Leaving the 99: Re-thinking our Approach to Those Who Leave the Church

Leaving the 99: Re-thinking our Approach to Those Who Leave the Church June 11, 2023
a single sheep in a field
Instead of going after the 1 sheep that leaves, many Christian leaders choose to ostracize, shame, and criticize leavers. Photo courtesy of Greg Wilson on Unspash.com.

Deconstruction, spiritual abuse, spiritual trauma, and exvangelical are all terms that have entered into our vocabulary in the last few years. It seems that since 2020 the rate at which the stories of people who have walked away from faith have come more rapidly. In fact, rapid departure was already common prior to 2020. A 2021 Pew Research Study found 29% of Americans considered themselves to have no religious affiliation, up from 16% in 2007. At the same time, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as “Christian” declined from 78% in 2007 to 63% in 2021.

These trends have raised theological questions on the nature of salvation, eternal security, and more. More pressing are the pastoral issues: how do we relate to and talk about people who leave? The response of many Christian leaders is too often to disparage or dismiss leavers. Leaders question the authenticity of leavers’ faith, their motives, and regularly make broad, sweeping statements that, regardless of motive, often result in leavers feeling “othered” and validated in their decisions to leave. In a sense, leaders are doubling down on the 99 that remain instead of going after the 1 they believe to have gone astray. In a cruel twist of irony, this is directly contradictory to Jesus’ instruction.

A meme equating writing off Christians with McDonald's messing up your order
This meme made the rounds in my social media circles last year. Observing who loved it and who criticized it was enlightening.

McDonalds ≠ The Church

Full disclosure: when I first saw the above meme, I initially mis-interpreted this to be about the church and not individual Christians. But I discovered that I wasn’t alone in making that leap. More about that in a minute.

Initially, I was blown away at exactly who was sharing the meme. It didn’t come from the “regular” Christians with whom I was friends. Instead, it was being propelled by the pastors, ministers, and denominational leaders with whom I am acquainted. That only made this particular meme’s popularity more disheartening.

Having resolved to not engage in Facebook debates a around the spring of 2020 (wonder what prompted that?), I felt compelled to engage this one. I decided that the easiest way to poke holes into the argument was to point out the absurd attempt as equivalence. Surely these ministry leaders didn’t think that being relationally harmed was the same as getting a hamburger with onions when you specifically asked for a hamburger without onions.

Unfortunately, they did not. Many just didn’t respond to my objection (while giving hearty “Amens” to subsequent comments that expressed agreement). Others defended the substance of the meme, arguing that many are quick to write off church and all Christians over the actions of a single Christian.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

Even to this point, I pushed back. “How,” I asked, “are we supposed to know if/how often this happens?” Unless we ask everyone who’s ever felt this way, aren’t we just assuming the worst of people’s motivations? Worse, as ministry leaders, aren’t we putting up barriers for people who may have legitimate grievances with Christians or the church because we’re assuming that they’re being petty or unforgiving?”

Running with the interpretation that the meme complained about writing off the church instead of Christians, I re-shared it on my Instagram and Facebook stories asking for people’s gut-level responses. Interestingly, most everyone shared my interpretation. Even Christians presently active in their faith and a local church made the same interpretative association.
But the non-Christians (or former Christians) who responded? They unanimously picked up on the same thread. For them, this was exactly what I feared: yet another means of ostracism from the church.
To be fair, some noted that, yes, people are quick to hold grudges or reach irrational conclusions. I don’t want to discount the reality that sometimes people dismiss Jesus/the church/faith for petty or dubious reasons. What I want to caution against is holding on to those handful of circumstances and projecting those motivations on anyone who ever leaves the church for any reason. In a vast majority of cases, people have developed substantive issues with the communities to which they belong that are not (and often should not) be easily glossed over or rectified. Identifying the one person who left for petty reasons and then projecting that on all leavers is unloving and irresponsible of leaders.

100-1=0 in Jesus’ Math

Getting back to the meme, the responses I received ranged from hilarious (one friend who isn’t a Christian commented, “I don’t eat at McDonald’s, either.”) to poignant (“Relational/emotional/spiritual trauma is much more damaging than anything McDonald’s can do to me.”
As I reflected further on the meme, its defense by the ministers I knew, and its almost universal criticism from non-ministers when asked their opinion, the parable of the lost sheep came to mind.
In Matt. 18:10-14 Jesus told the story of a shepherd who left 99 sheep safe and secure in the sheepfold to go and search for 1 that had “gone astray.” Jesus noted that, “if he finds it… he rejoices over it more than over the 99 that never went astray.”
We’ve reached a place where we, as 21st century North American Christians, have flipped that parable on its head. Instead of leaving the 99 that are safe and secure to search out for the 1 that has wandered, we pat the 99 that stay on the back and talk down about the 1 that goes astray.
This isn’t the way of Jesus. Regardless of how valid we perceive someone’s complaint to be, as believers our responsibility is to seek out those who leave and make sincere attempts to bring them back.
There’s no formula for how to do this. Every situation is likely unique and will require a respectful, loving, Holy Spirit led approach. I can’t prescribe exactly how to go about that process.
But I can tell you that sharing memes that shame leavers is diametrically opposed to the heart and attitude of Jesus. It’s not the way of restoration, it’s the way of self-justification. Not everyone who leaves will return. But it’s also true that people who are shamed and ostracized for leaving are less likely to return.
Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” Perhaps the temptation for those who stay isn’t to fall into the same patterns as those who leave. Perhaps it is to be proud that they have remained. If so, then we find ourselves guilty of one of the oldest of Satan’s tricks in placing us in opposition to God: “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.”
About Benjie Shaw
Benjie Shaw serves as a Campus Staff Minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Georgia. He is married, the dad of 2 kids, a self-described coffee snob, and an MCU apologist. Benjie is an ordained minister, a Georgia Southern University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary graduate, and a former personal trainer. You can read more about the author here.

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