By Brian G. Chilton
The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity” explores the reasons why many Americans are rejecting the faith they grew up with. In this eight-part series, we feature testimonies and look at trends, church failures and how Christians can respond to those who are questioning their beliefs. This is part 8. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a and 7b.
I grew up in a Christian home with wonderful parents who taught me about Christ but allowed me to explore and learn various fields. By the time I was 7, I had already committed my life to Christ. By the time I was 16, I had already accepted the call into ministry. I pastored my first church by the time I was 21. Everything seemed to be clicking on the surface. But internally, a storm was brewing that I could not contain.
During my senior year of high school, I came across a book by the Jesus Seminar which claimed that less than 14 percent of the statements of Jesus in the Gospels were genuine. The other 86 percent of the statements of Jesus were either the author’s inventions or were greatly influenced by the author’s philosophy. The individuals in this seminar all held Ph.D.s, so I thought they knew what they were talking about.
I was highly disappointed when I turned to the church for answers. When I asked church leaders that I trusted how it was that I could trust the Bible considering what the Jesus Seminar was saying, I was met with scorn and shame. I was told that I should not be asking questions like that. They also gave fallacious arguments stemming from circular reasoning like, “The Bible is the Word of God because it says it’s the Word of God.” Furthermore, I was guilted into believing that such questions came from a lack of faith. With answers like that, I thought that Christianity could not offer a defense for itself. The antagonistic responses I received came because I had challenged cultural Christianity. I have no doubt that these leaders truly loved God and followed Him. However, their faith was so immersed in a cultural form of Christianity that to challenge the faith meant that I was also challenging their entire way of life and their heritage.
Over time, my doubts increased as I was met with personal and professional problems by fellow Christians. I was hurt by individuals who claimed to be Christians but showed no integrity in their actions and behaviors. For instance, I served at a small church with wonderful people. However, I later discovered that one person had been stealing funds from the church’s bank account. When I moved back home, I encountered people who claimed to love Christ but placed more value on looking good in society rather than having compassion for other people. A close friend of mine identified my hurt as a moral injury. I think he is right.
Furthermore, I was disheartened to discover some Christians in the area who expressed racist attitudes and viewed others unlike them with suspicion. Was this Christianity? Did this represent the teachings of Jesus? I began to wonder if Christianity was something more closely akin to a person’s upbringing and society more than a universal truth. Who was I to say that a Muslim growing up in Iran was any less affected by his or her culture than I was growing up in the rural Southeastern segment of the United States if religion was only something associated with one’s heritage? So, I began to think that no religion had any hold on truth. This led me to question whether absolute truth even existed. Perhaps everything was relative to the person experiencing it. If that is the case, then who could know anything about who God was?
The intellectual challenges caused many sleepless nights. The emotional strain I felt was intense. To reject the faith would bring shame upon my family and closest friends. Because Christianity was so closely tied to the culture, a rejection of Christianity was to also reject my heritage. With the intellectual issues already in place, the emotionally charged moral injuries—often coming from a constant barrage of criticisms from people who either wanted me to shout and scream in my messages like an enraged drill sergeant, or by accepting beliefs that seemed foreign to the teachings of Jesus, or by simply acting mean and nasty while claiming they served Jesus—made my departure from both the ministry and from faith easy. I could not in good conscience stand and tell people to believe in Jesus when I wasn’t sure that the New Testament could be trusted. So, at the age of 22, I no longer considered myself a minister nor a Bible-believing Christian.
During this time, I did not completely reject belief in God. However, I did not know whether any religious worldview could ever capture the existence of God if there even existed one. I identified myself as a theistic-leaning-agnostic, perhaps just a step removed from pantheism. I was not necessarily opposed to Christianity. I was, however, opposed to Christians and the church. One could say that I was open to spirituality but not religion.
During my time of doubt, I accepted a position at a manufacturing industry where I was able to focus on the work at the plant and did not have to give much thought to my doubts. However, in the darkness of my doubt, God allowed me to meet the lady who would become my wife. She was a committed Christian who wanted me to attend church with her. Often, I would drive her to Wednesday night services while I remained in the car. On Sunday mornings, I would attend the services with her. What can I say? She also talked me into riding roller coasters with her when roller coasters make me sick to my stomach. What we do to keep the women in our lives happy! Over time, I became more open to the message of Christianity because of my soon-to-be wife and her godly cousins (Jimmy and Sheri Boles). Their faith and their actions made Christianity appealing again.
During the summer of 2005, I drove by a Christian bookstore in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when I was impressed by an unusual desire to enter the bookstore. I had not been at the bookstore but a few minutes when I came across a bookshelf with the books The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, and A Ready Defense by Josh McDowell. I did not plan to buy anything at the bookstore. I left with over $50 worth of books! My mouth dropped open when I came to realize that historical reasons existed for Christ’s resurrection and for the authenticity of the Bible. God used apologetics and those committed to apologetics to bring me back to a faith that was stronger than the one I had previously experienced.
During this time, a small, local, Methodist church took me under their wing. Even though the church was Methodist, the members were made up of Methodists, Baptists, and even Pentecostals! The church was a loving congregation and provided the support that I needed. With my background, the pastor asked if I could fill in for him while he attended a conference. I told him, “Man, I haven’t preached a message in nearly seven years!” He replied, “It’s just like riding a bicycle.” So, I did, and it felt like I had never left. God had been dealing with me to reenter the ministry, but I kept refusing.
In 2007, I was in our outdoor building when a severe thunderstorm came. I was working out with my weights when lightning struck around the building. The electricity from the lightning entered the building. The hair on my body stood on end which is a sign that a person is about to be struck. In a building surrounded by poplar trees and filled with metal equipment, I knew that it did not look very likely that I would make it back inside the house unscathed. I prayed to God to rescue me. For 30 minutes, intense bolts of lightning struck all around the building. One bolt left a hole 4 inches wide in the ground close to where I was located. While I was praying, a sense of peace came over me. God did not rescue me from the storm, but he protected me through it. As quickly as the storm came, it left. I was able to leave the building unscathed. As I thanked the Lord for my safety, it was as if the Lord said to me, “Are you ready to listen now?” I said that I was, so I decided that day that I would reenter the Gospel ministry.
People often ask me what it was that brought me back to the faith. Was it a message that a preacher delivered? Was it a gospel song? Truthfully, it was neither. God brought me back to faith by the philosophical and historical evidences for the Christian faith in addition to the love and compassion shown to me by my wife, Jennifer; her cousins, Jimmy and Sherri Boles; and the good people of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Hamptonville, North Carolina.
I am currently the senior pastor of Westfield Baptist Church in Westfield, North Carolina, just outside of Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy. I cannot say that pastoral ministry has been easy on me. I cannot say that there aren’t times when I ask the Lord why he called me into this kind of ministry. To be honest, teaching is my passion. I cannot say that Christians have not continued to hurt me, nor can I say that I have been immune from trials. But what is different this time from the last is that I have a confidence that Christianity is built on truth. Knowing that a transcendent, good, moral, God actually exists, and that this Creator made a way to God’s self through Jesus brings me great hope and comfort.
I have faced far more challenges the second round of ministry than I did the first. People have not changed. The church has not necessarily changed. However, my faith has changed. Genuine and authentic faith is not one built on trends and fashions or trinkets or toys. It is built on the transcendent God who created everything by God’s spoken word and on a historical Jesus of Nazareth who was literally crucified on a Roman cross and who literally rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. Such faith will endure any storm because it is not empowered by cultural trends arising from society, but rather from a sincere faith arising from Almighty God.