Losing My Faith in Progressive Christianity: From Emotionalism to Cynicism (Part 5)
*Editor’s Note: This is Part 5 in a series on leaving progressive Christianity by Dave Stovall, worship leader and former lead singer of Wavorly and band member of Audio Adrenaline. He describes how his journey into progressive Christianity left him dissatisfied and how he found the road to a more sustainable, faithful faith. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4.
The youth minister finishes up his 15-minute sermon and then pauses for dramatic effect after closing his Bible. He swallows and slowly raises his eyes from the floor to look at his youth group and takes a deep breath. “Kids, I just wanna tell you—and I ain’t tryna scare you, I’m just saying it like it is…You could die tomorrow. Shoot, you could die on the way home from church to-NIGHT!” He pauses and then relieves the heavy silence by saying, “Where’re you gonna spend eternity — in heaven with Jesus… or forever in hell with the worms that never die?” And with an almost imperceptible head nod, he cues what my bandmates and I have since nicknamed “The Holy Ghost Fog Machine,” and we know that’s also our cue to play a song which will be dramatic enough to make the kids feel just guilty enough to make a decision for Christ.
I want you to know I have written, scrapped, and rewritten this article 4 times now. I don’t know how to say it. I’m not sure I want to say it, but I am convinced it needs to be written. I started writing my story under a compulsion that God wants me to share it, not to try to elevate myself somehow or bring anyone else down.
“Just my reflections–some good, some bad–and from my perspective only.”
Yet, just as I’ve been unflatteringly honest about myself throughout this series, part of my story involves some sober reflections about the music industry that has played such a prominent role in my life. The Contemporary Christian Music industry, or what I will refer to as CCM for the rest of this article, played a major part in my story, and so I have to include it here. But I’m not trying to make this any kind of sensational exposé of the industry. Just my reflections—some good, some bad—and from my perspective only. Sound fair? Okay, let’s proceed.
Discovering Christian Rock
From as early as the age of five, I can remember wanting to be an entertainer. Back then, I was listening to MJ’s Thriller and Off the Wall albums. So when my Sunday school teachers would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, “I’m going to be a singer and dancer.” Then they would reply something like, “That’s nice, little David. Maybe that’s what God will have for you. We’ll see!” That statement turned into, “That’s nice, but…have a backup plan,” as I grew older.
“When I was fifteen, my world was rocked.”
When I was fifteen, my world was rocked. I had been listening to Stryper (“To Hell with the Devil”) and a little hip-hop Christian group called dc Talk. I can actually remember exactly where I was when their album Jesus Freak came out. We were driving away from the Barnes Crossing Mall in Tupelo, MS and I popped this new thing called a Compact Disc into my black/blue Sony Discman and my ears came alive to the sound of Toby Mac whispering “I got something for ya, maaaan.” I paused after the Jesus Freak track and looked at my mom and said, “Mom…I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be listening this; it sounds…secular.” We listened to Christian music only in our family….well, plus a little Michael Jackson…and Chicago…and Hall and Oates. So, this Christian grunge music was new and it sort of (Jesus) freaked me out.
My parents did the right thing that all totally awesome musician parents do: they bought tickets to the next dc Talk show in Nashville, TN. The opening act was a little rock’n roll band called Audio Adrenaline (wink).
“I wanted to rock…for the Rock.”
Up until that point I already knew I wanted to be an entertainer, but after Will McGuiness head-banged that bleach-blond hair of his while ripping up sick bass lines for an hour and Toby Mac dove off the high speakers into the crowd, I had a new direction for my calling: I wanted to rock…for the Rock. I no longer wanted to have my mom hem my slacks high enough to show off my sequin socks that matched my one glove; I wanted to jam for the Lamb and rock skulls for the One who died at Skull Rock (okay, okay; I’ll stop). I wanted my gift to be used by God to spread the Good News across the whole planet.
In my late teen years, I started recording music on a digital recording machine with a 1” by 6” screen (before Macbooks came out and made it easy to sound good). Then in college I started my first band. Although we met some great people, my bandmates and I realized pretty quickly that not everyone in the Christian music industry handled their business in a Christ-like manner. (In fact, there have been some occasions where the CCM world has actually been more cut-throat than the mainstream/secular music world!)
Although we met some great people, my bandmates and I realized pretty quickly that not everyone in the Christian music industry handled their business in a Christ-like manner.
Right off the bat, we got some shows with a pretty big Christian band, and we were so pumped. Then we saw how big of douchebags these band members were to the sound teams at several churches where we played with them. We cringed as the singer, during a show right in front of their fans, threw his hands up in frustration at the tech team when the breakers blew and the power turned off. We decided we wouldn’t be that way and that this particular band had come into our lives to show us how not to be a Christian band.
Another example of early disillusionment: When we came into the studio, we did some cowriting sessions where other musical artists came in, edited or arranged our songs, and then demanded a super high percentage cut of the writer’s share. We were the little guys, but we didn’t want to get stepped on, so we stood up to them and ended up getting what was fair. But we also felt like we got blacklisted by their management company for the remainder of our career. It became clear that the options were to either be taken advantage of or be rejected for possible touring options in the future. We did end up getting signed to a record label, but far from being a satisfying experience, getting signed—and then dropped just as quickly—revealed more of a corporate machine than a Christ-centered ministry.
“…more of a corporate machine than a Christ-centered ministry…”
Some Christian artists have a fruitful, healthy relationship with the CCM industry, but it is sad to see many promising Christian artists enter the industry only to witness disappointingly un-Christian elements. Some of our own fans have wondered what happened to us and why we stopped calling ourselves a “Christian” band.…Well, when you get disillusioned over and over by an industry which you thought was going to be more about Jesus than it ended up being, it sort of messes you up. You start thinking you don’t want anything to do with an industry that can feel so corrupt and be all about sales. I honestly think that’s why we see so many former Christian band members become alcoholics, sex addicts, drug users, and even cynics who lose their light and end up walking away from the faith altogether. It’s hard stuff to process; sometimes it damages you for good.
The Truth about Christian Artists
Here’s the truth about Christian artists: they are broken people just like you except that they keep getting placed on these high pedestals in the minds of their fans. Just like us, these singers and musicians don’t have it all figured out. They don’t have all the answers. They just want to bless God and people through their art. They are also trying to make a living with their skills like everyone else and so they have to make certain decisions based on that fact. What’s more is that they have less time to be connected to a local church and therefore are much more likely to isolate their doubts and questions and end up in heretical places of thinking and theology.
They need real relationships with real people who are not super fans.
They need real relationships with real people who are not super fans. In fact, super fans are exactly what they don’t need; what they need are followers of Jesus in their closest circle that can speak truth to them. They need real, life-on-life small group discipleship on a regular basis with someone more mature in the Christian faith than they are.
When we ignore the fact that all Christians are broken people (pastors, artists, etc.) and treat them like super-Christians, we further feed their impulse to stay silent about who they are and how they really think and feel. Maybe instead of getting your poster signed this one time, shake their hand and ask them how you can be praying for them. Encourage them to stay in the Word and remain in Jesus. Side note: probably the quickest way to gain audience with a Christian super star is to ask them to go out for drinks after the show; that’s almost like code language for “Hey, I’m not a super-fan, I just want to know who you really are and see if you’re doing ok.”
“Hey, I’m not a super-fan, I just want to know who you really are and see if you’re doing ok.”
I was never a famous Christian artist. I guess I could say I was “small town famous,” but that didn’t stop people from putting even me on a pedestal. A couple small examples: A bandmate and I once made the mistake of mentioning we had seen Gone Girl in front of someone who was interviewing us, and their eyebrows raised as they judgmentally asked, “You…you like those kind of movies?” I also had a minister bring me up on stage after leading worship for them only to thank me and say, “People always said Dave was crazy”—pause for medium crowd giggling—“…crazy about Jesus.” This moment actually almost made me break right there in front of everyone because, little did they know, I had been doubting earlier that day if I even really knew Jesus.
No one would ask me how I was really doing. Most people want (or maybe even need) us to be “on” when we have an interaction with them; almost like they need us, as people on the “inside,” to confirm that the faith is real and worth it. You know those people that ask you a question but their phrasing and facial expressions are all about trying to get the answer they want to hear out of you? Yeah. That kind of checking up on me would happen all the time—but never the real stuff.
Leaving the Christian Music World
So, there’s this splitting of the soul that can happen for the Christian artist: On the one hand, you need to be authentic and real because you’re creating and selling art with God’s name on it. On the other hand, you need to be what your consumers are paying good money for you to be and what they (sometimes desperately) need you to be. I feel icky just talking about it.
Our band Wavorly got to a place where we wanted to be authentic with our music, our lives, and our industry. Yet at the time, there wasn’t really a place for that in the Christian music world for us. We ended up leaving it behind to pursue the mainstream market (aka, the secular market). We stopped playing as many shows in churches and started playing in bars. I actually felt more at home with the “real people” I found in the bar scene. They were sharing real stories, the nitty gritty. Some of them had lost everything, and they were there just to drink a beer and have a good conversation. Fertile ground for the gospel, I’d say. It makes sense why Jesus spent time with broken people like that.
So, we went from getting well taken care of by the old ladies at churches across the country to playing at dark and sweaty bars with owners who couldn’t care less about another no-name band coming through. So, we made these places our mission field. I felt like we were doing “the real” Lord’s work—not just serving Christians, but reaching the lost.
“I felt like we were doing ‘the real’ Lord’s work—not just serving Christians, but reaching the lost.”
And that’s an honorable goal. Plenty of bands went down this road before us, and on that road, plenty of bands burned out and broke up as we would eventually do. Playing in bars was freeing at first. I said things like, “I’d much rather play for 50 people in a bar than 300 people in a church; it’s way more real here.” What I felt and what I meant was a level of authenticity expressed by the people in a bar as well as a level of authenticity within myself that I could now reveal at places like this.
I could say I was struggling with doubt and had some serious questions about the faith. If I wanted to say a low-key swear word at the merch table, I could—we were in a bar! The people there were much less interested in trapping you in your theology or in looking down on your list of preferred Christian authors. They cared about one thing: your story. Remember that word for a minute. This is where we’re going to get into the weeds a little bit.
I felt like I was doing the Lord’s work by singing in bars to drunk (or on the way to being drunk) people and talking with them afterwards over a drink or four. Jesus hung out with sinners, right? I just wanted to do the same. But if I’m being honest, there was one major thing missing when I was “ministering” to these lost people: the gospel.
Immersed in Progressive Christianity
When Jesus spent time with sinners, he was hearing their story, treating them as real human beings, and then casting a vision for a better way (the way, actually). He accepted them where they were but invited them on this journey of following him and changing to become more and more like him. The best thing for anyone that’s ever existed is to surrender their life to their Creator and let him call the shots. He knows what’s up.
But it was at this time that I was immersed in progressive Christianity. I had gotten here by reacting against the legalism of my past, getting burnt by the disillusionment of much of evangelical Christianity, and finding a freer, more authentic version of Christianity in progressive authors. And, in my experience, inviting people into a gospel which calls us to sacrificially follow Jesus is an area that is seriously lacking in progressive Christianity. Progressives usually say, “Come as you are; however you are is just fine,” instead of, “Come as you are, and we’ll help you become more like Jesus.”
“Inviting people into a gospel which calls us to sacrificially follow Jesus is an area that is seriously lacking in progressive Christianity.”
So, I would talk with these people at the bar, hear their stories, share my story, and watch them be amazed that a Christian was hanging out in a bar with a non-Christian while not trying to judge or convert them. Looking back, I think that sort of became my mission: to show the world that I’m not really different from them…
That kind of mission sounds sort of right—until you realize that it’s actually the opposite of what we see in the Bible. How many examples and stories are there in the Old Testament about God setting apart a special people unto himself? How much of that did I have to forget to get to a place of trying to be a Christian who is basically indistinguishable from the world. We were meant to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). God is still interested in transforming lives so that his people stop sinning and wholly take on his character as their own.
“…a long trip from a Christianity of truth and nothing but the judgmental truth all the way over to grace, grace, and absolutely nothing else but grace…”
If you’re keeping up with the story, what you’re seeing now is how I made a long trip from a Christianity of truth and nothing but the judgmental truth all the way over to grace, grace, and absolutely nothing else but grace. I came to feel that these non-believers were basically good people. After all, they were created in the image of God and therefore he loved them. And that is true, but only a part of the whole truth.
God loves them so, so much (more than they could even know) that he laid his life down for them. But why did he lay his life down for them? It was not so they could stay dead in their patterns of sin patterns which bring nothing but death and destruction to themselves and the ones they love. Jesus died so that they could experience real, satisfying, and transformed living—here on earth and in heaven after leaving this world. The whole gospel is beautiful and pure; the half gospel you get in progressivism sounds and feels nice but ends up being empty.
A Recovering Skeptic
In his eye-opening book A Grand Illusion, my friend David Young describes how some people use progressivism as an on-ramp to get people into Christianity when in actuality it is an off-ramp from Christianity. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true based on own my experience.
While I was deconstructing, I came across a bullet-point list online written by a man who grew up in the evangelical world but is now an atheist. He basically described my childhood, my experience in youth group, and also the same doubts and questions I had in college. As I looked at each step he took away from the faith of his childhood all the way down to the bottom, I was shocked when I realized that I myself was only a few steps away from agnosticism and eventually (where the author landed) atheism. This truly scared me. I said earlier that during my trip through progressivism I felt more enlightened—like I was waking up. Seeing the end of the road shook something loose in my thinking about progressive Christianity. I’m hoping as you’re reading these articles it will do the same for you.
“Seeing the end of the road shook something loose in my thinking about progressive Christianity.”
Lately I have been introducing myself to people as a recovering skeptic. I get it; there are many, many questions about God and Christianity that we will probably never have figured out this side of heaven. I don’t try to pretend that the mystery of God doesn’t exist. In fact, I try my best to embrace it. I believe Jesus is big enough to handle any and all of our questions and doubts.
I recently had a long conversation with some friends of mine that are either deconstructing, all the way progressive, or borderline agnostic, and we all agreed that there are still a lot of really tough questions about God, the Bible, and Jesus that puzzle us all. But the difference comes down to this: One friend will crumble under the weight of a hard question. Another will raise their hands and conclude they just don’t know. Still another will say it literally doesn’t matter because nothing matters. I will also say I’m not sure, but I still trust that God is good enough, big enough, and smart enough to handle it.
“I’m not sure, but I still trust that God is good enough, big enough, and smart enough to handle it.”
God deserves the benefit of the doubt when we’re wrestling with questions about his character and/or his actions. He already knows our thoughts—so why not bring them out in the open before him and let him help us work it out?
A Third Way
Here’s my encouragement, my challenge, my plea to you (whether you are a fundamentalist, a progressive, a non-believer, a long-time disciple): what would it look like for you to fully believe and trust in the whole Gospel again?
By the whole gospel, I mean: God created the world. The world sinned. God separated his holy self from our sinful selves until a time that would come where he would lay down his own life to be brutally murdered and sacrificed to pay the massive debt that we owed. Jesus came back to life again in order to begin restoring and reconciling mankind and the whole order of creation back to God. Right now, Jesus reigns as king over those of us who follow him, and he will eventually return and restore all things to its original glorious design.
What would change in your life and in your heart if you opened up your mind for the first time or once again to the possibility that the stories in the Bible are true? That the whole gospel is the good news we’ve been longing for? That there really is hope for victory over the darkness, and that it’s found in King Jesus?
“…a third way that wasn’t ignorantly blissful about Christianity’s history and dismissive about thought-provoking questions…but also not cynically walled off from the only one in whom we find solid reasons for hope?”
What if there was a third way that wasn’t ignorantly blissful about Christianity’s history and dismissive about thought-provoking questions about God and the Bible—but also not cynically walled off from the only one in whom we find solid reasons for hope? What if this middle road way was actually the way Jesus designed for us to walk with him?
I believe God created our intellects for mentally wrestling with deep truths with God. Why else would God name his people “Fighter of God” (“Israel” means those who wrestle with God)? There is a way to surrender to the truth of Scripture, to submit to Jesus’ lordship, and also still use your brain and intellectually satisfy most of your questions about the hot topics of the faith.
I believe that the men who discipled me have found this way. They’re not perfect, but they’re trying their best to be honest with themselves and those around them as they walk humbly with faith. It’s beautiful, actually. This honest yet hopeful faith is a lot sturdier and more satisfying than either the fog-machine emotionalism or the jaded cynicism that led me down paths of disappointment.