Some come from committed Christian families and had never thought through the faith for themselves. They had been living on borrowed faith. And it was no longer enough. Others are burnt out church workers. Many are those you would have considered strong Christians. Now, for one reason or another, or for no reason they can think of, they are no longer sure.
Some of these people are dear friends of mine. I don’t preach at them. I don’t force copies of Josh McDowell’s books on them. (Or Lee Strobels’.) Unless they ask for them. I listen. I pray for them. I love them. And I think of Francis Schaeffer.
Many of us know Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) as a key Christian thinker and apologist. Some of us know that he went through a profound spiritual crisis in his mid-30s that drove him to agnosticism. Burson and Walls summarise Schaeffer’s crisis for us in their book, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer.
“He (Schaeffer) was fully committed to the ‘purity of the visible church’ but was thoroughly disheartened by the movement’s (the separated movement, which called for a separation from liberal churches and denominations) uncharitable spirit and its total incongruity with the gospel of grace.”
“The huge gap between belief and practice began to rip at the fabric of his faith. During the winter of 1951, Schaeffer was plunged into a full-blown spiritual crisis. He felt he had no choice but to reassess his Christianity, to go all the way back to agnosticism and systematically review his foundational beliefs.” (Scott R. Burson & Jerry L. Walls, C.S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p.40.)
I do not know for sure why my friends have become agnostic. I do know how hard it is for them to tell people they are no longer sure, especially in a typical evangelical church. Many church members will be confused and shaken. Some will try to “cure” them of their “back sliding.” Or try to argue them back into faith. Few will take their agnosticism seriously. And so my friends just keep their doubts to themselves. Or they quietly join the ranks of the unchurched.
My fear is that the way we do church may actually contribute to this state of affairs. In many churches, Christianity is presented in such a way that there is no place for ambiguity. Or mystery. More often than not, church members are driven from one church activity to another, or from one emotional high to another. There is just no time to think. Indeed, thinking may be seen as problematic as it may give rise to questions that have no easy answers.
And so many loyal church members just keep running from event to event, suppressing any questions or doubts that may arise in their hearts. A day comes when they realize that they are running on empty. And so they stop playing church. And begin to wonder if this Christianity thing is true.
We do well to remember that the claims of Christ and Christianity are truly incredible. The Infinite entered history as a man? Jesus is truly God and truly man? He died and rose again? This died and resurrected truly man-truly God is the answer to all of humankind’s problems? If I commit myself to Him I find both eternal life and fullness of life?
If we only had the honesty of Thomas who refused to believe unless he saw the marks of the crucifixion on the body of the resurrected Christ (John 20: 24-29). Jesus showed Thomas much kindness. We should show the same kindness to those among us who are no longer sure. It is a kindness that we ourselves may need someday. May our churches be safe places for people to say “I am no longer sure” and find that they are still loved and accepted.
We know that Schaeffer’s dark night of the soul had a happy ending.”The dark night of the soul gradually gave way to the dawning of a new light . . . He (Schaeffer) believed more than ever in the existence of God, the truth of the Christian message and the reliability of Scripture.” (Burson & Walls, p.40)
Indeed as a result of his period of doubt and agnosticism, Schaeffer learnt the key lessons that would undergird the rest of his life and ministry. In particular, Schaeffer “learned the importance of speaking the truth in love. His final apologetic was not rational argumentation, it was the expression of authentic Christian community, grounded in a firm commitment to historic, biblical orthodoxy.” (Burson & Walls, p.43)
Will my friends’ dark night of the soul give way to a similar dawning of a new light? Will their doubts give way to deepened faith and more effective ministry? I do not know. Some stories, like Schaeffer’s, have happy endings. Some, for reasons that only God knows, do not.
But I do know that one day the Lord will ask the church why she was so obsessed with numerical results that she no longer gave space and time for people to be people. He will ask why the church was so engrossed with programmes and strategies that she lost sight of the individual. The Lord will ask why the church wasn’t more of the “authentic Christian community” she was meant to be, a place where each soul is valued and where questions are welcomed.
We would do well to ask ourselves these questions today.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan