Book Review: A Recipe for Disaster

Title:A Recipe for Disaster: Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How They Can Instill a Faith that Endures
Author:John Marriott
Publisher: WIPF & STOCK, Eugene, OR ©2018

This apologetics book takes a different direction than most. Instead of merely providing discipleship methods, this author explains how churches and families unintentionally cause some to lose their faith. He closes the book with ideas on how parents and the church can disciple individuals so they develop an enduring faith.

In previous posts, I’ve given my readers resources to help them spiritually disciple their children and how to train them to recognize false worldviews. Seeking for more information about how to reduce the mass exodus from the church, I recently read A Recipe for Disaster by John Marriott.

Record Numbers Leaving Faith

Over the past two decades, the church has witnessed a significant exodus of its young people. In 2001, the Southern Baptist Convention determined that 70 to 88 percent of their youth left after their freshman year in college (8). The Assemblies of God reported losing 50 to 67 percent of their youth in 2007 (8). According to Pew Research, the number of religious “nones” has grown about 30 million over the past ten years.

Why are so many leaving? The reasons vary. Author John Marriott believes the way a person was socialized in Christianity may be the cause.

Faith Lost Due to Improper Baking

A friend of Marriott once said, “…the reasons why people lose their faith are interwoven, and, like ingredients in a cake batter, they are impossible to separate” (p. xii). Working from this idea, the author uses a baking theme throughout this book. He explains that just as recipes list ingredients, preparation instructions, and the cooking environment, so do deconversions:

“…[T]he ingredients are the personality traits and personal values of professing Christians. The preparation is the religious socialization or discipling they receive from either their church, home, or a combination of the two. The environment where the cooking takes place correlates with our post-Christian and increasingly secular culture.”

p. xiv

Drawing from writings of and personal conversations with former believers, Marriott builds his argument that improper spiritual preparation can lead to apostasy.

Profile of a Potential Apostate

Many who leave Christianity share these ingredients (personality trials and personal values).

  1. Above-average intelligence.
  2. Being open to new experiences: such individuals tend to reject fundamentalism, seek truth from outside sources, and elevate their own reason over the authority of the Bible and religious leaders.
  3. A low tolerance for fundamentalist and right-wing authoritarian attitudes. They consider Christians narrow-minded.
  4. An inability to process and reconcile difficulties with their faith.
  5. A high tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty.

“…[I]ndividuals who recognize that life is often not lived in the black and white of dogmatic religious certitude, but rather in the grey of uncertainty are less likely to be able to affirm a system of thinking that requires them to deny the complexities that they see.” (20).

Thus, these people must either ignore the uncertainties of faith or leave the faith to keep their intellectual integrity.

Four Types of Poor Preparation

These methods of poor preparation, or spiritual discipleship, don’t necessarily cause someone to leave the faith, but many deconversion stories include them.

Over-Prepared: Theological Challenges

Over-prepared individuals suffer from the Tyranny of the Necessary: too many beliefs. “This process requires them to affirm and defend an excessive number of theological beliefs to maintain their identity as a genuine biblical Christian” (74).

Like the Pharisees, some churches add numerous rigid, extra-biblical rules, such as no dancing or playing cards, to what it means to live as a Christian. This legalism becomes so oppressive that it drives people from the faith.

Under-Prepared: Sociological Challenges

When the church under-prepares believers, believers experience Spiritual Culture Shock when they interact with the greater culture. Churches make it hard for the well-educated to maintain their faith in the twenty-first century when they fail to recognize

  • The power of culture to shape people.
  • The worldview shift of the culture from Christian to secular.
  • The strangeness of the Bible, which seems like an ancient book of legends and magic to many.

Regarding one man’s experience, Marriot explained, “Rather than assisting the young believers in their church to engage with the cultural issues of the day that were challenging to the faith, they offered a version of Christianity that was simplistic and unrelated to the complexities of the modern world. Greg [who decoverted] was forced to draw upon the resources of a Sunday school faith to respond to university questions” (55-56).

Ill-Prepared: Philosophical Challenges

When a Christian community fails to teach spiritual concepts thoroughly, Marriott calls the misconceptions they develop as Half-Baked. People expect the Bible to look a certain way and for God to act a certain way. When the Bible and God fail to meet their expectations, they leave the faith.

“When key elements are missing in how Christians think about crucial scriptural concepts, those concepts will not sufficiently map on to reality. Having inadequate conceptions of God and the Bible may not doom a believer’s faith, but inaccurate conceptions about God and the nature of the Bible are two of the most prominent misconceptions that stories of former believers display.”

p. 129

Misconceptions About the Bible

  • They hold a rigid view of inerrancy and take the Bible too literally where the text isn’t meant to be literal.
  • They lack knowledge of the Bible’s history.
  • They assume that the Bible is a nice story about God loving the world. After hearing sermons only about God’s love, believers who decided read Bible from cover to cover become shocked and dismayed to find descriptions of God’s violent judgment and stories of evil people.

Misconceptions About God

Nearly 44 percent of deconversion stories studied by sociologist Bradley Wright state that God let them down (167). Because God failed to meet their expectations, these people walked away from him. Marriott explains that many of these former believers had been misguided into believing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, term coined by Christina Smith.

“…God exists (deism), he wants us to be happy (therapeutic), and we should treat others in ways that maximizes their happiness by being good, nice, and fair to each other (moral).”

p. 155

Based on this idea, certain people believe that because

  • God wants us to treat others well, we can expect him to be kind to us by protecting us from evil and suffering.
  • God wants us to be nice, he will be nice back and answer our prayers.
  • God wants us to be fair, he will be fair to us.

However, this isn’t a true conception of God.

Painfully Prepared: Existential Challenges

Numerous people who deconvert share stories of how the church hurt them. Unfortunately, such cases occur all too often. Marriott calls it being hit by Friendly Fire.

“…many former believers trace the beginning of their loss of faith not to doubts about the truth of Christianity but to negative experiences they suffered from the hands of other Christians. Those negative experiences are what caused them to reconsider and reevaluate the evidence for Christianity. The belief that led to trust in Christ was reversed by a loss of trust that ended in unbelief” (199).

Successful Preparation

In the last two chapters, John Marriott offers Christian leaders ways to avoid improperly preparing believers so their faith will last.

To Counter Over-Preparation

The church should encourage believers to ask questions and wrestle with apparent contradictions and confusing Scripture passages. The author points out that many doctrines are significant, but not all central to salvation. Churches shouldn’t pile up the rules. Instead, they ought to simplify what it means to be a Christian. Marriott suggests using ancient creeds as a way to teach the core beliefs.

To Counter Under-Preparation

To avoid culture shock, one must be Appropriately Acclimated to a new culture.

  • We need to recognize the power of the culture that surrounds us and how it shapes us, especially regarding feelings because the post-Christian culture finds truth through feelings.

“This is why the church needs to help believers realize that what they feel has little to do with what is true and is largely a product of their cultural setting and social imaginary. Truth is a matter of whether our beliefs correspond with reality, not how we feel”

p. 219
  • We need to let the Holy Spirit and the church culture mold us. “…[T]he church needs to actively engage in formation that counteracts the formation of the world…attending to the head, the heart, and the gut” (222). Marriott says that we need spiritual formation through the spiritual disciplines. “Real change comes when we engage in habits and bodily practices that instill those truths in us so that we become different people” (222).
  • The Bible is strange, and that is okay. Churches need to help people to understand the Bible more deeply than what they learned in Sunday school. Believers must think more critically about scripture.

To Counter the Ill-Prepared

Churches and families need to thoroughly teach the critical spiritual concepts, particularly those about the Bible and the character of God. Incomplete or false assumptions about God and the Bible cause people to stumble, and unmet expectations crush faith.

Correct misconceptions about the Bible

  • Teach the complex history of the Bible.

“Given that the Bible is the product of the divine and human, we should expect that the Bible is a product of its time and culture and therefore it should display evidence for that. When this basic fact is ignored, it can lead to seeing errors in the text that are, in fact, not errors at all” (141).

Correct misconceptions about God

“To help believers avoid being Half-Baked in terms of their conception of God we need to do a better job of helping them form realistic expectations about who God is and what they can expect from him” (234).

  • The church needs to teach about all aspects of God’s character, especially when some of his attributes seem contradictory. He loves the righteous but hates the wicked. He is merciful, but he also punishes sin.
  • The church needs to point out that we should expect to suffer. Many scriptures demonstrate that God doesn’t always protect us from it but uses it to grow our faith.

To Counter Painful-Preparation

Congregations and individuals believers need to be consciously aware of how their words and actions can damage another’s faith. “It is imperative that the Church teaches and practices love and unity, not only because they are virtues, but because they lack of them can have such dire consequences in the formation of believers,” says Marriott (203).

Some ways to replace Friendly Fire with Faithful Wounds of a Friend include the following:

  • Grace-Based Leadership takes seriously the charge to ‘speak the truth in love’ by courageously holding fast to the truth of God’s world in a way that is characterized by patience, kindness, hopefulness, and long-suffering…” (237).
  • Practice Grace-Based Relationships
    • Avoid legalism and be filled with grace.
    • Love others even when they don’t deserve it.
    • Accept one another as Christ accepted you.

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Brennan Manning quoted on p. 203-204

While reading this book, I had to wrestle with some of the issues John Marriott brought up. I come from a fundamentalist background, and I had to work hard to understand his point about not holding so tightly to biblical inerrancy. The author also dips into psychology to explain some ideas, which bothered me a little and made some passages more challenging to read.

However, I could well relate to being under-prepared as a teen and being ill-prepared as a young adult when I came close to chucking my own faith because I didn’t understand God’s role in suffering.

Overall, I highly recommend the book to anyone in church leadership and to parents who don’t want their children’s faith to be poorly prepared.

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