I was at the end of an ever-fraying rope when I wandered into a southern California church. Sick of who I was, and how I was living, I sat down on a pew and nervously awaited what I hoped would be a divine intervention (I sure as heck needed one). Years of drug and alcohol abuse had left me desperate for a fresh start and a new way to “be.” One hour and fifteen minutes later, I found exactly what I had been looking for (funny how that works). A faithful congregant led me in the “sinners prayer,” gave me a brand new cellophane-wrapped bible, and sent me on my way with the belief that God had created me, sent his son to die for me, and had a wonderful plan for my life.
I ate it up and drank it in. I needed it.
Belief is a powerful thing – and I BELIEVED. I got a job (and actually kept it), gave up drugs and alcohol, and threw myself into service for God with abandon; three times a week church attendance, intensive daily bible study, street evangelism on the beaches of Orange County. Within three months of my conversion I was teaching home bible studies, and within a year or so I was off at bible college: learning how to plant churches and teach the scriptures verse-by-verse. A zealot was born.
When I think back to those early days of my conversion I think about cassette tapes. Remember those? During the first couple years I had them (almost literally) coming out my ears. I devoured hundreds of hours of bible-teaching taught by ardent proponents of the scripture’s inerrancy. Good and sincere men provided me with reason after reason after reason to KNOW that the Bible is a divinely inspired book. Their chief argument? Fulfilled prophecy proves that God exists, is outside of time, and that his word can be trusted. And so I trusted. Big time.
Side Note: For me, my faith was never as much about feelings as it was about facts. But that is not to say that I didn’t have feelings. I LOVED Jesus with all my heart. I had intense feelings for and about God. He who is forgiven much loves much. I had been forgiven a ton and I therefore loved him so very much. In my mind, Jesus had given me life, true life, and every good thing I had ever experienced was from him. I reveled in the immeasurable grace that had washed me clean and given me access to Heaven and a relationship (not a religion!) with God.
Ok, back to my story…
But, despite my intense passion (feelings) for God and His Son, I knew (and still do) that feelings are very subjective. And that if we, as Christians, are going to be able to say to Muslims and Hindus, and Buddhists (and atheists) that WE have the true faith, well… we need some facts! And so passages like Genesis 22, Genesis 37, Genesis 49, 1 Samuel 7, Psalms 22, 110 and 118, Isaiah 53, Jeremiah 31, Daniel 9 (oh! Daniel 9!), Matthew 24, and Revelation 13 – (and many more) gave me undeniable “proof”(facts!) that the God of the Universe had indeed delivered a reliable and trustworthy message. And so, with these faith-building facts in hand, my new bride and I moved halfway across the country to plant our first church.
Calvary Chapel of St. Joseph, MO started in my basement. We had a full band (the drums had to be setup in the laundry room), a “kid’s ministry” (which took place upstairs in the living room), an impassioned young bible teacher (yours truly), and a God given mandate to change the city and make disciples. After just a few short months we were able to secure a 110-year-old brick behemoth of a church building (stained glass and all) in the downtown section of the city. We plugged in the guitars, set up the drums, and I preached my newly converted heart out (I’d been a believer for less than 3 years at this point) and waited for the pews to fill. And slowly they did.
Eight years later we were a church of 400+ adults running two services on Sunday morning, one on Sunday night, and a mid-week on Wednesday. We had purchased an adjacent parking lot, a small office building, and two houses across the street for children’s and youth ministry. And somewhere along the way (insert guilty sigh) I became yet another voice of theological certainty (yes, also recorded on cassette tapes) regurgitating and parroting the same set of “undeniable biblical proofs” that had been preached to me by respectable men with impressive ministries. And I took my place in the cycle of convinced but misinformed people creating others who are convinced but misinformed, creating others who are convinced but misinformed. Ugh. I began to, unknowingly and without any conscious deceit, do unto others what had been done unto me.
After eight years at that first church I grew tired of Midwest weather (I am a southern Californian through and through) and I moved my wife and (at that time) two kids to the Philippines where I had taken a position teaching at a Bible college. And (yup, you guessed it) the cycle continued… The students listened to me the way I had listened to my instructors/pastors and absorbed my teaching as if I were an expert on history, ancient languages, archeology, and evolutionary biology. Why would they not believe me? I was a pastor after all. I had a successful ministry, I was a decent and sincere guy, and (and this is important) I knew more than they did. Who were they to question? And my students in SE Asia were no different than I was in Bible college, no different than the people back at my church in St. Joseph, no different (in my opinion) than the vast majority of people who fill the pews every Sunday in churches across the world—we believe because we want to believe, and we strengthen our belief by setting ourselves before people we respect and absorbing their teachings as (pun intended) gospel truth. After all, how can good men with good intentions (and the Good Book!) be wrong?
But, over the course of the next ten years, I slowly came to the realization that I was wrong – that my teachers and pastors, all those voices on the cassette tapes, were themselves very wrong. Not evil, not dumb, not charlatans – just… blinded by good intentions and wishful thinking, ignorant and misinformed. Just like me.
So how does a faithful pastor come to the place of losing his faith? I describe it in these terms… Imagine two folders in your brain. One folder contains all the things that that strengthen faith (remember that long list of scriptures I shared earlier?) and the other folder contains all the things about God that we don’t understand (God-mandated-genocide, Torah endorsed slavery, Heaven’s command to kill babies, eternal conscious torment, etc.). For me, and for years, the folder that contained faith-strengthening evidences was far larger than the folder containing faith-depleting evidences. And so I continued on because, “Who am I to question God? A God who can be fully understood is not a God worthy of worship! God is mysterious! His ways are not our ways!” (so on and so forth). But then, one by one, without me even really being aware of it, things in the first folder were making their way into the second folder. Faith-building passages were becoming faith-depleting passages. The folders were tearing.
And so, ten years into my second church plant (The Edge), on the morning of November 12, 2012, I woke up to spend some quiet time with God and his word. And, as I read the passage about Jesus casting a multitude of demons into a herd of swine, it hit me (based on what I knew about the evolution of demonology in the intertestamental period)… this is ridiculous. And poof, just like that, I realized there was nothing, not one thing, left in my “faith folder.” Please understand and hear me; I was not “in sin,” I was not looking at porn, or embezzling money, or sleeping with anyone’s wife – I was a born-again believer who loved Jesus and His church and was desperately trying to be the very best Bible teacher and pastor I could be. I did not lose (or abandon) my faith because I wanted to justify an unholy lifestyle. I lost my faith in the course of doing my job as a pastor. I lost my faith by studying the Bible.
“What the heck am I going to do!?” That was the question reverberating in my now faithless brain. What does one do when they are the founding and teaching pastor at a church of 500 adults with 2 locations and a large mortgage and they no longer believe in the book they are paid to teach? What does a man in his mid-forties do when his only marketable skills and means of financially supporting his family are tied up in preaching faith in a God in whom he no longer has faith? Do I tell people the conclusions I have come to, quit, and hurt hundreds of good people? Do I, in the name of integrity, leave my job and put my family (by now I have 4 kids) in financial peril? I felt stuck. Unbelievably stuck. It was a daunting and complicated puzzle that I could not seem to solve. And so I pressed on.
For a little more than twenty-four months I did my job to the best of my ability. While I was no longer a believer in orthodox Christianity, I knew what orthodoxy was – and so I gave the people what they wanted to hear (I also threw in a good amount of practical wisdom and life advice just so I could live with myself and feel like I was doing something worthwhile). Most of the time I was content to keep things going as they were (thinking it was best for all parties involved). But there were many days of deep and great misery where I felt (rightly so) that I was a liar and a fake. I searched for a way to extricate myself, my family, and my church, from this unsustainable (and, let’s face it, ridiculous) situation in a way that did not cause great pain to beautiful people. But I could not find one. Perhaps a better man could have. I could not. And so, tired of being a pretender, worried that my children would never truly know me, weary of letting “fear” of ruin be the guiding factor in my life… I just quit. Because I could not see a scenario where drawing things out and making a slow departure caused even one less tear to fall… out of nowhere, without grace or elegance or warning – I just quit. I walked away from it all. I ripped off the band-aide. And I’m happy I did.
These days I sell cyber-security to mid-sized enterprises and live in a rented house with my new bride, Michelle (the love of my life). Together we have seven children. I am at peace and happy.
To the Christians reading this and feeling anger towards me…
I didn’t go into the ministry, leave my family in CA, move to NW Missouri, and limp along financially for two decades for any other reason than that I was head-over-heels in love with Jesus. I was a true believer that happened to, through no fault of my own, get a glimpse behind the curtain and see that there is no wizard after all. I did not “abandon” my faith because I was not looking for a way to justify a desire for a sinful lifestyle (even as an unbeliever, for two years, I lived as a squeaky clean choirboy) I did not suffer “burnout” or get angry with “the Lord” because I have a handicapped daughter. It may make you feel better to think so, but it’s not true. I was just doing my job, studying the Bible, asking questions, and seeking answers. If it makes you uncomfortable that a devout and passionate pastor can come to the place where he no longer believes in the God of the Bible – so be it. Be uncomfortable. Be bothered. You really should be (we all should be). But, please, resist the urge to make me a villain. If you are angry that someone stood in the pulpit and told you things that aren’t true. I hear you. I know your pain. The same exact thing happened to me.
Updated May 28, 2016