This past week I ended up reading a lot of Christian essays decrying the practice of ghosting in their peers. Today I’ll show you the two kinds of Christian ghosting, how prevalent ghosting has become in that community, how ghosting relates to shunning and ostracism, and a very likely reason for why it’s happening so much lately. And in the doing, maybe we’ll see something here that we can use to understand ourselves better.
Ghosting: A Definition.
You’d think that ghosting has something to do with, well, ghosts–like in that 1990 movie with Patrick Swayze (WARNING: do not watch right after a bad breakup). In reality, the term has come to mean vanishing without a trace from another person’s life–severing contact with no warning and no explanation.
Of course, like pretty much everything about how people interact, ghosting isn’t some brand-new thing. The formal term itself was invented relatively recently (2014ish?) to describe something that’s happened since forever and ever. Even when I was a boy-crazy teenager, we knew that sometimes people just vanished without a word. The trope’s been described in countless movies and TV shows, music and plays–like this scene from the 90s sitcom Third Rock from the Sun:
But the good news is he’s gonna call me. (“Dick is from Mars, Sally is from Venus.”)
Usually ghosting happens fairly early in a budding romantic relationship, before the couple involved learn each other’s addresses and other personal details. The other person might think that things are progressing very well–certainly there aren’t any hints of serious trouble–but then one day their sweetheart just vanishes. The phone number changes; the emails bounce; the social-media accounts get blocked. There’s no way to contact that person and no way to ask what happened. For all the ghosted person knows, the other person just dropped off the face of the planet.
Most people regard ghosting as a really terrible thing to do to someone. There’s been no shortage at all of digital and RL ink spilled condemning the practice–and one can easily find or prompt a speech vilifying anybody who’s ever ghosted someone.
And yet people do it all the time to each other. Fortune describes a Plenty of Fish (PoF) survey last year that indicates that some 80% of Millennials have been ghosted at least once. A previous study from HuffPo back in 2014 indicated that only 18% of Millennials were reporting that they’d been ghosted–but neither of these seem like particularly rigorous surveys, so these two results, as dramatic as they sound, could mean just about anything. It could mean that ghosting’s really increased in prevalence. Or it could mean that people are more aware of ghosting now that they’ve got a term that describes it. Or that one or both of those surveys posed the question in a really unusual way. Whatever the case, it sure seems like ghosting happens a lot. (Washington Post did a great piece about ghosting last year that’s worth visiting for some more insight.)
Moreover, it sure seems like ghosting sure happens a lot within Christianity.
You know, within the religion whose adherents are under a cosmic commandment to love without ceasing, forgive without ending, and give till it more than hurts.
And all I can ask is why anybody’s surprised at the news that Christians do love them some ghosting.
The Destructive Christian Practice That Christians Don’t Talk About.
I’m pretty sure that Benjamin Corey wasn’t expecting the big response he got to his post a few days ago about Christian ghosting.
Here, he’s using the word ghosting to describe the age-old practice of Christian ostracism and shunning.
In the post, he describes how he was ghosted by his best friends in church–and from there, by his entire Christian social group. He describes how every day revolved around that group and those friends, and what it was like after they dropped out of his life without a word:
My family and I went from having what felt like a strongly bonded group of people to do life with, to waking up one morning and discovering we were now alone, and had no friends or natural support system.
You might be asking yourself about what great sin he must have committed to earn himself a good ole-fashioned Christian ostracizin’ and shunnin’. What on earth could someone ever do to be thrown outside the sheepfold?
Well, in his case, he’d spoken against various platforms of Republican Fundagelicalism within earshot of his group. He’d advocated for higher minimum wages, disagreed with the idea of humiliating some senior members just for appearances, and angered fundagelical gun nuts in his group in various ways (including by preaching about “loving one’s neighbor” and suggesting that maybe guns weren’t appropriate church accessories).
That was all it took for him to get ostracized and shunned. He went from every day revolving around his church group to never speaking to them again.
And the ostracism extended to his entire family. His 12-year-old daughter lost all her friends too. The cruelty wasn’t enough to extend to Mr. Corey; his onetime group had to make sure that a little girl who had done nothing at all to provoke their anger suffered just like her father did.
The comments on his post are filled with heartbreaking tales of similar hurts, related by people who remain confused, hurt, and angry over how they were treated by their Christian peers. Some of these offenses occurred years and years ago, but the pain remains fresh.
Benjamin Corey’s post reminds me of a poignant story one of our commenters has told about how her family was similarly shunned by Christians, and how she had to explain to her kids why their playmates weren’t ever going to come over anymore. Similarly, most of us ex-Christians lost quite a few if not all of our Christian friends when we deconverted–like I did.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Christian love.
Ghosting vs. Ostracism/Shunning.
People ghost for a variety of reasons. Some of them are easy to understand; others might not be so intuitive. The important question to ask in assessing whether you’re seeing ghosting or ostracism lies in the end-goal of the person pulling away.
Most of the time, ghosting–real “they just vanished!” ghosting–happens because the person doing it wants to avoid a confrontation.
Sure, they might be simple cowards who flee at the first sign of trouble, but more likely they’ve gotten some signals that make them think that it won’t go over well to be honest and truthful about their feelings and their desire to break up. Maybe they really think that ghosting is preferable to the fight that’d happen if a real breakup occurred. Maybe they don’t see what good it could ever accomplish to put themselves or their partners through that stress and they want to spare everyone the emotional pain that a breakup would create.
Women, in particular, are trained to be “nice” to others, so they often feel safer simply withdrawing from a new relationship rather than taking the risk of incurring a would-be partner’s wrath by being explicit about the withdrawal and why it’s occurring. They’ll be punished anyway by society for not being honest and open, but they view that risk of censure as a better risk all the way around than what they incur by actually being totally straightforward with someone of dubious or unknown temperament.
The person being ghosted may well think that they’re perfectly safe people to be honest with, but it’s really up to the other person, not them, to decide that. If the other person decides that it’s safer and easier for them to withdraw without explanation, then that’s what’s going to happen.
Usually ghosting’s more about the person withdrawing than it is about the person who got ghosted. For all the fears that the ghosting person may feel, it’s entirely possible that those fears don’t apply to the person they’re ghosting. But if someone discovers that they’re being ghosted frequently, then it is worth asking some hard questions about just how safe others perceive them as being and whether or not they punish others for trying to be honest around them.
Those are important questions to ask. I really believe that most people would rather be honest about things–and that most folks recognize the value of honesty in relationships of all kinds. When they’re not honest, usually there’s a reason for it. Sometimes the reason has nothing to do with the people they’re not being honest with. Not always, but sometimes. When it’s not, when the reason really is the person facing that dishonesty, then it’s something that desperately needs to be addressed.
However, none of this is the ghosting that Benjamin Corey’s talking about. Christians like him are using the term, sure, but they’re describing something totally different.
One Kind of Christian Ghosting, Defined.
Christian ghosting, according to Benjamin Corey, involves groups that deliberately cut a member (and the member’s entire family) out of the social loop because that person said or did something they don’t like. At that point it’s as if the ostracized member doesn’t even exist anymore. Nobody will talk to them, even if they encounter that person in the grocery store or on the street. It’s worse than being dead.
Christians don’t tend to sever relationships with the people in their groups because they want to avoid pain or fighting. They do it to punish people for not conforming to their expectations and complying with their demands. They ghost to express their disappointment and anger with the person being ghosted.
Someone who ghosts for those reasons is an absolutely terrible person–and yet toxic groups do it all the time. As a social control measure, this behavior has worked marvelously well, at least in the past, to bring dissenters and black sheep back into line.
We’re herd animals at heart. Christians in particular are taught to view themselves as a rock-solid family working together to grow the kingdom or whatever they happen to call it in each little assembly. When the herd decides that one of them has to go, the resulting loneliness and solitude can be devastating for the one thus cast out. Sometimes a group must eject someone who is really harmful to the group–like if that person hurts or harasses people (and sometimes the group is far too slow to eject such people). But when a person isn’t doing that kind of harm, we must look instead to social conformity as the goal of a group that practices shunning–because they’re certainly not doing it to protect themselves from tangible harm.
That devastation of loss is absolutely what Christians want and what they’re aiming to create when they ostracize someone. They know it hurts–and they want it to hurt. They want that person to hurt so much that they repent, which entails at the least publicly throwing themselves on the group’s tender mercies in the hopes of being admitted back into the group’s good graces.
But if their victim doesn’t fall back into line quickly, then the ostracism and shunning will get much, much worse.
Little wonder Eugene Peterson backpedaled so hard after publicly expressing support for equal marriage. Most of us who heard about his recanting of that support weren’t ultimately very surprised. Dude’s very old, and his herd had publicly rejected him in some stunning ways–and were gearing up to do much worse. By recanting his support for equal marriage, he settled back into uneasy acceptance with most of them (not all–some Christians still don’t believe his recantation was genuine!). But one wonders if he realizes just how shallow their love is and how conditional their support is. He’s gotten proof of it; the question is, will he believe his lyin’ eyes this late in his life?
Whether he does or not, it’s clear that increasing numbers of Christians are indeed doing that mental arithmetic and asking some hard questions about just why they’re still involved with the religion on any formal basis.
Let the Rationalizations Flow.
It’s hard even to imagine how Christians justify and rationalize behavior this awful, given the “fruits” it produces, but as with everything terrible they do, they manage the trick–at least to their own satisfaction. Some of them are even ponderous in their explanations of just when ostracism should happen and under what circumstances, ending by deciding that gosh, the people being ostracized kinda did it to themselves and the Christians around them had no choice in the matter except to shun them! I’ve frequently heard this behavior described by Christians as “tough love,” though I suspect they wouldn’t know tough love if it hit them over the head with a Bible.
The way that fundagelicals use ostracism and shunning to get their way doesn’t get nearly as much attention, but most of us know very well that they do it all the same–and for the same reasons as their more obviously-cultish brethren. It’s a social control, and more than that, it’s one of the most powerful social controls that a Christian group can exert even amid an entire ocean of options. I’m not even a little surprised that it was Mars Hill’s practice of shunning that became the straw that broke Mark Driscoll’s back. But even so, Christian groups still use this practice as a last-ditch form of church discipline they administer to members who are acting out.
That is why so many Christians are abusive and downright cruel toward those who speak against their culture wars or dare to talk about stuff that the herd’s biggest voices don’t want to talk about. For all that lovey-dovey Jesus stuff they say they believe, what way too many Christians really want is total unilateral control over the lives, bodies, beliefs, and behaviors of every single person they can possibly manage. And they don’t particularly care how they get that control.
Shunning is not done out of fear of confrontation; it’s done out of smug, childish glee at hurting another person. It’s done from a desire to control that person and to force them to do something they obviously don’t want to do. It’s done to demonstrate superiority over that person.
And it’s done most of all to show the group’s other members what awaits them if they, themselves, ever act out.
Do not imagine for one moment that thousands of Christians in culture-warrior churches didn’t see what happened to Eugene Peterson, one of the most esteemed and best-loved Christian leaders in the entire religion, and do some quick mental arithmetic about what would happen if they themselves ever dared to hint that they had any sympathy for LGBTQ folks. These messy object lessons are ten times more brutal than they need to be (even for the cruel objectives of Christian shunning) because they have to deter others from following a similarly dissenting path.
That is why, for all Christians’ trumpeting of their supposedly objective morality, the crimes that they think call for shunning seem to evolve massively with the times in which they live. At one point, divorce got a Christian evangelical ostracized; now, even pastors in all but the most extremist groups can divorce and remarry without much fear of pushback from the tribe as long as they don’t dare support groups that their tribe has marginalized.
What’s being policed isn’t adherence to Christian tenets; it’s adherence to Christian leaders’ demands.
So I’m not sure I’m totally happy with this use of the term ghosting. We already have a great pair of terms that cover what we’re seeing here: ostracism and shunning.
The Real Christian Ghosting.
There is one form of ghosting that Christians experience that actually fits the definition of ghosting in dating: the growing trend of Christians who leave their groups without a word of goodbye or explanation.
In this case, what happens is that the Christian was a member of that particular church group for at least a brief time, but then suddenly leaves very abruptly, never communicating again with the group. Nobody knows why they left; nobody seems to be able to contact them for any answers. They’re just gone.
And that, at least, fits the definition of ghosting very well. It’s done by Christians who fear the confrontation of breaking up with their church group, or who fear provoking anger or arguments if they’re straightforward about their departure. These Christians feel that it’s much easier to vanish without a goodbye.
(Sometimes the two forms of ghosting collide, as one commenter outlines briefly in a Christian’s post about this more conventional kind of ghosting–the family left their church, then got sent a letter of ostracism by their former church!)
Moreover, this kind of ghosting seems to happen quite often. One Scandinavian pastor wrote about it, ending by wondering if maybe it’s just a Scandinavian thing, but the comments make clear that no, it’s happening in America as well. (In the last post, a Christian complained about greater “mobility” in Americans–and one wonders if perhaps this is what he meant: people just don’t settle down in one place or with one group and expect to be there forever, not anymore.) One guy even thinks that almost 80% of Christians who leave churches do so via ghosting.
Thom Rainer of the Southern Baptist Convention has written extensively about this kind of Christian ghosting; he calls it “leaving by the back door.” It’s such a big problem for his denomination that he considers closing that door to be of paramount importance–since, as he puts it, his denomination’s leaders “cannot account for four million of its [16 million claimed] members.” His community’s picked up on this notion and his commenters use that idea in comments frequently, painting ghosting as a symptom of a dying church. And I can’t really argue that point.
Not only are longtime members slipping away from their church groups, but most churches are discovering that they are absolutely awful at making first-time guests feel welcome. There’s no shortage of posts online and in print that try to advise churches in how to make visitors feel welcome, and yet still most guests will come and go from these churches without a single word to the pastors involved about what repelled them so much that they couldn’t ever return.
The practice of church ghosting definitely speaks to dwindling power of Christian leaders and to the fading social clout of churches themselves. And sure, Christians can rail against the practice; they often speak very disparagingly of Christians who do it. They hint that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never ghost a church. They demand that people who wish to leave their groups “break up with [them]” in a formal manner.
And yet Christians keep ghosting their churches, and they will keep doing it.
Even those cringeworthy “listening sessions” that one hears about Catholic churches doing barely garner more than a few dozen people who actually show up to tell Catholic leaders why they left their various churches. It sure seems like the reason Christians don’t want to talk to a church’s leaders about why they left that church is the same exact reason why people ghost on a new romantic relationship:
- They know it won’t change anything about how the ghosted person/group behaves;
- They suspect that there’s a good chance that those church leaders will argue with them about how valid their decision was or try to talk them into changing their minds;
- They may fear being criticized or attacked for their decision;
- They know it’s not their job to fix or change the person or group being ghosted;
- And they know that such a meeting may well create much worse feelings in both parties than ghosting would.
In either case of the word “ghosting,” one is left with one absolute and inescapable conviction:
There is nothing whatsoever about Christians or Christian culture that proclaims or reveals the existence of any divine being or force.
The Sword of Secularization.
One reason that ostracism hurts is that it pushes through the narrative we’ve created in our minds about how that group relationship was going to go. It punctures our feelings of safety in the group; it shows us in a glaring way that we’re not actually as much a part of our groups as we thought we were. It punishes us with our very own feelings of sociability and gregariousness. And it’s a glaring sign that we are not as included and as accepted as we thought.
That pain is why I’m increasingly glad that the world is getting more secular by the day. Yes, Christian groups still dominate the social landscape in way too many areas. But non-Christian groups are growing everywhere, based around every interest under the sun. Someone who craves human contact doesn’t have to go to church to get it–in fact they may find that these secular groups offer far more to them than churches ever did. To be sure, the risks of ostracism decline dramatically as the group’s religiosity does.
Little wonder that Christians are so upset about the West’s growing secularization! We’re removing a large weapon from their toolbox.
More and more often, when a Christian gets rejected by their religious group, they discover that they’re either happier without a group at all, or else they go find another group that works better for them anyway. I’m not sure it’s such a great idea for Christians to push their members into finding out just how superfluous Christianity really is to most people’s lives.
And in this age where absolutely everything seems up for review, the time when a Christian might get shunned and never discuss it is long past. People who’ve tasted this unique form of “Christian love” are no longer shy about discussing their experiences with anybody who’ll give them a listening ear. So this age-old practice of shunning is finally getting the attention it deserves–and it’s hardly our fault if Christians don’t like that rock being turned over!
We’re going to talk about one aspect of the pain of ostracism–the lack of closure–soon, and I look forward to seeing you here!
By the way, here’s a really good example of a letter that someone can write to resign membership from a church in a very definitive–and legally binding–way. It’s Mormon-specific, but the page and its links contain a lot of good information for those who fear retaliation and nastiness from their onetime tribe but who feel they need to formally sever ties.
Also by the way, we’ve got a forum now!