When They Leave the Church

Don't ask them to come back.

This Sunday is National Back to Church Sunday. If you're unfamiliar, it's a day dedicated each year to inviting our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers back to church. I don't doubt that there are very genuine, good intentions behind this; however, it sadly misunderstands why people leave in the first place.

We often call them prodigals--rebellious, apostate souls who are probably undergoing a crisis of faith. And just like branches cut off from the vine, they need to be grafted back in soon before they perish. But before you start trolling your Facebook friends for wandering sheep, remember that there's a difference between a crisis of faith and a crisis of people.

A crisis of faith is between the person and God. When these people leave, they leave the faith, not necessarily the church. Some actually stay for the sake of their families, but those who do leave the church often do so imperceptibly. In other words, these folks are so far under the radar, they're not likely to be recognized as de-churched.

A crisis of people, on the other hand, is between the person and other people in the church. Which means the issues they have are usually more public or at least rumored. They're the classic de-churched. But their crisis is often confused with the former because certain beliefs or practices are often cited as the reasons for leaving.

What most don't realize is that people rarely reject beliefs as much as the people who hold them. In other words, these folks haven't left the faith because they're rebellious; they've left the church because they're hurt.

Wounded animals don't go about their normal behavior and neither do people. If you've never experienced hurt within your family, then you might not be able to understand how a person could refuse to see their parents or children because of something that happened years ago. But I've lived it, and I know how irrational dysfunctional, family dynamics can be when hurt people are involved. De-churched folks aren't any different.

Their reasons for leaving may seem selfish or rebellious, but this is like thinking that abuse victims bring on their own abuse. Hurt has less to do with what was done as much as how it was received. What drove a person to leave may very well be a petty circumstance, but the message that was internalized from it is not. While these messages vary from person to person, the needs of these people do not: hurt people need healing. They don't need their reasons patronized; they need healing.

And not from the place where they received the hurt. That's hard for many Christians to accept because for them, the church is not only the best place for healing, it's the only place for true healing.

But that's not true for people who have been hurt by it. And yes, people can be hurt by the church because the people that hurt them are the church because the church is people. This doesn't mean that every member needs to issue an apology for something they didn't do; it means that hurt people have come to associate church with pain.

Healing is one part time and one part distance. And believe it or not, sometimes people need a break from church. I know I did when I left the church.

So instead of asking them to come back, let your first question be, "Why did you leave?"

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photo credit: The Birds, Lima Downtown via photopin (license)

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