“Help! Someone I Love is Deconstructing their Faith”: John Marriott
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- Read John Marriott's article on how to help you kids avoid a crisis of faith.
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John MarriottJohn Marriott is the coordinator of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought and teaches in the department of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and the Intercultural Studies Department at Biola University. He speaks at camps and churches throughout the United States and Canada addressing issues related to Christianity, culture, and religion. John is a leading expert of deconversion, having authored five books on the subject, including The Anatomy of Deconversion: Keys to Lifelong...more
When someone you care about is deconstructing, your pain and fear is real. Dr. John Marriott extends genuine help for trying to prevent faith loss.
“Help! Someone I Love is Deconstructing their Faith”: John Marriott
John: When heartache and hardship and suffering comes into our life, that opens up the door for those thoughts that have kind of been held at bay to come flooding through. So, “I’ve always wondered about this anyway,”
John: What can I really trust You for if I can’t trust You for my health? I can’t trust You to make sure that I always have a job. I can’t trust You that my kids are going to follow You. I can’t trust You that my kids aren’t going to get sick. Then what does it mean that You’re good and what does it mean that I can trust You for?” But we only have those questions, I think whenomething like that enters and that can be a catalyst for sure why people end up saying, “No, I, I don’t believe in this.”
Dave: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Dave Wilson.
Ann: And I’m Ann Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We’ve been talking about how the next generation seems to be walking away from the faith, walking away from their parent’s faith, walking away from the church in record numbers, which is really, really scary.
Ann: So scary and daunting and we wonder as parents like, “Am I doing anything that’s contributing to our kids or this next generation walking away?”
Dave: Yes and we’ve had John Marriott here talking about this. John, we called you the expert. But I mean you’ve studied this; you’ve written about this. We’ve got The Recipe for Disaster book, Before You Go book. You’ve got other books as well, right John?
John: Yes, a couple more. There’s one, its called Going…Going…Gone and the subtitle is [Why Believers Lose Their Faith and What Can be Done to Guard Against It]
Dave: That sounds really exciting there.
John: Oh yes.
Dave: Going…Going…Gone [Laughter]
Dave: Same topic?
John: Yes, same topic. It’s really quite short and it’s free on my website if anyone is interested.
Dave: Your website is?
John: And it’s Going, Going, Gone: Why Believers Leave the Faith and What We Can Do to Guard Against It. It’s a very short, 150 pages, double spaced, kind of book.
John: So it’s small.
Dave: Oh, that’s good. I mean we know you flew all the way from LA where you are a professor at Biola. You’re interacting with students pretty much every day about this topic. Help us understand why are they going, going, gone? We’ve already talked about intellectual questions, the culture. But as I’ve read all your books, you mention that it’s not just intellectual. And when I read that I’m like, “You are so right.” You’re working with college students, what other factors are there besides, I don’t believe because there’s not enough evidence? Again, we spent the last two days investigating that so if you want to listen to that go back there. But there’s emotions, what are the other factors?
John: Everyone who leaves the faith will say they left it because they don’t believe it’s true. They will never say, “I left it because I want to sin. I left it because I’m in rebellion.” And well that might be why deeply the case, at least on the surface for them and speaking charitably of them they will say, “I left because I don’t believe it’s true.” When you ask, “Why don’t you believe it’s true anymore?” There’s the piece that we talked about last time the intellectual reasons. There’s a direct correlation between the two, right?
If you have some intellectual problems, not enough evidence, contrary evidence then it’s clear to you that the truth of Christianity doesn’t follow. But then there’s some indirect reasons that cause people to say, “Yes, this can’t be true because…” and then there’s some dots that need to be connected. Usually those would be things like, “This can’t be true because of emotional reasons. Because if Christianity were true this wouldn’t have happened and this wouldn’t have happened and this wouldn’t have happened - and all of those things happened - and I have been so deeply hurt and wounded, it’s pretty clear to me that Christianity can’t be true. Because if it was, then I would have been treated a lot better.”
John: Or experiential reasons, “I live my life in such a way that I follow God, I love God, I was committed to God, I sacrificed for God, and then something tragic happened in my life and I feel like, ‘Is this what I get?’”
Ann: Or, “What kind of a god could allow my pain?”-
John: That’s right.
Ann: –for me to suffer like that, or my loved on to suffer like that.
John: Exactly. Then there is a sense of betrayal there.
John: Right? This is no longer necessarily intellectual, this is deeply personal that God has not done for you, we have kind of a reciprocity agreement with God, right? We give Him what He wants, worship, adoration, obedience. We expect that He’s going to repay the favor and give us what we want.
On the surface as Christians we know that’s not a proper way to look at things. But I experienced this myself a number of years ago where my wife and I put all of our eggs into one basket and we really had felt the Lord had opened up some opportunities for a ministry that we were trying to start. All of the signs were pointing in this direction. We knew that it would be a little bit of a risk but we were okay taking that because we thought we had seen the hand of the Lord in this.
Within about a year and a half we were asking ourselves, “Well, which car are we going to sell? When do we have to sell this house? When do we have to move in with your parents?” I got to the point where I started thinking, “So this is what I get? Really Lord? I’m going to rip my kids out of school, take them away from their friends, have my wife move across the country, live with her parents, feel like a failure. And I’ve lived my life in a fairly consistent pattern of following You to varying degrees of proximity, but it’s always been in the same direction.” People you know, experience this a lot and I had to realize I never thought that I would say something like that.
Dave: –You know better, right?
John: –I know better.
Dave: But you still–we all do. Everybody does.-
Dave: –and that’s, that’s really really difficult, isn’t it? Because it’s personal.
John: For sure.
Dave: I remember when I was in seminary, out in California, I had a bike in our garage stolen. The garage door was up, somebody stole the bike, probably some kid in the neighborhood and I just went on a search to find this–I said, “I’m going to find my bike.” It’s just a pedal bike. Never found it. I remember being mad at God. “Here I am going to seminary, how hard is it for You to bring a bike back into my driveway?” I mean it’s ridiculous but a minor thing like that had me questioning the goodness of God.
Ann: Oh guys, I mean mine is my sister led me to Jesus. She was amazing. Up every morning 4:30 in the Word, at church, raising four boys with her husband. Amazing, like she was my hero. So when she was diagnosed with cancer, lung cancer at forty-four and died five months later, I was like, “I don’t get it.” Like there’s–you always think, “There will be good in it.” You know you’re always trying to get that silver lining, like there is not a silver lining. Man, I remember being on the floor in my bathroom and I was on my face before God. I remember making a choice and saying, “God, this makes no sense to me. I don’t see how that can happen and You’re still good. Like it makes no sense to me.” But I remember saying, “But I will choose to follow You because I’ve seen Your faithfulness and I have nowhere else to turn.” But I could also see how some people could say, “I’m out. I’m out.”
Dave: Yes, I mean doesn’t it seem like this is one of the biggest reasons people walk away? Is just the evil-
Ann: –the pain-
Dave: -that God allowed, a good God and powerful God allows evil. And then when it gets personal it’s very easy to throw up your arms and say, “I’m done.”
John: Oh, for sure. I think that we all have if we think about it much and we’re reflective. There are some things that we believe as Christians that sort of are intention, right? We think that God is in control, we have a certain amount of free will because that’s what makes us morally accountable and responsible. We think that Jesus is a man, but yet He’s 100 percent God. We think that God is three persons yet One Being. God is good and there’s problems in the world, and we’re willing to kind of keep those in the back of our mind when things are going okay, and life is good. But when heartache and hardship and suffering comes into our life, that opens up the door for those thoughts that kind of have been held at bay to come flooding through and say, “You know I’ve always wondered about this anyway.”
John: Right? What can I really trust You for, if I can’t trust You for my health? I can’t trust You to make sure that I always have a job. I can’t trust You that my kids are going to follow You. I can’t trust You that my kids aren’t going to get sick. Then what does it mean that You’re good? What does it mean that I can trust You for? But we only have those questions, I think when something like that enters. That can be a catalyst for sure why people end up saying, “No I don’t believe in this anymore.”
Dave: How’d you navigate your little crisis of faith? You didn’t move in with the in-laws?
John: We did not move in with the in-laws, no. [Laughter] That would have been wonderful of course, but it didn’t happen. I”m grateful that it didn’t happen.
Dave: Well talk-
Ann: –but it is the parable of the soils. In Luke 8:13 when Jesus said, “These on the rocky soil are those who when they hear they receive the Word with joy, and these have no firm root -- they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.” Every single one of us are faced with times of temptation for sure.
John: And I think that in your story when you said that, “I’m going to trust,” I think that’s where we all have to get to in those times. I don’t think it’s a trust, just a blind leap of faith.
John: I don’t think that it’s just believing despite the counter evidence. But I do think that we can at least in the moments say, “Alright, then how do I know that God is good. How do I know that He can take something that’s really bad and turn it into something good?” I think the answers to both of those questions is the cross. We say, “Look, even though all those horrible and hard things happen, how do I explain that God sent His Son into the world to die such a terrible death on a Roman cross?” The only explanation is either it didn’t happen; that God is an insane glory-hound; or that He really is who He claims to be and he really loves us. I think that the third option makes the most sense.
John: And then the cross also tells us that God can take the worst of situations, the greatest evil ever committed, and He can turn it into something incredibly good that the entire world benefits from. I think based on that foundation we can say. “Alright, I don’t understand. I don’t know why you’re doing this. I don’t know how this is going to work out for good and I may never see it in my lifetime, but I can trust You because You’ve demonstrated Yourself to be faithful in the past.”
Ann: It’s the gospel.
John: It is the gospel.
Dave: It is interesting that every question, whatever it is, is going to be answered by a Person. It really isn’t even the reliability of Scripture, although that’s significant obviously, because it reveals this Person, but if Jesus didn’t live, didn’t die, didn’t raise from the dead as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, then we can just–our faith is just in vain and we can walk away. But it does come back to that and even as a parent when our children walk through the valley of questions and doubt, that’s where we’ve got to end up taking them back to, is the Person of Jesus. Then the evidence there is overwhelming.
Ann: As we said earlier, to be able to talk about that and the evidence that is there, but even having that discussion, “Is it true? Is the resurrection true?”
Dave: Yes, but I–here’s what you, you already mentioned, that I’d love to hear more thoughts on. You know it isn’t always intellectual. It could be hurt.
John: Mmm hmm.
Dave: So, a person that’s been hurt by the church, by uh, the Christian community, by a Christian, by their parents, you name it. That is significant in people walking away. Talk about that.
John: Very significant right? It is a great example of how there’s an indirect relationship here why they come to the conclusion that Christianity’s not true. There’s not a one-to-one relationship saying there’s no evidence for your claim. It’s, “If your claim was true this should be the case, and this should be the case, and this should be the case.” But the opposite is the case. You people treat me worse than my friends who aren’t Christians. You are judgmental. You’re hypocritical. You’re mean-spirited. You only care about being right.
One of the folks who I interviewed in my dissertation, her name is Lori. She’s since become my friend and she has a really wonderful story, but she came from an abusive home on the east coast. In her early 20’s she moved to the Pacific Northwest. She was not a Christian; she was not a believer; she had no faith in anything at all. She got invited to go to a church, started attending the church, liked it, enjoyed it, heard new things there, went to a retreat at a Bible camp outside of Seattle and committed her life to Christ.
She got involved at the church. She took on an internship, where she was doing some sort of worship leading. She was helping lead the youth group. She did this for several years. And unfortunately made a really poor choice in a gentleman who she married. She was deeply desirous of getting married, and she settled for a guy who was really bad for her. He physically abused her. He physically abused their daughter, put them both into the hospital.
John: When she got out, in her mind she had no other options to feed her daughter and to care for her daughter than to go back to the lifestyle that she was living on the east coast, which was being a dancer.
John: And she went back to doing that. And then she reached out to the church that she went to and said, “Hey, I’m in deep trouble here. Can you help us?” “Well, what have you been doing to make money?” “I’m ashamed to tell you this is what I’ve been doing.” They said, “What you’re doing is sinful. You should be ashamed of yourself. We’re ashamed of you–
John: –and we will not help you and if you ever set foot on the church campus, we’ll call the police because we think that you are a threat to the children here.” That sent her into such a downward spiral that when she reached out to the people who she thought were representatives of Jesus, she said, “If this is what Christianity produces, it can not possibly be true, and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” She subsequently left the faith.
Ann: Uhhh. I mean it’s so contrary to Jesus’ life. Look who He hung around. And I’m not condoning her lifestyle, but the church should be the place where we open those doors. But you’re saying that’s one of those reasons, those emotional needs not being met is one of the reasons we can leave the church.
Dave: Yes, and it shows the power of our lives compared to anything else. It’s like what we do, what we say and I’m thinking even as parents, if our kids walk away our life still will speak-
John: mmm hmm
Dave: -no matter what they’re doing or what they’re thinking. How we live is what’s going to draw them back, more than an argument or a piece of evidence.
Ann: Our judgmental attitudes as parents, we have to be super careful of what we’re saying about the other students at our kids’ schools.
Ann: I remember [Laughter] I remember our son; I think he was just a freshman in high school and he was talking about this boy and he’d talked about him before. I said, “Is that the bad kid that smokes pot?” Now think about that comment. [Laughter] And my son stopped for a minute and he said, “Is he bad because he smokes pot Mom? Is that what he is?” Right away, I mean talk about conviction.
Ann: I’d just put his identity based on what he’s acting out, and I thought, “No, like that is on–” What a terrible thing to say. But when our kids see how judgmental we can become, even of a lifestyle we may not agree with it, but to label as ‘what an idiot’ or ‘bad kid’ or you know. Are you seeing that with college students and your own kids?
John: Oh yes. One of the significant factors in why children and young people retain their faith is because of the credibility enhancing displays of behavior that they see in their parents.
A study came out from a gentleman whom I’m acquainted with who’s an atheist. And he is interested in why people become religious, why people stay religious. His conclusion is that the reason why people who are raised in Christian homes–one of the big factors in them staying is because their parents engage in what he calls ‘creds’. ‘C’ for credibility, ‘E’ enhancing displays. What he means by that is when people live, it’s very simple right? When people live what they believe, and if you believe something that is beautiful, and if you believe something that is compassionate, and merciful, and stands for truth, like Jesus is full of grace and He’s full of truth. And if you live that way, and you're willing to even sacrifice for what you believe, that really enhances the truthfulness in the eyes of kids. One of the examples that he gives is if dad loves football, but he chooses to go to church on Sunday instead of stay home and watch football, that speaks louder than words do to the kids because they say, “Well dad loves football but he’s going to go to church, he’s choosing it over that. Well, there must be something here.”
John: It may not be consciously thought-
John: –but that’s the message that gets sent.
Ann: I remember our kids for Dave’s 50th birthday. I had a surprise birthday party, and our sons were–I don’t remember if they were in college, but they couldn’t come to this gathering I had, but they each wrote a letter. I remember every one of them saying, they’re sitting under his teaching, he’s their pastor. But I remember each one of them in their own way wrote something like, “Dad, I’ve heard you preach,” or whatever, “but the thing that has marked my life is your life.”
Ann: Like, “I’m watching you live out what you’re preaching and that’s given you so much credibility and that has helped my faith so much.”
Ann: So you’re right. Our kids are watching us and isn’t that so scary?
John: Yes, and a really significant other component, another relationship is having kind of these secondary influential authority figures in their life that are outside of the immediate family, right?
John: One of the things that I appreciate so much about the two youth leaders at our church, one is named Kyle, the other Ryan, and um my kids love them. They love them. Because Kyle and Ryan love my kids-
John: -and all the kids in the youth group, right? They take them out for lunch. They spend quality time with them. They’re fully invested in their lives. When you find someone in a worldview or religion you are really drawn to, that you think is really great, that really you recognize has a love for you, you are far more inclined to hear what they have to say and want it to be true, because of your perception of who they are. And so having these other people in our lives and in our kid’s lives can really go a long way to influencing people to hold onto their faith because they find it’s something they actually want to be true.
Dave: Yes, one of the things we did as young parents is we prayed for that person in our son’s lives. Because we knew it wasn’t just going to be us, it’s actually going to be somebody that’s not us that might have even more of a role in their faith journey. God provided Frank, and Ryan, and Rob for all three sons at different stages and when they walked in our house or our boys left with them it was just an answer to prayer. It was like, “Thank God for, for them.” Because we knew. I think they had just as much impact as we did. Don’t you think?
Ann: Absolutely, especially in those teen years when they weren’t necessarily spending as much time with us, they were with their friends more. But that was really a gift for us.
John: And one, one really significant relationship, and this will be really encouraging for some folks and maybe not so encouraging for others because not all of us have grandparents that can be there for our kids. But Vern Bankston was a professor at USC. He did a 30-year study on 1,500 families and wanted to see which ones passed on faith and which ones did not pass on faith. One of the key components of families that managed to pass on faith that endured throughout those 35 years to their children, was the relationship that children had with grandparents.
Ann: That’s encouraging.
Dave: Yes, we’re grandparents now so-
Ann: That’s right.
Dave: - in some ways as a grandparent you think, “We’re done. We don’t really have the impact.” But we’ve heard that we can have a greater impact than even our own kids-
Dave: -and that’s exciting.
Dave: You know that’s like a mission for us as grandparents.
Ann: Mmm hmm.
Dave: Let me ask you one last question. If you were looking across the table at a parent that’s got a teenager that says, “Dad, or Mom, I don’t think I can believe anymore.” What’s the most important thing they can do in that moment?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. Wow! Good question. Don’t miss John’s answer in just a second. But first John has actually written a book called Before You Go: Uncovering Hidden Factors in Faith Loss. You can pick up a copy of that book at FamilyLifeToday.com and dive deeper into what we’ve been talking about today.
And if you want to help more families get advice and tips, just like what you’ve heard in today’s conversation, would you consider partnering with us at FamilyLife Today? When you give any amount this week, we want to send you a copy of John Marriotts other book called Recipe for Disaster. It’s our way of saying thanks to you when you give this week. If you’d like to partner with us, again you can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can give us a call at 800, ‘F’ as in family, ‘L’ as in life and then the word TODAY. Alright, so I want to hear the answer to this question, “How do you respond to a child who says they no longer believe in Jesus?” Here’s John Marriott.
John: The most important thing I think they can do in that moment is to say, “Regardless of whether you believe or you don’t believe, at the end of this journey I will always love you, you’ll always be a part of our family. I will always accept you. I will always be proud of you. My love is not conditional upon you believing and affirming the same things that I believe and that I affirm. And I hope that as you go through this journey that you will invite me to be a part of it, so that we can kind of go through it together.” In doing that you keep lines of communication open. You let them know you’re a safe person to talk to, that they have freedom to think, which they’re going to do anyway, but that they can come to you on their terms and talk about these things. I think that is the most important thing that we can do in that moment.
Shelby: With all the new generation’s angles on what it means to be quote unquote ‘spiritual’ it’s easy to be worried for your kids, right? I know it’s easy for me to do that with my kids. Well tomorrow Dave and Ann talk with John Marriott once again who personally went through numerous studies to relay what families can do better to keep their kids faithful. I know you’ll want to tune in for that one.
Shelby: On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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