A friend of mine from church was pondering about how many hurt people are within the church and how many more couldn’t take it anymore and simply left. This was a random Facebook post he made but the thought process led him to interrogate the issue further. Where do you go when you want to hear many people’s different experiences and opinions? You go where the people are: social media. So he started a Facebook hashtag #WhyILeftTheChurch and sat down to listen.
Stories came pouring in almost immediately. Another friend took up this mantle, having struggled with the issue himself, I think, and continued the conversation on his timeline. People came to comment and share their stories and two things emerged.
One is that we are doing church wrong. So many people came up to say how the church they had loved and served with their whole hearts had turned on them with hatred and spite, had practically kicked them out, turned them out into the cold. And they, unable to find the love of Christ anywhere, had walked. Many of them have never looked back. The bride of Christ had somehow shown them that there was not enough love for them and they left. One lady narrated how her pastor had kicked her out because she had a baby. Another man left because of the hypocrisy in the church. Someone else took it as their cue to leave when they realized that church was a place where you were supposed to struggle to fit in, not come as you are.
The stories were real and they were honest. These were people who had gone through something and were brave enough to expose their wounds on social media. Most of them weren’t actually people who had decided to become godless, although some were. Leaving the church referred to distancing themselves from it, losing some or most or all of their zeal for Christ. It referred to walking away from church as you would walk away from someone who hurt you. You don’t necessarily hate that person forever and begin plotting their downfall; you choose to let them be who they are from a distance. The stories people told were as varied as you can imagine but also similar enough for me to notice there was a trend. Perhaps as the church we are not focused enough on loving people the way Jesus did. We have our priorities all wrong.
The second thing was that Christians are not used to sitting down, remaining quiet and listening as people speak. We are used to being the ones giving instructions and we are used to things being done exactly our way. Soon after this hashtag began doing the rounds, another one sprung up, from Christians who constantly feel the need to invalidate people’s experiences and prove themselves right: #WhyIStayed. People flooded my friends’ comments sections saying how the hashtag was doing harm to the church, how people should go to church for God and not for other people, how people leave the church only because of the failings of the church leaders and they should therefore learn to stay and battle it out to effect change. Honestly, it was no different from victim blaming in cases of rape or gender-based violence. “It is your fault you left, you should have done something differently. So just stay and help the person abusing you to become a better person.” Really?
Here is the thing. It is good that you stayed in the church. It is good that you as a Christian were able to heal from the hurt you received in church and go on to live abundantly for Christ. In fact, the two people who started this hashtag are very active in ministry, proving that they also stayed. But the point wasn’t to defend God. The point wasn’t to shame people into ceasing their criticism of the church. The point wasn’t to point fingers at these hurt people who left and tell them that they are the problem. The point wasn’t for those who haven’t been hurt by the church to tell their stories of how perfect church has been for them. The point wasn’t for those who got hurt but stayed to tell other people to do the same. No. The point was simply for people to tell their stories and for their experiences to be validated so that we know that there is a problem and it needs to be fixed.
But there we were. Refusing to sit down and listen. Walking into a space that was not created for us and beginning to shame the people in that space. Because we never learnt that not everything is about us. We never learnt that people have different experiences and just because they are different doesn’t mean they are wrong. The fact is that people have been hurt. And when someone is hurt you don’t go and tell them that they are wrong for being hurt. You ask them if they want to talk about it and if they do, you listen and you try to understand.
As Christians, even just as decent human beings, we need to let people tell their stories. Even if those stories poke holes in your armor of defense. Even those stories force you to take another look at yourself and re-evaluate a few things. We need to stop invalidating other people’s experiences and make them seem like they are wrong simply because they are different from ours. Nobody in those comments who shared their #WhyILeftTheChurch story told those who had stayed in church to leave. They were simply there to share what they went through because that was the point in the first place. We need to do better.
So maybe next time when such a conversation is happening, we will not be quick to accuse, judge and condemn (like the Pharisees, really). Instead, we will come in quietly, take a seat, and quietly listen to what somebody else has to say. And maybe in doing that we will realize that our inability to see people as people, and not as salvation projects, is the reason why those people left the church in the first place.