People are leaving the church. That isn’t news to most of us.
Look up “deconversion” in the dictionary, and you won’t find an entry. Enter it as a Google search term, and you’ll discover more than 40,000.
Deconversion stories pop up daily in the religion sections of media apps like Flipboard.
Many individuals cite philosophical issues or painful experiences that undermined their beliefs about God. Others simply found themselves part of extreme expressions of Christianity such as cults and one day found a way out.
They were all distant from me until the day things got more personal.
Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I found a post by a student my wife and I took on a summer mission almost 10 years ago. She began her message like this:
“OK, so here it is. Time for me to talk about something that's been changing in my life recently and I've been keeping quiet about it until I could get around to telling some people. You should sit down, because this might upset you. Here goes. I am not a Christian any more.”
I hadn’t seen her in almost a decade, but as I read her explanation I was challenged both by the thoughtful explanation being offered and the reaction she anticipated.
Typically, if you read a story online describing someone’s deconversion from Christianity, the comments below feature apparent Christians saying things like, “You were never a Christian to begin with.” This girl was prepared for that.
She clearly outlined how committed she had been to her faith, then how her doubts developed as she spent time researching ideas she’d always taken for granted. As she listened to both sides of the debate on faith, she found the atheist’s ideas making more sense to her.
She gave a thorough, thoughtful explanation of what she couldn’t reconcile about the Christian faith, and went point by point through the reasons she imagined Christians would give for her decision. Finally, she described feeling much less stressed and guilty since she’d stopped trying to live up to the standards she saw so many believers trying and failing to live up to.
Perhaps you’ve recently heard someone’s deconversion story. If not, it’s possible that you one day will as people continue leaving the church. So how do you respond well to someone who walks away from their faith?
- Understand their faith story from the beginning.
Because we feel these people are losing sight of the truth, we can default to trying to urgently tell them something. But what if they’re not ready to hear it? A Christian who knows how to listen, whether via social media or in person, may be what they need first.
Unless you attempt to understand how, and sometimes if, a person initially accepted Christ, you don’t have an adequate grasp of how hard it was for them to reject Him.
Working with Cru on university campuses, I saw students make professions of faith but then change their mind within a year or 2, often as they began counting the cost of following Jesus. On at least one occasion, I felt responsible for rushing someone to make a decision before I knew he had adequately weighed the implications for his life.
Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.
- Who or what are they rejecting?
Read enough deconversion stories, and you’ll notice a pattern in the path that takes someone away from Christianity. They often don’t mention Jesus. The struggle tends more with the implications of their faith for non-believers they care about, or with cultural beliefs and behaviors they’ve encountered in the church.
The Barna Group has conducted detailed research into why young people in particular are feeling alienated from mainstream evangelical Christianity. Understand what’s motivating your friend or family member, and you may be able to help them continue drawing closer to the real Jesus, even if they need some time away from church.
- Do they trust you enough to reveal why they don’t trust God?
The essence of meaningful relationships is trust. People draw closer to those they feel safe with. Someone leaving our faith may have valid reasons for not trusting other Christians, and for struggling to trust God. Using terms like “falling away” or “backsliding” to describe them only adds a sense of shame or failure to the conversation.
Many people have asked me, “How can you trust a God who allows so much suffering in the world?” With a few questions, I often discover their concern isn’t primarily for people far away suffering injustice. They’re picturing a family member with a terminal illness, a friend who’s been the victim of a violent crime or someone who feels persecuted by what they perceive as Christian beliefs.
Take time to listen and empathize with their anger, disappointment, or pain. You may slow their steps away from a God who’s willing to forgive whatever they feel toward Him and deal with the roots of it.
- What makes sense to you may not to them.
Our faith is counterintuitive and radically opposed to the worldview of most humans. Loving your neighbor makes sense to most, but loving your enemy? We believe one man is the only way to God, because He is God. We believe that our eternal destiny rests on the actions of one man, not a lifetime of our own good deeds. These aren’t simple truths. They’re challenging ideas, especially for broken, hurting people desperate for a sense of control over their own lives.
Rather than simply reciting the Scriptures or a gospel presentation you’ve memorized, why not slow down and establish what Christian beliefs they struggle with, understand why, and then work from there?
- Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?
For years, evangelism has been characterized as people hearing the gospel message clearly explained and then making a decision, often immediately. While that remains important, it seems the norm in this generation is for faith to be discovered gradually in the context of longer-term relationships with Christians people trust. It takes longer that way, but God has more patience for non-Christians, struggling Christians and even former Christians than many of us seem to.
Meghan O’Gieblyn, writing in The Guardian newspaper, describes how her personal faith crisis grew out of feeling unsafe to express doubt within a community of Christian students.
“I tried to feel out other students to see if anyone else was having similar thoughts, but it was a dangerous subject. Our communal language was so rigid and coded that there was very little vocabulary with which to express doubt. I had to frame my questions as technical doctrinal queries, or else pretend I was seeking evangelism advice.”
When you don’t feel safe to tell other believers about your doubts, it’s natural to look for other communities where you can speak freely. When the voices who feel the most affirming of you come from outside the church, it’s logical to withdraw from Christians and eventually from their God.
- Someone walking away might one day turn back.
If people can decide to walk away from the life of a Christian, can’t they also decide to return to it? But if we slam the door shut behind these people with dismissive, judgmental remarks or labels, we make it harder to return to Christian community in the future.
Sometimes comments directed at people leaving the church sound so dismissive, it seems insecurity might be lurking behind them. Are we concerned that others might read the words of doubters and be drawn away? I confess I’ve had days when I wasn’t sure my faith was strong enough to listen to the doubts of others.
The answer is not to avoid questions but to wrestle with them. As a parent, the questions of a four and six-year-old regularly force me to grapple with what I believe and why. My children are unwittingly training me in patient, loving evangelism.
Jesus loved to see faith in His followers, but He dealt patiently with the doubters like Thomas, too.
If God is more concerned with saving souls than drawing lines, shouldn’t we be, too?
Is someone close to you struggling in their faith right now? Are you unsure how to respond?
Please share your experience with us below, we’re here to help.