By Wayne Jacobsen, a new chapter for the book he’s writing on The Phenomenon of the Dones
“When I told my friends I’d left the church, they didn’t want to talk to me anymore.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that conversation with people who are completely surprised that formerly close friends would so suddenly cut them off. Leaving a faith community after many years of service and with many friendships is rarely made in haste or with joy. It is usually born out of prolonged pain and frustration. Statistics show that most who have left did everything they could not to reach that conclusion. They tried to be a voice for change, but were pegged as complainers. When that failed they tried to hunker down, ignore the things what disturbed them and focus on the positives.
But their attempts didn’t work. The final straw is rarely the most significant one. It’s simply the one that said they couldn’t go on like this any longer. Whether it was the last manipulative sermon or announcement from the pulpit, political intrigue they could no longer ignore, or simple exhaustion from wrestling with concerns no one else seemed to share, they finally come to a resolute decision because their conscience could do no other. Of course they want their closest friends to understand even if they don’t agree or aren’t ready to make the same decision. They assume their friends will be interested in that journey, but once they begin to talk about it they are treated as a pariah. Because religious performance has schooled them in living for the approval of others their desire to be understood comes off a bit too passionate, and often too sharp.
Because Christianity, however, focuses on right versus wrong, many reach that decision by concluding something is wrong there and they have to leave. Thus they are doing the “right” thing and those that do not support them are doing the “wrong” one. They may load up on Internet articles damning religious institutions as the harlot of Babylon, or blame a key leader or contributor as the leaven infecting the whole who ruined it for them. They make their quest a moral one and see anyone opposing them as no longer following the truth.
The stage is set for intense conflict and all the more because of their treasured friendships and their productive history with the congregation. The dialog of departure is too threatening to the future of the congregation to let it happen unchecked. Their story quickly finds its way into the ears of the leaders who realize the inherent danger of discontent spreading throughout the congregation. It’s amazing how quickly they can circle the wagons by marginalizing any malcontents with gossip and innuendo. There’s nothing more threatening to the viability of any group of people than people leaving it especially when they have a compelling explanation and long-term friendships. They have to characterize your decision as theologically wrong, and the gossip that ensues intends to destroy your reputation and make people afraid to engage you, even if only to not run afoul of the leadership.
So on the one hand you have people making tortured decisions wanting others to understand that decision and perhaps to even join them, and on the other a group of people who feel judged and wounded by that decision and don’t feel so friendly. My experience says that both sides wait for the other to make the first move, and both will wait for years. “I left six months ago and not one person has called me.” Or, “They just vanished one day as if your friendship had no meaning to them.”
No, that doesn’t happen everywhere. There are congregations and pastors secure enough to let people have their journey, and if they no longer fit in, still treat them with kindness and generosity. However, I don’t get email from people leaving those fellowships. I get it from those who are either harassed as someone who has rejected God or ostracized as if they were some kind of virus. The latter is part of their attempt to get you to admit you’re wrong and come back. In their minds they do it for your own good. This is how they “love” you, by withholding their friendship until you conform again.
This is a treacherous time for all concerned. Like me you may need to take some distance from religious obligation to find freedom from it. Because I performed well, I could easily get sucked into that way of thinking if I hung around others who were pursuing it. To get away from it and have the time to cultivate new relationships not so mired in it was incredibly helpful for me. But I never lost my heart for those I’d left behind. They were only doing what I had done for years and rather than condemn them for it, I wanted to stay in touch with them in case a similar hunger got the better of them as well. And I discovered that as I learned to live inside the Father’s affection, it became easier to be around performance-based people and not be drawn into its orbit.
People often ask me if there’s a way to leave a congregation without hurting others. Of course there’s nothing we can do that will guarantee people how people will respond, but as I’ve watched people over 25 years go through this process, I’ve discovered there are ways we can make it easier on yourself and others you care about.
Leave quietly. Unless Jesus clearly asks you to make some kind of last stand, and let people know that you’re leaving and why, find a quieter exit. And if you do feel called to lay down the gauntlet, pray again to make sure you’re not just misreading your own desire for personal vindication as the leading of the Spirit. The more hurt or betrayal you feel from others, the more your flesh will want to respond this way. Doing so, however, will burn bridges Jesus may still want you to cross.
Remember how long it took for you to see through the problems and come to the conclusions you have. Give time for the Spirit to do that same for them. You cannot make a more clear statement than simply withdrawing your participation you need not beat them over the head with your reasons. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards. His advice is to leave quietly without trying to take anyone with you. Let God deal with their hearts. If people ask you what’s going on, don’t make “last-stand statements” about leaving the horrible “institutional church” to follow Jesus more freely. People will not be able to understand that language until the Spirit stirs similar hunger in their own hearts.
Talk about it in ways that impart grace to the hearer. When you find people who are also done with the traditional congregation, you can talk freely, encourage each other’s journeys, and work out your frustrations at how the system may have hurt you. With those who are still in it, however, it is far better to speak more gently, leaving a door open if they want to explore it more, not forcing your conclusions on them before they are ready to hear.
Don’t try so hard to be understood and don’t cast aspersions on other people or leadership. Of course I’m not encouraging you to be dishonest. If there is real corruption in the leadership or dynamics in the congregation others need to be warned about, do it cautiously. However, you don’t have to tell people everything and overwhelm them with your hurts. Just let them know you’re reconsidering some things in a prayerful season. If they’re interested they will ask for more, but discern those who are genuinely hungry and caring from those who just want to hear some salacious gossip to feed the rumor mill.
It is not your job to convince others that what you’re doing is the right response against injustice or evil. Laying out all your frustrations may well damage the relationship and force them to make a judgment about you when they don’t even understand what you’re doing. In many cases you probably don’t understand all that’s going on yet either even in your own heart.
Be careful what you share on social media. Not everyone in your pool of relationships will appreciate being confronted with your journey every day. Many people early in this journey take out their frustrations on others by wrapping their story in newfound controversial theological views they know will be a poke in the eye to people in their family and their former congregation. They seem to need the validation of being provocative and enduring other people’s reactions. In time they will come to see that though it makes them feel as if they’re doing something important, they are actually alienating people that Jesus also loves. Many of these will complain about the loss of friends they’ve suffered and play the martyr role in their search for truth, but they have only brought it on themselves.
There’s nothing valuable about working out your issues in public environment, and it only invites greater hurt. This is best done in personal conversations with people who’ve been down that road already and can listen, understand, and help you think through where some of your thoughts might lead. You will discover that your views will shift dramatically over time and that the closer you come to his truth you will discover a huge helping of gentleness and humility that can encourage others without attacking them. Being antagonistic doesn’t open people to your point of view or to the God you’re learning to love, but caring about them as people on a journey will.
Avoid drawing the hard line. If people ask where you’ve been, instead of telling them you’ve left the Institutional Church never to return again, think again. That may be how you feel today, but grace is best lived with daily bites. You may feel the need to leave now, but you don’t know where this journey will take you or how God might lead you down the road. Who knows that God might call you back into a more congregational environment for a number of reasons? You don’t even know if the decision you’re making is temporary or permanent?
The encouragements in Scripture about following Jesus focus on our daily response to him, as best we discern his leading. Making stands based on some newfound conclusions or what you think is “right” versus what is “wrong”, don’t usually stand the test of time anyway. By stating them too early you paint yourself into a corner that you may not end up wanting to defend. Transformation of our thinking and our living takes place over time and we can’t possibly guess today what we might know better years from know.
Those who have left their congregations causing the least amount of damage and maintaining many of their friendships didn’t draw such hard lines. Instead they talked about needing a sabbatical or a taking a break from the activities that have exhausted them so they can once again focus on their relationship with Jesus. They may tell people they’re considering what the church is and how best for you to engage her in this season of their life. The more you personalize God’s leading the less they will need to feel rejected. I’ve often told people who ask me where I go to church, that I no longer attend a specific congregation, but I am exploring more relational ways of doing church. That has opened a door for many a thoughtful and sensitive conversation. If you need to resign from leadership positions or other responsibilities keep do it direct and kind. Keep in mind you don’t owe anyone an explanation no matter how badly they want one. Just tell them that you’re convinced this is what God has for us at this time. It’s hard to argue with that.
Make your decision seem less final and less judgmental by seeing it as a season in your life in which God might be shifting your priorities or perceptions. The less threatening you make it, the more people will be able to care about you instead of choosing sides. That is the best way for you to see it as well. How many times have we made ironclad decisions for life that turned out to be wrong? We are all growing, all learning to follow him, and its best for us to see that as leading in the moment, rather than new rules to live by for the rest of our lives.
If they are interested they will ask for more and even then be sensitive to how much you share. Where they are genuinely concerned, open up more freely. Where they become defensive, back off a bit. This is about caring for them, not feeding your need to be right.
Realize new relationships will not come easily. Many people think they will leave their congregation and suddenly discover a lot of people ready to fellowship in more relational ways. Unfortunately that’s not usually the case. Many congregations are so ingrown that people have few other quality friendships beyond its borders.
Once you’ve left, what are you going to do to find new relationships? If you just think your congregation is fatally flawed, you may want to try some others to see if they are less so. Many take this option and find their way into larger congregations where they can just put in their time and be less conspicuous. Those who have the most success here usually go to smaller congregations closer to home and find people to love rather than a program to entertain them.
But for those who are really giving up on religious obligation and want to find more relational connections, don’t think finding a new group or even new friendships will be easy. You’ll want to find people of “like mind”, and if you do, great, but the best friendships don’t come out of finding people who are already like you, but growing in friendships through your differences. Look to love whomever is before you rather than trying to find a group of people on the same journey and it will be less frustrating.
Many find this a lonely season, especially if they made their decision alone but that isn’t bad either. Loneliness is often not about the lack of other people, but our lack of connection with Jesus. This is a great time to get to know him and learn to rest in his love, so new friendships can grow more without loneliness twisting them to your preferred ends..
Be a force for greater unity. Jesus’ most passionate prayer for his followers is that we’d all be one. If you’re finding your way out of the traditional congregation, don’t be shy about loving people who still go. If they are open to friendship without either of you trying to “fix” the other, pursue it. Keep the conversation on “Jesus” instead of “church” and you’ll find more fruitful conversations.
As you find more freedom in his love, you’ll find their guilt and condemnation will have no place to land. You can even expose it gently and honestly, even humorously, and those who really care about you will learn to lay it down at least in your presence. And they will when they see it no longer impacts you. They may want that freedom for themselves, but let them ask. That doesn’t mean you have to hang out with toxic people who try to put their bondage on you, but you will be able to love more freely those lost in the darkness.
Just don’t try to get people to see what you see. Trust the Spirit to do that as you simply enjoy them where they are on their own journey. In doing so you’ll fulfill the heart of the Father for increased love and affection. Some even find themselves once again in traditional congregations but as very different people who are no longer
Don’t forget to love. The real freedom from religious obligation comes as we learn to live in his love rather than create a new set of obligations to get others to follow. That even includes people we disagree with and those who mistreat us. That takes time, however; so don’t force yourself to live beyond your own freedom. As I said above, you may initially need to take some distance from those who hold you in judgment or try to manipulate you, even family members. But that will change over time.
As you discover how much he loves you that relationship will transform everything about the way you see him, see yourself, and see others. You increasingly find yourself disconnected from obligation and the ability to be manipulated by guilt or fear. You’ll be able to be around others, even those who disagree with your journey and not be influenced by their angst.
It’s a tough lesson to be sure, but one that will reap great rewards. If we try to force others to our own conclusions we’re playing the same game of conformity and manipulation that they are. Love doesn’t press; it entreats. It cares for someone looking for the conversation that may be bring light when people are ready.
And that goes for all of us. So whether your place in the journey has you inside an established congregation, or learning to live in the joy of his church outside of them, we’d all do well to treat each other with love and grace. Our unity will never come agreeing on all the finer points of doctrine or observing the same practices, but by caring about each other in spite of our differences and looking for ways to encourage others to draw more closely to Jesus.
Live true to his work in you and generous with others and you’ll fulfill all he has in mind for you and you’ll also be a blessing to his wider church in the world.
This is part 17 in a series on The Phenomenon of the Dones by Wayne Jacobsen who is the author of Finding Church and host of a podcast at TheGodJourney.com. You can read the first half here and subsequent parts below. It will eventually be made into a book for people to read more easily.
- Part 8: Five Factors Contributing to the Decline in “Church Attendance”
- Part 9: An Invitation Not An Imposition
- Part 10: The Conversations that Matter Most
- Part 11: Monetizing Ministry
- Part 12: Handling the Truth
- Part 13: Do You Have Community?
- Part 14: Reaching Across the Divide
- Part 15: Waiting for Revival
- Part 16: How Much Did Paul Get It Wrong?
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