It’s many parents’ nightmare that their child should lose their Christian faith.
When celebrity pastor Tony Campolo’s adult son Bart told him he didn’t believe in God, “it was like somebody put a knife in my stomach.”
The news made Tony put his head in his hands, while his wife immediately started praying. Later she said that she was praying that Tony wouldn’t respond to the news in a way that would wreck the father-son relationship. It must have been particularly painful, because Bart had been a Christian pastor for years, which had no doubt been a source of pride for them both.
Tony and Bart speak openly and frankly about their differences in the new documentary, Leaving My Father’s Faith. Their relationship survived the initial difficult conversation back in 2011. But as this film makes clear, the tensions of the situation are still there.
Campolo is a well-known 'left-wing' or 'liberal' evangelical. He's a former spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, has spoken in favour of gay relationships and is passionate about social justice. The latter concern is still shared by Bart, so much that he even describes them as "on the same team even if we call our ultimate concern by different names."
No doubt some Christians will wonder if Tony’s more liberal theology played a role in his child’s loss of faith – but given that many more conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have children who don’t believe, I’m not sure this is fair or helpful.
At the same time, it is notable how Bart Campolo gradually shed various Christian doctrines on his way to atheism. He's admitted that a journey toward ever increasing 'progressiveness' can ultimately shipwreck your Christian faith. The first doctrine Bart rejected was the sovereignty of God (though a particularly hyper-Calvinist version of it). Then he became a universalist. Next he rejected the Church’s traditional position on homosexuality. Finally, unanswered prayer made him question supernaturalism.
"Every time I would change, I would underline one set of verses, and ignore another set of verses...You can make the Bible do whatever you want," he claims in the film.
Tony agrees: "He was losing confidence in Jesus because he was losing confidence in Scripture."
The final blow to Bart's Christianity happened after a serious bike accident. He woke up from a traumatic brain injury with no belief in eternal life. But this too had been a gradual process, as Bart told the New York Times: “When I took off on the bicycle that day, the supernaturalism in my faith was dialed so far down you could barely notice it.”
'I never really believed it'
In the documentary Bart says, “I never really believed it.”
How could it be that someone would call themselves a Christian for most of their life, and be a Christian minister, and then say that they never really believed it?
When you live in a society where there is a high value placed on calling yourself Christian and going to church, and there are even promising career paths available, there’s always going to be people who become Christians for the wrong reasons. And when your family are Christians there are plenty of other motivations to apply the label to yourself.
What should cause us all to pause is that many of these motivations often appear unconscious. Bart seemed to think that he did believe before the accident, but afterwards he says he never believed at all.
Going to church, having nice social values and doing nice community work – how many people are calling themselves Christian because they want these things and ‘praying the prayer’ seems to be the way to get them?
No wonder the church grows much faster in countries where believers are persecuted, and there is nothing to gain by becoming a Christian except Christ himself. They know that Christ is truly worth it. No wonder we don’t see many miracles in the West, when the level of faith is such that we see little difference in behaviour between believers and non-believers.
Is it really Christ we are serving? Or is it a vision of society, or our parents’ dreams?
Heather Tomlinson is a freelance writer
Watch Leaving My Father's Faith at campolofilm.com
Listen to Bart Campolo in conversation with Sean McDowell on Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? podcast