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Christopher Kincaid, 40, grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., as a Pentecostal Christian. He remembers being “freaked out” by sermons about the “end times.” He regularly witnessed people speaking in tongues: “I remember being enthralled with the theatrical aspect of church.”
Christopher Ellison, 41, grew up in a home headed by a single mom who wanted him “to have a solid basis of beliefs,” so she dropped him off at the Lutheran church each Wednesday and Sunday, but did not attend herself except to see him perform in church plays: Church “was like babysitting.”
Marco Garcia, 51, grew up in a Catholic home. Although he attended catechism class and was confirmed at age 12, Christianity didn’t play a significant role at home. His parents dropped him and his siblings off at Mass each Sunday: They rarely went, and he doesn’t recall any Bible reading, except when bad things happened.
Kincaid, Ellison, and Garcia all grew up with some connection to the church—and a complex cocktail of beliefs, experiences, and desires led them to reject Christianity, although one has now returned to it. A closer look at their stories shows what they rejected was something other than Jesus and His church.
Kincaid’s faith fractured at age 16. He says “everyone was constantly watching each other for ‘backsliding,’” and church felt “very accusatory—like you need to work every day to wash away the stain of sin.” He told his parents, “I don’t want to go to church anymore.” To his surprise, they didn’t push back. Kincaid served in the U.S. Army in Bosnia in his mid-20s. There he witnessed deadly, religion-based sectarian violence.
Ellison entered the U.S. Marine Corps after high school, got involved with a church, and “was living like a monk—I didn’t drink, was not sexually impure in any way.” He noted that many church members, such as a young woman with what seemed like a new boyfriend every week, did not meet his standard but regularly responded to altar calls, “crying her eyes out.” In college he taught Bible studies but, on a summer trip, met a “Hindu dude” who didn’t follow any of the Christian rules: “It was amazing to me that he could be so happy.”
Garcia was 18 when he held an open bottle of 90 prescription painkillers in one hand and an open bottle of Corona in the other: An “in the closet” homosexual, Garcia “had taken LSD and didn’t want to live a gay lifestyle, so I decided that taking my life would probably be a better idea.” At the last moment, he says, “the Holy Spirit got to me and convinced me not to do it.” Later, he attended churches in California but wondered why preachers were “always picking on homosexuals? They’re not the only ones sinning.” At one church the pastor, buoyed by congregational laughter, was “bagging on homosexuals about how all of them want to put on dresses.” Garcia bolted and vowed, “I’ll never go back to church again.”
Kincaid, stressing his lack of faith in institutional religion, his personal experience with how faith divides, and his satisfaction in life without faith, says he is now an agnostic. Ellison calls himself an atheist: “I don’t need a God in my life to explain the way the world works.” After leading Bible studies and diligently following Christian tenets, he says he knows “more about Christianity than most Christians do. … I’ve realized it was all bogus.”
And Garcia? For 15 years after walking out of church he kept his vow never to return. But then he heard a story of a woman’s commitment to Christ despite deep personal hardships: “I started comparing myself to her and thought, ‘What a weakling you are!’” A fellow student invited him to a men’s conference at a local church. Garcia summarized his story on a notecard, appended a question about homosexuality, and gave the card to an usher.
The pastor, not knowing who wrote the card, read it aloud to the group and then “apologized to me on behalf of Jesus … for having to endure hypocrisy in the past.” Garcia says, “That started to change my heart.” He returned to Christianity and committed to a life of celibacy: “I’ve done a complete 180—I’m reading the Bible now, and what’s shocking is that I’m understanding it. … I think I’m finally back on the right track, headed in the right direction.”
Before they left the faith, all three men had a warped view of Christianity. For Kincaid, Christianity was a scare tactic to make Christians “fall in line.” For Ellison, it was a set of rules. For Garcia, faith was a personal lifeline to use only when trouble came. None had grown up with a faith that delights in Jesus, the faith Paul described in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” As Bill St. Cyr, executive director of Ambleside Schools International who has a Ph.D. in pastoral counseling, says, “It is rare that someone walks away for whom Jesus is a real presence … one who cares, one who loves.”
Ellison and Kincaid may never have experienced Jesus this way. But Garcia eventually did through the influence of other Christians, and that led him back to the faith. My conclusion: We should treat sinners as Jesus did, teaching right doctrine and being relentlessly gracious without compromising truth. Those who experience a real relationship with Jesus come to prize it above everything else, and that keeps them going when trouble comes.
Why stop at two?
Michael Cook speculates on the MercatorNet blog that the next frontier after same-sex “marriage” will likely be polyamory—“consensually nonmonogamous relationships.” Academics gathered in California in February for the first-ever International Academic Polyamory Conference. A February Scientific American article, “New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You,” suggested that adultery “may even change monogamy for the better.” —Susan Olasky
—David Fisher is studying at Reformed Theological Seminary-Washington