What to Know about a Faith Crisis: John Marriott
When someone's losing their faith, what do they—or those who love them—need to know? Dr. John Marriott digs into the real culprits in faith crisis.
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When someone’s losing their faith, what do they — or those who love them — need to know? Dr. John Marriott digs into the real culprits in faith crisis.
What to Know about a Faith Crisis: John Marriott
Dave: I was thinking back—you will remember this moment—five years after I committed my life to become a Christ follower, I was a junior in college, we had been married, we had been in ministry with Cru Athletes in Action®, chaplain of the Nebraska Cornhuskers®, and now we are going to seminary in our fifth year of my Christian walk and our third year of marriage, and do you remember what I said?
Dave: Do you know where I’m going?
Ann: Yes, I know where you are going.
Dave: It scared you to death, didn’t it?
Ann: Yes, because you are sitting on the couch, and you have the Bible open. I walk in and I said, “What are you doing?”
He goes, “You know what? I’m reading this stuff. I don’t even know if I believe any of it.”
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: Any of what? You’ve got to be specific.
Ann: Any of what’s in the Bible, and I said, “We’re in fulltime ministry and you’re wondering about this?”
Dave: It just hit me very strongly “This could all be just a hoax.”
Ann: That’s what you said.
Dave: It’s like, “What are we doing with our lives?”
Ann: “How do we know it’s true?”
Dave: “What if none of this is true?” Do you remember what you said?
Ann: I remember I said, “Well, I know that I believe it. You better figure it out.”
Dave: Yes, it shocked you, and I went on a journey because I had to find out. Now my journey was more intellectual, and I needed evidence. I found it, which is the reason that I’m sitting here today. But that journey that I was on is a pretty common journey.
Ann: Especially today, I think.
Dave: It has become very significant today, because we’re hearing about it on social media that a lot of Christians are taking that journey as I [did].
We’ve got in the studio today the expert on deconversion or deconstruction. In fact, we’re going to ask him what the difference is between those two. But we’ve got John Marriott in the studio. John, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
John: Thanks for having me. [It’s] great to be here.
Dave: You are over there smiling. What are you thinking?
John: That you set the bar pretty high by calling me the expert in these two fields. [Laughter]
Dave: I know you used to spend your life building hotels and that kind of stuff, right?
John: I wish that was the case.
Dave: People hear your name, and they think that.
Ann: It’s even better. John’s the director of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. That’s why we’re saying, “Those are pretty weighty credentials.”
Dave: Tell us what you do at Biola and Talbot.
John: At Biola University, a Christian university in Southern California, I teach in the Philosophy Department part time as an adjunct. Then I oversee the Center for Christian Thought, which is a think tank where we try to take ideas from the academy that are significant and that might be helpful and bring them down and introduce them to folks on the front lines in fulltime ministry. My job there is overseeing that center.
Ann: You’re married; you have a couple of kids. How old are they?
John: My son, Cody, is 14; my daughter, Mariah, is 12.
Ann: You just shared a story with us about Mariah, your daughter.
John: Yes, we have our best conversations when she’s going to bed. I go in, and we talk. We pray before she goes to sleep. Usually that’s when she will ask me a question probably because she doesn’t want to go to sleep.
But these are questions that are genuine for her that are rolling around in the back of her mind. She said to me—you know my father passed away at the beginning of June—so she’s been thinking about what that means and where he is, and she said to me, “I don’t think I believe in heaven.”
I had a bit of a panic attack because I’m thinking, “What do you mean you don’t believe in heaven?”
Then she said, “I don’t want to tell you that because Jesus is really important and He’s really important to you and it might make you feel bad to hear me say that I don’t believe in heaven.”
Now with everything in me I wanted to say, “Here’s why you should believe in heaven.”
Ann: “Let me give you the evidence.”
John: That’s right. “I don’t want you to start thinking that heaven’s not real and that’s the first domino to fall and then everything else goes with it.” But I restrained myself and asked her why. I thanked her for being honest with me in sharing that with me and wanted to let her know that regardless of whether she believes in heaven or not, I love her.
Then as we were talking and I was asking her questions, what really she was saying in her limited vocabulary and her ability to express her thoughts was “I can’t really conceive of where my grandfather is right now. I don’t understand where he is, what his existence is. It’s not so much that I don’t believe that there is a heaven, but I don’t know what to make of it.”
I think if I would have jumped in and started giving her explanations and answers, I would have shut down any further conversation she might have when she’s expressing some kinds of doubt, and I would never really have gotten to the place where I really found out what the root of the problem was.
Ann: That story right there, John, is what every parent—maybe, Dave, you are not like this, but that scares me. I remember when our kids started questioning it started putting a panic in me; like, “I don’t know how to answer some of their questions.”
I think all of us as parents are wondering “Where are these doubts coming from? Where are these fears? How do I answer their intellectual questions?” As kids, as adults are leaving the church, what can we know and do about it?
Dave: Here’s the question: “Are kids leaving the church?” Because when you see the stats, it sounds like an epidemic. You know, so fill us in. What is happening?
John: Yes, that’s a great question. I think that without any doubt the number of people who identify as Christians in the United States is dropping precipitously. I read this morning a study from the Pew Research Foundation that said that people are leaving religion at five to six times the historic rate. In 2015, Pew came out and they said, “For every one person who becomes a Christian, four people leave the faith.” For every one that becomes a Christian, four leave the faith.
Dave: No, that’s horrible to hear.
John: The general social survey said 23 percent of Americans identify as “nones,” which is the same number as evangelicals in the United States in 2019; not as Christians, not as in the broad terms of what it means to be a Christian, sociologically speaking, but as far as evangelicals in our population go “nones” and evangelicals identify at about the same number. But the really interesting fact is that 78 percent of the “nones” once identified as evangelicals. So, they have left the Christian faith.
I think the most ominous stat of all, and we could go on, but this one, I think, is the most significant, is the Pinetops Foundation did a study and their conclusion was this: That the next 30 years will represent the largest missions opportunity in the history of America.
Here’s the quote: “It’s the largest and fastest numerical shift in religious affiliation in the history of this country. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, Christian affiliation in the United States shrinks dramatically. In our base case, over one million youth at least nominally in the church today will choose to leave each year over the next three decades. Thirty-five million youth raised in families that call themselves Christians will say they are not by 2050.”
Ann: It makes me cry. I am teary. It makes me sad. As a parent, as a grandparent, it makes me a little panicky. What is happening, and what has happened, and what can we do?
Dave: Again, I called you an expert earlier. I know you are not the expert, but you wrote your doctoral dissertation on this, right?
John: Yes—doctoral dissertation on this.
Dave: You’ve been looking at this for how many years?
John: Probably going on maybe seven now.
Dave: It’s what you’ve emersed yourself in. You are looking at these stats; you are studying the world and even the U.S. What do you think is happening? Why is this happening?
John: There are a number of factors. In the book, Recipe for Disaster, I try and cash out this phenomenon in terms of a recipe. All recipes have three things in common. They have ingredients and they also have preparation, how you prepare the ingredients, and then they have a cooking environment.
I think the same thing is true when it comes to religious de-identification or leaving the faith, some people will call it apostasy for a theological word, or just deconversion, occurs when all of those three things come together in the right way.
Some of the ingredients are personality traits that people have. There is kind of a profile. So that would be the ingredients.
Then there’s the preparation: How the church and how Christian parents, how they take those ingredients and how they form them and how they shape them.
Then there is the cooking environment, which is our culture. That’s where these ingredients that have been prepared, either well or maybe not so well, get baked, get cooked. The environment that we live in is an increasingly secular one that makes it much harder, I think, to identify as a Christian than it would have 50 years ago.
Dave: “Deconversion,” you just used term. I’ve also heard the term, “deconstruction.”
Ann: What’s the difference?
Dave: Is it the same?
John: No, they’re not the same. A deconversion would be when someone says, “I no longer believe these truths, and I no longer associate or affiliate with this group anymore. I have taken myself out of the sociological group, the community that I was a part of, the church that I went to. I don’t affiliate with that group anymore because I don’t believe in these doctrines or the claims that the group makes.”
It's an undoing, in a sense, of the conversion experience that they had. However, instead of converting to and becoming part of a broader community that has a particular set of ideas, usually when people de-convert, they de-convert almost into a vacuum. They say, “I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what I believe. I don’t have a community to be a part of, but I know that I don’t belong here anymore.” That would be deconversion.
Deconstruction is this term that gets used in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. There is not a consensus within the evangelical world whether or not we should be using this word or not.
There are some evangelicals who would say deconstruction is just a bad word, it’s a bad term that comes out of a bad postmodern philosophy. It signifies a movement within Christianity that wants to cause young people to question what they believe because it is inherently unjust, misogynistic, racist, etcetera.
Then there are other people who will say, “No, deconstruction just means I have been handed this Christian faith by my parents or by my church community and told that this is Christianity, but there are some things in it that I’m not sure line up with what the Bible teaches. What I’m going to do is I’m going to deconstruct it. I’m going to take it apart. I’m going to look at the pieces and then I’m going to reconstruct it in a way that I think is hopefully more biblical and one that makes a little bit more sense to me.
Ann: Dave, that’s exactly what you did.
Dave: I was going to say, deconstruction, in that way, can be a good thing.
John: Deconstruction, in that way, can be a good thing because it can lead to a faith that seems more genuinely your own. It can lead to a faith that maybe has discovered in some, the current fashionable word is some toxic elements in that faith, and it can produce a healthier faith that someone can have and maybe one that is easier, in a way, to hold on to.
That doesn't mean that we should be looking for a faith that lines up with everything that we like and we get rid of things that and we reject things that the Bible says that we don’t like so it’s easier for us to hold on to. But when something becomes your own because you really thought through it, that can really be a healthy thing.
But it can also be a dangerous thing because it can lead to either a falling into a heretical view of Christianity, which is a self-styled version where we go through alacarte like a salad bar and pick the things that we like and reject the things that we don’t like about the Christian faith. Then what ends up happening is we have a Christian faith where we have a Jesus that actually looks more like us than Jesus Himself. The Bible gets neutered from being the thing that shapes and forms us to just reflecting our own values.
That’s a potential problem deconstruction. Then the other problem is that it could lead to deconversion; it really can. That would be the distinction between deconstruction and deconversion.
Dave: It sounds like when a person walks through deconstruction, as we said, it could be good. Mine was pulling apart almost every tenet that I was taught and believed and taking a good look at it. I decided it’s all true. But as a parent, when your son or daughter starts to do that, it’s scares you, doesn’t it?
John: It does.
Dave: It could happen at 12 or 14 or 15.
Ann: I think our oldest son was five when he said, “Mom, why is it okay for David to kill Goliath? But doesn’t the Bible say we shouldn’t kill or murder?”
Those are great questions. I love that Dave came in; he heard that. He said, “Man, what a great question. Look at you thinking and analyzing that.”
I’m like, “That’s not a great question. He just needs to believe.” But I think that’s really healthy for Dave, for a parent to say, as you did with your daughter, “What a great thought; what a great question,” and to not panic even though you might be panicking inside.
John: That’s right. Yes, it’s because I want to be able to control the situation, right? I want everything to be the way that I want it to be, and I’m going to try to do everything that I can to try to make sure that she believes. Sometimes in making sure I can maybe do some damage and push her away.
I’m convinced that young people who grew up in Christian homes need to get saved maybe three times; twice at least. Here’s what I mean by that.
Dave: Yes, what do you mean?
John: I came to know the Lord when I was about five years old. I think I sincerely believed; I think I was genuinely born again. But when I got to 14 years old, I sat in on a message at Aush-Bik-Koong Bible Camp in northern Ontario. The preacher said, “God has no grandchildren. You need to believe because you believe; not because your parents believe. This is not your parents’ faith.
So, I said, “Yes, I have to make it mine, so I went from “I believed it as a kid”; then I had to sit down and say, “God, I really want this to be of me.” But in that moment, I never questioned the truth of it. I questioned my commitment to it.
Then in my early 20’s, I went “I committed myself to this when I was 14, but I’ve got to be honest [that] I never really investigated the truth of it,” and I had to go through that process, which was a crisis in my life, a crisis of faith. At the back end of that, I came out and said, “Yes, it really is true.”
Do I think I got saved three times? No, of course I don’t think that. But I think for young people growing up in Christian homes, there is this progression that everyone has to go through where they have to ask themselves “Is this really my faith?” and then the next question is “Why is it really my faith?”
I think that that’s important for parents to get.
Dave: That’s a great journey. When we were first parents—our oldest is 36 now—we’ve got six grandkids—I picked up a book – this was a long time ago. I can’t tell you the author. It was called The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home. I remember I picked it up because I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. Now I’m a dad leading a Christian home. I thought, “What are the dangers because I could do this.”
That was the number one danger is that parents that are Christians want their kids to be Christians, they obviously encouraged their children to be Christians, and it freaks them out when their children have to make it their own. The big idea of the book was “You’ve got to let your child find his own faith. It can’t be his parents’ faith.” Just exactly what you did.
That’s exactly what I had to do five years in. It’s like, “I have to pull this thing apart and find out what is true and what I’m going to commit my life to.”
Here’s a question for you: When did you become a Christian? [Laughter] What do you think?
John: I think I became a Christian at the young age of about five. I can remember praying with my mom and I can remember from then on having this very God-conscious awareness that God was there and that I needed to obey and I believed in Jesus. It was very simplistic, of course. It was very young, but throughout my elementary school years there was also some fruit that I could look back on and see.
I think probably I genuinely had a relationship with the Lord, but it was when I was 14, at that Bible camp, when I made a decision to say, “Oh, I need to make this mine.” That’s when things really changed. If you are looking at my life as a graph, then the graph would have sharply gone up at that point.
Dave: What do you say to parents—you are a parent—about their child?
John: “Good luck.” That’s what I say to parents: “Good luck.” [Laughter]
Dave: We say it to you. You’ve got younger kids.
Dave: They’re right in the teenaged years, so they are starting to wrestle with this. How do you encourage parents in this culture? You just read the stats. Like Ann said, it’s scary in some regards.
Ann: Give us some hope.
Dave: But it’s also exciting that we live in such a time as this.
Ann: Is it exciting?
Dave: How do you encourage a parent? [Laughter] You don’t think it’s exciting?
Ann: I think that right there is what a lot of us face in marriages; like one parent is “This is amazing,” and I think that, too, but I’m also scared. I’m scared that my kids are going to walk away. So, yes, it’s both.
Dave: What do you feel? What do you say?
John: As far as encouraging parents?
John: I think that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the same Lord that people worshiped in the first century when they were going through persecution when it was really hard to believe then. He sustained and He carried the church through. I think He does that today. He’s an ever-present hope in times of trouble that we can go to.
Then there are things that we can do that help mitigate some of the effect that culture has on why people believe the things they do or don’t or leave the faith, and there are some things that we can avoid doing that set folks up for a crisis of faith.
I think that those are the things that I spend most of my time thinking about is listening to the stories of people who have left and trying to figure out “What is it that we have some control over?” Because in Recipe for Disaster, you don’t have control over the ingredients. The temperament of your children, no control over it. Personality traits, no control. Things that they value, no control. Well, you can influence but no absolute control.
The culture that we live in, that shapes and forms and makes us, we have no control over shaping and changing that. But what we do have is this middle piece of preparing the ingredients for the culture. That’s the part that I think a lot about is “How do we go about working with our young people in such a way that we avoid setting them up for crisis and that we can instill a faith that can endure?”
Shelby: You are listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Marriott on FamilyLife Today. If you are a parent, don’t miss Dave and Ann’s words of encouragement coming up here in just a minute.
But first, I wanted to let you know that John has written a book called Before You Go. They’ve been talking about it a little bit. The subtitle is Uncovering Hidden Factors in Faith Loss.
You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, and dive deeper into what we’ve been talking about today. I also wanted to say, I joined FamilyLife’s team, me personally, because I believed in the mission of what we are doing. Biblical truth applied to today’s family is arguably more important now than ever. That’s certainly true after you’ve been listening to the conversation today.
If you feel the same way, would you consider supporting FamilyLife Today with a donation. When you give any amount this week, we want to send you a copy of John Marriott’s other book called Recipe for Disaster, which is what he was just talking about. It’s our way of saying thanks to you when you give any amount this week on FamilyLifeToday.com.
If you feel like God is calling you to partner with us and give a donation, again, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. That can be a one-time gift or a recurring monthly gift. It's up to you; whatever the Lord leads you to do. Again, the number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright, here’s Dave and Ann with some encouragement for parents.
Dave: That’s good. I think looking back, one of the things—did a lot of things wrong as parents—we wrote a book called No Perfect Parents because we were not perfect parents, but I think one of the things we might have done right, and one of the things that I had to do when I sort of deconstructed, was “Doubt is okay.”
I think that was one of the things I had to wrestle with when I was 28 at the time. I didn’t really grow up in the church, but I was around church enough to know doubt was sin. You couldn’t question; you could never doubt. That was sin. You just—if you had a question, it was not allowed to be asked. You just had faith; you just believed.
I think it’s okay to question; I think it’s a really good thing. As a parent, when your child starts questioning as you said, as yours has and ours has, it’s okay to go, “Yes, let’s embrace that. God’s not afraid of your questions. In fact, there’s answers to your questions. Ask them and let’s go search for the answers.”
There are answers. It’s easy to freak out as a parent.
Ann: And to remember that God cares about this more than we do. He loves our kids more than we do. Talk to God about it. I remember, and I still do this, “Lord, I’m petrified of what I’m seeing. Lord, I pray that You would protect my kids. I pray that You would answer our kids. I pray that You would put people around our kids that would be able to answer to answer their questions in a way that would really meet their needs. But Lord, I pray that they would know the real Jesus and that they would love You.”
Those things matter, and when I feel like I can’t do anything God helps me to remember that there is a bigger God who I can trust.
John, thank you because you’ve done your studying and you have thought about this a lot. Thanks for doing that with us.
John: You are welcome.
Shelby: A lot of young people are leaving the faith. You’ve probably heard that; you’ve no doubt experienced that. The real question is “What is going on?”
Tomorrow Dave and Ann are going to talk again with John Marriott, who’s going to tell us about this epidemic of young people leaving the faith and what we can do to keep our children searching for answers in the right way. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you will 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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