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I have read so many things in the past few years about why people are leaving the church.
As churches, we’ve critiqued, we’ve analyzed, and we’ve second-guessed ourselves, attempting to find the magic formula that will not only attract people, but will also convince them to stay.
- Is it our commitment to Bible-based preaching?
- Is it music?
- Maybe it’s our stance on some key theological or political issue?
- Is it how we respond to the inevitable PTSD after COVID?
After years of serving as a staff member of a church that has been my home for forty years, I find myself often growing cynical about the fickle nature of church membership.
I don’t want to be judgmental or mean about this, but the truth is that we’re seeing a mass migration out of churches to either a different church or back to the comfort of the living room. There are many different reasons for this migration, but it has had a deep impact on those who have chosen to stay, especially on those who have felt called to leadership within the church.
In a word—“abandonment.” I’ve felt it often. I felt it a number of years ago when someone with whom I had felt a strong bond moved away. I couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness and grief, even though her moving away was necessary for her family. Years later, when she returned, I shared those feelings with her and she was surprised at my feelings of abandonment; you see, there’s a huge difference between leaving and staying, even though separation is the result of both decisions.
Those who leave have made a conscious choice, and those who stay feel the weight of those decisions over and over. We watch our church family gradually shrink every time someone chooses to go. I’m not judging the reasons or convictions, I’m only saying that it hurts . . . deeply . . . every single time.
It’s difficult to be on a mission in the world, when our team is constantly changing and our plans have to be reshaped. And this doesn’t even begin to address taking the time for the emotional recovery that comes with each loss.
There’s really no good way to leave a church, but there are some ways that are better than others. For those who remain, the worst way you can leave is by not saying anything and just being absent until someone notices. We don’t know whether you wish to be left alone, or pursued, and we often make the wrong decision. Or sometimes, the church receives a carefully-worded letter of explanation which is an attempt at closure, but rarely is successful. And, once in a while but not often, there are face to face conversations which may be uncomfortable, but at least provide an honest attempt to understand each other.
I don’t know if I’m speaking for everyone, but I’m sure many would agree with me that the pain of losing people feels personal. People with whom we’ve had close relationships, whose children we’ve help raised, whose cancer diagnosis devastated us and whose joys and triumphs we celebrated. It feels like all of that history was not enough—that we were not enough.
I know that in the moment, your decision to leave felt really important. What I don’t understand is how it was more important than all of those other things we have been through together.
For someone like me, who doesn’t handle broken relationships well, sadness and self-doubt are my go-to feelings. I tell myself stories. I read between the lines. I have imaginary conversations that are upsetting even though they only happen in my head. Then, when I see you, I feel awkward and strangely guilty.
I’m not sure that writing this has been helpful for anyone, other than helping to clarify my own thoughts and feelings. I don’t know how it will be received by those who have left. I do believe, however that I speak on behalf of a large group of people who have been relatively silent.
Our silence doesn’t mean we’re okay. We miss you.