The common denominator[with people who deconvert]concerns one’s knowledge and relationship to the doctrines of the church. Nearly all my friends who were naturally interested in doctrine remain faithful members in churches to this day, and those who were not have “moved on” from Christianity, as if it were an intermediary step on their greater “spiritual journey.” [Wait needs to get out more. I can introduce him to hundreds of one-time faithful Christians — including pastors, missionaries, and professors — who were “naturally interested in doctrine” and are now atheists/agnostics/unbelievers.]
The “spiritual journey” narrative so common among the de-converted is indicative of what was prioritized in their (and so many of our) church experiences. Formal doctrine was held in less esteem than authentic spiritual experience. Doctrine was impractical; community life was practical. Theology was for the intellectuals in the church, but the average member just needed to be loved. Doctrine was less essential for the youth than the need to attend a purity conference. In short, the church was largely a pragmatic, life-enhancing place to encourage individuals on their own “spiritual journeys.” [Wait seems to have a point to make, so he dispenses with facts. He takes a subcategory of former Christians and makes them representative of all ex-Christians.]
This low view of doctrine and high view of personal spirituality is often the first step for those at the precipice of de-converting. They begin to frame the church and its teachings merely as products of a distant time and culture, irrelevant to one’s personal spiritual experiences. At best, such teachings help some express their faith (mostly people in the past); at worst, they are man-made rules and tools of manipulation and oppression.
If the church is to not only retain its members but also disciple them in everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20), we must invite our members outside of their individual “spiritual journeys” and into the thrilling story of orthodoxy, where God is recreating and consecrating an entire people. We must show, in our teaching and worship and discipleship, how this bigger story is more beautiful and compelling than our individual subplots. Jake Meador says it well: “Any response to our moment that focuses more on the individual story of lost faith and less on a fairly dramatic shift in our approach to liturgy, catechesis, and repentance will be inadequate to the demands of the day.”
To scrutinize and focus on an individual’s de-conversion story—only to ask “what happened to them?”—is to isolate their story from the community they are leaving. Our strategy must not be to dilute our doctrine or distill it to what’s culturally acceptable, nor should it be to downplay the importance of story. Rather, our strategy must be to recast the beauty of orthodoxy and catechesis—not just as concepts to be believed, but as truth to be lived, from one century to the next, by the storied people of God.
— Caleb Wait, The Gospel Coalition, A Common Denominator in De-Conversions, September 9, 2019