It’s happened again. For the second time in three weeks, a prominent (at least in Evangelical circles) Christian has renounced his faith. In July, it was Josh Harris, a pastor and author of the mega-best-selling purity-culture book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This month, it’s Hillsong United songwriter and worship leader Marty Sampson.
For those who don’t know, Hillsong United is one of the most popular and influential worship bands of the modern era. It was born at Hillsong Church in Australia and its albums routinely top the Christian charts — in fact, Billboard’s chart history gives it no fewer than eight number-one Christian albums.
It’s a powerhouse in what my former pastor derisively referred to as the “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music. Their songs featured heartfelt, simple lyrics pledging undying Christian love and devotion. They also happen to inspire millions of Christians across the globe.
The relative lack of theological depth to much of Hillsong’s music has brought a predictable response to Sampson’s announcement — shallow songs, shallow theology. But I’m not sure that’s right. Of course only Sampson knows his own heart, but I want to focus on something else. Parts of his Instagram announcement of his change of heart just don’t ring true. I won’t paste the entire statement, but this part stood out to me:
This is a soapbox moment so here I go . . . 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. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet — they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.
What is he talking about? “No one talks about” preachers falling, miracles, alleged biblical contradictions, or the challenge of hell? I take a backseat to no one in decrying youth ministries that concentrate more on ultimate Frisbee than on catachesis — or on pastors who focus on self-help to the exclusion of sound doctrine — but you simply cannot grow up in an Evangelical church without discussing many of these topics incessantly.
Yes, you can pass in and out of church — attend casually without going to Sunday school — and sometimes hear only therapeutic messages from the pulpit, but if you live in the church, as he did, you have real trouble believing his words. You also have seen the same thing many times — adults fall away in the face of the pressures of the world, rationalizing their departure with words that ring true to everyone except Christians who know what the church is really like.
As our culture changes, secularizes, and grows less tolerant of Christian orthodoxy, I’m noticing a pattern in many of the people who fall away (again, only Sampson knows his heart): They’re retreating from faith not because they’re ignorant of its key tenets and lack the necessary intellectual, theological depth but rather because the adversity of adherence to increasingly countercultural doctrine grows too great.
Put another way, the failure of the church isn’t so much of catechesis but of fortification — of building the pure moral courage and resolve to live your faith in the face of cultural headwinds.
In my travels around the country, one thing has become crystal clear to me. Christians are not prepared for the social consequences of the profound cultural shifts — especially in more secular parts of the nation. They’re afraid to say what they believe, not because they face the kind of persecution that Christians face overseas but because they’re simply not prepared for any meaningful adverse consequences in their careers or with their peers.
C. S. Lewis famously said that courage is the “form of every virtue at its testing point.” In practical application, this means that no person truly knows if he possesses any virtue until it’s tested. Do you think you’re loving? You’ll know you truly love another person only when loving that person is hard. Do you think you’re truthful? You’ll know only when telling the truth hurts. Soldiers are familiar with this phenomenon — most men who travel to the battlefield believe themselves to be brave, but they know they’re brave only if they do their duty when their life is on the line.
Earlier this summer, I spoke at an event in Georgia and discussed what I called the “courage cure to political correctness.” Are you afraid? Speak anyway, with humility, grace, and conviction. The law protects, but the culture resists you. After I spoke, a man came up to me and said, “That’s fine for you to say, but you don’t know what corporate America is like.”
I told him that I did know, and that I’ve experienced its bite.
He said no. He said, “It’s like East Germany now.” I asked him if he had tested that proposition, if he’d shared his beliefs in any meaningful way. He said no. He’d preemptively silenced himself.
That’s one version of failing in the face of adversity. Another version is represented by the person who simply wilts, who adopts the critiques of the secular world and lobs grenades back at the church as he leaves.
Are you faithful? I’d submit that you don’t know until that faith is truly tested — either in dramatic moments of crisis or in the slow, steady buildup of worldly pressure and secular scorn. As the worldly pressure and secular scorn continue to mount, expect to see more announcements like Josh Harris’s and Marty Sampson’s. Expect to see more friends and neighbors retreat and conform. The church has its faults, yes, but the blame will lie less with a church that failed to instruct than with a person who didn’t, ultimately, have the courage to believe.