In Defense of Phony Christians

The Role of Unbelievers in the Church

Beverly Garside
Interfaith Now


Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

They Are Legion

I first heard the term phony Christian in the Baptist Student Union at college. I was a new Christian, having become born again my freshman year. Phony Christian was usually used in conjunction with cultural Christianity — describing the throngs of church goers who did not dedicate their lives to serving god and spreading the love of Jesus. Instead they continued living their secular lives, attending church mostly out of a desire to be seen attending church.

Phony Christians could be found in any church, but were mainly said to reside in the apostate Catholic Church or the spiritually dead mainline Protestant churches. Some of them may have thought they were saved and going to heaven. Others didn’t even bother believing in god at all.

Each and every one of them was destined for hell.

That judgement was said with relish, and a certain twinkle in the eye. And it bothered me. Because not only had I come from a family of phony Christians, until recently I had been one myself.

Confessions of a Phony Christian

My family became phony Christians in the mid-1970’s, when my father retired from the military and we settled in rural southern Virginia. In military society church was always optional, and the option we chose was no. We were never religious. Now, however, we were not attached to a base, and had to fit in with the local culture.

For me that culture held a particularly nasty surprise — being dragged to church.

Suddenly I had to dress up in finery — clothes I would not be caught dead in even in school — and go sit in a class, called Sunday school, with kids who all knew each other but didn’t know me. (Introvert nightmare #1.) Afterwards the family would reunite in the sanctuary, where we were never sure when to sit or stand, and would find ourselves still desperately searching for hymn 63 on page 125 after everyone else had already finished the first verse. I quickly learned to mouth the words silently because my singing voice was worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. But I knew everyone could see me faking it, especially when I had to share a hymnal. (Introvert nightmare # holy hell, when can we get out of here?)

It was a mainline Presbyterian church, and 100 percent awkward. Once safely back in the car, not a word was spoken about it, and we were all anxious to get home.

The Willing and the Dragged

Looking back on those dragged years, I can’t speculate how many of the adults were in that sanctuary to worship God, and how many were like us — herded there against our will by a community that would not take no for an answer. I can recall, however, some differences in our behavior.

My parents seemed to be in a cohort that was less invested in the church, and consequently, easier to please. We were less likely to complain about the music, to go into battle over the color of robes and vestments, or have a passionate opinion about charities and recovery groups using the building during the week. My parents sometimes mentioned such things in passing, but were rarely interested enough to express an opinion. And we were less choosy about pastors. It mattered not to us what seminary he had come from, whether he believed in predestination or free will, or even whether he happened to be a she. (This was a Methodist thing, but it still got mentioned.)

We were also less into factions and contentious battles. Was it okay for dancing to be allowed at youth group functions? Being that we never attended such things, I’m not even sure how that turned out.

Basically, so long as everything went smoothly and nothing scandalous was going on, we were good. We would keep filling the sanctuary and paying the dues, ah, tithes.

I’m guessing that like us, this cohort was not composed of the more devout members.

In retrospect, the phonies seemed to be a stabilizing influence in the church, like a buffer between factions of the actual faithful.

Shifting Tides

But then the water got choppy.

In the 1990s and 2000’s Protestant megachurches splashed onto the scene. Their message to non-believers and nominal believers was like — since you have to be in church, at least make it one that’s fun! They changed the church experience from a solemn ritual to a pop concert. Gone were the hymns and the quiet, predictable services preferred by introverts and the elderly. In its place were youthful, extrovert extravaganzas, complete with upbeat music, clapping, swaying, greeting, and shouting out. Some were even said to have become entertainment complexes with food and games.

In addition to serving as houses of worship, churches became businesses. The measure of success was size, and leadership’s first mission was not pastorage, but growth. Parishioners became customers, and competition for them was fierce.

By then I was an exvangelical and an agnostic, and had stopped attending church. But the controversy was hard to miss. These developments were widely criticized by the truly faithful for a lot of very theological reasons. I’m not qualified to comment on those. I can recognize, however, the role of the phonies.

The devout continued to spit on them, accusing the megachurch culture of encouraging their charade. The pastors and church leadership, however, seemed to love them. Though they were less likely to volunteer and get involved in the endless work needed to keep a megachurch running, they were also less likely to cause trouble or leave.

This was the privilege of the true believers, who started a trend called “church shopping.” As competition for members heated up, the power balance shifted from pastors to parishioners, who now were free to take their business elsewhere if a church failed to meet their expectations. Other true believers pilloried the shoppers just as passionately as they did the phonies.

An ill wind seemed to be whipping up on the Christian seas.


Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Somewhere a dam broke. Disillusioned believers, sex abuse scandals, a scorched earth campaign against millennials, and contentious wars among Christians of different theological, gender, cultural, and political stripes were pushing people out of the pews. Meanwhile from the outside a rapid erosion of the stigma attached to being unchurched was pulling them out the door.

There was no Pharaoh, no Moses, no wandering in deserts. There was just a tidal Exodus. Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, evangelicals, ministers, millennials, priests, missionaries, phonies, church shoppers, pastors, sex abuse victims, feminists, gospel stars, luminary Christian authors, LGBT people, other ordinary parishioners and especially their kids started pouring out the doors like prisoners released from death row.

They do not go quietly. The Second Exodus is being chronicled in blogs, books, articles, and You Tube channels. Everyone has a story to tell, except perhaps its largest cohort — the phonies. I imagine many phonies are just happy to get their Sundays back without being shunned or whispered about as potential deviants.

A Day Without a Phony

How much of the Second Exodus is composed of phony Christians? My completely non-scientific estimate, based only on the number of non-religious people I have known who used to attend church, is that it’s probably a majority of it. While a lot of believers are still faithful church members, I expect that phonies are becoming rare in the pews.

Sergio Arau’s film A Day Without a Mexican tells a calamitous story about all the Mexicans suddenly disappearing from California. The departure of the phonies appears to have been just as calamitous for the church. It has been estimated that thousands of churches close every year and that those remaining are in dire financial straits. Our Presbyterian church ran an orphanage and a shelter/recovery program for alcoholic men. I remember helping my mother take clothes and toys to the orphanage, and my dad donating suits to the men’s shelter. It was the only part of church I understood. Now I doubt that it can afford those missions.

Apparently, what we phonies lacked in faith, we made up for in numbers. Our tithes kept the church doors open, financed missions, and made ministry a large and dynamic vocation. So on top of our service as low-maintenance buffers and stabilizers for congregations, our role was a financial one.

Despite our faithlessness we were an essential source of life-blood for the church.

Bum Rap

In my view, non-believers have been treated shamefully by Christians in our republic since colonial times. Church attendance became mandatory at Jamestown, even to the extent of rounding people up and herding them into the pews. Subsequently, a penalty of suspicion and ostracization was imposed upon the unchurched — a penalty that is only today losing its last vestiges.

Believers were happy to take our vital tithes and count our attendance as evidence that the U.S. was a “Christian nation.” And even in our lack of faith we were heavily subsidizing theirs. Still, they were quick to call us out us as hypocrites and hell-bound imposters.

Basically, they pressured us to join churches then spat on us for being there.

I get that there is plenty of scripture about God’s displeasure with phony believers. But where does it say to round people up and force them to fake it under penalty of social censure and ostracization? Many phony Christians were simply caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The Real Surprise

Image from Pixabay

So there I was, a naïve new evangelical believer, finally figuring out what I had been missing at church. It seemed to me that the phony Christians would be a convenient audience for some personal discussions about the power and love of Jesus they may be missing out on. But many of my Christian brothers and sisters in the Baptist Student Union were instead delighted to imagine them learning that they were condemned to hell.

They’re in for a SURPRISE! (Laughter)

It was far from the only time I would hear this sentiment expressed by evangelicals. How was this the love of Jesus? I had a lot to learn about my new evangelical faith. And now that the phony Christians are abandoning their churches, I suspect a lot of real Christians are finding they have a lot to learn about themselves.



Beverly Garside
Interfaith Now

Beverly is an author, artist, and a practicing agnostic.