Many of my close friends who’ve left the church have suffered real disappointment and hurt at the hands of Christians. Some have suffered tragic spiritual abuse by ministry leaders. It’s no surprise, then, that they’ve moved away from Christian community. I mourn and grieve for anyone who has searched for God and family, only to find judgment, condemnation, and abuse. Lord, help us.
Much of my pastoral ministry involves caring for and rehabilitating those who have suffered church hurt. I’ve discovered that we’re hurt in relationship, and we find healing in relationship.
Resist the Urge to Withdraw
When we’re sinned against by others, the natural tendency is to move away from everyone else. When we sin and are shamed by others, it’s similarly natural to withdraw into ourselves. But while this withdrawal may be a natural survival instinct, it won’t lead to complete healing. At some point, we must move toward others to find comfort and healing.
While this withdrawal may be a natural survival instinct, it won’t lead to complete healing.
If you’re a child of God, you have been called and commissioned to live for him with purpose, dignity, and giftedness. Don’t let those who’ve sinned against you determine your future. You may need to invest in wise counseling and spiritual direction—and from your pain, a new and deeper version of yourself can emerge. You can move toward others with trust and hope again, not because your next community won’t fail you, but because God will never fail you, and he often ministers to us through others.
We’re hurt in relationship, and we find healing in relationship. Before you move fully and finally away from the church, consider if you might never find what your soul truly needs until you move toward healthy, loving Christian friends and spiritual community again—or for the first time.
Rediscover Spiritual Community
The good news is that spiritual community is possible. True belonging can be found. And God loves you enough to use your pain to bring about much good, both in your life and in those around you.
What does it look like to rediscover Christian community as someone who’s considering leaving the faith or the church?
1. We Must Learn That Christian Community Is Built, Not Found
One of my pastor friends has often told his church, “This isn’t a great place to find community—it’s a great place to build community.” In other words, if you’re looking for a community that will welcome you into its club of happy, non-dramatic, non-demanding friends, good luck. Maybe you do find a group that says, “Come on in; it’s perfect in here. We’ve been waiting just for you. We have everything taken care of.” But that’s either a false promise or it’s a cult—or maybe just an overeager group workout class. No, Christian community must be built, not found.
Christian community is hard because people are hard (yes, that includes you). But it’s worthwhile. And in my experience, the more time and energy you invest in helping others feel connected, the more you tend to feel connected. If you work to make a place for others, you’ll likely always have a place yourself. If you’re willing to take the initiative, build relationships, and care for others even when it’s boring, repetitive, or messy—and if you can expect this journey to count by years and not months—you will find yourself in a true and living community (Rom. 12:9–21).
2. We Must Reset Our Lives for Relationships
If community is built and not found, then we need to reset some aspects of our lives. We have to slow down and resist the culture of hurry around us. We may not be able to work late into the evening or on weekends. We need to plan ahead with the tenacity of a project manager to make a weekly small group or Bible study fit and remain in our schedules. We will need to recognize that moving every few years will significantly damage our relational connectedness and sense of belonging. A deep, connected life with others requires a new set of priorities and a new set of life rhythms. But it is so worthwhile.
3. We Must Be Honest and Vulnerable
If you’re deconstructing the faith, have you discussed it with those around you? More often than not, my friends who have left the faith (or simply their local church, while not joining another) have never shared their frustrations and concerns with their communities or leaders. Sadly, others don’t hear of these struggles except through Facebook, Twitter, or Medium.
If you want others to be more honest and vulnerable with you, then you may have to begin by being more honest and vulnerable with them.
But if you want others to be more honest and vulnerable with you, then you may have to begin by being more honest and vulnerable with them. If they don’t respond well, don’t be too discouraged. Perhaps they’ve never really considered the foundations of Christianity and they feel threatened. Perhaps their identity is so wrapped up in a tradition or group that they can’t imagine critiquing it. But in the long run, being honest and vulnerable with others will lead to deeper relationships—if not in one community, then in another.
This article was adapted from Jeremy Linneman’s chapter in Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (The Gospel Coalition, 2021).