Over the past year Ryan Bell, former Adventist pastor of the Hollywood SDA church, has publicly struggled with his faith and lived a life as an Atheist. With the conclusion of his 2014 resolution to live as an Atheist yesterday it was no surprise to me that he announced that he no longer believes in God. While many have responded with various signs of disappointment, compassion, or disdain, it was one response in the Adventist Review that struck a chord with me. The article found HERE, entitled “Concern, Compassion, and Hope for ex-Pastor Who Left God” may appear in title to be sincere, but to which I found it patronizing and belittling.
Maybe it’s the fact that I understand Ryan’s struggle all too well. While I never lived a year without God as he did, I struggled with belief for almost six months. Very few people knew the depths of my struggle with religion, spirituality, and God since my job and family depended on my faith (not counting the fact I was and am the youth ministry director for my church). Maybe it’s my current struggles not with faith, but with religion and Christianity as institutions. Maybe it’s the fact that I identify with the individuals so callously referred to in the article as “social justice minded prodigals”. No matter what it was, I was hurt by what felt like a patronizing and flippant response so out of touch with the reality of where so many are as believers. I had to respond. While I don’t know if my response will be approved or not, I thought I would share here in the hopes of connecting with others who feel likewise.
And in case you were wondering, my faith today is as strong as it has ever been. I believe that my journey and struggles make me a better follower of Jesus and aide me in my ministry to those who often feel disconnected from God. I am also strongly Adventist and believe in the core beliefs and truths that I have learned there.
“I am a fourth generation Adventist, a preachers kid, product of the SDA system, and bi-vocational youth pastor. Ryan’s experience is all too real to me both in my own personal spiritual journey (including atheism) as well as those students I meet and minister to on a regular basis. I’m hurt by this response because to me it appears very patronizing and more importantly out of touch. To start with the sentiment that our “Adventist education and enculturation” should have saved him is naïve. Our schools are dying and closing one after another. Year after year I see more students graduate from academy and leave church than stay. Have we become so reliant on our “system” that when we are faced with individuals who struggle as Ryan has that we don’t know how to respond? It’s easy to write off other world views and truths as “uninspired” when we don’t understand or agree with them. Many did the same to the reformers and even Mrs. White. Yet, we fail to reveal the inspired life in connection with God to these people. Belittling where Ryan has turned to for inspirational truth only results in pushing him and others on that path further away. I have seen God use those truths to shine into the lives of others in marvelous ways.
Real compassion would not write off the “give me” people as prodigals who will return when they come to their senses, but encourage them and nurture them. Didn’t Abram, Gideon, and Moses all ask for signs? Doesn’t Isaiah tell us to ask for a sign (Is. 7:11)? “Give me” goes so much deeper into a person’s faith journey. It’s a longing to fill the God shaped hole in all of us. And what did we give him in response to his struggle? How did Ryan see the hands and feet of Jesus moving on this earth? He was promptly fired from employment and shunned, leaving a group of Atheists to raise money to support this single dad.
Finally, I’m ashamed that we would write off those with a “social justice mentality” as prodigals. How then should we respond to Jesus who says those who will be saved feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned? How do we reconcile a gospel preached to the meek and powerless by a man who had no place to lay his head with our current state of large houses of worship and billion dollar television networks? Social injustice exists as a result of sin and we are called as the body of Christ to do his work. Seeing Christians claim this message, but not live it is what’s so disorienting to Ryan, myself, and many others. We are seeing Brennan Manning’s quote lived out “The single greatest cause of atheism is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny him with their lifestyle”
I’m sorry, but I don’t see much concern or compassion here. I do see hope however. Hope that through this very public experience for our church, we can all see better ways to reach those who are struggling and maybe even re-evaluate how we are currently sharing the gospel truth with the world around us. And hope as you said in the father figures, who personally reached me during that time of struggle, to embrace me and nurture me through the questions and seeking “truth”. Those of us secure in our faith should do as Bill suggested and connect with Ryan personally much like Matthew 18 tells us to. That is how we reach an unbelieving world.”