“They fell away from the Lord.”
“They fell from grace.”
“They are no longer walking with God.”
“They’ve turned their back on Jesus.”
These are the sorts of phrases I would have frequently used in the past to describe someone who had stopped going to church.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve heard some of these phrases too, you might even, like me maybe, have used them too.
But over the years, doing what I do, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to those outside the church than to those in it.
One of the aspects of having an online ministry is that those who contact me have a degree of anonymity. This in turn means people open up to me in a way they don’t with their pastors, church friends and sadly even their spouses at times.
I get a unique window into the lives of those who reach out to me. Which is many. When I travelled more often a few years back it was when talking to people around services (therefore mostly people in church meetings). Now I focus on online resources and social media I get hundreds of messages of people reaching out to me every week. More often than not these people don’t go to a local church.
Why leave the church?
The reasons are many. Maybe they were abused by the church leadership. Maybe they came out as gay and weren’t welcome any more. Maybe they were disillusioned by the affair the pastor had. Maybe they started to doubt some of the key teachings and were encouraged to stop asking questions or to find another place to worship. The list could go on for a long, long time. Believe me when I say I’ve heard thousands of stories over the years and while there are many similarities no two stories are identical.
Suffice to say, the fact I love the Church and I still very much believe in the Church is somewhat surprising given the horror stories I hear every day.
I think it’s because when I was in church meetings every day throughout the year all over the world the conversations were largely positive. So I hold onto that and remind myself that just as I was in a pro-church bubble then I now find myself in a very anti-church bubble today. Both are biased experiences that do not tell the whole story for everyone.
The thing that surprised me was not however the terrible experiences people had in church. I’ve had a handful myself so it stands to reason when you cast your net to the entire population of the planet online you’ll find some people that have been hurt or given up on the church.
The big surprise…
What surprised me is that most people I encountered hadn’t given up on God, on their faith, they desired to continue on a spiritual path of some sort.
They still loved Jesus.
As I started to do research on this I was shocked.
Did you know that 30 years ago a study was done in the UK that found around 48% of people who left church maintained some level of spirituality.
More surprising when the same study was done in 2000 just 13yrs later the number had risen to about 78%.
A national survey again in the UK in 2000 found that 38% of people who left the church felt the daily personal presence of God. 37% said that God frequently assisted them by answering prayers.
I could go on with interesting statistics all day, but I have been told by my wife that not everyone finds statistics as interesting as I do.
The point being that it’s safe to say that when people leave church they aren’t always leaving God.
When they say “I’m done with Christianity” they often don’t mean, “I’m done with Christ.”
And this has certainly been my experience as well. Daily I speak with dozens who have found their church experience to no longer facilitate their spiritual growth.
In fact, for many it is because they are spiritually growing with Jesus that they find themselves leaving their local church! That’s right, they feel Jesus is calling them away from their local church so they can continue to grow!
Why do I say all this?
Because I think it’s high time we stop seeing the church and church attendance as the defining line of in and out. I’m personally not a fan of ins and outs anyway to be honest.
But talking about people who are not in church as unsaved, backslidden, unbelievers etc. only serves to push them further away from us as a community.
Instead we need to be asking, what does it look like to accept this group of brothers and sisters in the world without requiring that what they do on a Sunday morning looks like us?
I myself here in the UK go along to my local church on Sunday afternoons. But every Sunday morning I meet with others on spiritual journeys mostly outside of churches. We go climbing at an indoor bouldering wall and have brunch that usually lasts well into the afternoon as we have great chat about everything and anything.
To be honest, most weeks I find the mornings more spiritual and more nourishing than the afternoon! Maybe I’m a closet backslider too. Or maybe, just maybe God can be found outside four walls. Maybe we are writing off a whole group of people and intentionally isolating them because they don’t fit in our box?
Let’s remember this – church originally was just the gathering of followers of Jesus.
So let’s not limit what church can be by requiring attendance in a building for it to apply.
There is a desperate need in the body of Christ
For me over the years my ministry has shifted away from people in the church. People inside churches have huge quantities of people to help them. There is no limit to people in the church you can talk to, your pastor, leaders, peers etc. plus most ministries out there are for those in church (or for getting those outside church into church.)
But there aren’t many people looking to help those coming out of churches… for good or bad reasons it’s almost always a lonely and scary time. It’s a time where many may well give up on Jesus and spirituality all together if they don’t see another way to do it. If they are not taught that their local church and Jesus are not synonymous.
I personally see it as a great privilege to come alongside such people.
Many will (and do) see me as the one who leads people astray. That is a shame, but they seem to care a lot less when it’s their son or daughter who is the one leaving church and they come to me to find spiritual guidance and a safe space to process.
I don’t really mind what people call me. At the end of the day I’m in good company if people think I’m backslidden or a sinner! That’s the sort of things people called Jesus because of the company He kept.
What I care about is that there is a safe person out there who isn’t crying out “heretic” or “backslider” as people are going on a legitimate spiritual journey.
My prayer is that those people might find in me someone who is saying, “hey, this is a pretty scary and lonely journey, want some company?”
And my greater prayer is that there might be more people rising up who equally desire to fill that role.
So I’ll leave you with a challenge, will you be a safe place that celebrates people going on a journey and helps them go on that path? Or will you demonize their path because it doesn’t look like yours?
Will you be a part of the problem of a part of the solution? Hay & Heald, 1987  Hay & Hunt, 2000  Hay & Hunt, 2000