As you’re undoubtedly aware by now, there’s a growing chorus of believers concerned about the so-called “dumbing down” of Christianity and the “falling away” of some prominent evangelical icons. It should be noted — particularly for the sake of blunt honesty — that by “some icons” we’re really only talking about two specific people: Joshua Harris, author of the renowned “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and Hillsong singer-songwriter, worship leader and musician Marty Sampson. Both men released public statements to their followers essentially stating that they had become disenchanted with Christianity and were leaving the faith. The secular news media and Internet trolls have done their usual bang-up job at making the whole thing sound far more broad sweeping than it actually is. Contrary to popular belief, there is no epidemic of hoards of Christian leaders committing apostasy throughout America within the last week. And, to be fair, Sampson did subsequently walk back his statement and position, saying that “he hasn’t renounced the faith.”
That being said, I do think it’s important to address what is happening with these popular Christian figures and to touch on a disturbingly common trend among the church culture of elevating young leaders simply because they look cool, sing well, or speak eloquently. Let’s tackle the latter first.
You might be surprised to know — or you might not — that the Apostle Paul warned against this in chapter five of his first letter to Timothy: “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader. Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22, NLT) Some translations use the expression “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NAS) and indeed the original Greek refers to “the laying on of hands.” While this phraseology might be citing the early custom of laying hands on a penitent sinner, it’s also possible — and more likely — that it is referring to laying hands on a man in order to ordain him to a position or install him in an office of the Church.
It should go without saying, but apparently it must be said, that there is an inherent danger in promoting or advancing a leader before he’s qualified. You wouldn’t put a 21-year-old White House intern in charge of the nuclear launch codes. That’s a really good way to accidentally blow Greenland to smithereens. You wouldn’t replace the CEO of McDonald’s with the lady who just got hired yesterday as a cashier. That’s a really good way to destroy an entire fast-food corporation. By the same token, you shouldn’t expect a young or inexperienced man to be able to tend to the souls of the bride of Christ or to be a shining example of the faith. That’s a really good way to lead an entire church flock right over a cliff to meet their death on the rocks below. Paul’s admonition to Timothy is to avoid making the mistake of promoting or designating a leader unless that man has proven himself to be mature, proficient, and equipped. I don’t know for certain that this is what happened in the case of Harris or Sampson, but it’s certainly possible and therefore worth mentioning.
Before I start getting hate-mail, allow me to clarify that this is in no way a jab at “young” pastors or worship leaders. Some of my best friends became pastors in their late 20’s and early 30’s. My own father was licensed to preach at 20, but spent many years accumulating experience and gleaning insight, advice, and wisdom from godly men before serving in a full-time pastoral capacity.
As for this notion of “falling away from” or “out of” the faith, this is all terribly worded and often misconstrued. If Harris and Sampson are truly saved, then they are not “unsaved” simply because they suddenly find themselves struggling with doubts or questions. The very nature of God’s grace and forgiveness supports this. Of course, in the case of someone like Harris, who publicly renounced Christianity, openly declared that he is no longer a believer, separated from his wife, and apologized to the LGBTQ community, you could certainly make a theological argument that he’s intentionally rejected the Holy Spirit. Sampson, on the other hand, still seems to be hanging in there, albeit on “shaky ground” by his own admission.
But, rather than get bogged down in the theology of it all, I’ll close by mentioning what I think happened with these two guys, and has indeed happened with many in my generation in particular: Their faith was or became more about emotion than truth. One of the biggest problems we face in the modern church culture — and American society in general — is an environment where feelings reign supreme. In the church, this has sadly taken the form of Christians who love to worship and listen to sermons, but fail to realize that the essence of genuine worship and the pulse of sound teaching is reflected by a humble obedience to an almighty and infinite God and an unwavering belief in solid doctrine. Faith isn’t just a momentary emotional or spiritual high. It’s a daily lifestyle that values the truth of the Word over our emotional, and often childish, whims, wants, and desires. The truth of what we believe doesn’t change just because our feelings about it change. Unfortunately, Harris and Sampson seem to have indulged in their emotions and chosen their feelings over their faith. This is truly a travesty.
To any Joshes or Martys who may be reading this: I empathize with your struggles, the disillusionment, the disenchantment, the exhaustion that stems from trying to reconcile the Christian faith with the current modern American culture. I write about it all the time. I know it can be discouraging and disheartening. Even as a pastor’s son, I’ve wrestled with comprehending the nature of God in the wake of the moral decay happening around us. I’ve questioned, I’ve doubted, I’ve studied. And while I certainly can’t identify with the pressures faced by so-called “evangelical celebrities,” I can offer this encouragement to fellow believers: Hang in there. Tough it out. Endure. Don’t give up. Yes, there are some things about our faith, and about this life, that we will never understand until we enter Eternity, but the promise of Jesus is worth so much more. And I don’t know about you, but…
“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold. I’d rather be His, than have riches untold.
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or land. I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.
Than to be the king of a vast domain and beheld in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”