What Church People Really Need To Know About Once-Churched People

This message is for Church People.

It’s for those of you who are part of a faith community every week; a physical place  where you usually find yourself on Sundays. You come there willingly, expectantly, and in that place you receive encouragement and find community and feel acceptance, and where you regularly experience moments of challenge and inspiration and joy.

You feel at home there in that building, connected to those people, confident in the creeds you recite there, comforted by the songs you sing together. The sum total of what you find in that place makes you certain that God exists and makes that God feel close enough to touch. Your presence there on the inside of it all makes you better. It leaves you feeling lighter. It takes your faith deeper.

If that describes you, I celebrate what you’ve found and what you feel and what you have, because it is well worth celebrating.

But what you need to know, Church People, is that there are other people too (lots of them, in fact); those who used to have those things and used to feel that way—but who no longer do.

They are not at home in that building or connected to those people or confident in those creeds or comforted by those songs anymore. Their presence there doesn’t make them better or feel lighter or believe more deeply. It only leaves them feeling depleted and tired and sad.

And the reasons for this are as many as their numbers. They may have had a catastrophic life event that instantly rocked their faith to rubble or they slowly watched their beliefs weathered away by the waves and winds of the disappointments and sadness of life. They may have been terribly damaged by those within the Church or had their trust betrayed one too many times. They may have had prayers they felt weren’t answered, or spiritual questions that were never fully resolved, or they may have simply come to believe after a long, difficult journey, that they no longer believe what they did back when they were Church People.

Yet regardless of the reasons, the result is still the same. Those people who used to be Church People, now find themselves outside of where you are now. They find themselves refugees and orphans and estranged family members. They are now Once-Churched People.

And I need you to know some things about them, because it can be very tempting from the inside to generalize them all; to paint them with the same lazy, sweeping strokes. It can be so very easy from your vantage point, to see them as the enemy or the problem or to somehow view them as adversaries—but that would be a huge mistake. 

They have not all abandoned their faith, though many have.
They do not all resent you who are Church People, although some do.
They do not all wish to wage war with those on the inside, though many may feel forced into a defensive posture by them.
They are not all defiantly reveling in their outsider-ness. Lots of them are filled with grief and guilt, and have only left despite their best and continued attempts to stay.
They are not spiritual lepers whose presence you need to avoid, lest their immorality become contagious and infect you.
They are not the dangerous, devious “Them” to be feared or pitied or defeated.

In fact, they are in so many ways, exactly who they used to be when they were Church People too; those you joyfully rubbed shoulders with in Sunday worship, who served alongside you in Children’s Ministry, who sat next to you in small group, who prayed through tears with you during midweek services.

They are still people of great depth and character and substance and yes, even faith. They are still wonderfully attentive parents, devoted friends, loving spouses, amazing co-workers, helpful neighbors. They are still responsible and compassionate and loving, and so much of what you treasured and knew to be true about them then, is still true today. They are simply not comfortable in the space you find yourself. They are not misfits, but they most surely no longer feel they fit where you do.

And it’s important that you remember all of this; that you find a softness in your response to them. It’s critical that you treat them with kindness and gentleness and great respect, and that you resist the urge to minimize them or the journey they’ve traveled to the outside.

These things are so important for two reasons:

One, because the character and example of Christ are such that you should feel compelled to do nothing less than that.

But as importantly, you need to strive for such things because these Once-Churched People—were once, Churched People.

They once believed as strongly, participated as fully, worshiped as reverently, stood as securely as you now do. They were once on the inside too, and never imagined they would ever be any place else; never dreamed the Church would be the story of their past.

There may come a day, Church People, when for a million reasons you no longer feel at home in that building, when you no longer feel connected to those people or confident in those creeds or comforted by those songs anymore. Being there in that place, may one day leave you depleted and bitter and sad.

And if that day comes, you will want someone still on the inside to see you as you are, to respect your road, to remember your goodness and to love you well, even as you find yourself on the outside.

Church People, listen well and respond with the best of yourselves to those who have left.

The Once-Churched People are counting on you to reflect Christ to them, even if it is from a distance. 

So please be The Church, people.




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498 thoughts on “What Church People Really Need To Know About Once-Churched People

  1. On the fourth day of a Vision Fast, having spent four solitary days in Death Valley, drinking only water and eating no food, sleeping on the desert floor, I heard a commission, “Re-envision Christianity. So many people are hurting.” Of course, I shot back, “Whaaaat???” and wrestled with the angel all night. “Who are these hurting people I’m being sent to?” The answer was, “They will find you.” And so, I am still a “churched person” in a most liberal church, I have trouble with the creed and with the idea that this life is a kind of waiting room before a judgment day that will send you to either heaven or hell.

    And so, I rewrite Christian hymns, to reflect the work of Thomas Berry, Teilhard de Chardin, David Abram, Richard Rohr, and Alfred North Whitehead, to name a few. So much of what we sing in church uses metaphors of an external divine entity, a hierarchy with God on the top and rocks on the bottom, and an assumption that we humans, while possessing original sin (ugh), are the only ones here that matter.

    I have seen the light in the faces of those who have been depleted and saddened by the church, when I sing what I have written for them and with them. They say, “I love the hymns, but I cannot sing them. I can sing yours, though, and they feed my soul. Please, please, keep writing.” When I witness that, I know that what I have written is life-giving and holy.

    Thank you, John, for writing this column. It needed to be said. It gives me heart.

  2. Another thing that just wears people out is the “building” that houses “the church.” I get more inspiration from gardening on Sunday morning than I ever did hearing sermons about tithing followed by announcements about yet another capital campaign to fix our aging church building. The drag of hearing one desperate plea for money after another to an aging, dwindling congregation of people is what did it for me. I can practice my faith volunteering in the community and have a lighter heart doing it now that my soul is free from the weight of worry about an aging church building.

  3. My husband and I have been members of the same Lutheran church for 33 years. For most of those years, we were very involved, having raised our three sons there. Until a year ago, one of our sons was the director of youth ministries, a position he held for seven years. My husband and I stopped attending that church four months ago, and not ONE person — not even the pastor — has reached out to see if everything is OK. What kind of faith community is that? One that has appeared quite myopic to us too many times over the decades.

    We tolerated the country club image of that large “corporate” church for years, hoping someday it might shift to become more welcoming, more inclusive, more accepting, more loving, more supportive. The messages from the pulpit seemed rather self-congratulatory, boasting of the material wealth of members and how we all were so very “blessed” and thereby more fortunate than those “out there.”

    A shift eventually did occur — but in the wrong direction. When another of our sons was diagnosed with cancer, the response from the congregation was stunning: We were abandonned. The pastor walked with us on that terrible journey and was a valuable support. Some congregants sent get well cards, but only three people called. No one visited. (His brother was serving on staff at that time.) When our son died 2 1/2 years later, we received a boatload of sympathy cards and a few people stepped up to ask what they could do to help, but by then it was too little too late.

    My husband and I became more sporadic in our attendance after our son died (it was all too painful). The reception we received from congregants when we did show up for services was more along the lines of a judgy “Where have you been?” than a caring “How have you been?”

    Further, losing our son brought my husband and me to a crisis of faith, which the church was not equipt to address. We were discouraged from asking our questions, and expressing our doubts, about God’s role in our personal tragedy.

    If that’s what it means to be a Christian — to be an unquestioning believer, oblivious to the pain of the person sitting next to me in the pew — I’d rather be something else. My husband and I are preparing to join a Unitarian Universalist church, where we’ve been welcomed with open arms and open minds. We are accepted for who we are and are encouraged to express what we now believe. Maybe most important, the UU church is ready to embrace our third son who is gay, something the Lutheran church hasn’t always been sure it wanted to do.

    I suppose all this qualifies us as once-churched, as we no longer believe in the creeds or tenets of the Christian church. But we are joyful in this new place.

  4. Are you all saying that you have to some sort of Christian to be a good person? How about all the other religions which do not follow the Bible or Jesus? It takes a very narrow mind to believe only those who think Jesus was God will find peace.
    Bottom line: No matter what anyone believes whatever happens after death will be the same for everyone. Your belief should give you comfort but do not make the mistake of thinking you have the answer. No one does. The Golden Rule can be followed by those of any or no religion. That should be enough.

  5. In my past, I have been a teaching Pastor and worship leader for over 30 years. I have studied theology for decades. I am a Christian. I have not attended church regularly for over 3 years. When I attend occasionally (maybe once a year to because my son plays on the worship team of a large church) I can hardly stomach what I experience. We have created something that we call church. It looks absolutely nothing like what Jesus described, or what the apostles participated in during the first century. Let’s be clear here – the most laid back, loving, non religious churches we have today look nothing like the biblical church. So we, not God, have created something. We call it Church. And then we us scripture to slam people who don’t attend it. Guess what. Just because you all it church doesn’t mean that is what it is. Our churches resemble corporations, where there is a hierarchy of leadership, with varying degrees of power (and varying degrees – mdiv, etc). We have a career path, for the up and comers. We have professional ministry that “do” Christianity for the congregation. We have leaders who, while with their mouths say “imitate Christ” – with their actions and sometimes their words say “imitate me because I have this Christianity thing figured out”.

    I could point out other things, but they don’t matter. Bottom line – calling what we have today “Church” doesn’t make it that. And then telling others that they are in disobedience for not attending the imposter thing that you created is just silly. Holds no weight. I have no guilt about not attending a regular meeting on Sunday morning. And believe me, I used to preach that guilt from the pulpit, so I know how it works.

    I love Jesus. I am nothing. I have no goodness on my own and depend solely on the finished work of Christ on the Cross for my standing before God. I minister whenever possible in my regular life – at work -at play – at parties – again – just at regular life. That is the example Jesus gave. That is definitely where His ministry happened. When he was physically in the synagog, it was usually to rebuke people.

    Churches have become fortresses to protect Christians from the “sin cooties” that are out there in “the world”. Jesus hung right in the midst of those sin cooties – and he was holy and sinless. I know this will get a very specific response from some, but I am extremely uncomfortable in church at this point in my life. And i am very comfortable out with people. Some may say this is because I am one of them. I say that I am called to be a light in the darkness, not locked up for protection from sin cooties.

    • Well said! I’ve been a part of an organic church for over 7 years. It’s a spiritual family of other believers (including a couple of former pastors and me — a former worship leader) who’ve come out of several different denominations and with whom my husband and I walk together in Christ. We have no hierarchy and all are empowered to share Christ and encourage one another as we feel led at our regular gatherings and any time we’re together. During those 7 years I’ve learned more about truly following Christ, as well as loving Him, His body (not just those in our church), and my neighbor than I ever even suspected we could in the previous 30 years in what we call the institutional church. I love my brothers and sisters in the institutional church, but they look down on us and consider us backslidden (at best) and have even called us a cult. Just a few weeks ago we visited a family member who knows about us being a part of this organic group, and he said, “So, are you still not going to church anywhere?”

  6. John,

    I doubt you read these replies since there are so many and probably really don’t read them years after the original article was published, but I wanted to say thank you.

    You put into words what I have wanted to express for years and have tried to express but with very little success.

    I know the narrative in the church about people who have left. I was one of the faithful, with every ounce of my being committed to my faith and my community. The church was my home in the deepest sense of the word and brought me more joy than I can describe. I loved the people and actively dreamed of growing old surrounded by a community of faith. I read the scriptures, prayed. Looked for ways to apply my faith to my day to day life even if it had significant counter-cultural cost. Loved Jesus. My faith was woven so deep into my soul that for years I woke up in the morning with the realization I was praying over my new day. Praying was like breathing. The words to our music are still the first to pop into my head when I’m having a hard day. And scriptures I carefully memorized still replay in my head. But over time, things have shifted in far more personal ways than I can describe here.

    One of the hardest parts of this journey is the sensation that I’m stuck in some glass box, with the church looking on sagely with downcast faces and the narrative running through their heads about how they never guessed this would be me and how sad it all is while I beat against the walls and scream “but I am still me!”. “I may not use ‘god words’ anymore to describe who I am and what I believe, but everything you knew of me, all of the compassion, and character and treasuring of community, and awe of this beautiful life that the church instilled in me, its all still there!” But most cannot hear or see. I am on the outside.

    But I just don’t fit anymore. I thought the “unfittingness” was fleeting but it has only become more profound as years have passed. And when I look out at the world at all the lives, the church no longer makes sense. I feel as if I was in a cocoon for decades with the church stories of how life worked that tied everything up in a neat little bow — but then life happened. Real gritty life. And all those neat little bows don’t work anymore. And the church I see doesn’t have anything to say to real life except that those neat little bows should work, should have worked.

    They have nothing to say when those neat little bows don’t work or can’t work. And perhaps even more troubling they can’t seem to hear those of us saying that there is a vast disconnect between the church and life and that many of our (the church’s) narratives for a faithful life are damaging.

    So anyway, thank you. It’s been a hard process coming to grips with my story. Its been like grieving a death of the person closest to you while experiencing a newfound joy and freedom all at the same time. You catch yourself talking to that person only to realize that they are gone. Hard when the people you most want to understand your joy and your journey will simply shake their heads in sadness at another loss from the “faithful”.

    Thank you. Your words are the closest I’ve read to what I feel.

    • Thank You, Frances. Your post encourages me. Also take heart Frances. If you have post notifications on and get to read this, again, thanks for the time and effort to tell. Be cheered. Rohan.

  7. Thank you, Frances, for your words and for your courage. I still attend church, because I love the community. Yet, many have said to me, “I don’t know how long I can keep this up”, meaning, going to church. It occurs to me that I’d love to find a group committed to rediscovering Jesus and being embodied Divine Ones in our communities now. Unfortunately, the church doesn’t seem to want that; it seems it chooses to focus on whatever it is that happens after we die. May your community be blessed as you walk together in grace.

  8. I don’t go anymore. Well, hardly ever. Church life in an isolated small town is stifling, no matter the denomination. God is confined and Jesus is reduced to a touchstone. Outsiders never become insiders unless you become a whitewashed clone. Limited. Boxed. They *are* nice Christian’s but I’ve seen too much in life, really bad stuff and in contrast I’ve seen way too much of God, really amazing stuff to ever be accepted by most Christians I’ve met. Work is another barrier, odd days and hours and often away. They think I’m back-sliding. If they only would listen when I’ve tried to tell, oh the reality of Jesus riding with you as you ponder our Fathers mysteries. Lastly (Mothers might understand) when you are isolated with only children for company, you crave adult company. Well I do crave adult company of the Christian kind but in truth there doesn’t seem to be a lot around. I tell them not everyone who wanders is lost. They don’t believe me. John, keep up the good work in challenging us! My 0.02c worth 😉

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