Brian Zahnd once told a story that went something like this.
“There was a pastor at a fundamentalist church in the same town as my church and, one Sunday morning, he gets up to preach and says, ‘I’m no longer a Christian. I’ve become an atheist and can no longer in good conscience lead this congregation.’
“His church was understandably shook up by this and someone convinces him he should talk to me about it although I don’t think either one of us believed it would do any good. So, he sits down in my office, he tells me his story, and I say ‘Look, your problem isn’t that you’re an atheist. You problem is that you’re a fundamentalist.'”
I think Zahnd’s point was that the mindset among fundamentalist Christians and most conservative evangelicals requires strict interpretation of the Bible without much (if any) wiggle room. You start to question x, y, and z, discover some facts you can’t refute, cracks form in your foundation, and, boom, you decide you can no longer be a Christian.
The pastor in the story above was hemmed in by this kind of belief system. I don’t know which tenets of his church he could no longer accept but, with anything short of denying Christ, this guy didn’t have to abandon the faith.
Conservative evangelical leaders in the church today need to start talking about supposed Biblical contradictions and how the Old Testament was influenced by Ancient Near East mythology to let people know that their salvation doesn’t depend on believing the Bible as it may have been taught to them in a traditional church. This would be especially helpful for kids entering high school or going off to college. As Andy Stanley says, we tend to give Sunday school answers to real world questions. And those answers will most likely be insufficient to allow these kids to continue in their faith.
You don’t have to become an atheist or agnostic if you’re a Christian who decides you can’t continue in the tradition you were raised in. There’s a great big world of Christianity outside of traditional conservative evangelicalism. Don’t be afraid to kick open some doors and look behind the curtain. You’ll find God is already there.