Losing My Faith in Progressive Christianity: The Tough Questions (Part 7)
This is Part 7 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 and Part 5 and Part 6.
I’ve been asking myself a certain question about my decision-making skills on this next part of my spiritual journey. You’d think after experiencing Christian music burnout and spending time in a version of Christianity that didn’t line up with the historical version that I wouldn’t go back to a conservative church where I could lead people in worship on Sundays. But that’s sort of exactly what I did. I asked my best friend his perspective of what he saw me do during that season because I didn’t wanna sugarcoat it in my mind to make it sound better.
He plainly said, “You have experienced a lot of real transformation at Harpeth that has been amazing…but you initially took that job because you needed money.” Well, there you have it. Thank God for true friends that know you well enough to let you know you’re not really the saint you’ve worked yourself up to be in your mind. So here goes this part of the story, and I’ll try to keep it real. The good, the bad, and the shallow.
So, after touring for a few years with one of my all-time favorite Christian bands from my childhood (Audio Adrenaline), I faced the harsh reality a lot of musicians who come off the road have to face: what the heck am I gonna do to make money now??
Sure, the road seems glamorous from the outside, but it’s difficult on the inside. And some us were left empty-handed at the end of that road: no real-world skills to transfer over to a real job, which means no real money to transfer into that bank account. On one of my early job applications under marketing experience, I put, “I ran a merch table?”
People romanticize the idea of touring, like they used to do with running away to join the carnival. I think both carnies and touries have just about the same amount of crazy in our brains and possibly the same amount of weekly showers. When you start touring, you really just hit pause on your life and while you’re having a lot of fun chasing this dream, your friends from back home are starting careers, buying houses, getting married, and having babies—all awesome, godly things.
“I think both carnies and touries have just about the same amount of crazy in our brains and possibly the same amount of weekly showers.”
Saying Goodbye to Touring
Now, let me be clear: I absolutely loved my early touring days. It was just me, my best friends in the world, and the road. I think our dreams continue to grow bigger as success grows bigger, so we never really feel like we’ve arrived. But I can honestly say that my original dream actually came true and I’m pretty dang grateful for that.
But, as with any career you choose, reality ends up being different than you imagined. I would often spend 5-8 hours a day of driving/riding in a van doing absolutely nothing (this was before iPhones, if you can imagine it). I should’ve used that time to do something constructive like finishing a bachelor’s degree, but instead my bandmates and I usually made up and acted out stupid characters to make each other laugh, like Vampires of the South (look it up).
At the same time, I really missed getting to do fun stuff and get-togethers with my family back home. I really, really missed my girlfriend and wanted to marry her, but I was so freaking poor! Thus, over several years, my dream started to turn into a little bit of a nightmare. But I didn’t really know how to say that to everyone back home who thought I had “made it.” So I ended up sort of pot-committed and kept pushing forward when really I was just treading water, trying not to drown while everyone I cared about watched.
“As with any career you choose, reality ends up being different than you imagined.”
When we were finally able to get married, having my first child was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to the “fun” part of touring. I would leave for 4 days every week and come home to a different looking baby than when I left. He was changing so fast, and I was missing something important that I’d never get back. I had experienced so much joy and fulfillment from touring, but fatherhood was new and exciting. So I decided at 34 that my touring days were done.
It was quite freeing, but fear also kicked in pretty quickly. The “no real-world skills” was really real all of a sudden. My wife and I had a conversation and decided that, since I wasn’t planning on touring anymore and we were working normal jobs, it might be a good idea to move back home to the southland to be closer to family.
After sharing the news with a few Nashville friends, they kindly but firmly responded, “Yeah, that’s not happening.” They began to search for people that would hire me and, although I was ready to hang my music career up for good, I had an opportunity to lead worship at a church close to my home in Franklin.
I met with the teaching pastor, Josh. I don’t know why but I felt as if I could tell him everything right away. I immediately opened up with him about my struggles with pornography and my nearly failed marriage at the time. I felt safe with him, but also I never, ever wanted to be a worship leader, so I sort of had nothing to lose. In fact, I felt like leading worship was a giant step backwards for me (boy, was I wrong).
“I felt like leading worship was a giant step backwards for me (boy, was I wrong).”
I definitely knew I did not want to get hired at a church with the leadership thinking I was this cookie-cutter Christian, and so part of me was trying to push the opportunity away before they got to know the real me (the one who swore, occasionally drank too much, had a problem with lust, and had some major doubts about the Bible—remember, I was still a progressive but praying that God would show me the truth). People have had enough with the “pastor’s secret sins exposed!” headlines, and they definitely didn’t need another one featuring yours truly.
But, to my surprise, Josh went back to the lead pastor of the church and said, “This is our guy!” That amazing man, Josh, is with Jesus now and the fact that he followed the whisper of the Spirit that told him I was supposed to be their worship leader still blows my mind. That decision literally changed the trajectory of my life and my family.
Two Well-Placed Questions
They called me back and set up a second meeting, this time with the head-honcho: the lead pastor. Bobby, Josh, my wife and I sat down for lunch at Chuy’s (do not recommend) and began chatting. I got the feeling that these men were good dudes, but I guessed they were most likely extremely conservative and would be turned off by me (and I was wrong about those two presumptions). I decided I wanted to stick with the theme of authenticity, so I shared with Bobby that I loved reading theology books. He was curious and asked me my favorite authors and then I dropped a genuine cuss word in conservative church circles: I said I liked reading (cover your eyes) Rob Bell. I thought I might shock him with that answer, but he remained curious without any perceived judgment, so I listed other authors like Francis Chan and Matt Chandler to let him know I was at a place in my life where I wanted to read both sides of arguments and then decide what’s true.
Bobby asked me two questions that day and one of them haunted me for weeks after he said it. Firstly, he asked if I was teachable. Ever since I prayed the earnest prayer for God to “show me the truth,” that’s exactly what I wanted to be. So I said yes.
“Bobby asked me two questions that day and one of them haunted me for weeks after he said it.”
The second question was the bomb that blew up the path I was on and forced me down a different path, one of uncomfortable but necessary reflection. He said, “Are you willing to be open-minded?” I laughed and simply said, “Yes.” But internally I thought, “Of course I’m open-minded; I said I read Rob Bell!” But then he pressed in further by asking, “Are you open-minded about the Bible?”
Those words echoed in my brain for a few seconds that felt like several minutes. I realized at that moment how I had opened myself up to other new interpretations and revelations about the Bible but had in turn closed off my thinking to the historic view of the Bible; I was no longer willing to entertain the idea that historic Christianity was the real deal even if it had convincing evidence. That was a real problem for me. I had created my identity around being open and humble with all things. I found comfort in being a guy who didn’t have all the answers: a seeker. But somewhere along the way, unbeknownst to myself, I had made up my mind not to give historic Christianity the benefit of the doubt anymore.
Why Wasn’t I Open to Historic Christianity?
The bigger question was why. Why had I completely closed myself off to the possibility that the historic Christianity that my first home church tried its best to give me could be true? I needed to find out.
You see, I’m the type of person that needs to understand things before I can move forward. I feel anxious about something until I can understand it, and I believe God gave me that kind of brain for a reason. I feel like one of the main reasons I first began to walk away from Christianity was that the prescription I got for dealing with doubt was to shut down that part of my brain and simply believe more, pray harder, muster up some faith to keep going, and ignore my gut. The Bible says the heart is deceitful among all things, but I don’t believe all intuitions we have are wrong when something’s gone sideways. I think those feelings can be red flags for the state of our hearts and that it’s important to stop and ask why we’re feeling that way and process it openly with a trusted Christ-follower.
“I feel like one of the main reasons I first began to walk away from Christianity was that the prescription I got for dealing with doubt was to shut down that part of my brain and simply believe more.”
So, I guess you could say I reached a new level in my deconstruction: I was ready to deconstruct…my deconstruction. I was completely intrigued by Bobby’s tough question, and I just had to find out what this “conservative” pastor meant by being open-minded. I was interested in going down the rabbit hole; maybe I missed something the last time I was down there. So, when they asked me to start a trial period at leading worship at their church, I took the job.
Side note: Personally, I don’t think it’s wise to suggest to someone, “Whatever you do, DON’T deconstruct!” Deconstruction, in my experience, is something that can just spring up and happen to you. It’s like grief or a loss. It’s there, it’s reality; now what are you going to do with it? You can either ignore it and let it eventually consume you, or you can take the Father’s hand and let him lead you through the doubts and questions. He knows the way through the maze.
I believe you have to be real with God about all the doubts and all the questions as well as with a trusted follower of Jesus. You have to bring it before God and ask him to help you understand. He desires a real relationship with you and when you’re hiding there’s no chance for that. He already knows what you’re thinking anyway. No need for leafy bikinis and speedos like our ancestors; come on out and bare it all. Peace most certainly won’t happen overnight, but little by little, as you grapple with these questions one at a time, you will begin to feel lighter, and you will be able to trust the God of the Bible again. The only way out is through. And once you get to the other side, you’ve reached the most important part of this journey: the reconstruction.
“Peace most certainly won’t happen overnight, but little by little, as you grapple with these questions one at a time, you will begin to feel lighter, and you will be able to trust the God of the Bible again.”
Everyone reconstructs into something. The important thing is to reconstruct well. Don’t reconstruct in a vacuum with Google as your guide, and definitely don’t succumb to the dreaded TikTok theology. Your algorithm has been set to give you the most relatable answer to what you’ve already been thinking. You need someone older than you that a) knows the Bible, b) actually tries their best to follow it, and c) is a safe, non-judgmental person.
You may be thinking those people don’t exist. Trust me, they do. They’re often the quiet ones because they have nothing to prove and know that God is the one in charge. No need to be the loudest voice in the room when you’re at peace internally like that. If you can’t find somebody like that, pray for that somebody to find you. It is God’s will for you that you would be a real disciple of Jesus. Do you know what happens when our prayers completely sync up with God’s will? Things happen. Pray, trust, keep your eyes open and keep processing these doubts and questions openly with the Holy Spirit.
“No need to be the loudest voice in the room when you’re at peace internally like that.”
I wonder if the reason we’re seeing a huge falling away from the faith right now is that people are either reconstructing in total isolation from embarrassment or, worse, reconstructing with a false sense of community on social media that just echoes their doubts and questions with no real solutions. I understand that it can feel good. There are some hilarious TikTok vids that poke at the church, and let’s be honest: there are Christians that spoon feed these content creators pure golden material to make those videos. But I would like to help people move on from that phase of deconstruction.
The “I’m openly questioning my faith and what I need more than answers right now is to hear people say ‘me too’” phase. Many get to that point (especially today), but it’s not good to stay there. Seeing people stuck there now makes me a little sad. I long to see people develop and grow and move forward in life. I want to see them take risks and fall flat and learn a huge lesson and then get back up again. That’s living.
“Sitting contently in your doubts and questions is not living and it’s not faith. But wrestling with them is.”
Sitting contently in your doubts and questions is not living and it’s not faith. But wrestling with them is. Wrestling with your doubts and questions is hard work and wears you out, and to me, that’s a sign of genuine faith. If someone is taking seriously the things of God, oh my gosh, there’s hope. If you’re reading this and you’re fine with your doubts and questions, but you’ve never moved toward solutions with God’s guidance, then you’re stuck. I hope you will hit your knees in your room tonight and pray that prayer that I prayed long ago and mean it: “God, I don’t care where it takes me or who I become as a result. I have to know the truth. Will you show me?” Pray that and see what the Lord of Heaven and Earth will do to open your eyes and give you real peace and joy beyond your wildest dreams. Do it.
A Mentor and Friend
Okay, back to my reconstruction. My lead pastor Bobby plays a prominent role in the rest of this story. I told you earlier that I never wanted to be a worship leader, but God had a much bigger plan for me than I ever could’ve made up myself. Bobby discipled me so well, and part of the reason why I wanted to start writing these articles was to document his process because it worked for me. And it just might work with the lost and wandering people in your life.
So here goes. Firstly, Bobby wanted to be my friend, and that’s a crucial part of any discipling relationship: authentic connection. When my mentor realized God wanted him to start discipling me, he sought after me. He called me sometimes daily. He invited me over to his house. He invited himself over to my house (which could’ve been awkward, but he did these things to make our relationship as easy as it could be for me).
You have to be intentional with whomever you’re discipling and sometimes it takes hard work to get the relationship started in the beginning. He brought me to hockey games. He took my family out to lunch after church. He asked me to join his home group. All of this was a way of creating organic context for intentional conversation. Let me say that again in a less churchy way: he set up frequent hang out times to build rapport with me so that I would lower my walls and be enough of the real me around him—all with the goal in mind of finding a way to begin speaking into me and calling the good out of me.
“You have to be intentional with whomever you’re discipling and sometimes it takes hard work to get the relationship started in the beginning.”
We became real friends, and looking back I really enjoyed that time. Whenever we were in the car on the way to watch the Preds play, we would “naturally” talk about theology, and when he heard me share something that I believed, his response was always curiosity—even when something I believed was maybe a little off from what the Bible teaches. Bobby knows the Bible very well, so when moments like that came up, he would ask me to open up my Bible app and we would read what the text said together.
This was not awkward; it was just what we did. He would then ask me, “What is the author of that book saying?” Notice he didn’t ask, “What does that passage mean to you?” which was what I was used to answering in my many theological conversations that were leading me away from the truth in the Bible and toward the truth that I felt was right. You can’t wiggle around what the author means, but you can wiggle around what you think or what you want it to say, for sure. “What is the author saying?” removes the wiggle-room right out of there.
Who Would Know Better?
There was another phrase Bobby used boldly that would sort of shock me back to reality. Whenever certain topics would come up, and he would sense a distrust in me toward the Bible and a preference to lean on modern thought about the Bible, Bobby would simply say, “Well, who would better know what Jesus meant than the men that were actually with him?” I felt a little embarrassed the first time he asked me. This was because a lot of my personal theology was built on what 20th/21st century white men had to say about what they thought Jesus meant versus what the apostles knew he meant, because Jesus had explained it to them himself. Progressive authors base theology on the things Jesus “could have meant” while the apostles explained the things they knew he meant.
Bobby also did a great job of bringing these real men in the Bible (and also the very real nation of Israel) back to life in my mind. He’s sort of a fanatic for archaeological evidence that they’ve discovered over the last couple centuries, and this evidence actually props up what the Bible describes. In countless cases, archaeologists have found the geography of that region to be exactly as the Bible says it should be as it’s written down in Scripture. And when it doesn’t exactly line up, simply wait a few years or decades and they’ll usually discover a missing piece that ends up proving what the Bible had described all along; we simply hadn’t dug up enough of the equation just yet.
“In countless cases, archaeologists have found the geography of that region to be exactly as the Bible says it should be as it’s written down in Scripture.”
Bobby also walked me through the criteria that had to be met in order for the books and letters that eventually made it into the canon to be considered divine Scripture. Firstly, he showed me how the books that were to be considered holy and inspired were not originally decided on by a faculty of men who sought to prop up a narrative about Jesus in order to push for their own agendas (that’s the narrative Progressive Christianity gave me). Rather, these letters were already being viewed and treated as holy and inspired by the first churches started by the apostles. The letters that became our Bible had to either be written by the apostles themselves or by men closely related to and discipled by the apostles, and each letter or book had to line up with each other theologically.
Not Wanting to Believe VS Exploring the Evidence
Bobby helped me get acquainted with the real people that scribed the New Testament, of which Luke is probably my favorite. I didn’t know he was a physician that followed Paul around and is still highly respected as an ultra-thorough historian by modern historians today. This was a huge moment in reestablishing my trust in the Bible. I couldn’t trust sleazy, agenda-pushing men, reclining in their chairs, smoking stogies and deciding what was in the Bible and what was out, but I could trust a well-respected historian who has been proven right time and time again when tested historically and geographically.
The evidence that supports the Bible being true is overwhelming. To ignore that, some part of you (probably a subconscious part) has to want to disbelieve parts of the Bible because it is hard to look at the world through the lens of the Bible. And I think it’s likely that’s what brings progressives to where they are now because that’s where I was back then. Sometimes the Bible is black and white on issues that seem to be full of gray in the “real world.” When you come to that point in your life where reality is complicated like it is, it creates a hard fork in the road that would be difficult for anyone trying to follow a 2,000-year-old book. When I was making my way back to historic Christianity, I realized how much of the Bible I simply didn’t want to believe: its stances on homosexuality, male headship, a literal hell, handling money, etc. But because I had been convinced of the validity and the truth of it, I began giving God the benefit of the doubt.
“When I was making my way back to historic Christianity, I realized how much of the Bible I simply didn’t want to believe.”
The Benefit of the Doubt
There’s another phrase my mentor used in order to bring me back to the Bible. He said that, when he comes across things in the Bible that don’t sit well with him, he gives God the benefit of the doubt instead of just trying to figure out a way to work around it. As an example, after I had come back around on the apostle Paul being legit and someone who wrote with the authority of Christ, I really struggled with the idea of male headship in the church and at home. I got such a weird feeling in my stomach when I read passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (“The head of the woman is man…”). As a progressive, that gut feeling would guide me to land on a different philosophy on life rather than “Paul’s opinion,” as I would have described it then.
When it comes to reading through passages like 1 Corinthians 11, a discipling relationship actually becomes CRUCIAL. In our conversations, Bobby would ask me to read the passage out loud. Then he asked me what the author meant when he wrote it. Then he asked me if I had any questions, to which I responded, “What does he mean by head?” Bobby would walk me through details like that with great patience to help me understand. After we did that, I would go back home still feeling a bit weird about it, but I remembered the phrase “Give God the benefit of the doubt,” so that’s exactly what I did.
“Give God the benefit of the doubt.”
I am not naturally a leader; I feel most comfortable in background positions. Yet God has consistently placed me in positions of leadership over the years, so I’ve grown to be comfortable with it. At the time Bobby walked me through the passages about the husband’s headship, I was certainly not leading my family. I was being super passive and just going with the flow. I thought that the apostle Paul was encouraging men to “take the power back that was rightfully theirs.” But that’s not at all the way Jesus led his followers, was it? Now when I read Paul’s writing on male headship, I process it through the lens of Jesus’ leadership. That process of understanding (or that hermeneutic principle) is called “letting Scripture interpret Scripture.” And what kind of leader was Jesus? He was a servant leader; a completely-laid-down-his-life leader, not a take-the-power-back leader. So that’s how I began following that hard teaching in the Bible that on the surface seemed offensive and barbaric to my 21st century Western brain.
I am trying my best to lead my family now, the way I understand God designed marriage to work, and my wife is happy and free to be her whole, real self and live out her dream life of being a stay-at-home mom with lots of animals…and chickens (what a hippie). It wasn’t that she was dominating our family and running us off a cliff. She was doing a great job in her role in our family. But in my passivity and fear of being a toxic male, I wasn’t really standing up for my wife and kids by being the chief servant in our household.
“Now when I read Paul’s writing on male headship, I process it through the lens of Jesus’ leadership.”
In fact, even now as I lead my family in what I believe to be a biblical fashion, the “power” is actually not really mine like people might assume it is. I’m not overruling my wife’s decision on where to park the car when we go to Target to spend $200 on 3 items. It’s much more of a backwards power. I feel as if I have received the “power” to lead by completely laying down my life for my wife and kids.
If that’s not a backwards definition of male headship from how contemporary culture would define it, I don’t know what is. But I’ve been re-convinced that the Creator of this world knows what he’s doing way more than I do, and so though I had my preconceived ideas of what God probably meant with this chauvinistic idea of male headship thing, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt KNOWING that it is not in the character of the Ancient One to be a domineering, oppressive dictator over someone. No, Jesus was the greatest servant of all.
“I’ve been re-convinced that the Creator of this world knows what he’s doing way more than I do.”
And when I pushed forward in prayer for the changing of my wife’s heart and for clarity on what my role would be, I was pleasantly surprised to see that male headship literally meant having a license to be more Christ-like, to be more loving and faithful and loyal and more attentive to my wife and children than I was previously as a passive dad or in the way the world views male headship as a dominating, toxic male. Give God the benefit of the doubt and I promise you’ll see that God’s way of life is absolutely beautiful and the best thing for us personally and for everyone else around us. The proof of humanity’s fall and truth of redemption is all around us if we’re willing to take a step of faith and bet that God is all things good and lovely.
You Don’t Want to Leave Too, Do You?
That’s actually how this Christian faith works. I grew up thinking that to be a Christian meant to believe in a list of claims about Jesus. He was God’s Son, he was perfect, he died for me, and rose again. Boom. Saved. Book of Life and all that. But after reading through the book of Acts several times, I’m convinced that our level of faith is tied directly to our level of obedience to the Holy Spirit and Scripture. And sometimes, we might not feel like obeying until we start obeying. Maybe I should, but most times I don’t feel like it.
What really helped me in my obedience was believing that if anyone knew the best way this world worked and how I’m supposed to find my place in it, it would be the One who created it all. That’s the motivation and trust that runs through my mind when I come across hard teachings in Scripture. And let’s be honest—there are a lot of those!
“Sometimes, we might not feel like obeying until we start obeying.”
Before ending this article, I want to highlight one word I said in the previous paragraph: feel. In my experience, obedience looks like choosing what you don’t feel in order to line up with what God wants for your life. That stuff is hard. I find myself every couple years tripping over something in Scripture. The space between following Jesus and doing what I feel is right can be paper thin. Whenever I’m in that space, I’m reminded of Jesus turning to the Twelve after insisting the crowd eat his flesh and drink his blood and asking, “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” “Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69, NIV).
That’s where everyone in humanity fits into the story. We’re all standing in the crowd of John 6. There’s a man standing in front of us, and his words sound like craziness to some and feel like energy pulsing in the hearts of others. His words have the power to bring gut-wrenching feelings of anger and indignation at the thought of someone asking them to do deeds so seemingly anti-human; but for those of us that know who he is, the One from the beginning, and to know that his words flow back to the origin of time itself, to the way things should be, we know that his words are an ever-flowing river of life. He knows how it should be because everything came about through him and he is the One for whom all of it (including us) was made in the first place.
“His words sound like craziness to some and feel like energy pulsing in the hearts of others.”
We’re in a moment in history where a person’s truth is said to trump all. People are so deeply in touch with their truth (i.e., their feelings) that they’re willing to forsake family, friends, and even sound reason to stay true to it. It’s odd that our feelings could be the thing that most divides us as people and that potentially paves the way for societal collapse to come. When my feelings + my experience = true truth, regardless of what God says, then all manner of destruction follows.
An Upside-Down World
I love it when my feelings and experiences line up with Scripture. In fact, I feel lucky when that happens. But during this most recent part of my story, I learned the secret that countless other followers of Jesus found out before me: following Scripture and the Spirit is the beginning of a journey of multiple forks in roads where your “gut” overwhelmingly tells you the opposite of what Jesus says, and you have to decide with your mind which way to lean.
And if you’re wondering why that’s the case, I believe it’s because we were born into a fallen world where things were already flipped upside down. People say Jesus has an upside kingdom, but really our world is the one standing on its head since the fall. My point is that we all have feelings and knee-jerk reactions to the gospel. Those are not new. That is a cyclical thing where every generation has to decide what they’re going to do.
I challenge you, the next time you come across a place in Scripture that doesn’t sit well with you, please do two things: 1) Give God the benefit of the doubt that he knows what’s best, and 2) Obey the teaching before it feels right. And if you have a hard time with that second one, trust me, I understand. That’s been a struggle since the first two humans.
“People say Jesus has an upside kingdom, but really our world is the one standing on its head since the fall.”
But I will warn you of this. If you choose to follow your instinct over Scripture, I do not judge you, but you may wake up one day, several forks in the road later, and feel totally okay with the fact that your life looks way different than it did when you once believed the Bible contained God’s actual words. You may feel good about the fact that your daily decisions don’t need to be classified as “sin” because those sin lists were made up by un-enlightened people.
But you also may realize that by your choices you have already given a devastating answer to the one question that we all must answer before we leave this world for the next: “You do not want to leave me too, do you?”