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An Open Letter to Young People Leaving the Faith

By: David Harris

So you’ve decided that you’re no longer a Christian. You don’t believe the basic tenants of the faith, you now consider its traditions and practices to be a waste of your time and you maintain that you’ve actually felt this way for quite a while – you’ve just now been able to come to terms… to peace with where you stand. You know that you’re family (or perhaps your friends/community/etc.) isn’t happy about this – they don’t understand why you would turn your back on what you’ve been raised in. But in your mind it’s more their problem – after all, you’re only being true to yourself – how you feel, how you believe, how you want to act.

I want to have a discussion with you – not an argument, not a finger-pointing session – just a discussion of this decision and some things that you may not have thought about. Now, truth be told: some things I say will offend you – there’s no getting around that, but to be fair, the very fact that you’ve left your faith offends me a bit. I have to be honest. So let’s both try to have a little understanding and grace. I don’t have any interest in cutting all ties with you because you’re not a Christian, but I obviously will view you in a different fashion. You weren’t born yesterday – you know what the Bible says about those who leave the faith (they were never a part of it to begin with).

I think I’d like to start this discussion by reminding you that you’re not an anomaly. Maybe this is just because I tend to think on a sociological/cultural level. You’re a product of the West and Western Culture. While this traditionally meant that you would be raised in and probably adhere to some stripe of Christianity, it now increasingly means that either you’ll be raised as “nothing” in regards to religious affiliation, or it means that if you did, you’ll statistically abandon that faith in early adulthood. Thus for years, you were “already gone” (to quote Ken Ham). You are part of a larger trend of young people, millennials, who are leaving the church – in droves. Why do I go into this? Because your decision isn’t anything special in a zoomed out sense- I could make a decent argument that you’re just part of a movement within a larger cultural trend that is going increasingly secular.

I know, I know, that doesn’t really matter to you much – I think my even thinking about the cultural trends and how your decision fits in them just goes to my distrust of “going with the flow” in general, and I view your decision as more or less just going with the flow. However, I realize that you are an individual person. You have thoughts, feelings and emotions that I don’t wish to diminish. I am interested in your story, your journey and your ideas and am perfectly willing to listen and discuss them. However, I need to tell you – regardless of who you are and where you’re reading this, I feel that in some way, I know you. You see, I’ve seen you and others like you do the same thing since the time I was very young. It’s almost like clockwork; I wasn’t and wouldn’t be the least bit surprised when I found out that you didn’t believe.  

Is my eye-rolling at your abandoning your faith coming from a sense of pride? After all, of the many peers that also grew up in Christian homes around me, almost none maintained a faith beyond high school – even fewer through college, but I did, despite attending one of the most left-leaning and Christian hostile schools around. Instead of giving into the pressures to conform to secular culture I dug in even deeper – every assault on my faith becoming another shovel-full out of the Christian trench I endeavored to dig around myself. By the time I graduated with my Masters degree, I had been beat up real badly, but the enemy had dispersed, my weapon was still in my hand and I was still standing on two feet. Maybe I have reason to be proud? Proud that I stuck it out while others didn’t. I kept praying, I kept reading my Bible and I kept developing a Christian worldview. But no. I have no reason to boast. I sincerely believe that it was God and not me that kept me in the faith – if left up to me, I would have run for the exit. The world is enticing. Illicit sex is fun. Alcohol tastes good. Drugs take away the pain, depression and questions. Swearing makes you feel good about your command of your own tongue. Anger is like taking a pill that makes you feel twice as strong. The problem with all these things is that the next day you feel worse than you did before. No, it was God that kept me in the faith, not me; I understand the enticement.

I’m sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. You don’t even believe what I’m saying. Do you not see how difficult it is to even have a discussion about these things when the common ground you thought you once stood on erodes away? When you don’t believe that God had a hand in any of these things anyway… or do you? Here’s what I’ve observed: For years I’ve watched young people drop their faith like a heavy bag of potatoes – but I’ve known almost none who have done so for reasons that have anything to do with ideas – i.e., are openly challenging the tenants – the foundations of Christian belief. Instead, the abandonment is nine times out of ten associated with a desire to do or act ways contrary to biblical teachings. Usually this is eloquently termed as “I want to do what I want to do.” What is often so puzzling to me is how much those who decide that they want to do what they want to do end up doing so much of what they’ve always done… sorry, that was a bit of a tongue twister – let me clarify this.

Essentially, you want to hold on to the basic tenants of the morality that you were raised in. You still want people to do unto you as you would do to them. You don’t want people lying about you, and you don’t want to be a serial liar about other people. You want to maintain this shroud of Christianity without adhering to the parts that make you uncomfortable. You obviously haven’t given up morality in total – you still, at least it seems, believe in justice in a civil sense – you just don’t want to believe in cosmic justice directed toward you in a personal sense. I guess my overarching question is related to the idea that you want part of the system but not the whole – you want the benefits without the costs.
Why? Why would you accept the practical tenants of the faith you were raised in, yet deny the parts that make you feel guilty?

I think I know why.

You’ve been told by a lot of people that it’s better for you to be honest with yourself than to live a lie – you’re better off “out in the open.” Let me qualify what I think is true about this idea very quickly: You are indeed better off not being a hypocrite – at least in terms of being in the Body of Christ, being involved in ministry – possibly even teaching younger members of the church – the Bible indicates that judgment is worse for those lead others astray. It’s also better not to string others along who think you believe one way when you actually believe another way. However, I find a fundamental problem with telling you that you’re “better off being honest,” and it’s this: you’re not any more honest – you’ve merely become a mirror image of what you were. Whereas before you were a “Christian” but didn’t want to accept personal Christian morality and yield to the commands of the Bible, now you’re secular but don’t want to yield to the commands of secular morality – you still want to hang on to the vestiges of  system that you’ve always lived in. While you may deny this, it’s inevitably true as long as you continue to value any good thing – because all good things come from God, from the convenience of your smart phone to the nurse who went out of their way to make sure you were cared for after your accident, checking on you every half-hour instead of chatting up with her co-workers while you suffered. These may seem unrelated, but they both exist because this culture is founded on Christian principles.

Where am I going with this? I want to think about the more macro results of your decision. The focus on the personal nature of the Christian faith should not be underplayed. I sincerely hope that the abandonment of personal Christian morality will eventually result in a providential return to the Christian faith for you, and it’s possible that right now being “honest with yourself” is how that is to be accomplished. However, I want to briefly consider the rest of us for a moment. As I mentioned above, you are part of a larger trend. While you probably want to hang on to much of Christian morality in a general sense (in other words, you want to be nice and want others to be nice to you; you still want to live in a culture and society framed and founded in Christianity), you’re joining a force within society at large that is damaging and destructive. Where there isn’t adherence to the Ten Commandments then there is a guaranteed greater amount of suffering. More crime, more misery, more death. Look around the world and throughout history if you don’t believe me. The happiest and most prosperous societies are and have always been those that have the most direct interaction with the Christian faith.

A lot of my Christian brothers and sisters might chide me at this point – after all, am I hinting at forcing my morality on others… on you?!

In a way I guess I am, or at least I would. I know that I lack the authority to impose Christian morality on you in most circumstances, but when you’re in my home, you’ll follow God’s rules (by the way, you’re always welcome – don’t misread my tone).

Why? Because what you do affects the rest of us. It affects me, my wife, my family – we would all be better off if you would at least live by the biblical standards of morality. Luckily you’re still dishonest with yourself enough that you follow many of these standards. My point and plea is simple: If you’re going to accept half, why not accept whole? Why deny the parts that make you uncomfortable? You know that you’re life is going to be uncomfortable regardless, right? You may think that you’re just adding freedom to your life, but that freedom’s twin is misery – you will still suffer, it’s just that your only remedy will be either pleasure or misguided self-righteousness (as is found in false religions).  

Look. I’ll always care about you. I’ll always love you. You can always count on me and call on me when you need a friend. But I’m not going to tiptoe around you just because you’ve changed how you want to live, what you believe or are just having an identity crisis. Instead, how about you tiptoe around me? I know what my morality is and where it comes from – and I’d be happy to welcome you back to it, even if you’re just working through everything and aren’t sure what you believe. We could talk about it, discuss it and even debate it. I may be a busy guy but I’ll make time because you’re important to me. 

My friend, you’re an unregenerate sinner. That’s what you’ve always been. But it’s not too late. Repent. Believe the gospel. Come to actually know the One whose death has the power to pay for your sins. You have the benefit of already knowing the Bible. Use it.

Then you won’t care a bit about being true to yourself. You’ll just want to be true to Him.

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