The Real Reason People Who Have Left a Church “Can’t Go Home Again” by the Rt. Rev. Dan Thomas Edwards, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada
John Smith walks from the parking lot toward the church door. He hasn’t been here in several months. I don’t know why. Something at church upset him. Something at home drew him away. A spiritual crisis. No one knows. No one asked. But today John Smith walks from the parking lot toward the church door.
The ushers spot him. They watch him approach. When he’s close enough to hear, one usher places both hands against the inner wall and calls out loudly, “Everybody hold up the walls. They’re gonna fall in if John Smith comes to Church.” The other ushers laugh heartily.
John Smith makes his way through sheepishly, participates quietly in the service, leaves quickly at the end, and never comes to church again.
Joe and Mary Wilson have been away from church for about 6 months. I don’t know why. No one knows why. No one asked them. But they show up one Sunday, sing the hymns, and say the responses with good energy. At the peace, the lay worship leader says, “Well where have you two been? I haven’t seen you here in nearly a year.”
“We were here a couple of months ago.”
“No you weren’t. I have been here every Sunday and I didn’t see you. If you were here I’d know it.”
That was their last time to worship at that church.
Alice left the church some years ago to pursue other spiritual paths. But an old friend from the church has died, so she attends the funeral.
At the reception, Nancy, a church regular approaches Alice, “Do you recognize me?”
“Uh, I think so. Can you help me?”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember me. I was at your wedding.”
Another church regular joins in, “How about me? Do know who I am? What’s my name?”
Alice failed the names and faces test, so she went back to a safer place. The Church was just too hard.
An unorthodox hypothesis:
When I consult with churches whose membership has declined, they often express little desire to attract new members. Instead they say they want to win back the “lapsed.” I generally warn them that the so-called “lapsed” are the least likely demographic group to resume regular attendance at the church they left.
There are various explanations for that statistic. It could be the ex-members have bad memories of the church. It could be the “been there, done that” attitude. But here’s another hypothesis:
Our gatekeepers know the people who used to worship with us, so they are better prepared with solid techniques to drive them away. A new person comes in the door. We don’t know him. It may take us awhile to find his vulnerabilities and drive him out. But the folks we know, we can kick out the door in a New York minute. Something else may be going on consciously. Maybe the church folks just don’t know good manners. Maybe there is some personal pathology at work – but it looks to me as if the church system that tries to keep everything the way it is, knows that to keep things stable you have to keep the outsiders outside – even the ones who used to be inside – maybe especially the ones who used to be inside.
That systemic pathology can always be trumped by Grace and Gospel. That’s the good news. So maybe some of us want to live the Gospel graciously. If we truly want to offer spiritual support and nurture to the people who used to worship with us, and if we want to receive the spiritual support and nurture they may be bringing for us, here are a few simple suggestions:
First basic suggestion:
Instead of going out and trying to persuade all our ex-members to come back, we could just stop being jerks to the ones who come on their own.
Detailed suggestions on how not to be a jerk:
Do not judge, berate, and chastise someone who is in church for not having been there before. The time to do that was when they were absent. You missed it.
Do not make jokes about someone’s past absence or their return. You don’t know what you’re laughing at.
Do not ask people to justify, defend, or explain their absence. Not your business.
Do not ask people the whereabouts of someone (spouse, child, etc.) who you think they ought to have brought with them.
Do not say, “We have missed you.”
In case anyone missed that, “Do NOT say “We have missed you.”
Do not engage the returning member in discussion of a fight or unpleasantness that was going on when they left.
Do not hit a returning member with guilt, shame, or blame.
Do not put the returning member through an inquisition. Do you remember me? The South has its problems but they also have manners. Good manners dictate that if there is the slightest chance someone may not know who you are, you tell them your name and remind them of your connection. To say, “do you remember me?” in much of these United States is regarded as uncouth. In the Church, it is unkind.
So what might you say to a returning member? There are several good options.
“It’s good to see you.”
“Hi. How are you?”
“Thank you for coming. I’m glad you’re here.”
But here’s the best thing you can do. When you hear one of the gatekeepers guilting, shaming, or interrogating the returning member, cast manners aside – courtesy to whom courtesy is due – gatekeepers are enemies of the cross of Christ and deserve no courtesy – interrupt, draw the retuning member away and apologize, apologize profusely, for the unchristian behavior of the gatekeeper and beg forgiveness on behalf of the church.
Wisdom adage: If you want someone to come through a door, unlock it.
Second basic suggestion:
Don’t let the people wander off unnoticed in the first place. I could not begin to count the number of unchurched people who have told me they skipped church for a while for one reason or another, but no one noticed they were gone, so they never returned. You don’t wait for them to return before you notice they are gone!
There are two ways to deal with this. The best is to have a shepherd system so that every family in church is contacted (by phone, e mail, personal chat, however it happens) each quarter. The “shepherd” just asks, “How are you? Anything you need from the church? Any concerns about the church I could report to the priest?” That way if someone has been absent, you make caring contact without shaming him or her for being absent.
The other way is to have someone monitor your parish directory and notice whether anyone is unusually absent and have the priest or a lay pastoral care giver call the person to ask how he or she is.
If we pay proper attention to our people, fewer of them will wander off. If we simply treat them with ordinary courtesy when they return, they are far more likely to stick with us.
All too often when relationship breaks down between the church and a member, a goodly share of the fault lies with the church. I suspect we know that, and I suspect that’s why we are so quick to blame the member.