Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about those who leave the church.
Having been in ministry for almost fifteen years now I’ve had the chance to lead many excellent young people in youth group. I still get to keep up with most of my former young people, many of them on Facebook, and some of them in real life. As far as I can tell they’ve grown up to be excellent adults. So many of them are doing impressive things and being kind, loving people to boot – it’s excellent! In addition to this, through my time in church I’ve made many wonderful friends. People I love and care for, whom I still love and care for, though I may not see them very often.
What saddens me however is that a lot of those who were in the youth ministries I led, people who I was friends with, and people I served alongside have left the church, and many of them appear to have no faith in Jesus. I do not know the state of anyone’s heart, I don’t know what anyone but me really believes, I just know what I am able to see and hear, and the reality of that is that people leave. As much as I’d love everyone who joins the church to stay in the church, as much as I’d like everyone who calls themselves a Christian to keep being a Christian, it just doesn’t turn out that way. Many people don’t stay.
To begin with, some were never going to stay, I knew this while I was with them even if some of them didn’t. With some people it’s obvious, they hang out at church because it’s where they have friends and there’s fun stuff going on. They were never captured by a love for Jesus, they never “got Christianity”, they were just going with the crowd. This isn’t the worst thing in the world. If the church can provide a safe space for young people, even those who aren’t “true believers”, that’s great! The church isn’t just a club for the faithful, so I’m glad to give people a place to be, if only for a time.
Others however were seriously seeking answers and some were, as far as I or they could tell, totally onboard, committed believers in Jesus. Some made a decision to follow Jesus with me right there praying with them. When these people leave, it saddens me the most. Not that they are any more valuable than those who were never going to stick around, but I saw them differently. I saw them as fellow followers, sisters and brothers, friends who beheld the beauty of God’s love and cherished it just as I did. When they go, it hurts. It may not end my relationship with them, but the thing I thought we both held as precious and beautiful, I realise they no longer love. It feels a little more lonely on the narrow path.
People leaving is not surprising. The Bible teaches it will happen, experience says it will happen, but that doesn’t stop it from hurting when it does.
The question for me is why did they leave? I don’t mean the Christians’ theological explanations, but what was going on for the people who left. Some people’s stories I can guess at, some people’s I hear second hand, some people have told me for themselves why they left, and the reasons are diverse.
For some it seems merely to have been an admitting of what they always knew was true. Their family brought them up as Christians, but they never really believed it. They went through the motions, they sang the songs, said the prayers, knew the answers, but it never felt true, they never felt convinced, and so the only honest and logical thing do was to leave. They were never Christians, they were just in the Christian community. Better to live a life that better suits who you are, than live a life that isn’t true.
Others seem to have really wanted to believe. They seriously sought out God, they seriously sought to believe and love what Christianity teaches. Yet no matter how much they sought God, he just never seemed to be there. Sometimes they would feel like they had an encounter with God, but the memory would fade, and the encounter could have very easily been the result of emotions, atmosphere, or a creation of their desires. Some people felt let down by God: he didn’t answer their prayers, he didn’t show himself to them, he didn’t stop the pain they felt, so he was either there and he didn’t care, or he never existed in the first place. And so in the end they face up to the fact that wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true and so they leave.
Others I suspect never made a conscious decision to leave, life just got in the way. Life is busy, church is one more thing in a busy life. Some are probably planning to go back sometime soon, but have yet to get around to it.
Other people leave not so much because of any particular problem with Christianity, but with Christians. They look at the way the Christians have treated them or people they love, their friends or their family and they decide they don’t want a part of it. Perhaps they have been doing something that their Christian friends didn’t approve of: maybe they were dating the wrong person, or getting drunk on the weekends, and instead of getting grace, they got judgement. So they left. If Christians can’t be accepting, if Christians are hypocrites, why be part of Christianity?
Some people I suspect leave for similar reasons, but not because of anything anyone says or does, just because of what they imagine people will say or do. As they started living a life that didn’t fit with Christian standards; dating someone who’s not a Christian, sleeping with their partner, getting drunk, doing drugs, or they found themselves attracted to people of the same-sex; they left the church before the church could kick them out. They pre-empted the rejection and they don’t want to go back because they suspect that all that waits for them is judgement.
Others I suspect were not afraid of what other people thought, they just knew that their choices didn’t fit with Christianity, so they left so as not to be one more hypocrite in the church.
Still others leave for intellectual reasons. Whatever they believed when they were young, as they have gotten older and encountered a wider range of beliefs and opinions, Christianity just doesn’t hold up. How can Christianity be the only true religion? How can we believe in all these miracles? How can God exist when there doesn’t seem to be any supporting evidence? How can God condemn everyone who doesn’t believe in him to hell? Related to these are the questions that come from personal relationships: How can Christianity be right if it means my gay, atheist, Buddhist, kind, loving, agnostic friends and family are going to hell? Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t feel like a valid option when it means concluding that some of the people you love may not be recipients of God’s mercy.
Similar to the above, some people will start dating a person who isn’t a Christian, and while they are committed to it not affecting their faith, often times it does. Not generally because their partner is actively against their faith (though sometimes that happens), but because they realise when they are in this intimate relationship that people who aren’t Christians aren’t boogiemen (or boogiewomen). They’ve been told in the church not to date someone who isn’t a Christian, so when they do it they realise it’s not the disaster everyone made it out to be. They discover their non-Christian partner isn’t out to destroy their faith, they are just a good person doing their best to be a good person. So they ask “If I love this person, how can God reject them? I don’t want to believe in a God like that.” Sometimes it’s not as clear as that, sometimes it’s just that the life they are becoming part of with their partner makes holding on to their faith harder. They aren’t actively supported in their church life, their partner isn’t actively supporting their sexual choices, their partner isn’t actively encouraging their faith, and the path of least resistance is to slowly leave their faith behind, till however they view their religious identity, the life they are living looks nothing like the life they once led when they actively pursued their faith.
I could go on I guess. The reasons that people leave the faith are more varied than I could fit into a blog post and than I could even begin to guess at. People leave, I don’t always know why they go.
Sometimes I think about those people who have left, and I wonder what I would say to them if I could really tell them what I think. When I meet them often we talk in passing, or we’re catching up, we’re being polite. I wish we could talk about it, but it rarely seems right, and it seems like it could get real awkward. But if I could say anything, what would I say? I guess I would say something like this:
I love you. I miss you. I liked being your brother. I still want to be your friend. Or perhaps if we were never really friends, could we still be friendly acquaintances?
I don’t feel betrayed by you or angry at you, nor do I judge you.
If you left because of conscience or belief, I appreciate your bravery. Leaving the safety of a community where you fit in, where you knew the norms, where your friends and family were, because you wanted to live a life of integrity must have been frightening and hard. I hope that in my own convictions I might be able have the bravery you have.
If you left because you didn’t like what Christians do, you were appalled by the way the church treats people, or you were opposed to the positions Christians have taken on important things, please don’t reject Jesus because of something less than what is central to Christianity, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. There are many things, big and significant things, that are up for discussion, don’t let them force you away from Jesus.
If you never intended to leave but you have found yourself a long way off, seemingly too far to come back, know that you’re never too far gone. Don’t let unintentional drift define your faith.
For whatever reason you left, I haven’t given up on you. You’re just as important and valuable now as you were when you identified as a Christian. I don’t know how to show you this without it seeming weird, but I would do the same for you now as I would have when you were following Jesus. There’s always room at my table for you.
I’m sad that you left because what’s most valuable to me, is not valuable to you anymore. You are not responsible for my feelings, and I may not even be right in my beliefs, but my feelings are what they are, and I liked having you on the team.
Much more important than any of my feelings is that God hasn’t given up on you. If he’s real, and I’m sure he is, he’s not fuming that you left. I’m guessing you remember the story: he’s watching the road in the hopes you’ll come home again. He will run to meet you, he will welcome you back as his precious child. He will have a great party at your return.
I don’t know, but my guess is there are times you miss him, you may speak to him sometimes, you may somewhere be holding onto a belief in his existence, hoping against hope that he’s real and he loves you. If I know nothing else, I know this. He’s real and he loves you. He will always have you back. With all your doubts, all your questions, all your baggage, all your sin and all your pain, he will always have you back. You have unlimited forgiveness, unlimited acceptance, unlimited grace available for you. God likes you. God loves you. There’s always room at his table for you.
Finally, seek the truth. If Jesus didn’t die and rise again, this whole Christianity thing is a waste of time, and this love I’ve been writing about is a lie. Don’t believe in anything because it sounds good, or feels comfortable. Always seek the truth. If you left because because you were pursuing truth, always be willing to come back for the same reason. It’s all I can ask.
Let’s keep being friends. Or if we were never that, maybe at least we can be friendly acquaintances.
There’s a chance, if you read this, you are someone I know who was once a Christian. Or maybe I’ve never met you, but you too are someone who left. I’d love to hear from you. Email me, or Facebook me, or SMS me, you can even write me a letter. If you don’t have a way of contacting me, comment below. Tell me your story, tell me why you left, tell me how you’re going now, I’m still interested in you. I mean what I said. Let’s be friends, or friendly acquaintances at the least.
This started out as a post ablut people leaving the church and the examples seemed to be about the church as a Sunday place of worship kinf of church.
But then near end you use fait instead of church. Saying they have left the faith. That is totally different in my mind to leaving church.
Just an observation
I was writing about leaving the church as connected to leaving the faith. Like you say, they aren’t always the same thing, but leaving church can be one visible signifier of leaving Christianity all together. I can’t tell what’s going on in people’s hearts, I can only know what I see and hear. Leaving church is sometimes a tangible signifier of something deeper. But maybe I could have written the whole thing a bit more cohesively in terms of clarifying the church/faith distinction and making sure they are more than synonyms.
Thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing!
This post really struck a chord with me so thank you, Tom.
I identify as both a Christian that had “life get in the way” and also too as a Christian who was “not afraid of what other people thought, they just knew that their choices didn’t fit with Christianity, so they left so as not to be one more hypocrite in the church”.
That being said, not once has my faith been unsure. I have remained steadfast in my love for Jesus however I had lost the routine of fellowship, prayer, and the ‘Christian lifestyle’ as such. I have especially felt God lately challenging me and just the morning of the day I read your post, I had decided that I would go back to a church where I am now.
Reading this part of your post was very comforting as I have beat myself up about it for the last year or so: “If you left because of conscience or belief, I appreciate your bravery. Leaving the safety of a community where you fit in, where you knew the norms, where your friends and family were, because you wanted to live a life of integrity must have been frightening and hard.”
So thank you for some words that have cemented my thoughts and also encouraged me.
I’m really pleased this post spoke to you. I hope you make it back to church soon and find love and welcome there. Keep close to Jesus!
I appreciated the first half of your post – I found your description of various reasons why people leave fairly comprehensive, even if it’s impossible to be totally thorough. I think you covered the most popular bases, though, and I daresay many of those who left will resonate strongly with your descriptions.
Having said that, I did find some of the statements in the latter half of your post – the one responding to people who leave – somewhat problematic.
I understand that you’re trying to get a hearing from these people, but in what sense is it okay to label the rejection of the Lord Jesus as ‘bravery?’ I appreciate that you were referring to people who could not, in good conscience, remain Christians. But this conscience is an unregenerate conscience, darkened and blinded by sin, so it’s hardly surprising that such individuals go through with a wholesale rejection of Christianity. Do you applaud a blind man who stumbles in a ditch for bravery? It surely cannot have been pleasant to fall in such a ditch, but that hardly makes it an act of bravery. I get what you’re trying to accomplish by being empathetic and non-judgmental to would-be apostates, but it just seems to be a misleading way to put it. It’s almost like you’re patting the hypothetical blind man in the ditch to comfort him while ever so tentatively trying to draw him out from the ditch you just comforted him for being in. At best, it seems misguided. Moreover, I’m not trying to nitpick. I honestly feel that the metaphor holds true for the general tenor of your post. We just don’t see the Apostles, for instance, making such concessions to unbelievers. Rather, we see them confidently calling people to repentance (sometimes fiercely, and sometimes gently).
Now, I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but I felt like your otherwise admirable statement about not being distracted by peripheral matters but instead focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus could easily be misconstrued to mean that every other doctrine or belief is up for grabs. Unless you’re a hardcore ecumenist, I’m sure you’ll agree that that’s just not the case.
Now, I thought your plea to those who have unintentionally drifted away was encouraging. Your subsequent plea to those who have left for any reason, however, I thought was lacking in at least one signficiant regard. You emphasise that whether Christian or not, that they still have Inherent value. But an important part of the Gospel is that before we were children of God, we were children of wrath. The bad news of God’s wrath and judgement makes the good news of God’s grace meaningful. Now, maybe it is the case that such a full-orbed gospel presentation was not at all your purpose in penning these words, and you were instead trying to reach out to church leavers in a raw, emotional way, honestly talking about your own feelings and about how much you care and hurt. I think I can understand that, but part of me still says that a heartfelt plea that doesn’t articulate the full gospel message is lacking in some deep way.
I think I’ll end off there. Your last few paragraphs do fall afoul of a few cliches that just don’t mesh with God’s character as taught in the Bible, but I think that carefully critiquing these will take a bit more time than I’m willing to give at half past three in the morning. Suffice to say that not everyone is the prodigal son, and God is not waiting for every unbeliever to come ‘home’, as it were.
Anyway, before I end off, in case a non-Christian reads these thoughts of mine and finds them condescending, I’d just like to say that they were addressed to someone with a shared worldview, so various theological points were naturally assumed. I was not trying to be condescending at all, and this is certainly not an attempt to dialogue with non-Christians.
As for you Tom, I hope you take this response for what it is – just some thoughts of someone who was a bit troubled by a few phrases here and there and by the general tenor of the piece that didn’t seem to match up with the sort of evangelism you get in the NT. I hope you don’t take it as judgement or as malevolent criticism or as nitpicking or as someone positioning themselves as some theological sensei.
Thanks for reading and being willing to let me know of your concerns.
I won’t spend time responding to each of your points individually, because I suspect you’d disagree with my responses anyway, and we could go on for a long time disagreeing, and my days of having long arguments on the internet are hopefully over. This perhaps is especially important because while I suspect you’d disagree with me in the details, we’re going to be on the same page in the big scheme of things.
So let me give you a small response, and I will leave it at that.
You are right in assuming that the reasons for my lack of theological preciseness in this post is because of the intended audience. While I understand and tend to agree with much of what you said, those who don’t know Jesus or have walked away from Jesus are not going to be served by a theologically articulate but personally alienating message.
I would suggest however that it seems that you have drawn much of your ideas for the theology and practice of the Apostles from the Epistles, letters from Christians written to Christian churches, rather than letting the public ministry of Jesus in the Gospels and the Apostles in Acts be a guide for evangelistic practice.
While I have far to go, I try, like Jesus and the Apostles did, to let my audience define how I will go about articulating the gospel and calling people to faith in Jesus. I suspect that were I to give many of the speeches given by the Apostles in Acts, or to teach many of the things that Jesus taught you would be disappointed that I had not done a “full orbed presentation of the Gospel.” I find myself reading the teachings of Jesus and the preaching of the Apostles and often wishing they gave clearer descriptions of the finished work of Christ at the Cross.
If you are concerned about how I communicate with Christians, feel free to listen to my sermons, the link is to the left there.
I could in this post have chosen to harangue those who have left the church for their unbelief and deliberate sin, but I find the only haranguing that Jesus does is to the religious, to those who are already aware of their sin, to those who are already on edge waiting for the judgement, he gives surprising grace, and it is grace that changes them. Just look at his treatment of Zacchaeus and you’ll see how he deals with a man who has left his religious community to pursue a greedy, and dishonest lifestyle. Jesus invites him to a meal, rather than publicly shouting his sins up to him in his tree.
Now what Jesus said to him at the table, I do not know. I suspect Jesus saved his hard words for his private conversation with Zacchaeus. It too is my practice to save my hard words for those who I am sitting with, who know I am walking with them, than for those who I can merely communicate at from the extreme distance of an impersonal blog post on the internet.
Each and every one of the people who read this post are valuable and precious to God. They may have chosen sin, just as I have, but they are also imagers of God. Jesus came to restore as many of them as possible to his family. So it will always be my aim, as much as possible, to use the tools of grace to call them to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ. Sometimes the first step is letting people know they’re loved, so that they can hear anything else that might be said.
Whatever the case, I pray that the Holy Spirit will override any of the inadequacies of my communication and use my words to maximum effect.
I like your perspective and your responses, you’re very articulate in your welcomeness to all 🙂 I think sometimes I need to make sure that the things I’m working on to help shape me don’t make me view others from those eyes but to welcome them and love them from where they are at.
Also thanks for sharing where your sermons are because when I was searching for them, this was the tangent I went on, haha. Now I’ve found them 🙂
“I understand that you’re trying to get a hearing from these people, but in what sense is it okay to label the rejection of the Lord Jesus as ‘bravery?’ I appreciate that you were referring to people who could not, in good conscience, remain Christians. But this conscience is an unregenerate conscience, darkened and blinded by sin, so it’s hardly surprising that such individuals go through with a wholesale rejection of Christianity. Do you applaud a blind man who stumbles in a ditch for bravery? It surely cannot have been pleasant to fall in such a ditch, but that hardly makes it an act of bravery.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. You’re taking an absolute approach to the issue. Maybe that’s the only way you ever want to look at it, and never want to consider other viewpoints, so be it, don’t read on.
If you look at it from the perspective of a once Christian leaving the community that they grew up in, because they are following what they personally perceive to be the truth rather than what is easier or more convenient (a couple of examples fitting this were listed in the article).
Almost all their friends are likely to be Christians, and that person would also be quite aware that choosing to leave will inevitably distance themselves from them and alienate them for the very reason of “I’m sad that you left because what’s most valuable to me, is not valuable to you anymore” This most important thing they had in common with those friends is gone.
Along with this goes the hard to describe, ill feeling, and almost condescension from some of those friends and acquaintances. I have certainly felt this towards others who have decided to leave the faith, and only recently recognised it for what it was. They might have felt it themselves towards others at some stage, and being on the other side of the fence know all too well what they’re up against.
So they’re going to lose most of their friends, possibly severely damage relationships with their own family depending on how conservative they are, of the Christian friends they still have, now, instead of being just friends for the sake of friends, they perceive themselves as a target for evangelism (knowing all too well having been on the other side of the fence), which further distances them from those who were close friends.
Why make this choice? because, well, it’s most likely a complex combination on reasons, but for some the main driving reason will be a real conviction, that they are living a lie, that this Christianity is not in fact the truth, that it doesn’t line up with their perception of reality. Certainly anyone in this position outlined, with half a brain, will realise that it’s not beneficial overall from a social point of view. In their mind, the risks and damage still outweigh the benefits, and yet they still chose to do what they believe will not make them a hypocrite, what they believe to be honest and true. If this isn’t bravery, I think the English language needs a new word to describe it. It’s not a matter of whether it’s okay, in my opinion, it’s fairly obvious this is what the most appropriate and logical word should be used to describe this situation and choice.
If you can’t use words for their logical application, how can one expect to have an honest conversation about this? Or is an honest conversation about this issue too detrimental/dangerous in your opinion because it might make others consider being honest to themselves and leaving the Church too? Seriously this is situation in itself is a huge reason that may cause a Christian/Person in the Church to question what they really believe and who they associate with.
“the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.”
“strength in the face of pain or grief.”
Definitions of some synonyms to Bravery which you could have perhaps suggested to use instead:
“boldness or daring, especially with confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought, or other restrictions.”
“effrontery or insolence; shameless boldness” – methinks you would really like that one from your description.
“not hesitating to break the rules of propriety; forward; impudent:”
“not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff; courageous and daring”
“beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or action; imaginative”
Nice article by the way Tom 🙂
Wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment:
“Finally, seek the truth. If Jesus didn’t die and rise again, this whole Christianity thing is a waste of time, and this love I’ve been writing about is a lie. Don’t believe in anything because it sounds good, or feels comfortable. Always seek the truth. If you left because because you were pursuing truth, always be willing to come back for the same reason. It’s all I can ask.”
Another Christian, who I greatly respect also takes this position.