This week, several people shared John Cooper’s impassioned plea about Christian “leaders or influencers who were once ‘faces’ of the faith falling away,” most publicly, Josh Harris and Marty Sampson. First, let me say that in most respects, I agree with him, particularly with regard to his perspective on Christian celebrity. I have had a deep respect for Cooper’s witness and the music of Skillet for many years.
I wrestled with writing anything, but there is more that needs to be said.
First, I want to offer a few thoughts about what Cooper wrote. He is shocked that some of these “outspoken leaders” have been vocal about their departure and their seeming desire for ongoing influence. Unlike Cooper, I don’t find it surprising. For decades, these people have been in the public spotlight and have had a substantial impact upon others. Why would now be any different? If they believe they have been living a lie and if they no longer want to deceive people, it follows that the most courageous thing they can do is to say they were wrong (please don’t take this as my agreeing with them that Christianity is false). He wonders why these people who have been saying one thing for so long and now have reversed course are not “embarrassed, humbled, ashamed, fearful, and confused?” Playing the devil’s advocate, I would want to ask then why would those who have left atheism and accepted Christ, for example, not be expected to feel those same things at boldly professing Christ? Should they not also be embarrassed by that logic? In our search for truth, we proclaim what we believe to be true. Some people happen to be more vocal than others.
Cooper also suggested that “being real” is cavalier, not courageous. I disagree. I would argue that one of the greatest problems in 21st century Christianity is our failure to be real, though perhaps this is nothing new. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve hid. We are still hiding. I would rather engage an honest struggler than a self-righteous pretender. It is true, however, that social media may not be the ideal medium for the message.
Finally, in general, I agree with Cooper’s observation that it seems ironic to reject Christ, but then uphold his teachings as the way to live. It is in the person of Christ that we see what humanity can be and we are called into his way of life by the power of the Spirit, living with love, kindness, humility, and compassion. When we study the life of Jesus, we see what true love and other-centeredness look like. Cooper is right to say that we need to value the word of God, but we need to come to it with humility and a willingness to have our preconceptions confronted, which brings me to my greatest concern.
I suspect that in our generation, it is not Christian celebrities honestly wrestling with faith that is causing people to jettison their faith, but the blatant hypocrisy in western evangelical Christianity. We grew up hearing about how God loves people so much that he sent his Son to die on the cross. We were told that following Christ would transform us into better people; our Christian leaders were living proof. Many of us tried to dutifully follow along, hiding our brokenness and sin, while pretending we were doing better than we really were. We believed leaders like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson when they said that morality was important and that following Jesus, individually and culturally, was the way to get there.
Then 2016 came along and, unbelievably, Donald Trump was not only running for president, he was succeeding. Early on, many evangelicals were critical of Trump, but as his numbers improved, many evangelical leaders began to change their tone. Trump, a man known for crude talk, name calling, sexual immorality, and self-promotion, claimed that he would uphold traditionally conservative values. The evangelical leaders who in previous decades had been unafraid to speak out against immorality, were now justifying or side-stepping Trump’s behavior. Dobson called Trump a “baby Christian,” despite the fact that Trump, when asked about his faith, stated he had never asked God for forgiveness. When we asked sincere questions about Trump’s disgusting comments about women, his alleged affairs, or his name-calling, these leaders brushed our concerns aside and we were told “hey, we aren’t electing a pastor in chief.” In our confusion, we didn’t know how to reconcile their disregard for Trump’s ongoing immorality with their insistence that morality was necessary for running a country just a generation before. Many of us sat with our mouths agape in the days after the 2016 election when we learned that fully 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump wondering what then it meant to be “evangelical.”
Additionally, a perhaps unanticipated effect of Trump’s election was the surge of the #metoo movement. More and more women and men found the courage to speak out against those who had harmed and violated them, using their voices to reveal the hurts and abuses they had suffered. The #metoo movement made way for the #churchtoo movement, where church abuses came to light. Again and again, high profile church leaders were accused of sexual misconduct, over-control, and spiritual abuse. Too often, these accusations were swept under the rug or dealt with “in house” in order to avoid casting “successful” ministries or ministry leaders in a negative light.
So, as I read Cooper’s words, I absolutely share his concern about Christian celebrity and failing to give due credence to God’s word. I think a lot of us who feel disenchanted with evangelicalism share his concerns. In fact, these same concerns have caused a lot of us to go back to the Bible and ask, with raw honesty, what does this book actually teach? When many of those who have instructed us in the past have sacrificed integrity for political expediency, control, or abuse, it is unsurprising that the foundations of our faith are shaken. Some who had been doing their best to follow Jesus saw what is happening and gave it all up, but for some of us, our disillusionment has spurred us to dig deeper, trying to set aside our preconceptions so that we can learn afresh what Jesus really valued.
I am grateful for John Cooper’s words. I am grateful for his call to getting into the Word and modeling our lives accordingly. But don’t be afraid to be real and don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. I believe that as you press in, you will find Jesus at the end of them.