My text that Sunday morning was Romans 3:9-18, an exploration of human depravity, and I remember my goal was to get the hearts of my hearers “ready” and “needy” for a clear explanation of the gospel, which would come the following Sunday. I prepared well for my message; I was genuinely excited for our congregation and positive that we’d see lives changed as a result. The only problem was that, as I walked on stage to preach, I didn’t believe any of it. Not in God, not in the Gospel, not in the spiritual reality of the church. In a flash I was a stone cold atheist.
For many years I studied the biblical and theological nature of conversion, indeed all of my published academic work (a vast collection of one book and one essay) is in this area of research. I studied Jesus’ preaching of repentance and noted how it was both similar to and different from other Second Temple Jewish preachers; I did a deep dive of Luke’s converts in Luke-Acts carefully highlighting all the common factors in conversion, and then compared that to Paul’s elevated theology of conversion itself in Romans. It always struck me as fascinating that for the first generation of Christians, perhaps the only experience they all had in common was a conversion story. No one grew up Christian. Each person in the movement followed a faith different from what they had been raised to believe. It’s no wonder then that the descriptions of conversion itself in the New Testament are wildly diverse. As I wrapped up by research, my grand conclusion was something along the lines of this: conversion is complicated.
As stories of deconversion make the rounds and pundits speculate, I can’t help but think it must be no less complicated. As a pastor for many years, I’ve seen dozens come to faith, some for good reasons and many more for reasons that are strikingly odd. I’ve also seen faithful Jesus followers slowly fall away, some for good reasons but many more for reasons that strike me as trite and stupid. People who fall away tend to buy high and sell low. Each person had their own reasons for why Jesus made/or didn’t make sense for them and each person seemed to have deeper psychological/sociological forces at play that were underappreciated if acknowledged at all.
As I see hearts shaped for and against Jesus, I’m mostly struck by how “changeable” the human heart really is. The human heart is incredibly vulnerable to the influence of culture, family, friends and neighbors and after conversion it remains susceptible to those same powers. It is no wonder wisdom repeatedly implores its readers to “incline” their hearts and to “keep your heart with all vigilance” (Prov 2:2; 4:23). It’s no wonder that the Weeping Prophet pleads, “return, o faithless sons, I will heal your faithlessness” (Jer 3:22) and “if you return, I will restore you and you shall stand before me” (Jer 15:19). The call to return assumes a heart that can return just as the warning to “keep” your heart assumes a heart that can drift away. In the Gospels, Jesus warned his disciples that the “worries” of this world had power to choke out their faith. Paul’s fear of his own disqualification prevented his heart from becoming spiritually lazy. All of these warnings and beseechings picture a human heart that is shifty and unstable.
Recent stories of deconversion serve as a warning for all Christians of the changeableness of the human heart. It also presents an opportunity. They remind followers of Jesus to engage in intentional continual conversion. In a static culture one’s faith might go more or less unchallenged. However, as dominant cultures and values in the West have changed and become increasingly less tolerant of Christianity, continual mini reconversions are required. Christians must come to terms with how they are to relate to their family and wider community and count the cost of following Jesus afresh.
A pastor’s heart is no less vulnerable to these forces. Indeed, they are in many ways more at risk for what might be seen by others as a sudden falling away. The occupation itself forces pastors to preach through texts and issues in real time as culture shifts and vacillates. Even if there are questions and doubts, students of preaching know full well that constant qualifications, questions and doubts makes for miserable preaching. I was taught to remove question marks from my sermon script and insert exclamation points in their place. Doing this makes for “stronger” preaching but also damages the soul. For some it creates such profound internal dissonance that it makes a spiritual divorce almost inevitable. If there is no room for the continual conversion of pastors then they are especially susceptible to the same dangers as any other Christian.
As I preached Romans 3 that morning, my faith returned mid sermon just as a swimmer comes up for air. That afternoon, I talked with my wife about my experience and we agreed to monitor it. It happened a few more times in different context for the next several months. At the suggestion of a dear friend, I saw a skilled counselor who listened to me and who walked me through my own life story. Through therapy I discovered I wasn’t having a crisis of faith as much as I was experiencing depression. My body was rebelling and giving me extreme anxiety around what I cherished most was its way of getting my attention. My experience, it turns out, was complicated.
Dave Morlan is a co-founder and Teaching Pastor at Fellowship Denver Church in Denver, CO. He holds a PhD in Religion and Theology from Durham University and an adjunct professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Dave is also a member of the St. Anselm Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians.