The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity” explores the reasons why many Americans are rejecting the faith they grew up with. In this eight-part series, we feature testimonies and look at trends, church failures and how Christians can respond to those who are questioning their beliefs. This is part 2. Read part 1.
Editor’s note: We decided to post testimonies (there are two in this series) from people who are no longer Christians because we wanted to hear their stories and try to understand why they chose to abandon their faith. Our hope is that the Church will listen.
If you ask David Smith (not his real last name), he’ll tell you “love has power in human life” and “that’s enough for me.”
He has no use for the Christian faith, particularly as it is presently showcased in many expressions of the evangelical church in the United States.
As part of The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity,” surveying the reasons and contributing factors to the phenomenon of Christians undergoing “deconversion” experiences, former evangelicals, sometimes called exvangelicals, are sharing their journeys away from faith.
These deconversions are often comprised of but not limited to intellectual deconstructions of faith entirely and a series of events where they could not live with the cognitive dissonance of what the Gospel proclaims and how churches operate — or perhaps some combination of both.
A significant part of Smith’s story centers around the teachings of Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles; his family was part of Gothard’s organization.
Although Gothard is regarded as a fringy fundamentalist to more mainstream evangelical Christians, for Smith, when asked if he sees any gradations between the groups, he replied: “It’s all the same mistake at this time in history, if you ask me.”
“I don’t see anything in the modern ‘Christian’ church right now that makes me think of Christ. What I see is a business model that is predicated on church leadership never actually having to work a day in their lives, if they can just guilt their parishioners into donating enough money to cover a substantial salary. I realize I may be generalizing here, I’m sure there are still well-meaning folks in ministry in the church. I haven’t met any of them though,” he told CP in a recent interview.
Gothard, who never married and is now 84, stepped down from the IBLP in 2014 after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and molestation were made against him and he was subsequently sued in 2016. The plaintiffs ultimately dropped the case in 2018 because of “unique complexities” with the statute of limitations but maintained he had sexually abused them.
In sharing his experiences, Smith believes “it’s extremely important to understand why people are starting to abandon evangelical ‘Christian’ church attendance en masse.”
“Judging by numerous exchanges I’ve had with friends, family and acquaintances over the past two-and-a-half decades (both in-person and on the internet), I suspect my reasons for abandoning church attendance are consistent with, and reflective of, a much larger community of people. It makes me very sad to see the church pushing people away,” he said.
“When I was growing up, it seemed to me that Christian churches were very much intended to be like big extended families. That no longer appears to be the case. The modern evangelical church is like a big franchised stage show, made a thousand times worse by the prevalence of rigid, legalistic ideologies like Calvinism and the politicization of theology.”
Smith did not want to reveal his real last name in order to avoid potential harassment.
Below is a transcript of the interview with Smith, who was raised in the Christian faith and experienced a whole host of dysfunctions in several churches and Christian institutions.
CP: Briefly describe your history, growing in faith, giving churches chance after chance, and being disappointed time and again.
Smith: I can’t really say I ever “grew in faith.” I believed what I was told to believe until suddenly I didn’t, as a result of profoundly negative and violent experiences. I was raised in first a Presbyterian church, then Methodist, then Bible and Southern Baptist churches. My parents discovered IBYC/IBLP in 1976 or so, which was unknown to me at the time. This contributed to my upbringing in subtle ways at first, then overt ways later. My childhood was, shall we say, unpleasant much of the time.
I attended a Christian high school that made IBYC/IBLP attendance a mandatory requirement for graduation, and it was at the age of 15 or 16 shortly before attending Gothard’s seminar that my parents told me they had been involved with Gothard’s organization for almost a decade already.
CP: How have you personally experienced dysfunctional leadership, unhealthy structures within churches, ministry entities?
Smith: This seems like a potentially really long question to answer, and you have my sincerest apologies that I’m unable to muster up anything detailed this time around. Suffice it to say that I met Bill Gothard personally and spent a fair amount of time with him, as well as his personal “spiritual warfare” adviser who routinely “cast demons” out of people (I will refrain from naming this person for obvious reasons), and if those two individuals are not the very picture of “dysfunctional leadership” and “unhealthy structures within churches,” to say nothing of predation, delusion and psychosis, well, I have nothing else to offer you.
The idea of “contemporary worship” has degenerated the modern church to the point where it doesn’t even seem like a church anymore. It’s like one big franchised off-Broadway production — “Christianity: The Musical!” I mean that’s fine, I love plays and musicals, but call it what it is.
CP: Offer some thoughts on the Bill Gothard teachings that were so harmful, formulaic prescriptions for life that proved damaging, abusive.
Smith: I developed the following explanation in a text exchange with a mutual friend, and it’s the best answer I can give you:
Recently when I was visiting my folks, I cleared some of my personal belongings out of my dad’s basement and I found some Gothard publications that I had forgotten about. One of the publications literally argues that you must be terrified of God to be successful. Another one argues that dancing is wrong under any circumstances and offers a convoluted rebuttal to every scriptural example of dancing, which strikes me as utter nonsense.
As I was looking through this stuff, the thought occurred to me that “my family is living in the ruins of our previous delusions.” Because that’s what revisiting Gothard’s nonsense is: delusional. It’s all based on the magical thinking that if you can just erase your own humanity enough, you’ll stop caring about your own existence and then anybody anywhere can just have their way with you and you won’t matter. You won’t even react. It’s infuriating beyond all reason.
I’m finally starting to understand the psychology of Gothard’s “educational” materials. They’re built around a really subtle tactic I would describe as “fish-hooking.”
The vast majority of Gothard’s scriptural interpretations are designed to sound reasonable. They’re mostly consistent with the evangelical consensus. I would call these components the “bait.”
But hidden within the “bait” are the “fish hooks”: the specific toxic, psychopathic, esoteric theological anomalies that are unique and critical to Gothard’s agenda:
“Be terrified of God”
“Yield your rights”
“There is no scriptural basis for dancing”
All the crazy stuff by which Gothard demands subservience of your will to his explicit instructions. It’s a form of mass hypnosis — constructed by a man who, as it turns out, was primarily interested in preying on young women and built/propagated a theological culture that stripped potential victims of the ability and even the will to defend themselves.
I’m finally seeing it all for what it really is and it’s unbelievably diabolical. It was deliberate all along.
Gothard drew unto himself a vast pool of carefully prepared and thoroughly conditioned victims who were unable to even understand that they were being taken advantage of and used.
Bill Gothard literally elevated abuse to a science. Hide the crazy behind a carefully constructed wall of inane pabulum and plausible deniability, and when the time comes no one will ever believe that an abuser ever molested anyone.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Brandon Showalter