What to Do About the DeChurched
In this post from a blog connected with Christianity Today, Rev. Ed Stetzer gives advice for reaching those disenfranchised from Church. He calls them the dechurched. They tend to call themselves “Dones” (as in they are done with it).
He divides the disenfranchised into two categories. There are those who just never quite fit in and then there are those who have either been directly hurt by the Church or who have witnessed an injustice within the Church. He calls the latter “collateral damage.”
The Church can be a hurtful place. Stetzer admits this. Dealing with the hurt has always been a problem. It gets in the way of bliss, a feeling many associate with church involvement.
The Church has difficulty with empathy. The interests of the Church often come before the interests of the people the Church cares for. This shortcoming has the effect of magnifying hurt. Those who feel the effects of greed, power, selfishness, and other human frailties end up feeling expendable. While the Church talks about a God that sacrifices for the lost lamb, there is a growing number of lambs left caught in the briar on the edge of the cliff with no shepherd to reach out to them.
What can be done?
Stetzer’s first suggestion is to palm the responsibility for the disenfranchised off on another denomination. Maybe hurt Lutherans can hear the gospel spoken from Baptist pulpits. He calls it multiplicity—better than duplicity!.
This is a plan of avoidance. It won’t work. It just removes the problem from sight. When churches create hurt, they create a challenge for everyone in every denomination. Expecting others to clean up our messes is a bad idea. People belong to denominations for reasons with pretty strong roots. The hurt already feel rejected by people who are part of their personal life stories. What chance is there among strangers?
His second suggestion is more convoluted. He suggests giving permission to the aggrieved to express their pain. A tad condescending—especially if there is no plan to do anything but let them vent.
He talks about helping them get past the perception that true Christianity hurt them as if the hurt didn’t really happen or they are errant in identifying the source. True Christianity wouldn’t do some of the things churches do. Yet they happen—and fairly frequently. Time to admit: True Christianity must involve facing shortcomings.
True Christianity comprises people who come with true faults. True Christians can do bad things. That’s why we open our worship services with confession. What we find easy to confess to God in memorized language is far more difficult than coming up with the words to apologize to our neighbors.
A problem church leaders face is that the hurt is often very public. Solutions offered, when they are offered, are often very private. See me during office hours.
Missing from his post are some important points.
Reconciliation is a major imperative for Christians. Reconciliation starts with accepting responsibility. “Yes, we see you are hurt. This should never have happened to you. We slipped up.”
This conversation should be followed quickly with some of the most powerful words: “I’m/We’re sorry. How can we help?” Sometimes that’s all the disenfranchised are seeking.
Reconciliation requires accountability and an action plan.
I’m not seeing this in today’s Church. I don’t see pastors standing up to those within the Church who overstep authority, who bypass Church law, and who justify wrong actions with one-sided rhetoric. I see pastors, who surely know better, making excuses that make those who are hurting feel even worse. I can only suspect that they want to remain in good graces with church authority—at least the earthly kind. They add to the damage. There is nothing more hurtful than a conditional apology. “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have . . . ” or “This is wrong, but there is nothing we can do.”
Here’s the thought process of those who have been hurt within the Church.
They believe in God and that the Church represents the godly. They pray to God for relief. When the Church turns its back on them they feel personally rejected by God. Why should they have to look for relief from strangers in unfamiliar denominations while the people they counted on to love them avoid unpleasantness? The disenfranchised feel rejected by the people who represent God. Why should they feel like they need permission to express their hurt? They will look to Scripture to find the Biblical response. They won’t find these remedies outlined. Of course, there are two sides to every issue, but in the Church, one side has a far more powerful voice. The legions of well-intended within the Church often never know about problems. There is little dialog. Breeding ground for discontent.
Wouldn’t the True Church ache to know if there is something they can do to stop the pain?
The Church needs effective checks and balances. A private word of consolation from someone not directly involved and that will never reach the ears of the wrong-doers just continues the hurt. All too often such gestures are reported privately within church leadership and the complainer gets labeled by those who crave approval from those who created the hurt. The victim is further ostracized.
In fact, dechurching can be the desired outcome. One less thorn in the Church’s side. I heard one high-ranking church official offer to a hurting member no apology or discussion. “You need to move on.” All the responsibility for the problem was set squarely on the shoulders of the person with the least power.
If the Church believes its own message, it must accept responsibly for the disenfranchised. At the very least, open dialog.
Until the Church can truly accept responsibility, the numbers of dechurched will grow. They won’t mean to cause harm, but unaddressed hurts have a way of festering. They have families. Their families have friends. Friends have families. They have more friends. Now that’s collateral damage.
We are probably near the point where there are more hurting people shying away from Church than there are content and smiling Christians propping up the institution. We can keep on pretending fractiousness is the problem of the victims, but to what end?
The Roman Catholic Church spent years denying the pain of scandal and refusing to take responsibility. The image of the true Church was more important than the pain of the victims. Now they are seeing the only way out is to take responsibility. It is painful to be sure. But how many victims could have been saved with a more direct and timely response—by admitting the problems and treating the victims as children of God?
We need to learn from this.