We are in the midst of a catastrophic change in western culture. The church, having ruled our lives for millennia, is experiencing a mass exodus – even if it doesn’t seem that way where you live. People are free to question things they were taught as children, often for the first time.
What follows is a coming-out-party of sorts. I didn’t write this but I’ve known Jason almost my entire adult life. The experiences he describes are real, when describing his commitment he is prone to understate his devotion. He is extremely intelligent and arguably one of the best public speakers in Canada. He isn’t pontificating or proselytizing or complaining, simply telling you about his journey (so please treat it that way). Some of you may know him, be kind. You may not agree with his sentiments but he is incredibly courageous to sign his name to this; but then again he has always been, and remains, a man of honour.
He will be ostracized. This is an incredibly important conversation that is not happening in churches or forums, and is laced with emotion on both sides. The fact remains, however, that millions of us are seeking to find out what we believe in an era that is confusing and polarizing.
This is Jason’s story.
Hi. My name is Jason. Officially I’m Reverend Jason Johnson. You see, I’m a former Pastor with the Free Methodist Church in Canada—an evangelical, right-leaning, conservative, mainstream Christian denomination. (More on the former part in just a bit.)
From my first day at Bible College to my last day in the office my career as a Pastor spanned nearly three decades. I received a Bachelors degree from a Methodist school and a Masters degree from a Baptist school. I worked in churches in BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. I served as Intern Pastor, Interim Pastor, Youth Pastor, Assistant Pastor, Associate Pastor, Church Planting Pastor and finally as a Senior Pastor. If I wasn’t working as staff in a church I spent my free time volunteering in a church. Further to that I served on the national Board of our denomination for several years and then on a committee that oversaw the training and development of new and emerging leaders. The church was my life.
Theologically, I would describe myself as a born-again, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing, church-going Christian. I believed, affirmed, taught, publicly proclaimed and adamantly defended what I came to describe as “historic and creedal Christianity.” Meaning, the creeds and doctrines that historic Christianity developed, wrote down and taught. Things like the six-day creation event, a literal Adam and Eve, the Flood, the virgin birth of Jesus and his bodily resurrection, humanity’s sin and a holy God’s anger and wrath directed toward that sin but salvation is made possible only through mental, spiritual and emotional faith in Christ to take away our sins, and eternal reward in heaven for the saved and eternal punishment in hell for the unsaved. If you believed things outside this or contrary to these I labeled you misguided at best and a heretic at worst.
I hope you’re getting the sense of where I was at personally and professionally. You need to know where I was a few months ago and where I am today to comprehend the seismic shift my theology and practice have taken.
Just now I used the word former: “I’m a former Pastor.” You see, I stepped out of church leadership earlier this year. My last day in the office was January 31st. I said “former” because I’m not taking a hiatus, a break or otherwise pushing pause on it with the intention of going back. I’m done with that professio
n and though they say you should “never say never”, hear me now: I will never be a Pastor again. I left that profession never to return. Nearly thirty years of devotion came to a screeching halt after only a couple months. In fact, I rarely attend church anymore and when I do it’s mostly social: my family likes to go and I genuinely like the people who attend.
How did this all transpire? What took place that would make me leave a profession and calling of nearly thirty years vowing never to return? A few things, actually.
In general, leadership in the church is very difficult. I’ve been antagonized, attacked, publicly shamed, blamed, sabotaged, thrown under the bus, and undermined by people who claim to be Jesus-followers and who believe deeply in love, forgiveness and grace. Being a Pastor has been a frustrating, confidence-shaking and lonely journey. Looking back now, I’m not sure if I was ever in a church and thought, “I love this place!” I’ve secretly wondered whether or not I wasted my life.
Four things transpired specifically to initiate and perpetuate my swift change.
One, I started reading books “from the other side.” That is, books that I would have described as heretical. Though they were written by Christians they doubted, disbelieved, downplayed and denied most if not all the historic and creedal truths. There was no Adam and Eve. No Flood. No virgin birth and no Resurrection. No hell. Probably a heaven. No universal sin and resultant need for salvation. Reading these books opened the door to the possibility that maybe not all of this is true, and that’s okay. Add to this my ingestion of copious amounts of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
Two, I read again about how the Bible was put together. The Bible is an ancient document written by an ancient and primitive people. The events described in the Bible happened decades and even centuries earlier and, for the most part, describe a primitive people responding to barbaric times through a theological lens. Why did we get exiled to another place? Because we sinned against God and failed to keep his covenant. Why did we attack and utterly destroy a city? Because God told us to. Why were we successful in attacking and destroying a city? Because God was with us. The people in the Bible had a primitive understanding of cosmology, biology, human sexuality, the rights of women and children, and marriage, to name a few. Add to this primitive understanding the deep-seated belief that “God is on our side” and “we are God’s chosen people” and “this land was given to us by God” and you get the unfortunate atrocities of genocide, infanticide, abuse of women and children, and slavery. To this day Christendom doesn’t agree on the contents of the Bible. Catholics have several books in their Old Testament that Protestants don’t. Some strains of Eastern Orthodox church don’t include the Song of Solomon or the Revelation of John. Martin Luther didn’t want the epistle of James included. There were literally hundreds of gospels written about the life of Jesus that weren’t included in the New Testament and the four that are were written anonymously.
Three, I read the Bible. Penn Jillette famously said that reading the Bible will make you an atheist. I kind of agree with him. It’s not like I hadn’t ever read the Bible. I read it cover to cover several times. I read the book of Galatians in the original Greek. I read it every day. But this year I innocently took the “Read the Bible in 90 days” challenge. I spent a couple hours every night reading chapter after chapter and writing notes down. I began to see certain things emerge that I hadn’t before. I quit reading it because the historical events it described just seemed way too contrived, like somebody authored or doctored these stories rather than simply writing what happened. I saw how violent God and the people were. I saw the abuse of power that was initiated and approved by God. I saw God turning a blind eye to heinous atrocities (or worse, commanding them) and incredible moral failure yet casting horrible judgment on minor infractions. (In one story, a man, his wife, their children, their livestock and their possession were destroyed by fire from heaven then the whole lot was burned and swallowed up by a localized earthquake all because the man took a few special items.) I found it harder and harder to accept the stories of the Bible because in doing so I would have to ignore scientific facts, moral decency and modern sensibilities.
Four, I experienced profound disappointment in God on behalf of others and myself. For the past several months I have felt alone and abandoned by God. He has remained silent while I’ve been asking him for answers. God has become for me the proverbial father who comes home from work and sits watching TV. Though I beg for his attention he ignores me and remains silent. A friend of mine who faithfully and sacrificially served God for decades, who gave up luxury, marriage and parenting, was rewarded for her retirement with stomach cancer and died only a couple years later. In short, I’ve seen the righteous suffer while the wicked have prospered. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that bad things happen that troubles me. That I can handle. What I can’t handle anymore is bad things happening when God himself said he wouldn’t let bad things happen. Your foot shall not stumble nor fall. The one who watches over you will neither sleep nor slumber. Ask anything in my name and I will do it. Seek and you will find. If you, though you’re evil, know how to give good gifts, how much better gifts will I give?
There’s a scene in Happy Gilmore where a caddy tells happy, “I’m here to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.” Soon Happy does something stupid. He then goes to his caddy and asks, “Where were you on that one, dip shit?” I want to ask God the same thing. A 25 year old get killed in a car accident. God, where were you on that one, dip shit? My aforementioned friend dies of cancer. God, where were you on that one, dip shit? A sudden squall comes up and women and children drown. Go, where were you on that one, dip shit? God has repeatedly broken his promises, let me and others down, failed to show up, not done what he said he would do, allowed what he said he wouldn’t allow, and has therefore become unreliable and untrustworthy. Frankly I grew tired of making excuses for God and for giving and receiving meaningless clichés and platitudes to explain why God didn’t do what he said he would and why he let happen what he said he wouldn’t.
So where am I at today? First off, I’m a hypocrite. I will be the first to recant the above if God actually showed up and did what he said he would; if I actually received some answers. I would love to tell the world I was wrong about God and that he actually does give good gifts, look after his children and answer prayers. I like the fact that my oldest daughter reads her Bible every night even when she goes to her friends’ overnight. “Can you bring me my pajamas, toothbrush and Bible?” she asks. I like that my youngest asked to be baptized in the Shuswap this past summer. I attend church with my family and am still moved by the Pastor’s words. Just today I went by our church to see if there are any volunteer opportunities for me. We still pray as a family at meal times, before long trips and before bed each night.
Theologically I would classify myself as a Christian Agnostic. These don’t go together too often but with me they do.
I’m Christian in the sense that it’s my tribe; what I’m used to. I grew up in the church and it’s religiously where I’m most comfortable. I like the Christian story of salvation and reconciliation. That humans are unique above all other flora and fauna and lost and fallen makes sense of why things are the way they are. We’re capable of incredible good and despicable evil. I like that Christianity has some beliefs unique to it. No other religion has the Trinity, the incarnation of God and the death of God. I like the words and life of Jesus. I like that the supernatural is possible.
I’m an agnostic in the sense that I’ve embraced mystery. I know I don’t know stuff and I’m okay with that. I don’t know why God does what he does. I don’t know if God cares for us. I don’t know why God doesn’t answer prayer. I don’t know if the Bible is the Word of God. When we embrace certainty, especially religious certainty, things go south rather quickly because what we generally mean is, “I’m certain I’m right and I’m certain you’re wrong.” Certainty divides us and creates a mechanism whereby some are “in” and some are “out”. Embracing mystery lifts the burden off our shoulders of having to explain God and God’s ways and lets us live how we want to live, without judgement.
But, I would probably mostly describe myself as a practical deist. God is up there and I’m down here. If we meet sometime, great; if not, I’m okay with that too. I don’t pray. I don’t expect things from God. I don’t thank God anymore for the good things in my life. I’m not waiting “to be led by God” anymore. I’m taking my life and destiny firmly in my hands. If I win it’s because of me. If I lose it’s because of me. God isn’t helping me and probably never did.
That’s my story. I was *here* and now I’m *here*, never to return and I’ve never felt so free, alive, and myself in my life.
And I’m not alone…
(If you are capable of acting with integrity/insight and have honest feedback (and wish to contact Jason directly) you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
** Scott here. I’m not going to publish any comments that are arguments about theology. That isn’t what this was about.