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Yet Another Evangelical Pastor Explains “Why” People Deconvert

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Recently, The Gospel Coalition’s website featured an article titled 4 Causes of Deconstruction. Written by Joshua Ryan Butler, co-lead pastor of Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona, the article purports to explain “why” Evangelicals deconstruct/deconvert. As you shall see, Butler trots out the same worn-out tropes used by other Evangelical preachers to “explain” why congregants are walking away from their churches.

Butler gives four causes of deconstruction (deconversion):

Church Hurt

Many who deconstruct have been wounded by abusive or manipulative church leaders, or generally unhealthy church cultures. Often these relationships were intimate and formative: the pastor you grew up with, the mentor you trusted. For others, the relationships are more distant. You grew up under the influence of leaders like Ravi Zacharias, Carl Lentz, or Mark Driscoll—whose teaching and charisma powerfully inspired you and formatively shaped you—but then the curtain got pulled back. The betrayal can make the whole thing look like a sham. The pain can be excruciating and disorienting.

It’s easier to throw the baby out with the bathwater when you feel like you’ve been drowning.

Church hurt is real. But deconstruction is a false cure.

Poor Teaching

Some Christians have been led to believe they must choose between faith and science, because of poor teaching on Genesis 1. Others have been led to believe God is a vindictive sadist, from a popular caricature of hell. Best abandon Christian faith entirely on account of some dubious or sloppy teaching, right?

Desire to Sin

Some deconstruct out of a desire to justify their sin. Many friends in ministry have suddenly had “big questions about God”—then proceeded to quickly deconstruct their faith. So many times, it later comes out they’d been having an affair that started well before their deconstruction began.

Street Cred

Doubt is hip. The desire to fit in with the cultural ethos of our moment is strong. That’s why so many deconversion stories sound like everyone’s reading off the same script—its well-worn clichés signaling conformity to accepted norms.

Celebrities are leading the charge. There’s influence to be had, platforms to be built, and money to be made. It gets Rob Bell on Oprah, bolsters Glennon Doyle’s book sales, and lets Rhett & Link host Nacho Libre and Harry Potter on their popular YouTube channel.

A wave of #exvangelical podcasters and TikTok stars are following in the wake, with a whole cottage industry to welcome and cheer them on. There’s clout in distancing oneself from “outdated” views of sex and gender, an “obscure” Bible with talking snakes and forbidden shellfish, and “offensive” doctrines like wrath and hell.

I’m not claiming to know the heart of such influencers. Motivations other than street cred can be powerfully at play. I’m simply observing that social pressure is a powerful carrot on the stick—and not just for celebrities.

The cultural hostility is real. Whether in progressive urban centers (like my hometown of Portland), or university environments (like where I currently live), Christians are decidedly not the cool kids. It’s hard to be the awkward one sitting alone at lunch. Many of us feel the social pressure—and the release valve is a simple Instagram post away.

My first response is sigh. Really? People deconvert because:

  • They were hurt by their churches/pastors
  • They were poorly taught
  • They secretly wanted to fuck their neighor
  • They wanted to be hip or cool

Ask one-hundred former Evangelicals why they deconverted, and few, if any, will list the causes above. Sure, bad church experiences play a part when people deconvert, but typically the worst of those experiences happened as we were leaving or after we left Evangelicalism. Most of the former Evangelicals I have interacted with since 2007 left Christianity for theological, social, or political reasons. Most left for intellectual reasons (though certainly their emotions played a part in their deconversions).

Count me as plumb tired (and irritated) with preachers such as Butler ‘splaining why former Evangelicals left Christianity. How about actually talking to former Evangelicals and finding out the REAL reasons they deconverted? How about reading their blogs, listening to their podcasts, or talking to them face to face? How about accepting their stories at face value?

How does Butler explain the increasing number of college-trained, experienced preachers deconverting? I have interacted with hundreds of former Evangelical pastors, evangelists, missionaries, worship leaders, youth leaders, and professors over the years. Such people do not fit neatly in Butler’s four corner box. Perhaps the real problem is Evangelicalism itself. Look in the mirror, Pastor Butler, you and your fellow Bible thumpers are the problem. Clergymen and congregants alike are fleeing Evangelical churches. Many of them move on to kinder, friendlier, more inclusive churches. Others, upon learning Evangelicalism is a house of cards built on a faulty foundation (inerrancy of the Bible), deconvert. Instead of recognizing the foundational causes that are driving people away, Butler and his fellows at The Gospel Coalition blame the people who left. Hurt. Ignorant. Lustful. Anything but open, honest, and introspective.

Butler says that some people deconvert because it’s cool. Sure, preacher man. It’s cool making yourself a target of Evangelical zealots. Personal attacks. Death threats. Hateful, nasty emails and social media comments (many of which come from Evangelical preachers themselves). What a “cool” life, right? I suspect that Butler knows that former Evangelicals telling their stories is having a meaningful impact on doubting, questioning believers. Instead of listening to stock bullshit answers peddled by Butler and his fellow preachers, these doubting Thomases find people who are willing to listen to them, willing to give voice to their own experiences.

Let me offer up some Biblical advice to Butler and his fellow Evangelical Calvinists at The Gospel Coalition: Answering before listening is both stupid and rude. (Proverbs 18:13)

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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35 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Astreja

    I don’t see “I just don’t believe that stuff anymore” in Butler’s list. Funny how the exitpologists always seem to miss that one…

  2. Avatar
    BJW

    I mean, I stopped actual church attendance due to being treated badly. But my beliefs didn’t change. But I did change without being under church influence, and coming to realize that the Bible is wrong on basic morality. Horribly wrong. Why should I go back when Christianity is built on a house of cards?

    • Avatar
      Tom

      I am not a Christian because I don’t believe Jesus was divine. I also have issues with the idea of divinity itself. I tend to believe in Spinoza’s God AKA Nature, following the Stoic’s lead. I do not, however, have too much problem with Christian morality. Despite Nietzche’s critique of it as “slave morality”, I think (and Nietzche agreed) that Christian morality has improved the character of men- despite notable shortcomings!

  3. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    Do any churches do “exit interviews” with their former members? Has any former churchgoer had a follow up call or visit from their minister, to see what happened? I was deeply involved with my last church and no one from the staff or board contacted me to ask me why I left. They had my phone number and e-mail address, so why not? Bruce, what did you do in that situation as a minister? A so-called Christian organization would, you think, go looking for their lost sheep. 🐑🐑🐑 Or are they afraid of what they might hear?

    • Avatar
      John

      Same here. Not one person contacted me when I left my last church. I found out later that the pastor encouraged people to NOT contact me. It’s creepy the sway that pastors can have over a congregation.

  4. Avatar
    Matilda

    To those 4 reasons, I’d add ‘You were never truly saved in the first place’ A troll quoted C S Lewis at me, ‘No true x-tian can ever be talked out of their faith.’ Deconverting, I was helped so much by you, Bruce and by Neil Carter’s blog where he said ‘We didn’t deconvert because we were lukewarm x-tians, we jesus-ed our socks off 24/7 and it was with mounting horror and extreme reluctance, we realised it made no sense at all’……which echoes Michael M’s excellent comment and solid reasons for seeing it’s all a fiction and thus making us embrace freedom, truth and reality in our lives.It really was like being unshackled and coming out of a dark place into wonderful sunshine. Why would I – or we – go back into religion?

  5. Avatar
    Kel

    I grew up in an Evangelical family, though not necessarily a bubble since I met people of other faiths. But, my parents and church (and unfortunately myself, used to be by my own volition) managed to put a distance between me and “the world”. Not as extreme as what the IFB movement does, but I read mostly Christian books and was immersed in church activities. A lot of my friends were Evangelical Christians.

    Even in my not-so-extreme case, questioning Evangelicalism is already a very alienating experience.
    It’s not hip, it’s not cool, it definitely will drive my more devout friends away. Despite all their talk about “church family”, I know that the foundation of our relationship is an agreement to a certain list of doctrinal statement. And also aspects of the “Culture War” (homo bad, abortion bad, trans evil, etc.)

    Yes, probably the reason I’m leaving is partly to maintain my sanity. You know, it’s easy to stay with the “status quo” when it fits your life nicely. When it never asks you to make too much of an adjustment. Like those celebrity preachers, in whose case Christianity bestows them with riches, friends, and an ability to do anything they want.
    But for me, I sacrificed a lot to fit myself into the Evangelical mold and was at the brink of breaking down.

    Pastor Butler thinks that the culture is hostile to Evangelical Christians. I can tell you, Pastor, Evangelical Christians are equally hostile and dismissive of single people with no family, especially if they’re “same-sex-attracted”. Even when these people, including me, try to follow church teachings, they’re still treated as second class citizens.

    But of course, if I dare leave, it’s my mistake, my desire to sin.
    I’m just so so tired of these hip pastors pontificating on the things they themselves never have to experience. They act as if staying Christian is counter-cultural, whilst it’s actually the opposite for so many people who grew up in it.

  6. Avatar
    jboldt73

    the last paragraph reminds me so much of the explanation of gay people choosing to be gay. Right, they choose to be outcasts, kicked out of family circles and marginalized because it is the “thing to do”. So shallow and I agree, why not talk to someone who has deconverted, we all know why, logic will be hard to argue with. I get this trope from my wife, I am just “mad at the church” “people will always let you down”. I try to explain the many, many issue with the book that is the foundation of the faith, then of course I am attaching her and trying to get her to deny God. It’s hard

    • Avatar
      John

      Exactly! I’m in a similar situation with my wife. I actually haven’t come out to her completely as an atheist. But, she knows my beliefs have changed drastically. Just that has caused some issues. I’ve heard the same about being mad at church/god and that I’m attacking her, especially when I share those pesky facts that are hard to overlook.

  7. Avatar
    clubschadenfreude

    unsurpisingly, the poor fellow can’t stand to have anyone comment on his false claims.

    and “poor teaching”? Amazing how every single sect fails then, since no christian version has a 100% retention rate. it would seem that this “truth” just can’t be made clear.

  8. Avatar
    Ian

    As I read this, I felt he was partly right and mostly wrong. The bad church experince was the final straw. Sovereign Grace/Calvinistic teaching had soured me and made me bitter for a long time. It was only after some deep questioning that I saw how “the true church” was twisting the Bible and making it fit their own means. The Calvinism and exclusivity was starting to bring out some weird ideas that morphed into beliefs that had to be followed. Once I understood how the church was causing the issues, I started realizing that the practical (for lack of a better term) teachings of Jesus weren’t being followed. The compassion and forgiveness that the stories told were only afforded to new converts or christians who followed the party line. Other than that, the anger and wrath of God/Jesus were celebrated and worked into everything. Oh, don’t forget the belief in the King James Version, too. God handed that down to Moses after leaving Egypt. The King James Version (KJV) illustrates one of those weird beliefs. Some said it should be called the AV (Authorized Version), as it was originally called. The new versions of the Bible mostly had three letter names (RSV, NIV, ESV, ASV, etc.), and this was a way for Satan to try and trick the true believers into thinking that all Bibles were equal.

    The church drove me to question the Bible. Once I did, I found that the New Testament contradicted a lot of the Old Testament when it came to what Jehovah had commanded the Israelites to believe. I had lost my fear of the church, so I was able to study and research things for myself. I tried to do my own research, without following any one person in particular. I had heard of Dan Barker, but hadn’t read anything of his. I had never heard of Christopher Hitchens. When I came across other famous atheists, I searched elsewhere, because I wasn’t interested in becoming one. I followed links on internet pages and filled out pages of notebook paper with passages from the Bible. The New Testament ended up contradicting both itself so much that believing it was obviously am mistake. The authors of the epistles were at odds with each other. The gosepls couldn’t even come up with a cohesive resurrections story, which is arguably the most important story in the entire Bible.

    No, Mr. Butler, church didn’t cause me to deconvert, the Bible did. The church just gave me the push I needed.

  9. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    sigh Yet another Christian who doesn’t bother to actually ASK us why we left. No, as an Evangelical, he already “KNOWS” everything, so why ask apostates? We are deluded by Satan anyway, so how can we possibly be trusted to tell others WHY we actually deconverted? We probably read too many secular books instead of relying on the B-I-B-L-E to be the book for us.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Why “ask” when you already “know” everything, right? I went through 25 years in the ministry without ever having meaningful discussions with unbelievers. I had the truth, they needed to hear it (and obey), end of story.

  10. Avatar
    Michael Mock

    I have a much more important question for pastor Butler:
    Did you actually type “Doubt is hip” my dude? Who talks like that?

  11. Avatar
    Troy

    Why do kids stop believing in Santa Claus? Pastor head-in-the-sand could pretty much use the same 4 reasons. Of course most people put on their big boy pants and decide its a bunch of hooey. The difficulty isn’t in rejecting the hooey, when the belief pervades the culture, ostracism, loss of social status and financial ruin are some reasons to pull out that fake smile and get your non-believing butt into a pew on Sunday.
    As politics merges with right wing politics, I suspect a new reason might be the cruelty and perniciousness of Trumpism. Will there be some who quit being religious when they change party? It’s never been a thing in America, but I can see it on the horizon.

  12. Avatar
    John

    Street cred is probably my favorite on the list. LOL Followed closely by Bruce’s well said interpretation, they secretly wanted to fuck their neighbor. 🙂

  13. Avatar
    Infidel753

    “How about actually talking to former Evangelicals and finding out the REAL reasons they deconverted?”

    That would constitute seeking the truth via empirical evidence, and religion by definition seeks truth from dogma, not via empirical evidence.

    An ideology which requires its adherents to not understand the motives of its opponents surely operates at a crippling disadvantage.

  14. Avatar
    Matt

    As an evangelical turned atheist, I have to admit that reason #3 actually strikes close to home for me. No, in my case, it wasn’t anything sexual, but my deconversion was concurrent with a period where I struggled with staying focused on work and being honest about it. It could have just been coincidence that the first seed of doubt was planted (coincidentally by my boss who was also my best friend) during that time. Or maybe my struggle with work just pushed me over the edge, to make me want to really find out whether the prescribed remedy of confession, repentance, prayer, etc. would really work.

  15. Avatar
    Art

    A friend lift the church largely because she was never really accepted. She asked questions. Often knew more about what was in the Bible than the people in the “in-group” and simply didn’t conform to expectations. ie: Just one case of many. She answered the pastor when he asked if anyone knew what a cubit was. She gave the right answer and was ridiculed for knowing this by the group surrounding the ‘queen bee’, the pastor’s wife.

    She was pressured to confess sex outside marriage even though she was not having any. She has epilepsy, obviously a punishment from God, and can’t drive so we have an arrangement: she feeds me dinner and I drive her around. I think of her as a sister. Both of us are over 60. We take care of each other. The pastor’s wife is sure we are knocking boots.

    It doesn’t help any that she is a Trumpite. Irony is that she, the pastor, and over half the congregation is black. They can’t seem to grok that DJT is a bigot of the first order, or that they will be thrown under the bus as soon as the GOP is locked in. My friend simply stays quiet when Trumpy articles of faith are being discussed. Evidently they are sure Trump is their God-chosen man and COVID is a hoax. I have stayed out of her church-life. My take is that as long as she gets something out of it she should go. It is not for me to decide. I will support her in whatever she decides.

    I’ve seen her come from church beside herself over how she was mistreated. The tension and anxiety is clearly not good for her, or her epilepsy. I told her this but reiterated that she should make her own decision. This went on for years. The end came a month ago when the pastor’s wife stated that because COVID was present in our neighborhood she should not come to church. There was no call to resume attendance. A fine bit of Christian passive-aggressiveness in my book. No great loss IMHO.

  16. Avatar
    Jim

    Why am I de-convert-ing. Trinitarians, Seventh Day Adventists, Calvinist, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, Christians! It’s the people in this debacle of a religion that drive people out of it. They all think they have the truth and one condemns the other and I’m sick of it and DONE with it.

  17. Avatar
    Brianna LaPoint

    Most christians no matter what sect claim christianity changes people for the better. Dear evangelists, save your excuses. as long as christians claim the religion improves people your apologists fall on deaf ears.

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Bruce Gerencser