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Suffering loss is an occupational hazard for a Christian
Rod White inspired the title of this post. Early on in my time as a pastor, he told me that suffering loss is the M.O. of the pastor. It's proven itself true time and again. And I think it's true for every follower of Jesus.
Yes, it hurts every time someone leaves
Someone asked me the other day whether it hurts when people move or leave the church? He was wondering whether after eight years if each loss from the church is painful, or if I have developed a way to always look forward and not behind. It’s a good question since Dad trained me to generally hide my emotions and my tear ducts seem to be able to well up without tears falling down my cheek (the height of shame for an Egyptian man!). My answer was, “Of course.” My feels are my responsibility, naturally, but I think it’s clear that people can experience loss or pain when someone moves or leaves a thing that we’re doing together.
People have a number of reasons for leaving, and in my experience, most of them make a lot of sense. Sometimes folks find churches that are better fits, and that’s OK. I’m not trying to make everyone fit into Circle of Hope. We are not for everyone, and we don’t strive to be. We have a specific mission and vision and are looking for people who are looking to do it with us. If that’s not you, that’s OK. There are lot of churches in town that might work for you. I want to learn from all of them and channel it into what God has given us to do. People might find their place with us for a season or they might not. That they leave hurts, but it doesn’t necessarily make their decision wrong. I just want to say that up front. But it can still hurt those of us who don’t leave. It can make us question our own place, especially in a tight-knit community like ours .
Why do people leave?
1. In a smaller community it's noticeable.
First of all, in a small community, you notice people leaving more readily than in others. There’s a mathematical reason for that, simply because one person leaving is a higher percentage than in a big church. In megachurches, attendance is measured so much differently than it is in ours that they might not notice individuals. We specialize in noticing individuals. But we also know one another. There is a personal reason for that, too. We notice people's departure clearly in Circle of Hope because we have a body that is intimate and we feel the loss. We are something that one may leave. We're not just a series of meetings that you stop attending, but a body that people are actually a part of. And when they leave, we notice. Our team notices too because our leadership is a team effort. If someone leaves, someone else picks up the slack. That can lead to physical burnout in addition to the emotional weight of that person leaving. It matters to people.
2. People lose faith Second, it is true that people leave because they lose faith. There are so many reasons that people lose faith, it’s hard to distill them all. It might be a failure of leadership or a relationship problem. It could be a bankrupt, bigoted, violent theology (which is why I almost lost mine). I think serious Christian leaders need to take as much responsibility as we can for people leaving the church because of a conflict or a faith crisis. It does often involve us and I’m not quick to absolve myself of that. Humility goes a long way in winning them back should you ever have an opportunity to do that. Good-faith relationships are useful and may be helpful in the future; there’s no good reason to burn any bridges. God’s love endures forever, after all. But in Circle of Hope, we are strident to be inclusive, so we take risks including people that other groups wouldn't or people that wouldn't attend any church at all. At times, we include injured people who need healing and deepening, and we offer resources to help them get there, but sometimes they don't. I’m glad to keep doing that. I want to be the church for cynics and skeptics because the Holy Spirit has transformative power. Our inclusion of people like that makes loss more likely, quite possibly. Many of our people wouldn’t step foot into a more institutional church, and I love giving them a second shot at family.
Furthermore, we have counseling services (that I’ve personally benefited from) that often help people through their trauma with the past and their current faith struggles. We often offer an antidote to the trauma of the world and even loneliness. Some folks feel better, find friends, and then faith in God loses existential value. That’s the cost of individualistic faith though; without a soteriology that’s greater than an individual—without a theology of salvation that’s beyond personal—it’s hard to see faith as more than self-improvement. As a result, it can be easy to discard it once you’ve improved enough. We need to offer a communal understanding of faith, and one that demonstrates cosmic benefit. If our faith doesn’t improve the entire world, in the present moment, than it can easily get lost as an abstract and ephemeral matter.
3. It's hard not to move in 2018
Thirdly, we live in an increasingly transient time, and for us at 2309 North Broad, we live near tons of students who are almost trained to be transient (although kudos to Temple who tries to keep their students around, as compared to Penn, by the way). We also attract a lot of young people, many of whom are going to relocate for career and education. It’s hard to be a consumer in late capitalism without being transient and seeking new opportunities. It’s also hard not to make sure everyone and everything lives up to our ideals. So we often come equipped with a list of demands and needs. When a church doesn't meet them, we default to shopping. I think the lack of perfect fit might lead many to disappointment and loneliness, maybe anger and maybe loss of faith. I also think that this is on church leaders as well. We need to keep helping people see how they are an integral part of our church, that they are needed and necessary, and doing that without pressuring them to participate as if their salvation depends on it. It’s delicate but crucial work.
4. In late capitalism, Christianity seems abstract A fourth reason that surrounds loss of faith or dwindles participation in the church is simply that the demands of life become much more pressing than the offerings of the church. People get caught up climbing the upward mobility ladder, working longer hours and pursuing graduate degrees. I am not prepared to judge that behavior, but it is time-consuming and you only have so much time in a day. If participation in the church doesn’t seem as materially beneficial as those things, that might be a problem of faith, but it could also be a problem in leadership and vision. I’ve been a part of churches that seem like waste of time, too. So once, again, despite the pain of the loss, leaders should interrogate themselves when it comes to departures, even if we are judgmental of the specific reasons behind them. Our piety won’t save us here, nor will our judgment of someone’s choice to pursue a degree. And to be honest, most of our people are not aggressively upwardly mobile, and are generally working on making the world a better place.
Related to that matter is also systems of oppression and poverty. Some people need their physical needs met, and I hope the church can be a part of that, but if you are broke with no jobs and you're behind on rent, it’s hard to feel like the church has a material benefit to you, especially if it spiritualizes all of your poverty or ignores your oppression. Circle of Hope is committed to an incarnational and practical theology that doesn’t reduce oppression to a spiritual matter and doesn’t just theologize away oppression. So we hope not to ignore people that need both practical and spiritual needs met. Wealth distribution and a sharing economy are a vital part of our church, but it can still be easy to connect with the systems of the world pulling you away.
Oh yeah, and you might have children. They take up a lot of time as well. Parenting is definitely better done as a village, but it’s hard to see that when you’re just trying to keep your head above water with your overworked spouse and your demanding two- and four-year-old. It’s hard to be as vitally present for some parents during their season of young children than for others. I want to tread softly there because parents are often excluded because we perceive them as busy when they aren’t, but I also want to relate to the fact that it is hard to do everything you’d like to do when you’re raising young children.
It's ironic, that in late capitalism, a philosophy based on Adam Smith's famous Invisible Hand, an abstraction unto itself, the deeply incarnational thing we're doing is what is seen as abstract. 5. Our pursuit of love leads to pain
Finally, I think that relationships and conflict lead to people leaving. A main reason people lose faith and fall away from the church is the messiness of community and relationships. We want to love and we want to be loved. I think we have that basic instinct in us. It drives us to community and to God. But love fails us often times, sin gets in the way, we hurt each other, we make mistakes, bad things happen to us. We break up. We get divorced. We have a falling out. We finally escape a toxic relationship. And then we have the person who was supposed to love us but failed in our congregation, in the same space. We might feel embarrassed or ashamed by how we contributed to the failure of the relationship too. We might be mad that friends aren’t taking our sides or are sympathetic to our ex.
The church will probably fail an expectation you’ve set for it. And the church might fail in general in many ways. That isn’t an excuse to justify bad relating or lack of boundaries, but we live in a fallen world, and we are all recovering from a sin addiction, so conflict will happen. We want to love real bad. We fail at it so frequently. Relationships are often messy in our younger years and even when we develop further.
Tread lightly in your relationships. Don't bite off more intimacy than your relationship can chew, so to speak. Take it easy, take it slowly, care for each other. Things we say and do can’t be taken back very readily. And we have a lot of power to hurt each other.
But for those who stay
I can’t promise it’ll be easy. People will go and come. We want that kind of porosity. We want to have an open door. It’s hard to keep looking ahead at what’s next without suffering what was. We won’t hold on to everyone. Some people will leave on worse terms than others. Sometimes reconciliation can follow. Sometimes they’ll join the fellowship again. They might find faith again, too.
But don’t lose heart. Keep invested. Keep relating. Keep building relationships. Keep making friends. All of those good things put you at risk of being hurt when people leave, move away, or when you do the same. Sometimes you won’t know why someone left and they’ll ghost you forever. Other times, they’ll give you a litany of reasons why, and that hurts too. Sometimes you won’t get a chance to make things right either. None of these departures, which seem inevitable at the time, are pleasant. Anger can be a normal reaction that follows, but it’s not the best. But you didn’t become a Christian to avoid suffering. The suffering you have, Christ shares with you. This whole thing is provisional. The church is a body that God uses to advance God’s mission. It won’t be around forever. I hope you’ll stay invested with open and generous hands, ready to include someone into your life, and knowing that that very inclusion is a chance for transformation, but is also a risk for being hurt. In my experience? Despite the potential pain, it’s still worth it.