There is a category of the ‘De-Churched’ that is the most troubling to me. Troubling because what caused them to leave the church wasn’t a pandemic, a new Sunday morning hobby, kids’ travel soccer, or some other casual departure. No, these departures were not casual, they were casualties. This is the ‘not-so-friendly fire’ so many have received from their own churches. These are the Ex-vangelicals.
Ex-vangelical is a category in the book “The Great Dechurching” that comprises about 17% of those in the study. They estimate it represents over 2 million former church goers in America. To say they are hurt is an understatement. They have endured mistreatment, observed scandal, experienced abuse, and felt the misuse of authority. Of those in this study, 0% said they would EVER come back to an evangelical church. They said they were ‘done with church’.
Amazingly, the majority of these ‘beat-up’ people are still believers in Jesus and hold the Bible as an authority in their life. 72% of them self-identify as Christians. 65% are female, the average age is 54, and many are retired.
A statistic that shocked and saddened the authors of this study was the fact that this group showed the highest score in suicidal thoughts on a 0-100 scale. When 0 was the most suicidal thoughts, and 100 no suicidal thoughts, their score was a gut wrenching 16.
I have two pastoral reactions to the information shown in this data. First, to those who have been hurt and left their church, then to those of us attending church regularly.
To those who have been hurt by the Church:
If you are reading this and you have been hurt by the Church (big C), maybe even hurt by our church, I want to say, “I’m sorry.” Whether I’m your pastor or not, ‘I’m Sorry’. I would love to talk with you. I want you to know you are not alone in your pain.
There was a time when I almost became part of this statistic with you. I know you are not a number. You have a story. The deepest wounds often come from those who are closest to us. We engage in relationships that are meant to be loving and supportive, and sometimes are left in pain, even with traumatic wounds. Relationships end; authority is mishandled; people get hurt. There are no excuses. It is not supposed to be like this. Yet, in the history of the Church, this is hardly news. It would be very discouraging, if we were only to look at humankind’s ability to miss the Fullness of Life promised in Jesus.
Thankfully, we can sit in the presence of God. We can learn from the One who empowers us to forgive, who comforts us when we need, and heals and transforms us to be more like Him. We long for more of the Kingdom of God on earth.
“Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2
“Looking to Jesus…” I encourage you to read that verse again. Maybe sit for a while with the Truth and the Life offered to us in these words. Jesus endured the pain and humiliation of the cross, for the joy of being the Way for us to be one with Him. So, let us rejoice in Him. Let us rejoice in the fact that nothing and no one else is stronger. Death itself cannot hold us back.
I offer a prayer for you to continue ‘abiding’ in Him (John 15). As you do that, I also pray you will find ‘other branches’, growing and giving fruit. So, you can experience a community of faith that desires to be more like Christ, and love each other well.
To those who remain in the Church:
If we ask why these brothers and sisters left their church, the answers will vary, but many include deep pain, political rifts, lack of love, and very negative experiences, including abuse and trauma.
For those of us who have stayed in a church, and may or may not have been hurt at some point, please remember our stories are unique. I would always keep in mind that our call is not to judge or compare, but to love. If you have been part of a church long enough, most likely you have been offended or hurt at some point. I’m grateful you have stayed. Maybe you left and came back. Let us remember: it is the grace of God that sustains us all.
0% of Ex-vangelicals thinking about returning to an evangelical church is a heartbreaking truth. As a result of their study, the authors of this book say the Ex-vangelicals might consider coming to a different church tradition. Instead of going back to an evangelical contemporary church, people might consider a more contemplative church, maybe Anglican. They even tell us to increase empathy, in case some of them come through our doors. “To win trust of the Ex-vangelical we need to have humility, active listening, calmness, and a posture of curiosity.” (The Great Dechurching)
I think the authors mean well, but I want to propose a deeper approach. One that I believe is more aligned with God’s heart for us. What if instead of making a list of the characteristics ‘to have’ as a church, we commit ourselves ‘to be’ more like Christ?
One of the ways our culture has influenced the Church is by spreading a mentality of consumerism. There is a sense that a transaction is happening, when in one hand one finds what he/she is looking for, and in another hand, churches are trying to figure out how to become more attractive and give exactly what might be desirable to others.
Have you ever been in a relationship where you don’t have to remind yourself to love someone? You love in action, not just by feeling. I want us to love one another, “love our neighbor”, not because it is a command, but because the love of God has transformed us. His love has ‘filled our cups’ to the point it overflows. You love others as a result of the freedom that comes from experiencing His love. Scripture says:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” I John 4:7
Our love for others becomes a natural extension of His love for us. It flows organically, even when it requires sacrifices. We all need to pray for the state of the Church of God. But, instead of placing people in categories, let’s honor the Image of God in every human being.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, May this be true of all of us.
Blessings and Peace,