The Wrong Reaction When People Leave
Studying Flavil Yeakley’s book “Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ” has made for some interesting class discussions. Leaving the church you grew up in seems to be a national “rite of passage” these days, as the Barna Research Group found a few years back that 61% of 20-somethings attended some church regularly at some point in their teen years but are now “spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying).” Churches of Christ have not been exempt from that trend, even though it actually seems to be less pronounced in churches of Christ than the national averages; Yeakley reports that consistently about 40-45% of our young people become disengaged from the churches of Christ in their young adult years, but about 12% of those who leave will return, yielding about 33% or so of our young people who leave (page 33 of his book). Whatever the number, it’s higher than we’d like it to be.
Of course, we must respond correctly to this information about those who leave. One false extreme might be to see that young people leaving is a national trend, and to thereby suggest that there is no reason for alarm among us at all. Just keep doing what we’re doing, with no need for deep reflection on our own faith. Part of the house is on fire, but it’s a small fire compared to the neighbor’s fire, so we can just stay here in the living room and everything will work itself out. That would be foolish, of course. I hope we always have the humility to look for ways we can do better at living, teaching, and passing on the Christian faith. If we have somehow not taught the right doctrine, or not shown the right spirit, or not put forth the right effort, then we must be honest about it and bring our lives closer to what God wants.
There is the other extreme reaction to seeing people leave, and that is the “freak out and change everything” reaction. Part of the house is on fire, and so we decide to quickly dynamite the whole house before the rest of it catches fire. That would be just as foolish as ignoring the fire. I suppose it is sometimes human nature to lose our cool in a frantic effort to stop something we fear from happening. But I hope we have the humility to acknowledge that our “solutions” cannot improve on God’s plan, that God’s way is the best way, and that He knows how the church should look and function better than we do. After all, this is His work, not ours. If we have fallen into the trap of trying to modify the teaching and example given through Jesus and His apostles in an effort to get our numbers up, then we need to be honest about that and bring our lives closer to what God wants.
It is interesting to me to remember that people didn’t always stay with Jesus, either. In John 6, after Jesus has fed the 5000, He then teaches them that He is the bread of eternal life and Him only. After the lesson, verse 66 says, “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” In verse 67, Jesus simply asks the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?”
The rich young ruler also walked away from Jesus. Jesus saw that materialism was killing his soul, and told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, and to come follow Jesus. Verse 22: “But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”
In both cases, Jesus tells people the truth, and they don’t like it, so they leave. This is JESUS we’re talking about here! It couldn’t have been taught or lived any better than it was through Him. Yet many still walked away. What does that tell us? Two things, at least:
First, it tells me that when people leave, it is not always “our fault.” People are not combination locks that can be manipulated by turning the numbers perfectly. We are all a messy mixture of actions and motives, and we ultimately make our own choices. Sadly, many of us choose not to follow God, or to follow Him only in the ways that we like or the surrounding culture likes. As Christians, we must constantly examine ourselves to make sure we are teaching (and living) the truth in love; but even if we do it perfectly, like Jesus did, some will still leave. That’s just the reality of human choice, painful as it is to watch.
Second, I notice what Jesus did not do. What was Jesus’ reaction to those who left? He didn’t say, “OK, OK, I’m sorry, I pushed too hard. Let me change My teaching. I’m not really the only way to God. There, do you like that better? If so, we’ll stick with that.” Or “OK, sorry, you really don’t have to sell your possessions. Just don’t leave. We can modify what I said if necessary.” He didn’t call a meeting with the apostles to find ways to make people like them more. In both cases, Jesus simply watched them leave, without changing anything about His message or practices (because in Jesus, nothing needed changing!).
Jesus clearly wasn’t playing a numbers game, floating with the winds of culture in order to appeal to the most people. He had told them the truth, in the right spirit of love, and they didn’t want to follow it. What more can you do? I’m sure if Jesus saw them later, He would have again encouraged them to follow Him, but the teachings and standards wouldn’t change. Truth was truth. He simply kept working, kept teaching, kept looking, and brought as many as possible to God. When people left, the answer was not to change God’s plan.
As Christians, all we can do is examine ourselves. Let’s make sure we are teaching the right thing, with the right spirit, and giving the right effort in showing God’s love for everyone. God’s truth must have the loudest voice – or, better stated, the only voice. We can’t affect people’s choices, we can only pray that God will help them make the right choice. And we can’t change what God has asked us to be and do; He knows better than we do, and He sees a much bigger picture than the shallow shifts of culture.
True, people are leaving churches all over America, and more of our number are leaving churches of Christ than we’d like to see. Let that be a motivation for biblical reflection. Let that NOT be a motivation for trying to change who God wants us to be.