Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
— John 20:29
I read this week of yet another fairly prominent Christian celebrity announcing his personal de-conversion. “After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band, and having the word ‘Christian’ in front of most of the things in my life,” says Jon Steingard, lead singer of the CCM group Hawk Nelson, “I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.”
I don’t know anything about Steingard other than what he just published about his spiritual state. I suppose I take at face value his claims that his faith, such as it was, could not withstand the weight of his intellectual questions. Unlike many others, however, I don’t feel the need to rush in and autopsy the situation. Any time one who was raised in the church and who professed the faith rejects it, it is a tragedy worthy of serious contemplation and prayer. What we ought to be careful about is the knee-jerk grab for easy answers.
I have seen in social media analysis of this announcement criticism of Steingard’s upbringing, the quality of discipleship he received, and so on. I don’t know how anybody who doesn’t know the man, his family, or the churches of his raising—which apparently his father pastored—can make such claims.
Now, you’re not gonna catch me arguing there’s nothing wrong with the state of evangelical discipleship! I’ve spent the last ten years of my ministry arguing that in fact the discipleship track record of the dominant mode of American evangelicalism is in a way set up to produce this very outcome. So generally speaking, yes, the way Americans “do church” is not great at training converts to plant deep spiritual roots, orient their lives around the gospel, commit to a Christian community, and affirm the sufficiency of God’s Word. This indictment works on a cultural level, and as such, it certainly applies to many individuals. But if you’ve been in ministry long enough—heck, if you’ve been a Christian long enough—you’ve no doubt seen those who have truly “tasted of the heavenly gift” and yet fallen away. Easy answers about discipleship don’t always fit.
We like easy explanations. Guy de-converts? He obviously didn’t have a good preacher. Gal rejects the faith? She obviously didn’t get deep discipleship.
Except sometimes they do.
We assign logical explanations to these otherwise inexplicable outcomes because we are pragmatists at heart. We like to think that if you just push the right spiritual buttons, you will get a good spiritual result. When we evangelize someone who rejects the free offer of the gospel, we sometimes trouble ourselves thinking we didn’t have the right presentation, the best apologetic answers, and so on. And sometimes we do get in our own way. But the realness of the Spirit resists such rationale. I have seen parents who love Jesus and the church and raised their children “doing everything right” still watch a kid (or two or three) walk away from the faith. Nobody’s perfect, of course, but we likely all know parents (and churches) who did their darndest to “train up a child in the way he should go” only to see them go far from it.
And on the other hand, we likely all know some unlikely converts—those raised in difficult, awful, even abusive environments, or simply environments where they were “discipled” not to care about the things of God—come to unlikely and astounding life by the power of the gospel.
I don’t know Jon Steingard’s story. He says he’s open to experiencing a revelation from God that changes his mind (back?). I hope that’s true, and the Lord answers his prayer. But remember, if someone doesn’t believe in the Scriptures, even a miracle won’t convince them (Luke 16:31). Steingard posits some weak intellectual objections common among those who think superficially about the truth claims of Christian theism. So maybe he wasn’t discipled well. Or maybe he was, and he just doesn’t believe. Sometimes people just don’t believe. Their heart is stone. A veil lies over their eyes.
This is a difficult thing to consider, partly because it defies easy answers for why people reject the faith and reflects spiritual factors you and I can’t control, and yet it’s still a biblical truth (1 John 2:19). But as hard as this truth is to accept, it does come with a wondrous blessing. Because the Lord ultimately controls who is wakened to belief and who isn’t, it means there is no heart too hard, no soul too dead for the life-giving power of the Spirit. The Lord will have his own, and none of them shall be lost.