never put themselves or their group at the center of the universe, you see. It’s just that the Bible puts them there, so what’re ya gonna do? It’s just the way that it is.

The thing about narcissism is that it stunts your emotional growth. You become stuck at an immature level because you can’t really learn from anyone else since your world ends around the edges of yourself.

This is why evangelicals can’t be made to care about what happens to the world. They believe it’s doomed anyway, so there’s no use in trying to make it a better place. You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship. Their goal is to leave the world, not to save it.

And now suddenly it makes sense why Chandler thinks peer pressure and group acceptance must be what motivates those of us who left. It’s because that is how it starts for pretty much everyone who enters the Christian faith. Once again, he’s projecting.

That’s one of the classic traits of narcissism, so of course, the Christian faith would normalize seeing everyone else as reflections of yourself. I can always tell what a person struggles with most by what they tell me is the reason why I left. It’s quite revealing.

I’ve got a whole list of things Christians tell me about themselves without realizing it.

  1. Our worldview is egocentric and puts us at the center of all things. That one I already brought up.
  2. We’re closed-minded, unwilling to admit that we could be wrong. On the contrary, we got where we are precisely because we question what we think all the time. And yes, we’ve even done the doubting your doubts thing, too. You have no idea how much self dismantling we’ve already put ourselves through. We’ll probably do it again, too. But definitely not over this.
  3. They say we crave absolute certainty, and we think science is infallible. sigh Yet again, this is projecting. Certainty is the currency of fundamentalism, but science deals in uncertainties. It feeds off of the questions more than it does the answers because it’s about exploration and curiosity. It’s about expanding your world, not consolidating it and building a wall around it, telling people what to think.
  4. They say we’re moral relativists. But I can’t imagine a more subjective moral code than the one you get from the Bible. If child sacrifice can be justified in the event that God commands it—or worse, does it himself—then what exactly is off limits? I see no lines of demarcation inside this worldview, and you certainly can’t build a legal code around it.

The list goes on, but I don’t want to get sidetracked more than I already have. Back to what I was saying.

There is a collective narcissism that’s baked into the core of the Christian message. It’s inextricable, written into their DNA as a religion.

It’s tempting to assign a cause-and-effect relationship between the Christian message and narcissism—cloaked though it may be under a camouflage of guilt and self-flagellation. But the truth is that projection is natural to all of us. It’s part of how we learn, at least at first.

Babies don’t know how to distinguish between themselves and the other people around them. They have to learn how to do that, only some people never seem to grow out of that phase no matter how old they get. That’s what narcissism is: a failure to grow up and learn that you’re not the center of the universe.

So of course that’s what they say is wrong with us. They say we put ourselves at the center of the universe when really what we did was we took ourselves out of it. That changed everything.

Christianity didn’t create narcissism, but neither is it doing a damned thing to curb it. It encourages you to see yourself as a baby no matter how old you are. That should have been a red flag for us at some point, but then that is why they invest so much energy to get to you before you’re old enough to know what red flags are. When you’re little, you think it’s a carnival.

I’m still waiting to see the Christian church display this miraculous discernment it’s supposed to have on account of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The church should have been the first to detect the fundamental fraudulence of Donald Trump. The whole world knows he’s a con artist—and a terrible one at that. Hanlon’s razor suggests we not attribute to malice what can be accredited to stupidity, but nothing says it can’t be both.

And yet the evangelical church fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Their fierce brand loyalty to the Republican Party made them easy prey for Trump, like shooting fish in a barrel. Church is about playing follow the leader, so all you have to do is get the leaders on board. All those opposed will shut up completely, and anyone who disagrees out loud will be tossed aside like yesterday’s trash.

Trump acts like a man-child but they see a gilded hero. He punches down and they all laugh and applaud. He makes up claims out of thin air and they believe whatever comes out of his mouth.

But they should have been out in front, warning the rest of the world not to trust Trump—just like they should have been out in front pleading with the world to cover their mouths and noses because our cultural obsession with personal freedom is getting people killed.

That’s not how they see it. Their frame of reference ends at themselves, so what happens to other people isn’t their responsibility. They trust their own immune systems, and that’s the end of the discussion. Nothing within their faith extends their circle of concern beyond themselves.

They say we put ourselves at the center of the universe when really what we did was we took ourselves out of it. That changed everything.

The theological tradition Matt Chandler calls home has a long history of choosing the wrong side of a culture war. They defended slavery (some of the Princeton greats were slave owners), they opposed integration and the Civil Rights movement, and they led the way in resisting marriage equality. They failed the Trump test as badly as they failed the Covid test—or passed it, in a manner of speaking.

They should have been the first to frame the discussion about masking and vaccination in terms of what best protects “the least among us,” but they have done precisely the opposite. In lockstep with the tenor of American culture, the American church sees all justice as personal, individual.

To them, social justice sounds as nonsensical as systemic racism. Surely racism is only a matter of the individual heart—just like salvation itself. You see the connection, here? In church you learn to see moral issues in individual terms, so institutional accountability is unthinkable.

The world is supposed to be broken, anyway. To expect it to be otherwise would be unchristian. Or at least unevangelical.

So no, Matt. People aren’t leaving your faith because they didn’t do it right or didn’t really understand it. And they didn’t leave because they cared too little. They left because they cared too much to keep devoting their lives to a subculture this incapable of reading the room. They’ve outgrown you, and it’s past time you did, too.

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...