by George Brahm
This morning, I was shaken by the news about Marty Sampson’s falling away from the faith. For the past couple of weeks, the internet had been buzzing with several op-eds about the apostasy of another popular Christian, megachurch pastor Joshua Harris, and before that, Dave Gass. But I knew nothing of Harris or Gass until news of their falling away surfaced– Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye was first published before I was even born, and Gass wasn’t much of a Christian celebrity until the Twitter thread in which he renounced his faith went viral.
But I remember Marty Sampson from my early childhood. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home where Christian music was the only music allowed, I remember falling in love with Marty’s early work at Hillsong, back when the church’s songs weren’t as doctrinally-wonky as they are today. His rendition of ‘Saviour King‘ remains one of my favourite worship songs to date.
In a now-deleted Instagram post, Marty wrote–
I’m genuinely losing my faith, and it doesn’t bother me. Like, what bothers me now is nothing. I am so happy now, so at peace with the world. It’s crazy.
He then summarized his reasons for losing his faith–
How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it…
I am not in any more. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God...
I am not going to speculate about whether Marty was truly saved. As a Calvinist, I do believe that everyone who is truly saved will persevere to the end, but as a creature within time and space who cannot see the future, I hope and pray that Marty will return to his Lord.
His reasons for leaving the faith, however, trouble me. Because every single question he says he hasn’t heard an answer to has been answered, innumerable times. Apostasy among preachers? In the past few weeks alone, we have seen several articles written on Joshua Harris’ falling away, with several more on Dave Gass and others before him. Miracles? The problem of hell? The argument from Christian hypocrisy? The case for the exclusive claims of Christ and Christianity? The alleged conflict between science and faith? Every single one of these issues has been addressed in books written by prominent academics and on various and sundry websites that are just a Google search away. We have an entire discipline dedicated to answering these questions– Christian apologetics. Perhaps one can claim that none of apologetics’ answers are satisfying. But it doesn’t seem right to say that no one talks about the questions themselves. Yet that is exactly what Marty claims.
I’m going to be charitable and assume that Marty never really heard an answer to these questions. But that leads to an even more troubling conclusion about the church Marty attended and led worship at for so long– Hillsong Church never addressed these questions, at least not during the period Marty was there.
Apologetics and the Church
The apparent lack of apologetics at Hillsong Church might not come as a shock to most. It goes beyond their focus on a feel-good gospel. Most of us have attended churches where apologetics is never an issue of focus. And what Marty’s case reveals is that a lack of apologetics-training in the local church can often be what causes a young person to apostatize, either when they are still young or later in the future.
Most of us who are brought up in evangelical churches are told what to believe. Our first Sunday School lessons usually begin with Adam and Eve eating the fruit and committing the first sin. A while later, we reach the point where we are told about how God came in the form of a man named Jesus, who died on a cross to forgive all our sins, and how He rose from the dead on the third day. Soon after, we are presented with what is usually termed the ‘gospel message’ that combines the message of both these stories, telling us that we are sinners who can be saved by asking Jesus to come into our lives. We earnestly repeat the sinner’s prayer along with our parent/Sunday School teacher/pastor, we open our eyes and are told that we are now a child of God. We are told to write the date we prayed that prayer on the flyleaf of our Bibles. We’re far too young to ask questions like why we should believe that Adam and Eve even existed, why we should believe that someone ‘rose from the dead’ (when experience tells us that dead people stay dead), or how praying a certain prayer somehow takes us to a different place in the afterlife (if there is such a thing). Our parents, the pastor, and the church assume that the lack of questions on our part is an indicator of their job of bringing us to the faith being completed.
A time soon comes when we become capable of asking these questions and they take up more space in our minds. At first, we stay quiet because we aren’t sure whether it is appropriate to ask them out loud, but we finally muster enough courage to go to a parent and speak up. This is totally unexpected for the parent, who was living under the assumption that their child possessed a robust faith. They jump to the conclusion that it is the devil who is working in the mind of their child to bring in these doubts and tell us to go and read the Bible or just ‘believe it by faith’. Meanwhile, they begin to pray worried prayers, asking God to somehow get these doubts out of their children’s minds. Unfortunately for them, these doubts are not among the sorts of things that magically disappear without being answered. If anything, they only continue to grow as we enter higher classes in school and begin to be exposed to naturalistic explanations for everything around us. Evolutionary diagrams begin to look far more convincing than the drawings of Adam and Eve that we coloured in Sunday School. We are still within the Christian worldview, thanks to spending a large chunk of our time in a Christian home, but the seeds of doubt are being watered. We come to church, desperate to hear something that can counteract these doubts, only to engage in feeling-based worship and hear emotionally-charged sermons that preach to the choir.
It is finally time for us to step out of the bubble-wrap of our Christian homes and enter the university system, followed by the real world. Almost immediately, we are faced with a barrage of competing worldviews that we’ve never encountered before. We encounter representatives of these worldviews on a regular basis, and they appear to have solid reasons to back up why they believe what they believe. When we are asked for the reasons for holding on to our worldview, we’ve got no idea; we were just told what to believe and never told why. The seeds of doubt are now saplings that are growing at an exponential pace. Gradually, we find ourselves rejecting our baseless Christian beliefs one by one, replacing them with the next best set of beliefs that comes with reasons attached. Within a year, a tearful parent has a sad story to tell:
“My son was such a strong Christian from childhood. He was a regular at Sunday School. He was an active member of his youth group. He used to lead worship at church. Yet, just a year or so into his college education, he’s been influenced by his ‘secular’ friends, he’s lost his faith, and doesn’t want to be part of the church anymore. I don’t know what happened!
The answer is simple. There wasn’t an issue with the transmission of content; the young man held all the right beliefs, including the existence of God, the saving work of Christ, the Resurrection, etc. The problem lay in the fact that he was made to believe in all the right things without being told why he was believing these things. He was never provided with a rational basis for his beliefs, so when he came across an opposing belief system, say secularism, that seemed to have some reasons supporting its beliefs, he adopted it as a reasonable alternative. And why not? The apparent conclusion from his experience seemed to be that Christianity has no rational basis, and hence lacks credibility as a worldview. This was the conclusion Marty Sampson reached too, not in university, but at the age of 40, after many years of leading worship at one of the world’s largest churches.
That conclusion, however, has been shown to be patently false. I can name several tomes that construct a rational case for Christianity, written by everyone from theologians to analytic philosophers to historians to lawyers to journalists to cold-case detectives. So if a rational case for Christianity exists, why are most of our young people unaware of it? Because the church fails to see it as important and hence never bothers to present it to them! Instead, we’re encouraged to check our brains at the door as we enter the sanctuary, worship God solely with our emotions (try thinking about some of the lyrics we sing and you’ll be surprised at how absurd they are), and listen to a sermon that helps in the circulation of those feel-good hormones and does nothing to stimulate our brains into thinking about what we really believe. The why questions are ignored (and often actively discouraged), and so what we get are a bunch of indoctrinated young people who hold onto beliefs that seem no different from irrational superstitions. The university system exposes them to a myriad of worldviews whose proponents are actually trained to argue for them, so he is more than happy to let go of his baseless Christian worldview for one of these.
The simple solution to this problem is what Blaise Pascal suggested, to “show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect.” When our young people come up with questions, it is the church’s duty to present the rational case for Christianity to them, which will in turn prepare them to weigh Christianity on the same rational balance that they use to weigh other worldviews. To do so, however, the church must first also prepare itself with the rational case. Unfortunately, they often aren’t, which leads to them giving their young people the impression that Christian beliefs are antithetical to reason, which in turn serves as a motivating factor for them to leave the faith.
If you want your young people, who would be your future Martys, to stay in the faith, don’t just try and ‘keep them involved’ by giving them a spot on the worship team or the ushering ministry. Educate them in doctrine to give them a firm foundation, make them aware that there is a rational case for Christianity, and equip them to defend their faith in the face of challenges. Once you do these three things, send them out into the battlefield to fight in the army of the Lord. Of course, I would urge you to pray that they hold on to what they’ve been educated in, made aware of, and equipped with. But remember that only prayers combined with preparation yield results. Prepare your field and only then get on your knees. God will send the rain. Until we do that, and on a consistent basis, our churches will keep producing a bunch of uneducated, unaware, and unequipped indoctrinees– perfect subjects for the secular world’s ‘deconstruction’ business.
Marty Sampson went down believing that “science keeps piercing the truth of every religion.” I wish Marty had expressed this sentiment to someone who knew the why of the Christian faith before he chose to leave. If I had that opportunity, I would’ve taken him by the shoulders, given him a good shake and said, “No Marty, it doesn’t!”
Lord, grant someone that opportunity.
An update: Marty has since updated his Instagram with images of Christian and atheist thinkers he listens to. The Christian lineup includes the likes of William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias. I’m forced to retract my claim that it was possible that Marty wasn’t aware of the answers to his questions. Given those apologists, he very much was. However, my larger point about the importance of the local church educating their members in apologetics still stands.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.