As Christians in the West, we know we live in a secular age. Simply acknowledging that fact, however, doesn’t prepare you for when your friends or family members leave the church or abandon the faith.

Laura Turner’s recent article “Sixteen and Evangelical” summarizes almost exactly what my life looked like at 16. She describes her close group of friends whose relationships were knit by evangelical youth-group culture and how their “youthful zeal” seemed almost uncompromisable. Until, of course, age rendered such zeal incompatible with reality.

Why is this such a common story? Why does the youthful zeal of so many churched kids transition, over time, to the jaded cynicism of the de-churched? Much ink has been spilt diagnosing the reasons for these sorts of “de-conversion” paths. In this article I want to simply highlight one common denominator I’ve noticed between the friends who have stayed in the church and those who have left.

Stigma of Dogma

The common denominator concerns one’s knowledge and relationship to the doctrines of the church. Nearly all my friends who were naturally interested in doctrine remain faithful members in churches to this day. Those who were not have “moved on” from Christianity, as if it were an intermediary step on their greater “spiritual journey.” 

The “spiritual journey” narrative so common among the de-converted is indicative of what was prioritized in their (and so many of our) church experiences. Formal doctrine was held in less esteem than authentic spiritual experience. Doctrine was impractical; community life was practical. Theology was for the intellectuals in the church, but the average member just needed to be loved. Doctrine was less essential for the youth than the need to attend a purity conference. In short, the church was largely a pragmatic, life-enhancing place to encourage individuals on their own “spiritual journeys.” 

This low view of doctrine and high view of personal spirituality is often the first step for those at the precipice of de-converting. They begin to frame the church and its teachings merely as products of a distant time and culture, irrelevant to one’s personal spiritual experiences. At best, such teachings help some express their faith (mostly people in the past); at worst, they are man-made rules and tools of manipulation and oppression. 

A low view of doctrine and high view of personal spirituality is often the first step for those at the precipice of de-converting.

A prime example of such a mentality is the 19th-century Protestant liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, who said:

[Christianity] is not a question of a “doctrine” being handed down by uniform repetition or arbitrarily distorted; it is a question of a life, again and again kindled afresh, and now burning with a flame of its own. We may also add that Christ himself and the apostles were convinced that the religion which they were planting would in the ages to come have a greater destiny and a deeper meaning than it possessed at the time of its institution.

For Harnack, and for others who find this train of thought appealing, doctrines are likened to the “husk” of religion—free to be discarded as they grow outdated. In this view, the goal of religion shouldn’t be confessing a particular doctrine and interpretation of Scripture, for to identify and argue about such things is invariably divisive. Instead, we should simply find the “kernel” of religion, its essence, the spirit behind it all. 

Doctrine Should Define Your Journey

Part of this view is rather appealing, since arguments over doctrinal minutiae can be exhausting. And can American evangelicalism be blamed for wanting to break free from some of the baggage of church history and its uses of doctrine? The reputation of doctrinally focused churches being cold and unwelcoming is in some cases deserved, and many doctrinally focused churches in history were complicit in societal evils like slavery. But should the baby be thrown out with the bathwater?

The Christian life is more than knowing the right things about Christ, but it’s not less. Scripture is clear that Christianity is not merely about believing the right things; it’s also about placing faith in and following the right person (Rom. 10:5–13). But to follow him we must know whose image we’re being conformed to (Rom. 8:29). Our “spiritual journey” will be a directionless wander unless we have a deep and abiding knowledge of whom we are journeying toward, and why. 

Without the definition of doctrine, the guardrails of catechesis, and the accountability of a church community, one’s “spiritual journey” too easily veers into a subjective, fit-to-me thing where the focus is less on truth than on preference (what parts I like) and pragmatism (how it works for me). Only a Christian whose faith is built on the sturdy scaffolding of doctrine and church-based catechesis—rather than the shifting sands of subjectivism and pragmatism—will be able to withstand the tough questions and corrosive winds of secularism that increasingly define our age.

The Christian life is more than knowing the right things about Christ, but it’s not less.

Recasting Orthodoxy

The phrase “spiritual journey” assumes a kind of individuality: we are not in a transcendent story so much as we have (and star in) our own. By contrast, God’s people throughout Scripture didn’t see themselves only as individuals participating in a faith community. Their “spiritual journey” was the exodus—a departure en masse—and their individual stories were seen in the context of that community God was redeeming.

If the church is to not only retain its members but also disciple them in everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20), we must invite our members outside of their individual “spiritual journeys” and into the thrilling story of orthodoxy, where God is recreating and consecrating an entire people. We must show, in our teaching and worship and discipleship, how this bigger story is more beautiful and compelling than our individual subplots. Jake Meador says it well: “Any response to our moment that focuses more on the individual story of lost faith and less on a fairly dramatic shift in our approach to liturgy, catechesis, and repentance will be inadequate to the demands of the day.” 

To scrutinize and focus on an individual’s de-conversion story—only to ask “what happened to them?”—is to isolate their story from the community they are leaving. Our strategy must not be to dilute our doctrine or distill it to what’s culturally acceptable, nor should it be to downplay the importance of story. Rather, our strategy must be to recast the beauty of orthodoxy and catechesis—not just as concepts to be believed, but as truth to be lived, from one century to the next, by the storied people of God.