‘The leavers’

‘The leavers’
Photo by Ben White / Unsplash
Kent Philpott
Kent Philpott Kent Philpott is pastor of Miller Avenue Baptist Church, Mill Valley, California, and director of Earthen Vessel Publishing.
01 February, 2011 5 min read

This is the title of an article in the November 2010 issue of Christianity Today. The author, Drew Dyck, a manager in the Church Ministry Media Group at Christianity Today International and author of Generation ex-Christian (Moody Press), draws attention to the fact that 20- and 30-somethings are leaving the church in rather large numbers.

Where once they identified with a Christian church, these young people have ‘de-converted’. One quote from the article sums it up: ‘The vast majority of outsiders [to the Christian faith] in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually dechurched individuals’.

Possible reasons

Though there is no reliable way to answer the question as to why and how young adults were abandoning a faith they once held, the following possibilities are given by Mr Dyck.

First, during their 20s and 30s, young adults focus their attention on education, family and career, but will return to the faith at a later point. Second, young adults who opt for alternative lifestyles – following the culture rather than Christ – feel conflict with guilt and shame, and so leave the source of these unpleasant feelings, which source is thought to be the churches.

Third, perhaps due to the success of the arguments of new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, many have concluded that Christianity does not measure up intellectually.

Fourth, others who de-converted were hurt by Christians and/or churches and therefore departed from the source of the pain. Fifth, given the spiritual marketplace of Western culture, some have moved to alternative spiritualities. Wicca is cited as one of these, and the reason given is that Christianity has to do with a submission to the will of God, whereas Wicca is about making your own will paramount.

Sixth, exposure of the de-converted to a weak, superficial and ultimately unsatisfying form of Christianity essentially ‘inoculated them against authentic faith’.

Seventh, when seeking for answers, young adults ‘were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts’. He goes on: ‘De-converts reported “sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member, only to receive trite, unhelpful answers”.’

Mr Dyck’s final point is – ‘The reasons that 20- and 30-somethings are leaving are complex’.

Another view

But perhaps there is another way of explaining this undeniable reality that many 20- and 30-somethings are leaving Christian churches. Could it be that these persons were never born again of the Spirit of God? Could the real issue be one of false conversion?

In my book Are you really born again? published by Evangelical Press in 1997, I discuss the difference between true and false conversion. The methodology of evangelical Christianity since the 1830s and the ministry of Charles G. Finney, who emphasised an individual’s capacity to make a decision for Christ and thus effect conversion, raises the disturbingly real possibility of false conversion.

Rather than depending on the working of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin and repentance toward God, and to reveal Jesus as Saviour and Lord, Christian evangelistic focus has been placed upon persuasive mechanisms to obtain ‘conversions’.

Yet repentance and faith flow from the working of the Holy Spirit of God in conversion (Acts 20:21), rather than the reverse (that is, repentance and faith needing to be in place in order for conversion to occur).

There are many human methods that can be used to secure a ‘decision’ or ‘commitment to Christ’. For nearly three decades I depended upon a logical presentation of the gospel followed by a request to pray the sinner’s prayer.

Few objected, but this ‘success’ was not spiritual in nature. It was due to psychological and emotional reasons. The contemporary use of sad stories, mood-altering music, fear tactics (‘If you leave here tonight without Christ and are killed driving home, you will find yourself burning in a devil’s hell’) is considered acceptable in obtaining the desired statistics.


Then there is psychological and/or social bonding with a small group; or psychological manipulation applied during such times of emotional vulnerability as after suffering significant loss; or other strategies.

It is as though we simply cannot depend on the Holy Spirit to work through the preaching of the gospel. No, we must do our utmost to ‘wring’ a decision out of a person. What else can be the result of this approach but false conversions?

When I was a little boy growing up in Portland, Oregon, a neighbouring lady had a child evangelism camp at her home every summer. My brothers and I attended year after year. Over and over, year by year, we prayed for a white heart. We were scared of dying with a black heart.

We were converts for Mrs Barlow, but when we could get away with telling our parents that we didn’t want to go to the summer camp anymore, that was the end of our Christianity. The fact is that we were not converted at all.

As a pastor, I was very good at getting confessions of faith out of kids. At Bible camps, I could get every boy and girl up front praying the sinner’s prayer. What about those kids later on, when they got to be 20- and 30-somethings? Might some of them have walked away from Christianity, to be counted among the de-converted?

They had been told as children that they were now Christians and needed only to be baptised and join the church. Many did, and some may have been genuinely converted, but I suspect many were not. They must walk away at some point, for to be in a church in their state would be uncomfortable at best.

I surmise that most pastors, those who have been at it for a while, will echo my experience.


Perhaps the apostle John, an experienced pastor, summed it up best: ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us’ (1 John 2:19).

Family remains family, no matter what. Human beings are human beings, no matter what. Nothing can change these facts. Likewise, born again into the family of God – nothing can undo this either. It must be that their ‘leaving’ is not really leaving; it is never having been there in the first place.

There is an awful truth here, but it is better to face it head-on: ‘de-converted’ is, I claim, an inaccurate description; ‘falsely converted’ is the truer term.

As a parent, grandparent and pastor I would rather not look this truth in the face. Are some who supposed they are/were Christians actually not converted at all; and that not due to something they did or did not do, since salvation belongs totally to God’s sovereign grace?

When it is plain that someone is not born from above, what is there left that can be done for them? Well, there is prayer; there is welcoming and acceptance; there is listening and patience; there is agape loving; there is the gospel to be clearly and intelligently presented. And there is the trusting that the Word of God is correct when it says, ‘so faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ’ (Romans 10:17).

Only God can bring back those who have left.

Kent Philpott

Kent Philpott
Kent Philpott is pastor of Miller Avenue Baptist Church, Mill Valley, California, and director of Earthen Vessel Publishing.
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