When People Walk Away From Church

WHEN PEOPLE WALK AWAY FROM CHURCH

“Apostasy” isn’t a word my denomination uses much, probably because we don’t believe in it. Many evangelicals hold to the fifth tenet of John Calvin’s TULIP acronym that a genuinely converted person won’t lose salvation. But it’s true that we witness people who walk away from Christian commitment for various reasons.

I saw this for the first time as a teen-ager. Bobby and his wife were youth workers in another church, but their ministry touched young people in surrounding churches. Bobby worked with a relative who put me in contact with him as a youth speaker, so I was in his church several times for events. On one visit the pastor said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Bobby. We’ve not seen him in weeks and he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”

A friend and I went to Bobby’s house and, indeed, he wouldn’t talk about it. His wife sat there in tears. We assured him of our love and prayers, but I don’t know how this experience worked out since I moved away to college shortly thereafter and never saw Bobby again.

I’ve seen similar situations in the ensuing years, and each one has been heartbreaking.

I’m convinced there can be a spiritual component to walk-aways. Some believe this is what Jesus’ disciples did in John 21 when they returned to fishing. Jesus came to the seashore and gently prodded them and their leader, Simon Peter, into rededication (John 21).

My experience has taught me that most often human relationships are a major factor in walk-aways.

Sometimes couples experience conflict. No marriage is perfect, and storms are sure to come. Wise spouses realize the value of their investment in each other. A pastor shocked a couple when he suggested their issues were beyond his expertise and they needed a professional who would charge a fee. They said they couldn’t afford a counselor.

“If you had cancer, could you afford treatment?” he asked.

He meant that a sick marriage, like a sick body, might need a professional with some costs involved.

Sometimes the walk-aways are in conflict with other church members. We’d like to think that congregational life is a slice of heaven, and it is in many ways. But just as in basketball, sometimes elbows are thrown intentionally or not, and people get hurt. The old church covenant has wise counsel: “to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Savior to secure it without delay.”

 I’ve always believed that sincere believers with a genuine love for God can find a path to reconciliation. The church is in the redemption business, and sometimes this means restoring walk-aways to useful service.