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Lessons the Church Can Learn from the “Deconversion” of Bart Campolo

The news recently came to light that prominent Christian speaker Bart Campolo had abandoned Christianity and is now a “Secular Humanist Chaplain” at the University of Southern California. Bart Campolo, as you might have guessed, is the son of the prominent progressive pastor and former spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, Tony Campolo.

In response to the news, several news organizations have run a story on Bart Campolo including the Huffington Post and Christianity Today. In the latter piece, Ed Stetzer of Christianity Today refers to Campolo’s descent from Christianity to secular humanism as a “deconversion.” Campolo recently spoke to the “Secular Student Alliance” at USC and taught how they could integrate the community building aspects of Christianity into the Secular Student Alliance without, according to Campolo, “the unnecessary dogma.” That video can be seen here.

I first became aware of Bart Campolo in 2010. At the time, I was working as a youth pastor for a Methodist Church. The big event every year for this youth group was an event known as Pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was a weekend run by the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church directed towards youth groups. Each year, several thousand youth from various churches all across the state would descend on Fayetteville, North Carolina for Pilgrimage. That particular year, though, there was some controversy as the keynote speaker for the event was Bart Campolo. While Mr. Campolo still considered himself a Christian at that time, (it was not until the next year when Mr. Campolo says that he completely abandoned the faith) he had already denied that God was sovereign over the world, the inspiration of the scriptures, and the possibility of any supernatural events in the Bible including Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Campolo also became a Universalist, meaning that he believed that everyone would go to heaven regardless of what they actually believed. Campolo himself stated, “I passed just about every stage of heresy on my way to apostasy.” In 2011, though, Campolo had abandoned so many aspects of Christianity that it no longer made sense for him to view himself as a Christian. He sums it up well by saying, “My Christianity had died the death of a thousand nicks and cuts. ”

Instead of merely shaking our heads or perhaps rolling our eyes, I believe that there are two main lessons that the church can learn from this account of Bart Campolo.

First, we need to pay close attention to who is teaching us and our children. 

At Pilgrimage, I am confident that many of the parents of the youth who attended the event did not know of Mr. Campolo’s unorthodox views regarding universalism, the authority of the scriptures, homosexuality etc. I am also confident that many of these parents would hold views that were diametrically opposed to Campolo with regards to these issues and would not want their children to be taught such things. But yet, they still sent their kids to this event without looking into what they would be taught. (I should note at this point that attending Pilgrimage was not my decision, but rather was a requirement for my position as the youth pastor. This was one of the many reasons why my tenure at this particular church and working in the Methodist church in general was short-lived.) 

Most parents, when they hire a babysitter would not just hire anyone off the street. They would want to know the person who would be taking care of their kids, or at the very least, receive some recommendations from trusted sources before they would leave their kids with them. This practice, however, does not always carry over when it comes to who will be teaching one’s children. Jesus said in Luke 6:40, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” Since this is so, we as Christian parents should give special attention to who is teaching our children.

This reality, though, does not merely apply to our children but to us as well. What does the person in the pulpit every week actually believe? What about the small group leader? What about the person teaching at the conference that we are attending? We can no longer assume that just because one is under the banner of “Christianity” or even “Evangelicalism” that they hold orthodox beliefs.

Second, we need to keep doctrine central in our churches.

Bart Campolo stated that, “All the dogma and the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction to Christianity.” Instead, he says that he was drawn by the sense of community and the common commitment to love people, promote justice, and transform the world. In short, it was not that Campolo saw himself as a sinner incapable of being reconciled to a holy God and came to Christianity by turning to Christ as his savior, lord, and treasure. Rather, he liked the community aspects of the church and saw Christianity as a platform to pursue justice. Once he was able to pursue those things in a forum without “Christian dogma” he left the faith. 

In light of this revelation from Bart Campolo, we should examine the priorities in our churches and ask, “What do we make central?” Do we strive only to be a loving community where we can pursue good works together? Is that all there is to our Christianity? Does anything differentiate our church from a social club with a spiritual flavor?

Campolo spoke four times at Pilgrimage for about 45 minutes each time. Looking back, he didn’t necessarily say anything heretical. While at the time, he didn’t believe in the deity of Christ, he didn’t mention it. While at the time, he didn’t believe in the necessity of faith in Christ in order to attain salvation, he didn’t mention it. While he didn’t believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, he didn’t mention it. But he also didn’t mention anything distinctly Christian. He told inspirational stories. He made jokes. He admonished the youth to reach out to those on the fringe of society. Nothing wrong, but nothing distinctively Christian. Nothing about the holiness of God. Nothing about our sin and need for a savior. Nothing about God’s mercy and grace shown towards sinners at the cross. He didn’t emphasize any of those things because to him, that’s not what Christianity was about. 

We as Christians need to examine our own spiritual lives and our experience in our churches and determine whether the emphasis is on the great doctrinal truths of the faith, or on something else. As can be observed with Bart Campolo, though, it’s not always a matter of what is said, but what is left out that is most revealing.

 

-Joshua Bryan DeLong