Recipe for Disaster: John Marriott on Deconversion
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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
Why are so many walking away from the faith? Professor John Marriott identifies four ways churches and parents unwittingly contribute to deconversion.
Recipe for Disaster: John Marriott on Deconversion
Dave: Okay, do you remember the seminar we did on the Love Like You Mean It® Marriage Cruise before Covid for parents of adult children?
Dave: Yes, what do you remember about that?
Ann: I remember parents were scared; they had so many questions; and there was a lot of guilt.
Dave: And I remember a lot of tears, because we opened the microphone and said, “If you have a question, we’re not the experts, but we’d love to dialogue with you; and parent after parent walked to the microphone and started crying about their children who have walked away from the faith.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: You know, as a Christian parent, you’re just hoping you did the right things, so that when your kids become teenagers and then adults and have their own families, they’re going to continue the faith that you passed on to them. When they don’t, it is heart-breaking. There were tears! And we were crying listening to them, because we know that feeling.
Ann: And so often, we as parents, blame ourselves. We’re guilt-ridden; we feel a lot of shame, because we assume that it’s our fault.
Dave: Yes; so, we’re going to talk about that today. It’s really the question of: “What can a parent do right to help pass on their faith, and what shouldn’t we do to avoid things like this?” And we all know that it’s not all the parents, but we feel a heavy burden for that. So, we’ve got the right guy in the studio. We’ve got John Marriott with us, who is a parent, who has written a book about this, and who’s studied this.
You wrote your dissertation about deconversion or our children, or anybody really, walking away from the faith. It’s been years since you did your dissertation, and this has become your life’s work, right?
Dave: Just studying and understanding—
Ann: And you’re with students every day. You’re teaching philosophy at Biola.
Ann: So, you’re probably hearing the stories from parents, but you’re probably experiencing some of the students’ doubts, fears, and questions.
John: Yes, and I get emails through my website from people saying, “Hey, I’m really struggling. I’m wrestling, and I’m not sure whether I can continue to believe this anymore. I want to believe it, but I’m not sure that I can.” All of that has kind of gone into this big pot and stirred around in my mind. Out of that has come some observations and, maybe, some suggestions on how we can help people who are wrestling with these questions, because they go right to the core of our being. They can cause a lot of anxiety, not only for parents, but for the one who’s going through it, wondering, “Who am I? And what do I really believe?”
Dave: So, what does A Recipe for Disaster mean? It sounds like bad news!
John: It is bad news. That’s right! That’s right. [Laughter] I should write a second book called A Prescription for Success.
Dave: There you go! [Laughter]
John: Because A Recipe for Disaster is [about] how unwittingly we, as Christian parents, or maybe a church community, can set up young people for a crisis of faith. There are certain things that we do that sometimes cause people to stumble and walk away from the faith.
Ann: If I’m a parent, I just got out a notebook and a pen! Or I’m on my iPad or the notepad of my phone, thinking, “I need to know what these are!”
Dave: Yes, you’re going to want to write these down, because you’re going to talk about what not to do and what to do. But before we get there, I’ve got to ask you to share something you shared earlier off microphone about “it’s not all the parent.” Because we tend to think, as parents, it’s all on us, and if we do the right thing, it guarantees this; and if we do the wrong thing—
It isn’t all on us! Talk about the fraternal twins because that was an interesting observation.
John: Yes, I met a gentleman when I was doing my doctoral dissertation on people who were leaving the faith. He reached out and said, “Oh, I’ll share my story with you.” It was a really fascinating story. This guy told me about how he grew up with a twin sister. They had gone to Christian schools, both of them. They had, obviously, grown up in same house and had the same experiences with their parents. They had gone on mission trips. They were even missionaries for a period of time as a family. Then he went off to a Christian university. She went to the same one.
Ann: Sounds like a recipe for success!
John: It sounds like it. It sure does! But it was while he was there that he had a crisis of faith, and he rejected Christianity lock, stock, and barrel. His sister is on the mission field as a missionary. Same exact upbringing, same education, same family, same experiences. And I can imagine that parents listening might say, “But I want to make sure that I do all of the right things.”
Well, you can do all of the right things, and people still choose to leave the faith. You can do all of the wrong things, and out of some of those environments come people who become really strong Christians. I think it really is important to say parents play a really significant role. In fact, if you were to look at the studies, they would say parents play the most significant role, but that needs to be tempered with the other side of the coin, which says that there is this inscrutable aspect of it, where people are going to make the choices that they make, even if you do everything right.
I hope that takes some burden off of parents.
Ann: It does! I can remember, as our kids were growing up, hearing Dennis Rainey and some other leaders that I really respected spiritually, how they would have these family devotions once a week. [Laughter]
Dave: I’m laughing, because she just was on me!
Ann: I’m like, ‘Dave!”
Dave: “We’ve got to do what the Raineys do. Every Sunday night, they have a—”
Ann: And I don’t know if they did, but in my mind, that sounded kind of amazing, so I’m trying to put this guilt complex on Dave, like, “Dennis Rainey would probably do this every week!” [Laughter] You know, Dave’s like, “That’s not my style.” And then, I thought, “Well, if our kids go down the tank spiritually, it’s your fault!”
And I think that’s interesting, because we assume certain things will guarantee their success spiritually.
John: Yes, yes.
Dave: And by the way, we’re not saying we never got into the Word as a family. We did, in a totally different rhythm.
Dave: And it was based more on our personalities.
Ann: John, you talked about that; how it’s not necessarily just this sit-down devotional.
Ann: It can be weaving in your faith.
John: Yes, there was a long-term study done by a professor at the University of Southern California by the name of Vern Bankston. He followed 1,500 families over 35 years. It was to see which families passed on religious faith and how they did so; which ones were successful and which ones weren’t.
One of the things that came out of his study was that, those families that were successful at passing on their faith were families who wove their faith throughout their life, had meaningful conversations on the way home from the football game or on the way to school, [and] not necessarily having a sit-down, formal time.
Now, I’m sure that there were lots of families who had both, but it was interesting that he found that it was the most significant—the most meaningful was a vibrant faith that was woven into the fabric of everyday life that was one of the key factors in passing faith along.
Dave: See, honey, I knew that study years ago!
Ann: You know what it is? It’s Deuteronomy 6.
John: It is.
Dave: Yes, Deuteronomy 6.
Ann: Talk about it.
Dave: As you walk along the road.
John: Yes, that’s right.
Dave: Or as you lie down, or at the dinner table. I mean, it’s really the apprentice model: do life with me along the way, right?
Dave: You wrote a whole book on this, and a good chunk of it is, “Parents, don’t do this.”
Dave: These are things that are not helping you pass on your faith to your children. So, walk us through some of those.
John: Well, one of the things I talk about in the book, and one of the ways I cash it out is, sometimes, I’ll refer to the tyranny of the necessary. What I mean by that is, sometimes people who have left the faith, when I hear their stories, one of the things that many of them share in common is that they were handed a version of Christianity that they were told, or that they assumed, was just a pristine, unadulterated, uninterpreted Christianity in and of itself. That if they wanted to be Christians, they needed to adopt and accept and buy into this entire package. So, it was an all-or-nothing kind of package deal that they were handed.
Everything for them was a non-negotiable belief that they must hold. When it came time for them to, maybe, go off to college, or as they got a little bit older and started becoming, maybe, a little more intellectually mature, they started questioning some of these things that they had been handed, and they said, “I’m not really sure that I think I agree with that” or “I’m really questioning that.” And a picture that I like to use is a very inflexible house of cards. You know, if you pull one card out of a house of cards, the entire thing collapses because they all depend on each other.
John: And I can think of one guy who I was speaking with, whose name was Greg. Greg went off to school, and he really went with the belief that if the universe was not created in six days—24-hour periods—10,000 years ago, that the rest of the Bible couldn’t possibly be true. And then, he went to university, he took a class in biology. He became persuaded that the universe was really quite a bit older, and that card got pulled out of his house of faith, and his entire faith ended up collapsing, because he was handed a very inflexible, brittle, all-or-nothing, take it or leave it package of non-negotiable beliefs that just was Christianity, with no nuance or no discernment between levels of doctrine. And that happens quite often.
Dave: You’re right; it’s a house of cards! You pull one of those out—and some of them really are critical: if Jesus is not the Son of God, “Okay, we’ve got to talk, son [or daughter].”
John: That’s right.
Dave: You know, that is a tenet of the faith. But there are so many others that we build up as if they have to be, and they’re not that important.
John: That’s right. And sometimes, young people don’t realize that what they’re being given—and I want to be careful how I say this; they’re given—a version of the Christian faith, or an interpretation of the faith from a particular group of Christians, maybe in a denomination or an independent kind of church, at the core of which are these orthodox, historic, non-negotiable beliefs. But once you start moving out from those, then we start getting to beliefs that people have debated on and have disagreed on and have had different opinions on.
And if someone does not realize that there are alternatives, then they think, “Well, my pastor”—one person told me—“that the Bible is all true. You either take it or you leave it.” And the young person, unfortunately, didn’t realize that what he was getting was an interpretation of what the Bible says. So, this pastor had elevated his interpretation of the Bible to being identical to what the Bible teaches.
Dave: Yes, like the Canon, right.
John: And so, the young person just said, “Well, I can’t handle that. I kind of want to get a tattoo,” you know? [Laughter]
Ann: “I want to get a tattoo.”
John: And the Bible, according to his pastor, said, “You can’t get tattoos.”
John: “It’s very clear. It says that.”
Dave: Let’s dive into that one right now.
Dave: We’re not going to dive into it!
Ann: So, he lost his faith because of a tattoo.
John: Oh, yes! Because he was told it’s an all-or-nothing deal, right? “You can’t pick and choose.”
Dave: Well, here’s the question, because I know there’s a listener or two (or a thousand) going, “Yes, but that is essential! That is in the Bible, and I would hold as a parent that my son or daughter is never getting that. If they do, it’s a violation.” And you know, we know the statement—I think it was Augustine, right?
Dave: “Unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials.” You and I are saying, “That’s a non-essential.” Others are saying, “No, that is an essential! You start there, and you’re going to end up with freedom in all kinds of things!”
Dave: So, what do you say to that parent?
John: I say that I’m really sympathetic with you, because I would have been there at one point in time. I grew up in a church environment that I loved! I mean, I have really fond memories of it. It’s the springboard to many of the things that I’ve been able to do; they were planted there, and the faith that they passed on to me. But also, in an aspect of the evangelic world that was very fundamentalistic and very rigid. I adopted all of that in my zeal, because I wanted to follow God and I wanted to be true to His Word.
Ultimately, I ended up in kind of a crisis, trying to live that out consistently. I think that, if the Bible is God’s Word, then clearly, everything that it teaches is true; but not everything that it teaches is as weighty or as important a matter, right? Ehud was left-handed. The Bible teaches that. That’s true, so we should believe that. But it also says Jesus rose from the dead, which is a much more significant truth.
Jesus talks about weightier matters of the Law, and I think that there are some weightier matters that we really need to think about; because if we elevate everything to an essential, if we elevate everything to a non-negotiable, then that makes a very brittle, inflexible, house of cards kind of faith that ends up being very exhausting trying to live out. And when I talk with folks who have left the faith, do you know what the number one emotion that they experience is, when they’ve left the faith?
They feel, obviously, a loss of their family; they feel a loss with their friends; they feel a loss with their identity, because all of that gets thrown into the blender when you walk away from the faith. You think, “Who am I? Who are my friends? Where do I belong?” But of all the negative consequences that they suffer, to a person, everyone I’ve interviewed has said, “But it was all worth it for the freedom that I experienced.”
John: Every one of them: “For the freedom that I’ve experienced.” And that tells me something. That if Jesus says “My burden is light and my yoke is easy,” and “I’ve come to give you abundant life,” and “Here are the commands I give you, and happy are you if you do them,” then whatever those young people experienced, I’m not sure that it was the way of Jesus.
Ann: No, He said, “I came to set the captives free!”
John: That’s right.
Dave: So, they weren’t experiencing freedom in Christ or in Church doctrine.
Dave: But they found it when they lost it.
Dave: So, they really weren’t experiencing the freedom that was available in Christ.
Ann: Which is so sad, because it—
Dave: Look at you! You’re crying.
Ann: I know, because—
Dave: That’s the heart of a mom! That’s the heart of a parent.
Ann: It’s the gospel that sets us free! I feel like my faith is the thing that’s allowed me to be free, so, for them to feel the burden and the weight of that feels so sad to me, because Jesus came to set us free. But they’re carrying a load that they didn’t necessarily have to carry.
John: One young man described it as “having a weight tied down around his ankle.” It was as though the weight was finally cut off his ankle, and he could finally fly. Part of that comes from a very rigid—
John: —Law-based, very legalistic, I guess, form of the faith.
Dave: It’s interesting, when you really do understand and live in Christ, that’s often the analogy that we use: “I feel like a burden was cut off my shoulders.”
Dave: It’s freedom for the first time. But when it’s misunderstood, it does feel heavy. That’s why Paul said the Law leads us to freedom and grace in the gospel.
Ann: I think that’s a good question for us to ask as parents: “Am I handing my kids down these heavy burdens that they necessarily cannot abide by?” And I’m not talking about the basics of the gospel of Jesus. He rose from the dead. Like, there are some really important truths that we have to live by.
Dave: I was going to say, a mom and dad, even as a result of listening today, should sit down and say, “What are our essentials? What are the two or three?” I don’t think there are fifty that I am not going to budge on! “What are the non-essentials that we’re going to give freedom and liberty to our kids to not make a big deal?” I remember the day—
Ann: How would you voice that, John, as a parent?
John: Well, let me share with you what I do with my kids.
Ann: Yes; fourteen and twelve.
John: Fourteen and twelve; one of the things that I realized after listening to the same story coming through different people, about how they felt that Christianity was just a burdensome religion; that they had to do all of these practices, sometimes—not just beliefs.
John: But “I have to do this, and I cannot do this.” I realized, you have to identify what the essentials are, and then pass those essentials on; and then, introduce, and explain, and share what some of those secondary beliefs are. Then let my son and my daughter, as they grow—I guide them now, but as they get older—to think through these issues on their own. I think that things like The Apostles’ Creed, I think The Nicene Creed, are really great places to start, because they are—
John: —the early Church’s summary of what—
Dave: “These are the essentials.”
John: Of “these are the essentials right here.”
John: So, those are the things I really want my kids to know. I want them to know who God is, I want them to know what He has done; I want them to know who they are. I want them to know, you know, the essentials of the gospel, the broad, big story of the Bible; and then, to say, “Now, here are the secondary issues.” And if you’re a follower of Jesus, and He’s really Lord, then you should have thought through these things and have an opinion before Him, because they really do matter.”
To say you either have to be—and I hope that I don’t offend, you know, listeners, but to say that you have to—have this particular view of Genesis, or you can’t really be a biblical Christian is to push somebody to the precipice of walking away from the faith based on a false dichotomy. Because we’re not saved based on what we believe about Genesis. We’re saved based on what we believe about Jesus. I know those two relate, and I know there are consequences to what you believe about Genesis, but I would rather have someone who might be a little off base on what I believe about Genesis who still wants to identify with Jesus as Lord than to say, “No, you have to tow this line, and you have to take this interpretation of this passage!” And that be the thing that causes them to say, “Then, I’m out.”
Dave: I can just speak for myself. I’m thinking parents are leaning in right now, saying, “Thank you for helping me think critically about this.” I hope it leads to a discussion. I know there are single parents like my mom, that don’t have a spouse to talk things through with, so maybe it’s a friend; but to have a conversation about “what do we believe are the essentials about the Word of God, about Jesus, and about the gospel?” And “what are we going to allow freedom [on] in our home as our kids rise up and start to believe?” Younger or older, whatever it is!
Understanding how critical that is to their future faith, I think this has been a very healthy discussion!
Ann: Me, too! And Dave, I love the idea of sitting around the table, at some point, as a family, and asking your kids, “Is there anything in our belief system as a family that you feel like it’s so heavy?” It would just be an interesting conversation to see what they’re carrying, what they believe; and then, to dialogue about that, like, “Why does that feel heavy?” I mean, we would ask that to our teens anyway: “Is there anything we’re doing as parents that you’re really bothered by?” So, why wouldn’t we ask, “Well, let’s talk about your faith journey. Is there anything you’re just struggling with this concept?” And then, to talk about it and not be afraid you don’t have the answer. We can find it!
Ann: Like, “We can find it! We’ll find it. Let’s talk about it.”
Dave: “Let’s find it together.”
Ann: You can buy John’s books. It would be great to go through those with teens.
John: And each child is so different. You know, I would have this conversation with my son, and he’d say, “No, nothing is too difficult for me. I think it’s true.” “Do you feel uncomfortable at school? Is there anything—you know, do you feel like an outsider or weirdo because you hold these views?” “No.” But this is also the kid who has never worm pants in the last few years; you know, shorts all the time. [Laughter] Bless his heart! He’s wonderful, but his shorts and shirt will never match. We have to say, “Comb your hair.”
My daughter, on the other hand, I know that the thoughts and the impressions of other people and what they think of her and what she would hold and what she would believe, especially as she gets older and the culture continues to impress upon her that she needs to adopt certain ideas—then, for her, that will really weigh heavy on her. So, kids are all different.
Ann: And, as parents, we get fearful of the culture. We get fearful of what’s happening in the schools. We tend to, as parents, want to protect our kids from so much. Is the right thing to do to protect them; to never have those discussions?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear John’s answer in just a second, but first, we really are at a crucial time, where families are in need of having biblical tools to help impact future generations. That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about today.
So, if you are as passionate as I am about advancing this kind of truth, not only in your life, but into the future generations, would you consider partnering with us at FamilyLife? When you give any amount this week, we want to send you a copy of John Marriott’s book, A Recipe for Disaster: Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures. It’s our way of saying “thanks” to you when you give at any time this week.
And if you’re curious about partnering with us, you can find out more details online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. And when you give, that can be a one-time gift, or it can be a recurring monthly gift. Again, the number is 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.”
Okay, so should we, as parents, shield our kids from tough discussions? Let’s see what John has to say:
John: Yes, that’s a really hard, hard question, isn’t it? [Laughter] Because it may be different for each child.
Ann: That’s true.
John: It might be different for each one. One of the families that we really respected as parents growing up—one of their kids was homeschooled, one of their kids went to a Christian school, and one of their kids went to a public school. When I said, “Why did you guys do it like that?” They said, “Because we felt that each one needed something different.” And I think that might be the case when it comes to these kinds of questions.
Now, typically, I think that if you were to plant a tree and you were to put some protective barrier around it and let the tree grow and never experience any kind of wind or rain or hard elements, once you took that wall away from it, it would be inclined to tip over, because it doesn’t set those deep roots that the harsh elements would make it do. So, I think that sheltering our kids is probably not helpful, and I don’t think that we can really be very effective and successful at doing it given that social media and the internet is just everywhere.
Ann: But those discussions are critical.
John: They are very critical.
Dave: Here’s what’s amazing! In your book, Recipe for Disaster, you have four things parents shouldn’t do. We just covered one! So, if you’re leaning in, guess what? We’re going to hit the other three in the next program. We’ve got to!
Ann: We do.
Dave: And then we’re going to actually talk about what you should do.
Shelby: So many kids are leaving the faith after college. The real question is, what’s happening? Well, Dave and Ann are going to talk again with John Marriott to tell us what parents can do to stay properly prepared. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
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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