The Surprisingly Predictable Reason People Leave Church

Yesterday, a young woman walked into my office for new member class. I’d never met her before. Usually, folks who show up for this class have already been to church a few times and I’ve at least crossed paths and been introduced to them. But she was brand new.

In this class–which I call a class, but is really just a small group opportunity to learn more about the church–I always ask people to introduce themselves and share something about their faith journey. Where they come from, what they were raised believing, how they found us, etc. There is no right answer, but it helps me to know where to start the conversation, and what we should focus on for these couple of weeks.

We went around the room and when we got to this new woman she took a deep breath, and then said that this was her first time going to church in 15 years.

I caught my breath for a second because–first of all– the pressure! When someone shares that we are their first church visit in a long time (or ever) I feel the weight of this one chance to introduce someone to the gospel, and to the community, in a whole new way. But what else struck me was how amazingly brave she must be to come at all. It takes A LOT of guts to walk into a new church for the first time; even moreso if you have been distinctly avoiding it for awhile.

So then she went on to share why she hadn’t been to church in so long.  When her sister came out, she said, the church handled it badly. So she never went back.

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It’s a short story. A simple one. But do you know how common it is? I’ve heard it a hundred times. By “common,” I don’t mean “no big deal.” On the contrary, I find the frequency of this narrative appalling, heartbreaking, and inexcusable. But I also find it totally unsurprising. In fact, I’ve come to expect that at least one person in each new member class is here for precisely that reason– they, or someone they love, is LGBT. They found that the church they’d known and trusted all their lives could not, in the end, stand with them in this real and raw place of being authentic to themselves; and they never went back.

Do you know how hard it is to venture out there and try again, once you’ve been burned? Once the people who raised you in the faith turn out to be faithless; once you find they lack the courage to love and show mercy to one of their own, let alone a stranger… honestly, where do you go from there? The answer, for too many people is: right out the door.

In some ways, I want to be like, Fine! More great people for us! Because most of the folks in my church have a story like this, in one way or another. I figure every time some other church trips on the weight of its misguided moral conviction, it’s another round of new member classes for us. Score!

But. It is not that simple. Because for every new member it means for us, there is real grief, real betrayal, and a trail of broken relationships. Not to mention, for every person that finds their way to an open community for healing, there are ten–maybe a hundred–who never bother going back. Who abandon their faith for all time, writing it off as a sham. They might find healing in other ways, they might build another kind of community over time–but the whole God thing is over for them. In that first moment of rejection the whole thing falls apart, never to be made whole again in this world.

I always worry that it’s asking too much of people, to share a part of their faith journey with relative strangers. I am clear to “share what you want/are comfortable sharing,” but it still feels like a vulnerable place that I’m asking people to step into. Because the truth is, lots of people have been hurt by the churches and faith leaders of their past. Often, that’s why they are here.  But I find, too, that people are hungry for the invitation. For the freedom to name the door that was closed in their face, and to voice the hope that, maybe now, they’ve found one that will be open.

We heard and held her story. It was rough and it was raw, but it was a truth that needed telling. The story of church judgement and shame is as old as the gospel itself, and if we’re going to do the work of restoration, we have to bear witness to the pain of it. I am grateful that she was brave enough to give us a chance; I hope we did right by her; and I am always overwhelmed by what a gift it is to be trusted with people’s stories.

"No; I travel with a retinue of house elves."

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