He was the type of guy that I gravitated towards. He had that sort of hippie vibe about him. He rode up on his skateboard and I felt him reading the cover of my book as he walked past to get his coffee. “God in the Wasteland,” he read with a hint of curiosity. The conversation that followed was surprisingly honest, as he relayed to me his own upbringing in the church and the feelings of hurt that followed. He wasn’t overly aggressive, but there was a definite edge to his words. I wanted desperately to share the gospel with him, but that needed to begin with some sensitivity to his own story. Christians that can become suffering-sensitive have a greater chance of reengaging the dechurched.
“De-churched” is the technical term for those individuals who grew up in the church but have, either consciously or unconsciously walked away. De-churched is a category quite distinct from un-churched. De-churched people often have a decent familiarity with Christian culture, doctrine, and church practice. As you converse with individuals in this category you will find that they usually possess a fair amount of knowledge about Christian concepts, Bible verses, and church life. Conversely, in dialogue with the un-churched you will likely have to explain far more of these concepts and the foundational issues behind them. The important thing to remember in connecting with de-churched people, however, is that they left the faith for a reason.
The reasons why someone may have left the church are as diverse as people in general. There is no universal explanation for someone departing from the church or the faith of their upbringing. Some left simply because it was no longer convenient to attend church. Others left because they couldn’t find a “good” church and the effort to keep looking simply wasn’t there. Others left for more personal reasons. Perhaps they were personally attacked, judged, condemned, or criticized. Perhaps they felt that no one cared for them during a difficult/painful experience. Perhaps they witnessed a friend or family member poorly treated by the church. Or perhaps, the failure of a key leader in the church, the exposure of hypocrisy, became a serious stumbling block to their perseverance in the faith. Still others may have left the church because their beliefs changed. Exposed to new ideas, new doctrines, or new voices, some people find that they simply don’t believe what they used to. In particular, it’s important to realize that not everyone who departs the church or their faith is hostile towards Christianity. Some are, but not all. Be sensitive to individuals.
Of key importance, however, in connecting with the de-churched is recognizing the individual reasons of suffering. For those who have had painful experiences in the church, their departure often came with both a great sense of hurt and upheaval. For those who grew up in the church the community of believers often served as a social gathering, a lifeline in crisis, and a centralizing role in their lives. To leave the church, then, is deeply painful and feels like a major loss. The pain that they may have experienced had to be intense enough to drive them to leave all these things. We need to be prepared to enter into that pain and patiently understand them. Here are several suggestions to becoming a Suffering Sensitive Christian.
- Listen with the intent to understand, not correct. Most of us have poor listening skills already. We listen in order to identify what we are going to respond to, not listening to understand others. In the case of someone who expressing pain about church experiences, listening is going to be vital to building a connection. We may hear things in their story that we disagree with, views of God or the church that are upsetting. We may hear interpretations of the Bible, of doctrines, etc that are inaccurate or misguided. The temptation is to think that our job is correct all these errors, or to think that if we correct these errors the person’s reasons for rejecting the faith will dissolve. We must be patient to listen well to seek to understand the person, not pick apart their story. There may come a time to offer a counter perspective, but it is insensitive to dismiss their story to highlight the minutia of the story. We must listen to be able to speak with intentionality (Prov. 18:13).
- Sympathize with the pain and perspective. The church is full of sinners and so the likelihood of sinners hurting one another, of being cruel, stupid, or simply jerks is high. You can acknowledge this person’s pain, you can sympathize with their hurt. You should be able to appreciate their feelings even if you disagree with their response to the incident(s). Express sympathy by agreeing with what you can of their assessment. Can you understand being hurt by specific failures of other Christians? Say so. “I would have trouble staying at a church like that too.” “I can understand being hurt as a result of that situation too.” Perhaps they have a perception of God that is flawed and misguided, and as a result creates real tension. Can you appreciate being turned-off to their notion of God? Say so: “I don’t think I could worship a god like that either.” We ought to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15)
- Open a dialogue, don’t preach a sermon. In an effort to offer a counter perspective to a person’s pain we can often jump to preaching at them. We want to correct all their perceived misnomers and point them towards truth, but our overly zealous approach may come on too strong. We want to open dialogue that invites the person to express their thoughts. Ask more questions than you make assertions in the initial stages of conversation. Allow them to express their understand, their views, and their interpretations more than you express yours. Ask permission to offer a counter perspective to their views and then concisely summarize a Biblical viewpoint. Ask what they think about this viewpoint.Engage conversations because you care about this person’s viewpoint and you want to be part of a real dialogue. You are not just trying to “win” an argument, you are trying to build a relationship.
- Avoid defensiveness. There is no need to be defensive in conversations with de-churched individuals. They may be antagonistic towards your faith, your God, even your church, but that isn’t directly about you. They are often speaking of a place of personal experience and pain. God does not need you to defend Him from false accusations or misunderstandings. He asks you to love others and to point them towards truth and hope with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25; 1 Peter 3:13-15).
- Build a relationship. The goal of caring for the dechurches I not to “win.” If you genuinely care about people you will be able to develop a relationship regardless of their interest in conversion. Jesus cared about people, and sought to be winsome in dialogue. We ought to strive to do the same regardless of the response of those we talk with.
- Finally, be open to correction. God has a history of using unbelievers to correct His people. Listening to their pain, to the hurt the other Christians or churches have caused may be key to helping you grow and avoid the same mistakes. Listening to ways that you specifically may have failed this person may be a means to helping you grow and learn from your own failures. Ask for forgiveness where appropriate. Humility is often something lacking in the church, and one of the reasons that so many walk away from the church. Being willing to humble repent and learn from your mistakes is godliness, and it may be a means by which you keep the lines of communication open with someone.
Not everyone who leaves the church has a painful story, but some do. Being sensitive to their own unique stories and caring about them is an important step to connecting with de-churched people. How are you doing at developing suffering-sensitivity?