How To Love People Who Have Stepped Away From The Church
My husband and I moved to Seattle last year in the wake of the internationally known mega church, Mars Hill splitting up, and eventually coming to an end. This created an interesting environment for Christians in the area. Seattle is already widely regarded as one of the most unchurched cities in America, and after the rise and ugly fall of the biggest church in the greater Seattle area, the environment was nothing short of hostile. Thousands of churchgoers were hurt and felt deceived, and without a solid church home to heal, this pain turned to bitterness and in some cases, hatred. A few walked away from the faith, but a majority simply walked away from organized religion. Over the past year, I have come to know these people, to share their struggles, and to even see them slowly come back to church. Here are a few things I have observed:
Get To Know Their Story Before You Judge
It is easy to see the person who was hurt and to tell them to “count it all joy,” or point them towards verses in Acts about the importance of gathering together, or passages in 1 Corinthians about the whole body of believers, or, well, any number of scriptures to support healthy church attendance. This is probably the biggest hinderance to those who have left the church. They already feel like they have been wronged, and carry around guilt and shame for walking away. The last thing they need is more confrontation. There is a time and a place to have these conversations, but before any of that can happen, you need to get to know them as a person. Listen to why they left, what events lead up to that decision, and what is keeping them from coming back.
Foster healing conversations, not gossip
Once you have an established relationship, the conversation will flow more easily. When discussing their past experiences in the church, make sure the end goal is healing and productive affirmation. Chances are, there are a lot of complicated reasons as to why they are turned off to church, and some of them are shallow and based on gossip. There are probably some deeply painful reasons, and legitimate reasons in leadership or doctrine that caused the initial pull to leave, but sometimes it’s the petty issues piled on top of each other that end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. Don’t wander too far into gossip about a certain person, or one incident. It is usually healthier to look at the flaws as a whole, and see where we are all still broken people who twist God’s word, but that God is still good, His ways are perfect, and His plan very purposefully includes the church.
Love Them where they are at, not for where you want them to be
Take time to get to know and love this person for who they are. As with anyone you’re hoping to invite to church, they can tell when you’re only interested in them for what you want them to do, or who you want them to be. Make your intentions clear from the beginning: You love them because you believe they have inherent worth, and you do long to see them reconnect with the body of Christ, but that you’re going to love them no matter what. At the end of the day, it’s not about getting them to go to church, it’s about making a connection, and being willing to reach out and love the ones who need it most.
Keep inviting them to be a part of your life
Even though it’s not all about getting them to go to church, don’t stop inviting them! Be consistent in your welcoming invite, but don’t be surprised when they turn it down. Try inviting them out in a smaller group, like a Bible study, or just an evening with friends. This reinforces that you really care about them and not just their membership status. A lot of the de-churched people I have come across either feel like they have been shunned, or that they don’t matter. Out of sight, out of mind. Reach out to them, break the awkward silence, and show them how the body of Christ is supposed to work.