Dear Jon Steingard (and others in his shoes)
Note: This letter/article is written to Jon Steingard, formerly of the Christian band Hawk Nelson, who announced over Instagram that he is no longer sure he believes in the existence of God. His Instagram post tells his story about how he lost faith, his growing doubts, and what has recently led him to publicly announce his loss-of-faith.
I’m a youth pastor and I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for the ways that Christian culture puts young men and women who are talented in the spotlight, placing the burden of spiritual maturity onto them in ways that simply aren’t good. The Bible lists qualifications for spiritual leaders in the church, but other areas of spiritual influence – like music, art, culture, etc. – are less clear. It doesn’t seem wise to forbid Christian artists who are young to contribute what they have to offer, and yet we also need to recognize the challenges and dangers of the spotlight for young people.
I’m sorry for the feeling or implication that honest and hard questions aren’t welcome, because they’d jeopardize not only your livelihood, but your friendships. Your youth ministry experience as a teenager probably didn’t help. In an effort to help students discover new life in Christ, youth ministry has a tendency to encourage public declarations, quick decisions, and raised hands at the expense of clarity around the gospel. We play the short game because it’s easier, instead of doing the hard (and slow) work of guiding teenagers into deep and lifelong faith in Jesus. This is why an increasing number of youth ministries are discovering that teaching theology is actually very important. After all, if the gospel we preach is only a partial-gospel, and if we make promises the Bible never offers, then we’re either leading students into false-conversions or to shipwreck their faith when life doesn’t work out like we led them to believe.
Even this week I was discussing your post with a teenager who confessed to feeling similarly to you, Jon. He told me he had “worked things out” on his own because didn’t think anyone else had those same questions and doubts. Or that if he did tell someone about them, he’d be shamed. The Christian community needs to be better about teaching depth and encouraging hard questions rather than preaching a shallow gospel that only breeds conformity. We need to embrace and encourage those who echo the words of the man who came to Jesus saying, “I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:23-25).
I’m sorry for all the “answers” you’re probably getting from people right now, when you probably just want to know that you’re being heard – maybe for the first time in a long time. As you know, Christians aren’t very good at embracing uncertainty. I’m sorry that you’ve arrived at the conclusions you’ve shared on social media, and I’m also sorry for all of the well-meaning articles on apologetics that I’m sure have landed in your inbox. Easy answers to hard questions are so cheap, aren’t they? We need to be better at questioning what we don’t know while holding onto those things we do know. I just want you to know that I hear you and you are seen.
I’m sorry for the ways we’ve wrongly added to the gospel by tacking on promises of comfort and happiness so long as you continually “prove” that your faith is the real thing; but as soon as your faith shows that it really is as small as a mustard seed, you get sideways glances. This is my greatest ache for you. The crushing pressure to perform will crumble the most zealous hearts, eventually. But the gospel gives freedom. That’s what I hope you find – that true freedom is found in the grace of Jesus Christ, not by shedding the confines of religion. If you need to walk away for this season in order to rediscover the grace and mercy of God who loves so generously that he gave Jesus Christ… then so be it. You are, you always have been, and you always will be in God’s hand.
You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. But if I can care for you or offer any personal support, my contact information is only a Google search away. Seriously.