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 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 bitter 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 fit.
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.