Thoughts on Deconversion Stories From Someone Who Never Wanted to Become a Christian

“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Romans 9:13

by John Ellis

Over the last few years, the phenomenon of deconversion stories from once celebrity “Christians” has swept the social imaginary of conservative evangelicals. And it’s not just celebrity “Christians” who have embraced rebellion. Few evangelicals have been spared from watching family and close friends walk away from the faith they once claimed. Much handwringing, finger wagging, and long form deconstructions of the deconversions have all ensued. To be clear and to make sure that I’m not perceived as treating too blithely the heart wrenching angst and worry endured by those who have had a family member or close friend reject their Creator, the rebellion of any image bearer is tragic. It is right to weep over the sword of Christ’s judgment that looms over the heads of those seeking to make their own salvation. And it is our duty before God to diligently pray for their salvation. My concern with this article is to tackle the seeming belief that we (as in, conservative evangelicals and our churches) could’ve done something to halt the growing tide of the group tagged the dechurched. If that belief is true, then we can find a game plan to reverse the course and ensure the soteriological safety of our family and friends (and ostensibly ourselves, I guess). On one hand, while I believe it is good and right to seek to be better witnesses to the Resurrection, I also believe that much of the angst and energies poured into the deconstructions of deconversions and the subsequent calls-to-action are reflective of the reality that we do not truly understand our place in God’s Story.

My story’s arc in God’s larger Story finds me in the unusual position of having both a deconversion story and a “re”conversion story. I rejected the faith of my family only to submit to Jesus through repentance of my sins and faith in his life, death, and resurrection as the curtain fell on my twenties. Those who have read my memoir are probably confusedly pointing out that I never had a faithful conversion story during my childhood, to begin with. Does the label deconverted really apply to the late-teen and young adult John Ellis? Legitimacy attaches itself to that question, for sure, but so does my thesis.

While it’s true that an honest appraisal of my life includes the recognition that I never believed until July 4, 2004, twenty-nine years after my entrance onto the world’s stage, almost everyone around me believed otherwise about me at the time. It had been assumed that I had been a Christian until I was in my twenties. And while I may have cognitively walked away much sooner than most “dechurched” do (and sooner than my family and friends knew), I still walked away. I entered adulthood counted among the dechurched[1]. And my mom’s hurt and worry over her “wayward” son is mirrored in the hurt and worry of those who are currently grieving over deconverted family and friends. Before moving forward into the current conservative evangelical malaise, I’m going to briefly comment on my story, providing an anecdotal baseline that I believe is theologically sound.

Almost a decade ago, on the first iteration of my blog, I wrote a post titled something like “I Was Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into the Kingdom of God.” The title reflects that I hated God until the moment I didn’t; I had less than zero desire to submit to Christ until the very moment I surrendered. I did not want to become a Christian – did not, at all. Yet, here I am, a follower of Jesus, by God’s grace. And that’s the key – by God’s grace. Thankfully, God didn’t care what I wanted.

That’s a hard truth that many, if not most, professing Christians recoil at. It would be no less hard even if I had been a searcher for Truth coming out of a clearly pagan background and upbringing. It would be no less hard of a truth if I had been a slightly-churched American kid who had submitted through repentance and faith to Jesus after hearing the gospel at VBS. Regardless of where we end up or how our story’s arc looks, the starting position for all humans is the same: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one [emphasis added] (Romans 3:11-12).” No one seeks for God. No one. No one. No one. That means you. That means me. That means your child. That means your parents. That means your siblings. That means your friends. That means your favorite pastor or theologian. That means Martin Luther. That means Erasmus. That means John Calvin. That means Jacobus Arminius. That means Jacob. That means Esau. No one.

God is sovereign or He is not. Pick one[2]. And while considering, plead with God for the killing of your anthropological idols that elevate yourself to the role of assistant director in the story of your life. Our – as in, all of us – need to have our desire changed. Something that we cannot initiate. Our fundamental condition is rebellion. No one seeks for God. No one. No one. No one. Your discomfort with that ringing condemnation is not taken into consideration by the Creator of the universe. Sorry, but you’ll find no divine affirmation of your existential desire to push back on that no one. All of this means that when I write, “here I am, a follower of Jesus, by God’s grace,” the sole emphasis is on God’s grace. I had nothing to do with it. Didn’t want it, in fact. And if you claim that you wanted it, that desire came from God, not from you. If you sought God, that’s because God first loved you and His Spirit gave you the desire to seek Truth. To argue differently is to contradict Romans 3 (and Psalm 14 and 53).

Sociologically (and existentially) I should be dechurched. Growing up, I saw it all – the hypocrisy, the theological inconstancies, and the self-serving nature that oft characterized the Christian communities in which I existed. I heard Jesus’ example of loving and pursuing sinners touted while watching sinners get “cancelled” at my church and Christian school. I observed firsthand, and without question, how the adults in my church placed their hope in America and not in the God they claimed to believe and serve[3]. I had a front row seat to the pharisaical idolization of man-made rules. I was surrounded by racism. Pick a flaw or sin of the evangelical church in America, and I was probably acutely aware of its existence in my Christian communities. And, yet, here I am, a follower of Jesus, by God’s grace.

It’s tempting, though, to ask, what happened? What are some key takeaways from John’s life that we can implement into our personal evangelism efforts and/or our church life and programs? Likewise, what are some of the mistakes made in John’s life that served as roadblocks that helped delay his coming to faith? Roadblocks that if we know about, we can avoid. Give us a game plan, John. The game plan – by God’s grace, to be sure – that brought you to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Over the years, I’ve fielded similar questions, mostly from Christian parents with adult children who are openly rebelling against God. And, most often, I’m happy to engage. There are appropriate motives for asking those and similar questions. And those motives, when God honoring, stem from the same primary tautological motive – to honor and glorify God. So, when it comes to personal conversations with grieving parents (or siblings and friends), I am happy to share how God used in my heart the faithfulness of my parents and other authority figures to share the gospel with me. I am happy to recount the acts of love that became increasingly difficult goads and pricks to kick against. I am happy to share with grieving mothers how God answered the prayers of my mom.

It is good and right, and God honoring, to desire to be faithful witnesses to the Resurrection. It is good and right, and God honoring, to seek to better live out and speak the glorious, life-giving truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theologically correct for Believers to feel deep angst at the lostness of our loved ones. The problem comes when we steer into a protestant work ethic approach to “making disciples.” We’re too often results oriented.

Many of the articles, blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, and conversations I’ve read, heard, watched, and had about the dechurched phenomenon reveals both a misdiagnosis of the problem as well as an anthropocentric emphasis on the solution.

The problem, of course, is that we are all born in rebellion. Hypocrisy doesn’t create rebellion. Dry, un-holistic sermons with an overemphasis on propositional truth do not create rebellion. Failing to adequately empathize with our hurting neighbors does not create rebellion. Systemic injustice in society does not create rebellion.[4] Those are all products of rebellion that already exists.

The Bible is very clear on what the problem is. And the Bible is also very clear on the solution to that problem. Our job, both individually and corporately, is to strive, by God’s grace and for His glory, to be faithful witnesses to the Resurrection. It is the sole purview of the Holy Spirit to apply our witness to whom and how He chooses. And we know from the counsel of God’s Word that there will be many times when the most faithful, God-honoring Christians and churches will tragically watch loved ones arrogantly march into their eternal destruction. Jesus meant something when he said, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! … Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:49-53).”

Deconversions and the overall dechurched phenomenon shouldn’t surprise us. It’s not a mystery. When confronted with it, faithful followers of Jesus should respond with a sad, “well, duh.” We should then prayerfully engage in the business of making disciples for God’s glory and with the understanding that the results are completely out of our hand. In contrast to this, much of the scurrying, handwringing, overwrought navel-gazing over this “new” problem reflects the belief that we can fix it. Tinker with our church programs. Shore up our preaching. More mercy ministries. Better understandings of contemporary concerns. More love, less judgment. Whatever. Just something different because what we’ve been doing no longer works.

But here’s the thing, what if deconversions and the dechurched phenomenon is actually a blessing?

Again, the eternal destruction of lost souls is tragic and should be mourned, but the purity of Christ’s Church is important. Some (much) of this touches on a larger project I’m writing – you can read the Introduction here and Chapter One here.[5]

One of the greatest mistakes the early Church made was allowing Constantine to marry Her to cultural/societal power. One of the greatest mistakes of the Reformation was their failure to initiate the divorce. I’m currently reading Salvation At Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. Although a Roman Catholic, Notre Dame history professor Brad S. Gregory wrote his award-winning book primarily as a professional historian and not primarily as a Christian. To that end, Salvation At Stake is not polemical, in either direction, but a fair, even-handed historical (and sociological) look at its subject matter. Among other things, one of my takeaways is how tragic the Reformation’s sinfully anthropocentric response to heretics was. Growing up a Protestant, one hears much about the martyrs for the faith at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. However, one hears much less frequently – if at all – about the scores of Catholics and Anabaptists tortured and murdered (executed) at the hands of our great Reformation heroes. The back-and-forth slaughter of those holding competing theologies was rooted in the belief that cultural power is the Church’s birthright (again, please read my longer series for further explication of this) and that Christ followers are called to defend the Kingdom with the sword. It’s as if Jesus never told us that the world would hate us. It’s as if Jesus never told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting (John 18:36).” It’s as if Peter was never divinely inspired to write, “if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example, so that you might follow in his steps (I Peter 2:20b-21).”

If the Church (or churches within a temporal nation) possess governmental power, Jesus is a liar; Peter is a liar.[6] But, as we know, Jesus is not a liar and Peter did not lie when writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And this is why deconversion stories are seemingly cascading on us and the dechurched are now enough of a phenomenon to justify books, conferences, etc. – it’s a natural consequence of the blessed removal of power from the Church in America. The visible Church and the invisible Church are becoming more and more aligned. And this is something we should praise God for and not puzzle over.

As the cultural/societal cache that comes with being a Christian continues to lessen (and it’s doing so at an increasing clip, thankfully), there will be less anthropocentric reasons to identify as a Christian. In fact, the inverse is true: the cultural/societal cost of claiming the name of Christ is steepening (thankfully). So, of course, and what should be obvious, more and more of those who were raised in ostensibly Christian homes will “deconvert.” Why shouldn’t they?

Deconversions and the growing dechurched phenomenon shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise. Nor is it a cause for dismay (apart from the personal anguish over lost loved ones). Instead, it’s a cause for rejoicing and giving thanks to God. What our forefathers failed to do and what we are largely unwilling to do, too, the Holy Spirit is doing – Christ’s Church is being purified as the Holy Spirit removes the illegitimate power that professing Christians have clung to and worshiped for too long.[7]

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] That may be anachronistic. I don’t know if religious sociologists were using that term in the late 90s. Whether the term was used or not, my point stands.

[2] And don’t give me Molinism. Molinism is the philosophical/theological equivalent of jumping onto a bicycle after the seat’s been removed. It accomplishes nothing that was intended, unless, of course, you’re a masochist.

[3] After Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait during the summer of 1990, I concluded that my parents, youth pastor, parents of my friends, and basically every adult in my life didn’t actually believe in Jesus. They kept saying that the current events portended the rapture. Yet, every single one of them were openly scared and openly rooted for the American government and military to intervene in a way that would put a stop to what was believed to be the penultimate event before the rapture. I concluded (and not incorrectly) that if they actually believed in Jesus, their responses would be vastly different.

[4] And lest anyone is tempted to accuse me of things I do not believe, poke around this blog a bit. You’ll find some articles explaining my views on systemic racism, white privilege, etc.

[5] For those waiting for chapter 2, I promise that I am working on it. My laptop had a prolonged visit with the Geek Squad. Nothing serious, thankfully, but the chip shortage has created a gut of customers for the Geek Squad. Those who would normally just buy a new computer look at the low supply and high cost of a new computer and choose to get their old one fixed instead. My point – my laptop is now back (obviously), and I am able to write again. While continuing to work on chapter 2 (and other chapters), I needed to get this article off my chest.

[6] I originally wrote “cultural power,” but I changed it with the understanding that Christ’s Church can exercise cultural power even in the face of persecution … I think. Let’s be honest, though, the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth by conservative evangelicals in America isn’t over the loss of influencing our neighbors for good but over the loss of the kind of power that gives us access to our nation’s hall(s) of power.

[7] All of this raises a related question, one that, again, I deal with in the larger project I’m writing – what about those white evangelical churches that are desperately clinging to power? Well, in short, they’re in danger of revealing that they were never part of Christ’s Kingdom, to begin with. It’s a different type of deconversion, but a deconversion, nonetheless.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s