Perhaps the fault here does not lie with these two YouTube comedians, but someone closer to home.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Though it is not everyday I take the time to critique an article written by Alisa Childers and published by “The Gospel Coalition” in February of this year and shared again this morning. I have been wanting to address deconstruction and deconversion here for awhile but did not wish to do so in a vacuum. Alisa Childers article: “Deconstructing a Deconversion Story: The Tale of Rhett and Link” gives me a chance to address that topic as a critique of the Christian approach to engagement. As a musician and former writer for Altrocklive.com, I missed getting to cover ZoeGirl, Childers former band, but have a great respect for her as a musician and as a theologian and apologist. As has been the policy of this site we will not address or rebuff her, but her ideas, ideas which seem harmless, but in fact continue to deny a needed and justified critique of Christianity in America and the way it goes about discipleship and apologetics.
The Gospel Coalition Facebook page actually did a wonderful job summing up the idea that I am addressing here, so I will use their words: “Could it be that the cultural influences driving these deconstruction stories needs to be re-examined, rather than Christianity itself?” In the article Childers examines the influence of two Youtube Stars named Rhett and Link who were some of the Christian celebrities who have deconverted from Christian faith due to a lack of answers about serious questions and doubts about faith by their faith community. These high profile deconversions have, perhaps unintentionally, had the affect of driving some kids away from Christianity. This is something I can understand, if I had been 12 years younger when Josh Harris deconverted in 2019 it likely would have toppled my faith altogether. Childers is right when she says in her summation: “The truth is that we have a personality-driven culture in which two comedians can persuade Christians to rethink their faith in just three hours of video. And that’s no laughing matter.” She is correct. Celebrity influence on Christianity, be it in the secular culture or Christian celebrity culture (which I critique here) is a problem. But it is not the root of the problem which Childers is making it, it is the fruit of a greater problem and it is one that has affected me, my wife and so many others in our generation.
Before I come to the actual root cause, let me address the idea that Christianity does not need to be critiqued, as the TCG Facebook summation is suggesting, again, I have written before that a failure to critique Christianity puts historic, orthodox and biblical Christianity at risk. It is precisely because of internal critiques and adjustments that the early Church, through the councils, maintained Christian faith, not in lieu of it. One could even say that Christianity is a faith which relies on constant critique, discernment, and evaluation, not a stoic “thou shalt not question” approach that has been the modus operandi that has plagued Christians since before the tenth century. We must be able to make critiques of problems within our faith for the sake of the health of our faith.
But here in lies the root of the problem: our adoption of this “Thou shalt not question” attitude in our approach to Discipleship and Apologetics and at the same time our willingness to farm out discipleship and apologetics to the videos our kids are watching on Youtube. I will be blunt. The blame for all this falls not on Rhett and Link for questions they had about faith that went unanswered but on parents who are letting their kids be discipled by screens first and then cannot or are unwilling to facilitate and answer questions and doubts their kids may have. The blame also falls on Pastors and the “ivory tower theologians” who have insisted that no one, for any reason, should ever, have questions about the faith.
Before you pass judgment on me though, let me state that I am a pastor and a father of (soon to be) two young girls. I am writing as part of the problem who wants to find a way to be part of the solution. Discipling my daughters towards saving faith is something I have spent much time thinking through with that, teaching them how to defend their faith in an increasingly hostile culture. That starts with being willing to set boundaries and take responsibility for the passing down of faith to my children. My wife, who holds a degree in early Childhood Education says that: “Questioning like this is developmentally appropriate and stems from their brains moving from concrete to abstract thinking.” That means I should be ready to answer my daughter’s questions about faith with real answers, not dismissals. My own questions were often met with: “Well you just have to believe.” Had someone introduced me to Josh McDowell’s now updated:” Evidence that Demands a Verdict” and helped me parse it, perhaps I would not have struggled with questions about the historicity of my own faith.
But discipleship and apologetics are more than just allowing room for doubt and answering questions to our faith and teaching our kids basic doctrines. It is about so much more, since we are not merely intellectual beings. They are about the tools which are used and the way that Christian Faith gets lived out in the practical day-to-day functions of the human being.
There was a saying he heard in seminary repeatedly: “You keep them with, what you win them with.” This was a critique of the seeker friendly, entertainment model of the Church that was prominent in the Mega Church Movement in the 90’s and early 2000’s. But the principle is true in regard to discipleship and apologetics, if children are won to the faith by things meant to supplement and enrich, not be the basis for faith, then their faith will rise and fall on that tool. Veggietales was a great way to learn Bible stories if you could get past the moralism, but if Veggietales was the only way my faith was formed as a kid, I would not be a Christian today because while I would know the stories, the moral hypocrisy of Christians in the world would have destroyed my faith. My wife and I are very selective of what and how much content our two-year-old watches and plan to continue that, within reason, as she grows older. We have been encouraged by research from Barna Group, Jene Twenge and Andre Crouch which have challenged us not to let digital media disciple our kids. My wife and I are what David Kinnamen of Barna calls “Digital Natives.” That means we grew up in the media and digital age as younger millennials, Delta’s (Gen Z’s preferred name for themselves) and whatever the name of my daughter’s generation is going to be even more so than we. If I farm out my duties to disciple my daughters to whatever the popular Christian Media of the day is, should I be surprised when those influences on her deconvert and take her faith with them? I did not do my job of teaching them the faith, I let someone else disciple them,and when their questions came up I ignored them.
Pastors need to be aware of this too. The tools we use for reaching, teaching and engaging younger Christians will affect their view of the faith. If one of the tools in our bag is the: “You shall not question” tool , then we are not creating an atmosphere where faith forming discourse is encouraged and actively pursued. When we use placeboes and “Christian Adjacent” resources, resources that claim to be Christians but are really just panaceas or placebos, when we prefer pithy one liners that are not backed up by the text, or only loosely backed up by the text, why are we surprised when Christians question the faith. If we push moralism over the Gospel…well…you see my point. As teachers we bear a great responsibility before God (as do you, parents) when it comes to discipleship and apologetics and our discipleship has either been too strict or too loose, or worse, farmed out.
The evidence for Christianity is so overwhelming, but when we do not allow questions to be asked and doubts to be had, we redirect them to the people who will answer those questions for them. Radical Atheists, the “New Atheists” are very good at apologetics and discipleship and they are more than willing to fill the void left by pastors and parents who drive their children away when they ask questions and are met with scolding or dismissive statements. This appears to be what happened in the case of Rhett and Link. They had questions, Christians did not answer those questions (they were given Ravi Zacharius and Lee Strobel to read) and so they turned to secular sources who were more than willing to answer those questions. Then we point to the culture and say: “Look what they are doing, they are leading our kids astray, why don’t they just believe? Darn secular culture.” But we fail to ask ourselves what caused them to turn towards the secular belief system in the first place, we blame the outcome, to avoid blaming ourselves.
Then there is the second reason given for deconversion, which would have ultimately been my reason had my own deconstruction ended in denconversion. The failure to live out in the practical day-to-day life of the Christian the teachings of scripture and the life of Jesus. Many young Christians grow up hearing all about the Gospel but never see it lived out, in fact, they see the opposite. They see pastors abusing children and their congregations. they see the moral failures of Christian celebrities like John Crist, they see Christianity claim to be the representatives of The Kingdom of God while embracing a Christian Nationalism that denies that there is a Kingdom of God, or makes the United States into the Kingdom of God (hint, it’s not). Like their secular counterparts, they look at all of this and conclude that no matter how much evidence you give them for the truth claims of Christianity, it cannot possibly be true because the core teaching of transformation by Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is erroneous and therefore untrue. My generation grew up hearing all about how “The world is watching you” and “You’re the only Bible some people will ever read” and so we watched how the people saying these things lived and concluded that the Bible was not true. This ranges from parents to pastors to Christian Celebrities. So, they turned to their secular counterparts to discover that they had seen the same hypocrisy and had come to the same conclusion. Let me point out that this paragraph is not a full critique, for that I would recommend “Jesus and John Wayne” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Believe Me” by Christian Historian John Fea, “The Evangelicals” By Francis Fitzgerald (hostile sources) or “The Color of Compromise” by Jamar Tisby (for more sources send us a message)/
Many have been irreparably damaged by Christians, by Christian parents and pastors, who they looked up to and either went to ask questions of and got turned away or dismissed or who physically, emotionally, and spiritually harmed them. I fall under this second category, the night I confronted my spiritual abuser should have been the night I left Christianity, but I hung on, or more, God hung onto me. Even though every adult other than my parents I had looked up to in my life had been in the room that night, 3 against 1 (I had a mentor with me who advocated on my behalf) should have been the death stroke for my Christian faith. It probably would have been if I had returned to Sterling and my Professor had not recognized what was happening in my head and heart. They were essential to my hanging on, God used them to hang on to me until He could get me to the side of the mountain outside Denver that cool 4th of July.
Which brings me to a phenomenon I am noticing among my peers who go through deconstruction and remain in the faith, my wife being one of them. That is the presence of a supernatural encounter with God at a critical moment of their faith, a moment of decision. I hope Barna will do some research into this, since I am hearing more and more of it happening. As younger Christians try to disengage with faith due to the lack of influence or failures to live as Christians by the adults in their lives, more and more of us are having supernatural, unexplainable encounters with God that bring us back to full belief and help us begin reconstruction through a deeper study of the Bible and Church History. The result is a more robust and deeper faith that cannot be assailed by the world because it teaches us not just about God and the life of Christianity, but how to engage in a secular world. These experiences range from that still small voice, hearing the Holy Spirit speak, to visionary/auditory experiences like what I experienced in the labyrinth that day.
The problem is, if we are doing this right, if Christian faith is established, these things should not be necessary, if the Church is doing what it is supposed to be doing, we would have kids who are not just praying a prayer to avoid going to hell (the way most of my peers describe conversion to Christianity) to young people who understand they are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and can live out the lifestyle of Christian worship. Children would not be responsible for their own discipleship through videos on YouTube or apologetics primarily from books, but through deep conversations with their parents who are living the faith and through deep gospel preaching that establishes the historicity of Christianity and a life that reflects the idea that we are part of something bigger than everything this Earth offers. If Christians were living out the Gospel, were really living and teaching it, we would not need have teens who have grown up in church and who were considering leaving the church when they went to college because they had learned nothing of the faith, having unexplainable encounters with Christ in the service that was no different, that led them to drive to Wal-Mart to buy a Bible. This should not be, yet here we are.
The bottom line is this, Childers is right, Rhett and Link should not have the influence to lead children into deconstruction, but that should not lead us to critique the culture, but ourselves. The blame for this fall not on Rhett and Link and their experience, but on the parents and pastors who have failed in discipleship and apologetics by farming out their responsibilities to YouTube and other Christian celebrities.
I would be remiss in my own duties if I did not point out that Jesus himself warns us against letting our teaching of the faith be lax when it comes to younger disciples. Matthew 5:17-20 reminds us:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The reality is, until Jesus returns, and restoration is accomplished, all things have not yet been accomplished. Most of it has, but not all, and Jesus is clear that for the moral law to pass away All (Pasa in Greek) must be fulfilled. Thus the Christian Teacher is to teach and do all that the moral law commands (the Moral law is the context of Matthew 5), and of course, the only way to do that is to follow and live like Jesus. We are also told by Jesus that if anyone causes a younger Christian to stumble, it would be better for us if a millstone were tied around our neck and we be thrown in the river.
Many will likely disagree with this analysis, that is okay, but we cannot, should not, take lightly our responsibility to disciple our children or teach them apologetics. We will be held accountable for that, for how we passed down the faith. Some of us will rejoice in that reality and some will not, but we have to agree with Jesus, with the scriptures and be ready always and forever to “Give a reason for the hope that we have” (1 Peter 3:5) otherwise we will continue to get the same outcome and continue to play the same blame game that will only lead to more deconversions like Rhett and Link’s.
May it not be so with us.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center