How Should Churches Respond When People Leave?

Christianity Today recently posted an article titled Six Ways to Support and Challenge Those Who Leave Church. The article is written by Michelle Van Loon, who writes that she considered leaving the church herself several years before, but never did. As someone who didn’t actually leave, though, there are some things she never experienced. And it shows.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home and church. Years later, while in college, I began to rethink many of my beliefs. My parents reacted badly. Very badly. Their friends at the church quickly followed suit—and then, so did some of those who were my age, whom I’d grown up with in the church. I quickly disengaged with all of them. It hurt too damn much. I couldn’t walk back into that church without a fight or flight response for years.

Here is what I needed—space. Room to breathe. Relationships that didn’t require shared religious beliefs. I needed people to care about me—wholly separate from religion. Unfortunately, this is not compatible with evangelical beliefs. The world is cast in terms of the saved and the unsaved; everyone is either a fellow believer or a project.

With that background out of the way, let’s look at Van Loon’s recommendations for how churchgoers can “support and challenge” individuals like me, who leave.

1. Name the losses.

First, we have to recognize the loss we experience when someone leaves our church. Although it might be easier to simply ignore the departure, we’re better off naming it. In many cases, it’s appropriate to mark a person’s departure in a “state of the church” community meeting, congregational prayer time, or a small group setting. We have to publicly acknowledge that the body has lost someone who was part of the family. Rather than air dirty laundry or debate areas of disagreement with the leaver, we’re better off embracing a spirit of lament.

Are you kidding me? The absolute last thing I needed was someone holding a meeting about me. That is not space! And I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the whole “spirit of lament” line.

You know why I don’t buy it? Within evangelicalism, religious belief and church attendance are crucially important. If someone falls away from the church, they will go to hell to be tortured for eternity. The in-group out-group aspect is strong. You are either saved—a fellow believer—or damned—a lost sinner.

2. Look in the mirror.

Leaders and sometimes congregants benefit from asking questions of leavers—not unlike a company “exit interview”—first to understand what happened and second to reflect on possible solutions. What does this leaver’s exit tell us about what our congregation values and disdains? What do we need to pray about and ponder? And what can we do differently, if anything?

What. Perhaps if this is done in writing—many of those who leave the church have been burned, and badly. Sitting down for an interview with those who burned us—did I mention that adrenaline rush I got every time I entered my parents’ church for years afterwards? They actually had me meet with the pastor; I was living with them at the time and didn’t know how to set my foot down. The entire thing was beyond painful.

If a church was really willing to introspect about what they were doing wrong that might lead to people leaving—or what they could do better and differently—maybe. But that is almost never the case. It’s the person who leaves who is wrong. And yes, Van Loon is trying to get churches to question that, and I’m glad—but I’m really not sure jumping straight to exit interview, given most churches’ current lack of introspection, is a good idea.

3. Communicate your unconditional love.

Although church leaders are called to pursue someone who’s left a church, that responsibility also belongs to every single one of us who has a relationship with a leaver. However, this pursuit of relationship has to be free of agendas—like trying to convince someone they need to return—and premised instead on unconditional, Christlike love.

This is part of the problem. I don’t want to be “pursued.” I want people to have a relationship with me because they genuinely like hanging out with me. Part of this goes back to the nature of evangelicalism—you can’t really have neutral relationships. Either your relationship is built on shared evangelical beliefs, or the other person is a project—someone you need to lead to Christ and bring into the church.

Christianity Today often publishes articles about things like evangelizing your neighbors. The thing is, I want my neighbors to want to get to know me because they genuinely want to know their neighbors, not to try to sell me on something. This is a problem with evangelicalism itself, inherent in its basic structure and belief system.

Now yes, Van Loon says your “pursuit of relationship” should be “free of agendas”—but she also says it should be premised on “unconditional, Christlike love.” What exactly is Christlike love? It’s not just ordinary love. It’s something different. Otherwise why not just say “don’t unfriend someone for leaving your church, keep up with them anyway”?

Your love for a person should not be contingent on them attending the same church you do; the fact that Van Loon feels the need to actually say this reveals the magnitude of the problem.

4. Wear sackcloth and ashes.

When someone leaves the church, it’s sometimes easy to embrace an “us-them” attitude where there are winners and losers. However, we’re most attractive to those lurking near the exit door (or on the other side) when we curb this impulse toward triumphalism or battle-minded pride.

Instead, we’re called to learn from leavers and follow the scriptural call to humility. Choosing a humble posture toward God, one another, and the world around us is part of our obedience to him. Humility also serves as a welcome mat for those outside the church and, for that matter, those on the inside, as well.

I’m not sure I can find fault with more humility, so I’ll give this one a pass. I am so on board for more humility, and less self-righteous judgement.

5. Listen first, then speak.

We may mean well when we rush in to try to fix a leaver’s hurt or quell their doubt, but lurking just beneath that motivation is our desire to silence the discomfort we may be feeling at their words or actions. Jesus had some strong words for those who got in the way of his work in the life of another: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6–7).

Although we typically apply these verses to young children, the principle extends to each one of us. By practicing compassionate, active listening, we help create a safe path back to renewed connection with God and the church. Most of us have experienced some hurt or doubt of our own, and these scars, too, can serve a redemptive purpose in shaping our listening response to leavers.

Listen, Van Loon says—so that you can bring the leaver to “renewed connection with God.” Not listen, because they’re your friend. Not listen, because their story matters. Nope—listen, so that you can fix them. To be sure, if I’d felt listened to instead of talked at, I might not have leaved as quickly as I did. Or, I might have stopped at a different point in my journey. This still rubs me wrong, though; the listening has such a specific and overt purpose.

6. When appropriate, ask hard questions.

To borrow the language of Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time to listen, but there is also a time to speak. As I was standing at the exit door of the church, a couple of courageous friends were willing to “go there” with me, gently challenging me to recognize the bitterness I’d been cultivating toward a couple of former pastors. My friends saw past my self-defensiveness and anger and in so doing helped me to move toward forgiveness of those who’d violated my trust.

Oh okay so you should also call out those leaving. Cool.

To the extent that Van Loon is advising churches to ask what they did wrong rather than acting as though those who leave have done wrong, I’m all for it. There is much that Van Loon says here that churches could stand to benefit from hearing—that might improve the experiences of those leaving—but her entire approach is still based in churchiness.

Of course, her approach pretty much had to be based in churchiness. She’s writing in Christianity Today. She’s an evangelical. Her goal is to get people into the church and make sure they stay there. She wants people saved. But as someone who left and is no longer Christian, her treatment here doesn’t feel as different from the profoundly negative church leaving experience I went though as she may think. She can’t look past her religious beliefs to see just people.

This isn’t on Van Loon. What she’s written here is probably the best she could do, within the evangelical system of beliefs, and some of what she says is good. Still, it doesn’t go far enough to fully understand and effectively respond to the experiences of those who leave. And, importantly, it still centers friendships around religious beliefs.

Perhaps I sound overly picky. What is it I want? What would I tell churchgoers regarding those who leave? I would advise them to understand and accept that people who leave have a variety of legitimate reasons, and that returning to that church (or any church) may not be what is best for them or their journey. I would tell them that they should remain friends with those who leave—that they should get together with them in other contexts, not to bring them back, but because friendships (and friends) matter. Don’t bring up church choice. Just be friends.

And if they’re concerned about their church membership going down, I’d encourage them to think about why people are leaving and what they could do to attract people—to evaluate things like times of services, programs available, and service opportunities—and implement those changes. That could mean asking someone who has left why they stopped attending—but it might also mean asking someone else what would induce them to begin attending church.

Some people don’t attend church because they do not believe, but for everyone in that category I’d guess that there are two or three who do identify as Christian but don’t feel churches in their current form meet their needs.

Scholars of religious studies have argued that one reason Christianity has held on so much tighter in the U.S. than in other western nations is that the U.S. has not had an established church, leaving churches and denominations to rise and fall on their ability to attract voluntary members. If a church does not attract people, it will shrink and, ultimately, die. It is in that vein that Van Loon’s focus on why people leave a church is helpful.

Me, though? I am no longer religious. No amount of new programs or changed church times will bring me into a church that requires belief in things I don’t believe. Perhaps that, too, is something Van Loon is missing—leavers vary. Some leave because they were burned by a specific church, but still believe. Some who believe leave because their needs are not being met. And others leave because (for a variety of reasons) they no longer believe.

What about you? If you grew up in the church but left, why did you leave? How did your church (and family) respond when you left? What—if anything—would bring you back? In your opinion, what does Van Loon get right—and where does she come short?

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