–Daniel S. Ferguson
As it turns out, stories about leaving church, or feeling like you don’t belong there, are ubiquitous to the point of being cliché. Practically everyone seems to have this story in some measure, even those who, like me, still go to church.
It is beyond the scope of this article, this blog, or really any venture I can dream up, to name one root cause of this phenomenon. If you’re a church leader who wants to know what exactly the problem is so you can fix it, I can’t help you. The variance in the stories is simply too dizzying, even after lengthy study. You can’t just point to [x] and try to fix it. There isn’t just one back door to your church.
That’s not to say there aren’t trends. There certainly are, at least among the people I’ve met. We may be a kaleidoscope, but most of us have some things in common.
First, we haven’t necessarily given up Jesus.
While some have abandoned faith entirely, I find this often takes place after the decision to leave church. Long after. Many of the people I’ve met clung to Jesus for years, even decades, even lifetimes, without a church. Many of those who left the church are still in love with Jesus, the Bible, and Christian doctrine. They just don’t want anything to do with church anymore, at least not as they’ve known it. There are thousands of individual reasons for this, but it is unfair for churches to equate leaving church with leaving faith.
Second, we struggle with the definition of Christianity.
Most of us who are in this category have struggled long and hard with what it means to be Christian and what the consequences of Christian faith are. We take it seriously, and we think about it. A lot. And the issue most of us keep coming back to is a singular question: “Yeah…what does it mean to be Christian?”
As simple as that question sounds, it’s not. Particularly since the 1950s, when televangelism took root, and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, American Christianity largely coalesced around one definition of Christianity that has, for better or worse, cemented itself into our understanding of faith: that being a Christian means having “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I have observed that most of those I’ve met who have left church (or have at least seriously considered it, like me) desperately want (or wanted) that relationship to exist in their daily lives as a recognizable reality. We long for intimacy with the divine. We crave it. Many of us, for some period of time, staked our souls on it. When we chose to be Christian, a knowable relationship with Jesus was the prize we were betting on.
That bet didn’t pay off for most of us. It didn’t even come close. We prayed, we studied the Bible, we went to church, we tithed, we repented, we put our souls on the table to be close to Jesus. But we didn’t get that, not in any way we recognized. And so many of us walked away.
This isn’t a problem of faith. This is a problem of definition. Our faith was in one definition of what it means to be Christian. It’s not necessarily a bad definition, but its ubiquity in the church led us to believe that it was all there was. We pushed all our chips into the pot on that definition and, at least from our point of view, lost the hand.
That’s partly our fault for staking faith in a definition rather than Christ, but you can hardly blame us. We were force-fed that definition from infancy, even if we didn’t grow up in church. It took us a couple of decades to realize that there were other definitions available, and our tendency to leave church is often because we feel a need to pursue those definitions in communities that didn’t preach the first one. Such communities are hard to find, and we often fear we can’t find them in anything that calls itself a church.
Third, we may have left because we couldn’t find an honest conversation about doubt.
I know a preacher who tells a story about two rock climbers. One reaches for a rock saying, “I know this rock will hold me.” The other reaches for a rock saying, “I think this rock will hold me.” In this case, it doesn’t matter one bit which climber has more trust or more doubt in his decision. It matters how secure the rocks actually are. Their faith is measured by action, not certainty. Salvation is in the rock, not the climber.
Such it is with Jesus. It doesn’t matter if I’m 100% sure of his salvation or 1% sure. What matters is reaching out for his grace anyway. Faith is measured by action, not certainty. Salvation is in Jesus, not the believer. Why else would we call it faith if there were not some measure of uncertainty? Our own Bible doesn’t agree with that (2 Corinthians 5:7).
And yet, from the conversations I’ve had, many of those who have left the church did so because they were trying to process their doubt but found their church an unwelcome place for that. This is not true of all churches, but the problem is common enough that it must be taken seriously.
Our doubt is not a lack of faith; it is (at least at first) rooted in a love for God. We’re reaching out to God with our full faculty, and that means our doubts must be involved. Jesus says the most important commandment is to love God with everything we’ve got. If I have doubt, I am therefore required to love God with that. Sometimes that means surrendering my doubt by reaching for the rock of Christ, even when I don’t believe it will hold me. Sometimes that means expressing my doubt so that others can know they’re not alone and that their faith doesn’t have to be perfect for them to be saved. And sometimes that means doubting God such that we ask him important questions in meaningful ways, knowing we may never get an answer. The Bible does that a lot, and so should we.
Fourth, many of us left because of how the church treated us or others.
The number of times I’ve heard some version of this story is astronomical. Many leave because they were hurt directly. Many saw others getting hurt, and they left because of that. So we should stop hurting people. We should go out of our way to love them, pretty much no matter what. Yes, even then. Jesus loved them enough to live and die for them. Jesus sought out society’s unlovables, and so should we. I get that we’re often trying to speak truth, and that’s often interpreted as judgment, even when we don’t mean it that way. We need to change our messaging accordingly. If we’re losing people by speaking truth, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t want truth. It might be they don’t want how we’re presenting that truth, or, often enough, they don’t like that we’re presenting truth without grace.
I also get that we mess up, but when we do, we need to own that and make it right. Jesus thought reconciliation was so important that he said it comes before our relationship with God (Matthew 5:23-24).
Fifth and finally, most of us still love the church.
Most of us know full well the immense power of Christian community. In leaving the church, many are still seeking a faith community of some kind. Some find one. Some create one. Their desire to seek those who believe like they do is a good thing. It actually means they haven’t left the Church; they just left a church. They haven’t abandoned the faith; they’ve just begun to seek it in a different way.
That’s beginning to sound somewhat universalist, and I suppose it is. But God loves to pursue and to be pursued. I have no doubt that if these children of his are seeking to know him, they will find him, even if it’s not in a church as we think of it. If there’s anything we know about God, it’s that he will throw everything out of the way to love his children, even religions he himself established.