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Why they remain Christians
Faith leaders explain their calling and where they find hope

Editor’s note: This column is part of our ongoing Opinion commentary on faith, calledLiving Our Faith. Find the full series at dallasnews.com/topic/living-our-faith.


In 2005, I interviewed Christian theologian Brian McLaren for The Dallas Morning News. Back then, McLaren was an evangelical pastor using provocative words, unfamiliar to me, like “emerging” and “missional” to describe a new kind of Christianity.

Today, for many of us, staying in the Christian faith feels like a compromise, or worse, being part of systems of harm, which may explain why 13% fewer Americans attend religious services than a decade ago, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, and why “deconstruction” is a trend.

Almost 20 years later, I decided to check in with McLaren. I wanted to hear why, after all these years, he stays where he is and where he sees hope for the faith.

What prompted me was finishing his latest book, Do I Stay Christian? — A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned. The title is hardly subtle and, to be honest, I had dreaded reading it.

In his book, McLaren tackles hard questions for himself and the thousands of people who have asked him. It is divided into three parts: first the heavy hitting “bad news,” a historical account of what causes people to leave Christianity; secondly, why some stay; and finally the “good news,” a list of hopeful ideas of what we can do now.

I also spoke with two local Christian leaders: Wil Gafney, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, and Aaron Manes, a trained spiritual director.

I asked for their thoughts on the future of Christianity: Why leave? Why stay? Where are you finding hope?

Why leave?

McLaren said that for people who stay Christian, the first part of his book is the hardest. It was for me. Chapter after chapter of embarrassing and appalling facts about my faith tradition.

In this section, McLaren chronicles 10 reasons to leave. The chapter titles tell the story: Christianity Has Been Vicious to Its Mother (Anti-Semitism), Christianity’s Real Master (Money) and White Christian Old Boys’ Network (White Patriarchy).

As I turned each page, I kept sighing in agreement with McLaren, “We have some ugly skeletons in our closet that we don’t acknowledge.”

Gafney, who endorsed McLaren’s book, said, “I never considered leaving, I was too much of a Jesus person.” Influenced by Howard Thurman’s Jesus and The Disinherited, Gafney said, “That book was my first understanding that Jesus was a Jew. I am a follower of the religion of Jesus.”

She continued: “I do not doubt the core teachings. I have doubts about the larger project in the world. For example, where are the women in our Scriptures? Why are they subject to abuse and secondary status? And what does that mean to us whose lives have been shaped by interpreting those Scriptures?”

Manes shared a recent experience related to a mosque in his neighborhood. “I live right around the corner. ... My church takes its confirmation class there. Recently, when I drove by the mosque and saw people holding signs that said, “There is only one God and His name is Jesus,” it was hard to stomach.

“Some may claim that my view of the Bible is not as high as theirs, but I know when I see Christians picketing a mosque that God is not pleased.”

Why stay?

For McLaren, one of the most important reasons he stays is: “If I leave, there are people who will continue to use the Christian faith to do harm. If I stay, I can try to get in the way of some of that harm and use whatever influence I have to offer people a better option.”

As an Episcopal priest, Gafney feels it is her call, “to teach congregations about antisemitism, anti-Blackness, patriarch and misogynism.”

Manes said, “I am staying a Christian because of one reason ... Jesus. In the face of a global superpower and religious leaders who aligned with that power, Jesus resisted. It is literally what got him killed.”

Where are you finding hope?

McLaren related that in his travels, the most common question goes like this: I am a young parent, I want to raise my children with a spiritual background, but not with the religious fear, shame, guilt or supremacy of my upbringing. What should I do?

For McLaren, that question is also personal; he has five grandkids. So, he co-wrote, with Gareth Higgins, his first children’s book, Cory and the Seventh Story. McLaren also finds hope in a new initiative that he is involved with called Raising Kids For Good, a collaboration of children’s book authors and church curriculum developers.

Gafney and Manes focused on the next generation as well.

“When you asked me [where do you find hope] I thought, ‘What makes you think there’s something promising?’” Gafney said. “But I thought about it more, and I have tremendous hope because of my students — their deep theological wrestlings to think beyond the paradigm in which they were raised and ask questions they were not allowed to ask.”

Without missing a beat, Manes shared what is giving him hope, “I work with two local ministries who help LGBTQ+ students find their voices to be faith-filled leaders. They understand what works against them, but these students’ willingness to heed their calls to ministry or be witnesses for the Gospel is so inspiring to me.”

Like Gafney and Manes, it is Jesus who keeps me in the Christian faith. For those who have “ears to hear,” McLaren concludes his book with this Jesus-infused invitation:

“If you have the inner fire to stay in the struggle, may you know that you are walking a path that reformers, prophets, mystics, and sages have walked before you, including a fellow who grew up in Nazareth of Galilee and died just outside Jerusalem.”

Lesa Engelthaler is a freelance journalist in Dallas. She wrote this column exclusively for The Dallas Morning News.