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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Leaving church behind

Losing friends from life we find meaningful prompts a critical look at faith practice

When someone leaves a congregation abruptly, it can hurt a number of people. A departure tinged with discontent always stings those left behind. Like a knife inserted into a friendship, a quick exit from church life can feel as if an arm or hand has just been severed from the body of Christ. 

I have known lifelong believers who have thrown in the towel on Christianity. They want no more. No matter how strenuous their strivings, they reach the same conclusion: There is no further reason to walk with Christ. 

Over the years I’ve agonized plenty over people departing from congregational life. While the numbers have never been large, the people who drifted away from my community of faith, or from an active part in my life, meant a great deal to me. 

The pastorate has been my vantage point for observing all this, though the experience of losing a spiritual friend is not peculiar to my vocation. Chances are good that you have anguished over a friend who has had a sudden change of heart and wandered away from God or from you. You know the empty feeling of watching that soul walk away from a friendship that will never be the same again.

I could introduce you to some fascinating people I know who have kissed congregational life goodbye or grown indifferent to faith.  

Larry and Cheryl left our congregation after being theologically disgruntled by a piece I published on my wife’s traumatic brain injury. My use of the word serendipity sent them over the edge. That was Susan’s one-word utterance spoken weeks after her third brain surgery. She was offering her assessment of how it was possible that I could be home at the precise moment of her collapse, on an evening when I’m customarily at church. Cheryl didn’t like God receiving so little credit for our crossing paths.

Or Rick. Rick thoroughly loves nature. Actually, he worships nature. That’s his own explanation for why a congregation’s praise of God no longer carries meaning for him. As far as he is concerned, the Lord is easier to spot in a glacial stream than in the mentally ill woman who used to share his pew. Despite my patient listening to his many gardening strategies, never once has he explained how his compost pile passes an offering plate to help clothe the poor or run a drop-in center for disadvantaged youth. I never mustered the courage to ask whether he would favor an oak or maple tree for his confession and absolution of sin.


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