There’s a lot of talk among church people these days about reaching out to the un-churched. Those are the people who think Jesus’ last name was “Christ.” They have no idea what Christians do in a worship service. When it comes to church – they’re clueless. Lots of the new non-denominational churches, in particular, target the un-churched population as their mission field.
Occasionally we have un-churched people walk through our doors at Holy Trinity. But that’s not really the focus of the mission that God seems to have for us. Instead, our ministry is with the lost sheep that Jesus talks about in his story of the 99 + 1. The one who was lost was not an outsider to the fold. That would make her un-churched. But that one had been a part of the fold at one time. And then, either intentionally or unintentionally, the one was no longer included. That’s what happens to the de-churched.
There are lots of reasons why people become de-churched. If you spend any time listening to their stories, one thing becomes apparent. Most of the time, the one leaves because of the actions of the 99 (otherwise known as the church).
It’s interesting that the story of the 99 +1 sheep is told twice in the gospels. We get it in Luke, as Jesus explains why he dines with the wrong crowd and has such concern for those considered outsiders. And we also get it in Matthew, in a totally different context. In Matthew, we find it in chapter 18. The chapter begins with Jesus standing a child before his disciples and telling them that whoever welcomes a child like this, welcomes him. From there he talks about how harshly judged the person will be who causes one of God’s children to stumble. He says they’d be better off having a millstone tied to their neck and being thrown into the sea to drown. In that context then, he goes on to say, "Take care that you don’t despise one of these little ones." And he tells a story: “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Jesus is telling us that the 99 have a responsibility to the one. And they’d best beware lest they be the reason why that one is lost.
Now I think we all realize that people who run around claiming to be followers of Jesus are setting themselves up. I mean, who can live up to such a claim? A follower of Jesus!? Of course we’re gonna mess up. And we trust in God’s grace to carry us when we fall short. That’s reality. But it becomes a problem when our actions result in driving other people away from Christian community. When because of us, one of the sheep decides he’s better off getting as far away from the 99 as possible.
Some walk away from a message that seems irrelevant . They’re searching for meaning in their lives and the church seems out of touch with reality. When folks give you the impression that if you’re a real Christian you’ll be smiling all the time, and you happen to suffer from depression, there’s a disconnect that it’s hard to get past.
Sometimes Christians are just plain dishonest about what the life of faith is really like. If they’re honest, they’ll admit that the life of faith is filled with times of doubt. For some of us it’s all about doubt with fleeting moments of faith here and there. And the reason why many of us stick around in the church is not because we have a steadfast faith in God. Just the opposite. It’s because in the midst of our doubts, we long to believe. So we hang out with other people who share that same longing. And hopefully, at any given time there are enough people having moments of faith to carry the rest of us along. I suspect that if we were really honest about that, many of the people who have walked away from the church because they thought it was only for people of great faith, might not feel so alienated when they struggle with their doubts.
Some people are bright enough to realize that the church is no place for people who use their brains, particularly when the theology they have learned in the church is shallow with pat answers and dogmatic teaching that doesn’t leave room for questions. They hear people in the church mindlessly saying things that they’re programmed to say, kindof like the Chatty Cathy doll I used to have as a kid. Trite clichés that are said without really thinking: “God never gives you more than you can handle”, “The Bible says it and that settles it”, or “Whatever happens is God’s will.” Reciting creeds has the same effect on many people. Critical thinkers have problems with Chatty Cathy Christians. They can’t just blindly accept all that the church teaches and haven’t felt comfortable sharing this with people who don’t seem to be open to hearing theology expressed in unorthodox ways. In earlier times such people were burned at the stake for being heretics; now they just walk away.
Some have left the church because they have experienced a Christianity that has nothing to do with the love of God, but focuses instead on hate and judgment. We have members of Holy Trinity who came to us after feeling rejected by their former congregation because of a divorce. Others are with us because they are gay or lesbian and never felt free to be open about who they are within a Christian community.
Some de-churched people suffered from abuse at the hands of professing Christians – physical, emotional, mental or spiritual abuse. A trusted person of faith, someone they respected, abused their trust and they can never trust another Christian again. It may be a pastor or a priest who sexually abused a parishioner. It may be a parent who played at being Christian while verbally demeaning a child. It may be an entire congregation that used scare tactics to keep its members toeing the line. We’re all so paranoid these days about terrorists. If you ask me, those are the terrorists we should fear most.
Some people become disillusioned when they believe that God has let them down in a big way. They’ve been fed a diet of theological pablum instead of solid food, and when a tragedy strikes, they can’t get past it because their understanding of God is so narrow that it doesn’t address the complexities of life. When we are too quick to give easy answers to tough questions, this is bound to happen.
Those are just a few of the reasons why they leave. It's heartbreaking. But not hopeless. Because, once in a while, a de-churched person feels the spirit nudging and they decide to give the church another chance. What they experience when they do that is all important. The way they are treated by Christians, the message they hear verbally and nonverbally, makes all the difference. What they need to experience is church in a new way. They need to see the church as
• A place that nurtures creativity.
• A place where questions are valued and welcomed.
• A place where doubts are expected and thinking is encouraged.
• A place where pain is acknowledged and accepted as a reality of life.
• A place where you can be who you are without fear of being judged by others.
It’s a critical moment whenever a de-churched person decides to give the church another chance. They need desperately to experience something that tells them this is not the same church they left. This church is different.
So often when we talk about “evangelism” in the church we are talking about reaching out to the unchurched. But what about the dechurched? Most likely, the reason the one left the fold has something to do with the actions of the 99. It’s the way we do church that drives people away from the church. And it’s the way we change doing church that will welcome them back.