Over the last few years, I have read many people’s personal testimonies about “leaving the church”. Some are people that I have been friends with (and still am), while others are only acquaintances. Sadly, some now see me (a pastor) as an enemy. Many of these people previously were involved in Christian service, or seemed to have had a genuine relationship with Jesus at one time.
As I read about people’s “departures”, I realize that people’s descriptions of their “departures” may reveal more than they intend to reveal. Words matter, because they are the things with which we communicate ideas, whether written or spoken. I find their words interesting.
For example, people write the following statements: “I left the church”; “I left organized religion”, or “I left the faith”. While those words may be accurate of their experiences, I have never heard or read anyone say, “I left Jesus”.
It can certainly be true that people may leave a church, a religion, or a faith or faith system, but those things were never intended to be the focus of one’s life. I have wondered exactly what people mean when they say such things. If I had the chance, I would ask them, “What exactly is it that you left”?
I would continue…“ Is it the church that you were called to give your life to? Was it a religion or a faith that you were called to follow?” Why do people use such verbiage? Perhaps it is an oversight, or carelessness….or perhaps it is an accurate description of something they used to follow but don’t follow any longer.
My main point is this: We are called to follow Jesus Christ, and have a relationship with Him. Attached to that is church, faith, and religion, but those things are just the outgrowth of walking with Jesus. They are the accoutrements of a life with Jesus. A church building or church body exists to help a person walk with Jesus. An organized religious expression exists to help someone walk with Jesus. A systematic theology exists to help people walk with Jesus, and sort through ideas about God. Those things, as important as they are, are not the substance of the Christian life; they are the “add ons”. I do not mean to minimize any of those things, but rather, I mean to point out that some people may have experienced the “add ons” without experiencing Jesus
It is entirely possible that people were attached to all those things without ever having been attached to Jesus. Their testimonies of “departure” may be revealing more than they know.
I read about people’s objection to the church, and sometimes I agree. I read of their anger about religiosity, and sometimes I agree. I read of their frustrations and struggles over certain theological issues, and I understand.
But so far, I have never read anyone’s “testimony of departure” where they have said, “I really don’t like Jesus. He treated me badly, He is unfair, He is not worthy of following, etc.”
When “departure testimonies” focus on complaining about the accoutrements of the Christian life, and not on Jesus, I wonder what it is exactly that people are leaving. Could they say that they had a real relationship with Jesus, but found Him to be unsatisfactory? The focus seems to be on people’s dissatisfaction with the peripherals of the Christian life, and not the centrality of Jesus Himself.
Finally, I know that some may now respond that they are atheists or agnostics. I have friends in both categories that I love very much, and pray for often…but I wonder…did they ever really know Jesus? Is it Him they are rejecting, or all the peripherals?
I sometimes imagine them talking face to face with Jesus. Would they be able to say, “You know Jesus, I tried you, but You never came through for me. You are harsh, uncompassionate, and generally you were a huge disappointment. I cannot follow you….no thanks”.
When Jesus walked the Earth, we know that people did reject Him to His face. Perhaps that truth is tucked away in the “departure testimonies” that I read, but I am not hearing that clearly stated. I wonder if we should ask people what, exactly, didn’t they like about Jesus…
I understand people’s frustration with the church, religion, and theology, but as they speak and write of their departures, I wonder….what is it exactly that they left?