Everyone who has spent time around Christianity knows stories about people who used to be in church and are no longer around. Sometimes these people just drift away casually, saying they are still walking with the Lord, but other times the punchline of their story is that they no longer claim to be Christians at all.
These kinds of accounts have become common enough to have a label––deconversion stories. When someone you have known personally––gone to church together, prayed together, shared insights from the Bible together, and gone on mission trips together––deconverts, it is quite upsetting, even feeling like a punch in the gut. When the deconversion story comes from a former church leader, like a pastor or Christian entertainer, it can be devastating to those who have benefitted from their former ministry.
How should we think about people deconverting? It is okay to be sad. Certainly, you feel like you have lost something, whether it be a friend or a spiritual mentor. Obviously, you have to know that the person has gone through a lot of troubling things. You are sad and concerned for them, as well You may feel unstable. You may wonder if something could happen to shake your faith as well.
Different people have a variety of reasons for sharing deconversion stories. Some people are public figures and have to give some explanations for their life-changes. Why are you not a pastor anymore? Certainly, there are many understandable reasons why a pastor might leave a specific church, but one bad reason would be that he no longer believing in the message of the Bible. Why are you pursing a divorce? Again, there are so many situations resulting in marriages that dissolve, but one terrible reason for divorce is that one person deconverts from the Lord and wants out of their Christian marriage.
Other people share their deconversion stories in an effort to verbally process what they are going through and are just trying to be authentic with their friends. Some who share their deconversion stories are actually trying to persuade others to leave the faith with them.
As unsettling as it is to hear and hear about deconversion stories, it ought not be a surprise. The Lord Jesus himself warned us that some will fall away from the faith. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave piercing words about some who really seemed like Christians who were not.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
Jesus warned that some people know the right person, even knowing that he is the Lord, who claim to have done miracles in his name, who are not truly Christians at all. In fact, although they claim to know Jesus, Jesus will not claim them on the last day. It doesn’t matter what the sign says in front of the tree, it is the fruit that truly identifies the tree (Matt. 7:15-20).
In one of Jesus’ most famous parables, he told the story of a sower that flung seed. That seed hit four types of soil. The first one was the beaten path, and the last soil was good and the seed became fruitful. But the two other soils, rocky and weedy, both had sprouts push through the dirt for a little while, before they died off, unfruitful (Matt. 13:1-23). Jesus listed several explanations for these temporary followers––persecution, loving money, and the cares of the world.
Some of the strongest warnings in the Bible are found in the book of Hebrews. The Hebrews were Jews who had professed faith in the Jewish Messiah. When Roman persecution heated up, however, they were tempted to revert to Judaism, which was still legal in the Roman Empire at that time. The author of Hebrews declared that Jesus is the superior fulfillment of all Old Testament Judaism. But then he also warned them that they must not taste the Jewish Messiah and then spit him out and walk away. Apostasy is a special kind of hard-heartedness that is not easily repented from (see Heb. 6:1-8; 10:26-31).
There are countless other warnings throughout the New Testament about being deceived by false teachers and the dangers of not persevering as a Christian. A new label of deconversion stories doesn’t make this a new reality.
In addition to your sadness and even agitation, perhaps you are in a position to respond to the person sharing the story. What you say obviously will depend on your relationship with and the specific situation of the person deconverting. It is good to be loving and to listen well.
It seems like there would be a difference if the person is hardened in his rejection of the Lord or if they are wobbling with some doubts. If the person knows the Bible’s teachings, has read books giving the solid reasons to believe the Bible and its message, and then rejects Jesus, I would be less inclined to pour out more Bible verses and evidence books. If it seemed like they were struggling with some particular doubt, of course I would engage them. There are solid responses to sceptic arguments against Jesus and the Bible.
If someone goes to the trouble to tell you their deconversion story, he or she is probably not just thinking about their spiritual journey for the first time. I’m suspicious that they have been thinking about these things for a while. If you react by overwhelming them with more of what they are rejecting, they will probably take offense and reject you too. Perhaps, you should listen respectfully, thank them for being honest, and take a step back as you think about what they have said. Certainly, you pray for them. Never stop bringing them before the Lord. As long as you both have breath, there is time for the Lord to do a miracle of grace in their hearts and minds.
You may be concerned that the warnings about apostasy in Hebrews look final. I agree, but do you know that your friend has made it that far? Remember, both Judas and Peter turned away from Jesus as he was about to be crucified. Judas betrayal was final, but Peter’s three denials were not. True apostates won’t even care that they can’t repent. Let’s hope as long as we can.
By John Crotts