When somebody is saying that they’ve left the church and decided they’re not a Christian anymore, it’s easy to treat that as the final word on the subject. What would you say to people who are tempted to treat it as the last word in the conversation?
Drew Dyck: Obviously, if someone has like totally rejected the faith and walked away and made that announcement, it’s hard to get them to come back to church and open to coming back to the faith. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t, but it’s also not hopeless. If that person at one point was a passionate believer and really ascribed to these things and they changed their minds, who’s to say that they won’t change their mind again in the future? People certainly aren’t static in their faith journey, so I encourage people not to give up even when it seems hopeless.
When I did my interviews all these self-described ex-Christians, one of the questions I asked was if they ever still pray. And I was amazed. Most of them, with a couple of exceptions, admitted that at times they still do. And they were these angry, very honest, desperate sorts of prayers, yet for me that was encouraging. I do believe that God still works in people’s hearts, even when they seem like they have left the fold. So yeah, we don’t want to give up on these people, and I believe God hasn’t given up on them. He’s the Good Shepherd that leaves the 99 to go searching for the one, and we have to have that same heart, that same commitment, and that same hope.
There is a caveat. You certainly don’t want to say things like, “God will bring you back.” First of all, you don’t know that, if we’re being honest. And secondly. it’s kind of patronizing and dismissive of the current position that they’re in. I know that I feel the same way when I’ve talked with atheists that say, “You’ll see the light, once you get smart enough, you read enough, you’re going to disavow your faith.” It’s like thanks for speaking over my voice and telling me what I’m going to do, right? And so that’s certainly not helpful either. You can express your desire that they would come back to their faith and yet to tell them it’s going to happen, I think it’s a mistake.
Drew Dyck: There has definitely been an acceleration in the number of people in the West claiming to have no religion. When I wrote my book in 2010, 22 percent in the younger cohort of 18 to 30 claimed to have no religion. Many of those had grown up in Christian homes. And that was a huge spike because the numbers before that were from 1990 that showed 11 percent. Today, it’s at 34 to 36 percent.
As far as why they leave, that’s a tough one. You might assume that they all leave because they read Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and became angry atheists. But statistically speaking, the vast majority of people who leave the faith of their childhood do so because “they gradually drifted away”—71 percent, according to one Pew study, reported they just gradually drifted away. And those people often don’t have huge barriers to belief.
They aren’t angry at God or have huge intellectual objections to Christian beliefs and practices. It may just mean they need a Christian friend or family member to come alongside them and kind of pull them back into the church, and kind of a challenge them to take a second look at the faith.
What is a posture that you would recommend friends take two friends with regards to this? What are good questions to ask? Or what are good ways to talk about this in a way that respects the relationship and respects the other person, but also lets them know that you care deeply about keeping this part about them engaged?
Drew Dyck: The words that come to mind for me are empathy and curiosity. You don’t want to be too aggressive and come out swinging when you learn that a friend has walked away from their faith. On the other hand, don’t say, “That’s your journey. This is mine. You do you, I’ll do me.” That kind of attitude can actually convey a sort of indifference. You don’t want to hit them with a lot of grief either, but you want to say, “That’s concerning to me, I’m curious about where you’re at. Can you tell me more about your journey and where you’re at and how you got there?” I think that it’s good for them to know that you care and that you’re interested and that you want to maintain that relationship.
So many of these stories of people leaving their faith, if you dig down deep enough into them, the break from their faith actually happened in the context of a relationship. They felt maybe alienated in their youth group, or they were abused by a spiritual authority, or they have relational issues with their parents. Whatever it is, it often plays a role. I think to maintain those relational bonds are crucial so that when that person does have a crisis in their life, or they start doubting their doubts, you are that person that they turn to and it’s a huge honor if you can retain that relationship and be the person that they want to have spiritual conversations with.
Drew Dyck: That’s a dicey one. Beware of how you have an incredibly close relationship with this person as their parent. Often when they’re walking away from their faith, sometimes they’re pushing back against you a little bit. You don’t want to make the relationship they have with you a referendum on God. And so this is where you really have to be careful in affirming and loving of them as your son, as your daughter.
I’ve talked to so many people they will not have these conversations with their parents because their parents have preached at them, they told them they’re going to hell, they have just ripped into them, and it becomes the sore point even if they stay connected to their parents. It’s just like a no-go topic for them. So really work hard to be gentle, sensitive, and open. And you can even just say, “Hey, I’m concerned. I know we’re at different places when it comes to God. I’d love to continue the conversation. I’m not here to judge you. I’m not here to preach at you. But anytime you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
I think so often a lot of people when they have a loved one that leaves the faith, it’s incredibly disconcerting to you and instead of joyfully living out your faith you actually adopt this dour demeanor because you are so concerned about it. And so whenever you’re around this person, you’re like an Eeyore or something. You want to show that you’re still enjoying your faith, that it’s something that’s enriching your life, and that you’re still passionately following Jesus. Because ultimately the best apologetic is a life lived for Christ. And so if you can demonstrate that to the people that you love, that’s huge.
Drew Dyck: I think it is appropriate to apologize for it. When someone was abused by someone they looked up to as a Christian or they are treated unfairly, It’s absolutely essential to express that empathy. I think it’s very healing for them to hear from a Christian that that was wrong, that should have happened. Because the biggest danger when it comes to these topics is that they kind of conflate the abuser with God and toss everything out.
And so if you can help them, even emotionally, make that crucial differentiation between God and the person who mistreated them in God’s name, that’s huge. So I think that’s the first thing to do: just to acknowledge that what happened is wrong. And then don’t also jump right in to argue that that’s not like Jesus or that’s not true Christianity. Because they may not be ready to hear that quite yet, but just an unqualified that was wrong, I feel angry for you, I’m sad for you, I hear you.
Obviously, it’s going to be a little bit strange for pastors to publicly dialogue with their congregations about where they are with their faith at any given time. But what are ways for congregants to support their pastors even unknowingly as they might be wrestling?
Kyle Rohane: I think it’s really important that while we accept the fact that our pastor is in the role of Shepherd, is in the role of spiritual parent, that they are still human. That they may have had a bad week and that bad week has an effect on their relationship with Christ and with God, that pastors aren’t shielded from those things just by virtue of having the title pastor. And offering their pastor encouragement, when the pastor doesn’t have to ask for it. That you can go unsolicited and say, “Hey, I see that you look tired this week. I just know that my family and I are praying for you and we care for you deeply.” I think that is amazingly helpful for a pastor, just as it would be for anybody.
Drew Dyck: Yeah, I love that. Not only are pastors just like the rest of us and susceptible to doubt and discouragement, but ministry comes with even extra challenges to your faith. Tending to the souls of others can, if you’re not careful, really be hard on yours. But I really don’t I think there’s much we can do as congregants. I think pastors need dialogue partners, people with whom they can be completely honest with to air their doubts. They need to find other leaders, maybe even people outside of their own congregation, that they can be completely transparent with. Because that relationship between the parishioner pastors so fraught.