A few months ago, I had a zoom call with my friend Emily.* She’s one of the few friends I kept in touch with after our Christian gap year. I just had a weird feeling that something had changed—maybe it was social media, maybe just the tone of our conversations recently—but I didn’t want to make the conversation awkward, so I waited about an hour before asking whether she was still a believer.
She said she wasn’t.
The conversation quickly changed from catching up and reminiscing to hearing her story of walking away from church over the past few years. Although I had known parts of it—I had been there for parts of it—I had never really put together what was going on. Or maybe, I had just never been brave enough to ask. When she said that she “couldn’t see God aside from his church,” the church that had hurt her so badly, did she mean me too?
Many of us have reached this point with a friend. Maybe they’re not coming regularly on Sundays, maybe they were just upfront and told us. However it happened, they’re no longer Christian.
Emily isn’t alone in her experience of losing faith.
Why? How does it happen? And what can Christians learn from their experiences? These questions started me on a journey of speaking to several people, all from different walks of life, with one thing in common: at some point in their life, they stopped calling themselves Christian.
I want to clarify a few things.
First, the pool of people I interviewed was heavily influenced by the demographic of people I have access to. While their stories have many elements in common, I want to encourage you to listen to the stories of people in your own life.
Second, I wanted to define my own boundaries for “apostasy”. The term itself only appears twice in the Bible (Acts 21:21 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3), and comes from the Greek word for rebellion. In the case of the people interviewed, this ranged from a vague spiritual belief to a complete rejection of anything connected to Jesus.
And finally, two of the people I interviewed have returned to church. I wanted to include their perspectives to see what we can learn as a church not only from those who have walked away but those who have found their way back.
Put Away the Cookie Cutter
Louise grew up going to church with her grandparents. Then one day, she realised she just didn’t believe any of it. When I asked if there was a moment she decided to become an atheist, she said, “There was no trigger point. Nothing bad happened; my dog didn’t die, I didn’t get dumped by my boyfriend. There was just, I just don’t think that this is a thing.”
There was no trigger point. Nothing bad happened … There was just, I just don’t think that this is a thing.
However, there was a moment for Cooper. The struggle to reconcile his sexuality with his faith took an extreme toll on his mental health. He felt under major pressure to repress his feelings and thoughts because he knew they went against what God was asking him to do in the Bible, and this led to severe mental health issues. He felt he had reached a crossroads. “It basically just got to a point where I was like, either I’m going to stop being a Christian or I’m just not going to continue with my life.” For Cooper, it wasn’t a gradual drifting away, or a spur of the moment decision. It was recognising that the God he knew wouldn’t accept the life he wanted to lead and the person he wanted to be.
Everyone is different. Their stories will be unique, just as their reasons for leaving church will be. As representatives of Christ, we need the sensitivity to hear those reasons and not to let our first reaction be defensive but rather compassionate. We won’t always know the right thing to say, but it is unhelpful to distil people’s stories into boxes they could tick on a survey—making people feel safe to share starts with genuinely being ready to listen to what they want to say. Cooper really brought this home to me:
It’s easy to focus on the fact that “he left the church because he was gay,”—which was a part of it. But I think it was more a situation of “I don’t really feel connected to God anymore, and I’m suffering, so why am I still here?”
For him, and everyone else I interviewed, their stories were so much bigger than the day they stopped going to church.
The one common thread in each story was a focus on church community.
For some, like Kim, it was leaving the church and never hearing from people again. She and her family were prominent members of their church, but when she started dating a non-Christian, things became difficult. After countless conversations, attempting to join other churches and some difficult personal moments, she decided to step away. “It felt like as soon as I made a decision to not go to church, it seemed like all these people took that as I made a decision I wanted nothing to do with them as well,” she said, as she recounted the almost total radio- silence from her church community.
Five of the people I interviewed said that once they stopped volunteering for ministries, people stopped contacting them.
This isolation heavily impacted the worth Kim felt she had within her church. Five of the people I interviewed said that once they stopped volunteering for ministries, people stopped contacting them. Four mentioned trying to join other churches during their decision about Christianity and struggled to join communities.
Apostates fall victim to what I want to coin situational relationships. Some relationships work best, or only, within the times you are physically together. The situation is removed when someone stops coming to church and so the relationship falls apart.
While there may be the temptation to say, “I can’t be best friends with everyone,” in a church context, I think this attitude is dangerously shallow when we are called to be a family (Matthew 12:49-50), a building (1 Peter 2:5) and a body (1 Corinthians 12:12). No one loses an arm without noticing, let alone without trying to reattach it! With the experience of someone who had been part of a church for so long, Kim acknowledged “You say, right now I don’t have the space to hand-hold someone where they’re at, that’s fine. But, it could be that 20 other people have had the exact same response.”
The second reaction from church communities was exclusion.
Jenny, who was in high school at the time, went on an exchange trip overseas and found that, once removed from her Christian bubble at home, she didn’t actually believe a lot of what she had grown up with. However, during a period of doubting her doubts, she returned to the youth group. Even after only a few weeks of not attending, she says:
I was treated so differently. I felt like I was judged and every question that I asked my youth group leader, they’d say, “you already know the answer. You’re just being devil’s advocate.”
Sometimes, these reactions stem from a sort of pharisaical pride. Reading verses such as Matthew 12:31-32 about the unforgivable sin of grieving the Holy Spirit or Hebrews 6:4-8 on falling away carry a weight of irreversibility and Christians tend to exclude those who have fallen away as if they’ve had their chance at being part of God’s kingdom and lost it.
Only God truly knows who has truly grieved him—the ones who are never coming back.
The problem with this is that only God truly knows who has truly grieved him—the ones who are never coming back. To somehow take pride in your salvation, to the exclusion of those who are foolish enough to have let go of theirs, is to miss the grace and the welcoming nature of the gospel.
Then there was tough love.
Chatting with Emily, she told me about several awkward (if not offensive) interactions she had with well-meaning Christians. One instance occurred at a wedding, where an old teacher told her he was “sad” to hear she no longer went to church. During another conversation, she felt trapped by someone who tried to “convert me literally with lines that I used to use.” Emily recalled, not only the theological overtones of the conversations, but also the emotional pain of Christians not really listening to her point of view—after her faith had been so important to her for so long.
Sometimes, we will have to have uncomfortable conversations with our friends when we believe that the Bible is at odds with what they want.
It is worth trying to have these conversations before they leave the church. The way Cooper put it, we need not only to,
… follow up with people that leave, but to nip it in the bud. Create an environment where people feel comfortable to talk about their doubts and not associating the steadiness of one’s faith with their value.
That doesn’t mean that we prioritise their feelings over the truth, but that our conversations are full of grace and seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6).
If they have left the church, remember that they know the Bible too. Apart from singing, the sense of hope is what people missed the most—they know the true weight of the gospel.
Some people will only be ready to talk years later, and when they’re ready, they will need a friend who was there all along.
Therefore, attempts to immediately and blindly reconvert are likely to come across as tone-deaf, insincere and often hurtful because again, we are not listening. There is no grace in tough love. While for the Christian, the most important thing is salvation, Emily pointed out that,
… for people who aren’t Christians, that’s not the same and in fact, you expressing your faith, you expressing that conviction, steps over a bunch of boundaries.
Some people are really open to talking about faith, and where they stand. Some people might not have fully decided, and still have questions that need real answers. Some people will only be ready to talk years later, and when they’re ready, they will need a friend who was there all along.
This leads to the final type of reaction I wanted to highlight, which was love.
Jacob didn’t grow up in a Christian family, but instead found Jesus through the care of two police officers when he found himself in a spot of trouble. They prayed for him and gave him a Bible, and over the next few years, he found a Christian camp, where he made some really good friends who drove him to church and made camp a place he felt loved. While he doesn’t consider himself a Christian anymore, working as a nurse and volunteering as a fireman means that he still has regular contact with Christians as they pray on the way to an emergency or step into the chapel at the hospital where he works. His former Christian community created a support-network for him, and he still has some of those relationships.
Mary left the church when she was in her twenties and struggling with temptation. At the time, she said there were no relationships where she felt close enough to tell anyone about her struggles, so she stopped going to church and told people for ten years that she didn’t believe in God. However, over that time, one friend continued to write her letters, and her sister was always ready for an honest conversation—she says her sister still keeps her accountable when she finds herself tempted. Her advice to anyone reading is,
Don’t give up on them because the story isn’t over yet. Don’t let the relationship die—that’s the time when they need your friendship the most. If they don’t want to talk about God or going to church, just to be in their life still is an excellent witness.
If you are struggling with doubts yourself, I wanted to include a piece of advice from my friend Lizzie, who left the church in her teens during a time of great suffering.
I used to think that Christians had to be perfect, loving, amazing people but they’re actually just a whole bunch of messed up people who believe in God and who are trying to be a better version of themselves. Christians stuff up, and that’s not a reflection of God, that’s just a reflection of the world—no matter how far away you push God, he is always still there. When people do ask you questions, don’t be afraid to answer. Take your defences down and go, I’m going to share with this person because I know they want to listen.
After every conversation, I found myself emotionally and spiritually exhausted. It was painful to listen to so many stories of how people had been let down by the church that I am a part of; the anger they felt towards the God I have chosen to follow. It was hard to hold my tongue and listen. I cannot promise that your own conversations will be easy, or even that they won’t change the relationship altogether. But those people have worth and you are their friend.
Many of the people I interviewed, especially those I didn’t know personally, said they had never really been asked for their story before, and were very willing to share. I thank every one of them for being so open and letting me share their story. There is value in listening—in keeping those relationships going—even if it takes years before they’re even willing to talk about faith. I pray we would be a church of shepherds who would leave the ninety-nine to chase the one, with a heart to bring them home.
* All the names have been changed throughout this post.