Ask a Counselor: faith shift edition

by Kay Bruner on October 5, 2017

It can begin any number of ways:

Burnout leads to a need for better boundaries

  • And you ask yourself: “If Jesus offers rest for my soul, why does everyone else want me to work harder?”

Social justice issues move to the forefront

  • And you ask yourself: “People here are literally dying, while American Christians sit in stained glass palaces and complain about persecution when their Starbucks cups are the wrong color.  I wonder what other justice issues I’m overlooking?”

Cross-cultural differences challenge your previous paradigms

  • And you ask yourself: “I was taught that in order to grow kids God’s way, in order to quench their rebellious spirits, I had to spank them from infancy onward. Spanking is illegal here, and the kids seem to be alright.  I wonder what that’s all about?”

Personal growth leads to spiritual conviction

  • And you ask yourself: “I’ve realized that I’m approaching God from fear, needing to perform perfectly so that he won’t punish me. But the Bible says God loves me so much that he sent Jesus.  I wonder how life would be different if I lived from Love instead of fear?”

Intellectual curiosity sparks new discoveries

  • And you ask yourself: “A friend on Facebook recommended The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, and I discovered a whole world of Biblical scholarship that I never knew existed. I wonder what else is out there that I don’t know about?”

Addiction or abuse throws your entire world into chaos

  • And you ask yourself: “My husband acts wonderful in public, but at home he’s distant, disconnected, impatient, and verbally abusive to me and the kids. I recently discovered that he’s been looking at porn since he was a teenager, and now he’s going to massage parlors.  He says it’s my fault because I’ve gained weight.  My mentor told me to pray and submit, that he might be won without a word.  She told me to give him sex and lose weight to show my love for him.  She said I’m not allowed to leave him because he hasn’t had sex with anyone else.  Some days I just want to die. I’ve started cutting again, just to ease the pain.  Does God really require me to submit to my husband’s unrepentant sin?  And do I really want to be part of a church that doesn’t care how badly I’m hurting?”

Experiences like this, which bring up these kinds are questions, challenge our interior schema.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed that children begin with simple schema, for example:  Every animal with four legs is “doggie.”

Then, as more information presents itself, children either:

assimilate information that fits the existing schema (“Yes, that’s a doggie.”)


they accommodate information that does not fit the existing schema, creating new schema for the new information (“No, that’s a squirrel.”)

We’re used to this as children, but as adults we tend to become less open to new information.

New experiences and ideas about faith can be especially challenging to cope with, as changing our minds feels like it would change our whole world.  Many of us assimilate, assimilate, assimilate, until some particularly difficult situation leads us to realize that our schema can no longer contain our experiences.

When that happens, we may find ourselves in a faith shift. 

As Jesus said, we need new wineskins for the new wine.

Faith-shifting is not an uncommon experience in our world today.

  • The Barna Group’s research shows a downward trend in American church involvement, particularly among Millennials.
  • A quick Amazon search reveals a plethora of books on evangelicals moving away from that particular tradition.
  • Any number of Facebook groups exist for the support of faith-shifters.

There’s a lot of information out there about faith-shifting.

However, here’s a thing I haven’t seen anybody write about or heard anybody talk about, but which I know for a fact to be true:  missionaries are faith-shifting too.  

I know, because my clients tell me they are.

Missionaries are faith-shifting, and they can’t tell anybody, because it’s not safe.

Along with all the usual issues that faith-shifters face, missionaries face this additional huge question:

Will I lose my job, my supporters, if people find out that I’m not able to check all their required boxes anymore?

I don’t know the answers to that question.

I don’t know how churches will handle the reality of faith-shifting missionaries.

But let me tell you something I do know:

Why do systems use the threat of ostracism to keep people in line? 

Because ostracism is so painful that we will do almost anything to avoid it.

Ostracism as a threat works because it’s effective.

In my experience, faith-shifters will only come out of the closet when staying inside the system has become so painful that they have no other choice but to risk the pain of ostracism.

So, what to do?

  • Count the cost: keep track of how staying in the system impacts us.
  • Create healthy boundaries, based on the costs we’re counting in our lives.
  • Build community: find safe, supportive people whether in real life or online.
  • Trust God to be big enough for our questions.  Breathe.
  • Have faith for the journey.  Wherever we go, God is with us, loving us.
  • Know that you are not alone.
  • Care for your physical self with yoga sessions aimed at anxiety-reduction, to combat the effects of potential ostracism.

Resources for faith-shifters

Falling Upward, Richard Rohr

An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor

Faith Shift, Kathy Escobar

Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans

The Sin of Certainty, Peter Enns

Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd

The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns

Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood

The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey

The Last Week, Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan.

Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd

Love Wins, Rob Bell

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Brad Jerszak

Finding God in the Waves, Mike McHargue

The Language of God, Francis Collins

How God Changes your Brain, Andrew Newberg

Torn, Justin Lee

Unfair, John Shore

Folks to find online

Kathy Escobar

Cindy Wang Brandt

Angie Fadel

Center for Action and Contemplation

The Liturgists

Peter Enns


If angels and demons can’t separate us from the love of God,

then some questions about faith systems are highly unlikely to have that power, either.

Even ostracism, as painful as that can be, cannot separate us from the love of God.

We are loved.

We are safe.

We are chosen.

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Thanks for talking about this. I think there can also be a level of shame that comes with a deconstruction season, your words here are helpful in combating that.

    • Ooo, yes, shame. “You’re a bad person” for exploring topics that are scary. Go too far, and you’ll be told you’re a heretic–shame on steroids, with spiritual abuse as a little tasty topping. Grace and peace. You are NOT alone. And you are fully loved, safe, and chosen. Nothing separates us from Love.

  • Dalaina May

    It’s not just supporters and churches, it’s other missionaries and missions organizations that keep us in hiding. If I had a dime for every time my husband says, “Oh my God. You are going to get us FIRED!” 😀

    My experience is that people on the field say a lot of words about “vulnerability” and being honest. But when you are… they have no idea what to do with you other than pretend that they aren’t trying to avoid you. The issues of supporters and sending churches is huge too, but the daily issues are closer in the actual missionary community when people start worrying about your soul.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Kay. We need this conversation! I hope missions orgs will start talking about faith shift and normalizing it publically.

    • Oh, wow. That makes sense, too… So much fear. 🙁 Let’s give perfect love a chance and see what happens instead!

  • MsLorretty

    I know that to sign on with our current agency I had to check boxes that I don’t altogether agree with but I told myself that in reality, I don’t have to agree with these things in their entirety. I was trusting God to inform me in these areas as I go. So in reality, what do you suggest we do to serve the Lord with honesty, make disciples with integrity and keep our base level of faith intact?

    • I think everybody has to decide for themselves what works on an individual basis. I know a lot of people keep quiet about differing beliefs because their work matters more. “We ought to obey God rather than man” might be a useful reframe for people in situations like that.

      • MsLorretty

        Thanks. That’s fair. In fact it’s that line of obedience that has us in this position in the first place and the agency is simply the vehicle– time-tested, consumer-backed and somewhat reliable but occasionally needing a tune-up like the rest of our man-made institutions. 🙂 There is a goodness to be thankful for in all of these real conversations I’m being allowed to listen in on before we go because they may cushion the blows and and soften the edges of those crises of faith when they inevitably come.

  • Marla Taviano

    Great post and great resource list! Thank you, Kay!

  • Sender

    I would ask that the article correct the mistaken assertion that American Christians complained about persecution over Starbucks cups. In actuality, it was one person complaining in a video that then sparked assumptions from others that American Christians *would* react this way. You can check this out through Laura Turner’s article for the Religious News Services printed in the Washington Post on November 9, 2015.

    In addition, I think the article would benefit from a variety of examples of faith shifts. For example, a missionary my church supports just left his sending organization because he felt its mission to seekers needed to emphasize the gospel more (he explained this using some changes in his theological views). Whether I agree with this shift or any of the ones in the article is not my point; it’s that faith shifts occur in many different directions.

    • “Many, many Christians believe they are subject to religious discrimination in the United States. A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings offers evidence: Almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants.”

      • Sender

        Thanks for responding. I agree with you that there are lots of different ways to back up that particular point.

  • Kristen

    Thank you so much for writing about this little-talked-about topic! I think faith shifts are part of life overseas, but I, at least, was unprepared for how to deal with it, and shame kept me from even talking about it for a long time. Thanks for the resources!

    • No shame only Love. You are not alone! Happy exploring!

  • S.

    Thank you for addressing this. I read some of the books you mentioned and will check out some of the others.
    I also found Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts really helpful and highly recommend it.

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