09 April 2021

On Falling Away

14 months ago I wrote this article on what causes a person to walk away from faith or faith communities. I shelved it feeling it was just too raw and untimely. Then we had 2020 and I forgot all about it till this week. Today it still feels raw, and even more timely - all be it with some additional post-Covid reflections. There is probably never going to be a good time to say some of this without offending someone. So straight up, this is a reflection I think we will all in some way relate to, but especially myself...

Earlier this year (back in 2019) a particularly well-known Christian musician and worship leader, Marty Sampson announced that he was giving up on Christianity. My heart sank when I first heard that news and I’ve felt that familiar ache for many years whenever people in my own context or beyond appear to just up and walk away.

Christians don’t talk about it much but many people who start following Jesus stop. And stopping is not limited to the novice who dips their toe into the pool of Christianity only to realise the water is too cold. I’ve witnessed so many people like Marty swim for years then just get out and walk away cold. Jesus coined the phrase “falling away” to describe this and he seems to be far more comfortable talking about this reality than I am. Truth is, I feel it every time someone appears to have fallen away. 

It feels like death-by-a-thousand-cuts.

I have to keep reminding myself that Jesus frequently spoke to the fragility of faith and anticipated the probability of some falling away, even his closest friends. “This very night you will fall away on account of me,” Jesus says to Peter. And Peter, offended, declares, “even if all fall away, I never will.” (Matthew 26.31). 

Famous last words from the man who gloriously falls away soon after.

In John 6, Jesus has what looks like a spectacular fail in his Sunday sermon. His preaching was so offensive that people up and left en masse. John records, “from that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6.66) Yet Jesus seems remarkably unfazed about this and even offers his closest disciples an opt-out option. If Jesus shows me anything here, it is that falling away can be quite normal and perhaps even necessary for a time. 

But before I go any further, let me clarify what I mean by falling away because I think there are two primary ways to interpret that phrase. 

First, there is a falling away from belief in the biblical person and work of Jesus. Some may shift from a biblically orthodox belief to a self-curated spirituality, to universalism, agnosticism or even atheism (I’ll write about this trend another time).

Second, there is a falling away from Christian community. These people would say they still believe but they are done with or have grown past organised religion and want to just privately believe without connection to a church. 

We should not confuse the two, but neither should we think that one has no bearing or relationship to the other. If you fall away from a biblically orthodox vision of Jesus, you also tend to distance yourself from the community that nurtured it. Likewise, if you fall away from the nurturing community, people commonly become nominal in their faith—though they may not admit it.

Attending a local church is not the same as a personal faith and you certainly aren’t saved by going to church, but let’s be clear, the church is not a later invention. Being an identifiable community of God's people spans the whole narrative of the Old and New Testament. Jesus grew up in a cultural context where faith and community were largely inseparable. And Jesus true to this, was forming a community of faith from the start of his ministry. Jesus declares to Peter in Matthew 16, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not overcome it.”

So as much as there is a growing trend in prosperous western cultures to make faith increasingly personal, individualistic and divested from an established local faith community – I would argue this is more an unfortunate reflection of the broader post-Christian culture than anything else. 

Might we need to reimagine aspects of what it means to be the church? Absolutely, and Covid has been a welcome catalyst for that work to commence. But regardless of our deconstruction and revisioning of being faith communities, many of the fundamental biblical principles of faith and community will endure (we will also cover this in detail at another time). 

So can you have faith without connection to the local church? Yes but it is extremely hard to maintain this for more than a short season (but hey, I’m a pastor so you’d expect me to say that).

There are hundreds of reasons why people fall away from either faith in God or the church. In a story Jesus liked to tell about a farmer sowing seeds, he proposes three categories in which someone who has heard the gospel is vulnerable to falling away:
  • a lack of understanding or revelation of the message of the kingdom, 
  • a lack of resilience under pressure or pain, and 
  • a lack of resolve under temptation. 
And each still apply today but it's often much more personal. All people (including pastors) hit all sorts of complications along the way.
  • Sometimes it is your adult self no longer meshing with the beliefs you inherited from your family.
  • Sometimes it is your fragile foundation cracking under the weight of all your unanswered questions about how the world works or where God was or is in the mess of life.
  • Perhaps it is a deep disappointment at the institution of the church in an age of Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
  • Perhaps it’s a deep disappointment with people like me – the local pastor or other significant leader you’ve been under. Gross moral failure is everywhere in the church.To experience this kind of betrayal at close range can be soul destroying.
  • Perhaps is it fatigue from the rigidity of conservatism, or weariness at your church putting style over substance and authentic social concern.
  • Maybe it is as simple as not feeling like you were appreciated or not getting along with someone at church—and it was easier to walk away than fix it.
  • Or maybe there are just other things in life that now look more interesting than the narrow often rocky road of following Jesus in community. Certainly this is a byproduct of covid with many people struggling to return to their ‘old habits’ after a year of forming new ones.
Whatever the reasons, perhaps a type of falling is necessary for every disciple at some stage. Several writers like Richard Rohr in Falling Upward, Brian McLaren in Naked Spirituality and Hagberg and Guelich’s classic, The Critical Journey, all use similar analogies to express the idea of a necessary upheaval or crisis somewhere along the timeline of discipleship – a dark night of the soul. Rohr talks about the transition from first half of life thinking to second half of life. McLaren speaks of moving from simplicity and complexity into a stage of perplexity, and Hageberg and Guelich just talk about hitting the wall.

Whatever the language, each are describing a deep state of doubt or disappointment or confusion or disillusionment or even boredom in life. These are uncomfortable feelings for the person and often for those around them. Perfectly good friendships can suddenly feel weird—sometimes people try and “fix” their friend’s existential crisis, sometimes they ignore the spiritual elephant in the room, or distance themselves all together. I guess it all depends on the nature of the relationship.

The thing is, I know that the “wall” is painful, but it is not wrong or shameful. These crisis moments of falling away can be essential to our growth and the necessary catalyst from which old thinking can be rejected, refined or redirected. This is the place of the refining and deepening of our spirit and soul. This may even be the place of reborn dreams, innovation and creativity. The wall is that place where we come to the end of ourselves and are invited to decide again whether to let Jesus direct the course of our life or not.

Jesus sat with his mate Peter on a beach post resurrection cooking fish (John 21.) His return to fishing suggests that he could only look back to his old life rather than see a future. In this tender moment, Jesus confronts and releases him from any shame borne by his failure. But he also asks him to move through to a new season deeper and richer than he could have ever known. Peter would not have been the same man if it weren’t for that moment. Little did Peter know that three decades later, he will have his run his race and in the fury of Nero’s persecution, hold fast to the Jesus who restored him on the beach that day.

I suspect we all feel like falling away sometimes for one reason or another. I know I do. But maybe those moments really are necessary to move us forward and strengthen us for the next leg of our race.

If you feel like you’ve landed in a season of falling away, feel confused or unhinged, or for some reason you just haven't made it back to church since Covid—it's ok, it’s normal and perhaps even necessary. 

I know it can often feel like a source of immense shame and embarrassment. I know you may fear causing others to stumble or fall away too. I know that simply disappearing gradually or quickly can look like a far easier pathway than the vulnerability of exposing your thoughts and feelings. But paradoxically, I just wonder if the way through is in the very thing you are battling – community and/or faith. I wonder if it is amid the messiness of community,  that we find people with the maturity of faith, and the context we need, to authentically walk with us, being Jesus with us and for us, helping us to discern the movement of the Spirit in our lives once again. If so, my hope is that you will allow your questions, frustrations and pain to lead you toward rather than away from faith and community.

For me, seeing people falling away in whatever form remains one of the most disheartening aspects of pastoral ministry. But you don’t need to be a pastor to feel this. If you are the one experiencing the sorrow of a spouse, a child a friend falling away, here are a few things I try and remember.
  • Don’t panic. Your anxiety over a loved one will not help you help them. Keep calm and pray - for wisdom and grace to keep loving them. 
  • Don’t take it personally. Honestly, I often do, but I have to keep reminding myself that it is probably not personal, nor will being offended make anything better.
  • Don’t try and fix them. Remember, they are not a problem to be solved and you aren't the expert who can solve it. Just focus on staying present, listening, asking curious questions and offering wisdom or alternative perspectives when invited. Assume they may have some rich insights that you can learn from too.
  • Don’t neglect yourself. To walk alongside of a hurting or perplexed person can sometimes feel heavy or disorienting. Consequently, you need others in your life who can intentionally and prayerfully support you as you support others.
  • Don’t give up. Keep channels of communication open, and anticipate that God is already working in ways you have no clue about.