Leaving the 99: Re-thinking our Approach to Those Who Leave the Church
Last month, this meme made the rounds on social media:
Full disclosure: I initially mis-interpreted this to be about the church and not individual Christians. But I discovered that I wasn't alone in making that leap. More about that in a minute.
Initially, I was blown away at exactly who was sharing this meme. It didn't come from the "regular" Christians with whom I was friends. Instead, it was being propelled by the pastors, ministers, and denominational leaders with whom I am acquainted. That only made this particular meme's popularity more disheartening.
Having resolved to not engage in Facebook debates a little over a year ago, I felt compelled to engage this one. I decided that the easiest way to poke holes into the argument was to point out the absurd attempt as equivalence. Surely these ministry leaders didn't think that being relationally harmed was the same as getting a hamburger with onions when you specifically asked for a hamburger without onions.
Unfortunately, they did not. Many just didn't respond to my objection (while giving hearty "Amens" to subsequent comments that expressed agreement). Others defended the substance of the meme, arguing that many are quick to write off church and all Christians over the actions of a single Christian.
Even to this point, I pushed back. "How," I asked, "are we supposed to know if/how often this happens?" Unless we ask everyone who's ever felt this way, aren't we just assuming the worst of people's motivations? Worse, as ministry leaders, aren't we putting up barriers for people who may have legitimate grievances with Christians or the church because we're assuming that they're being petty or unforgiving?
Running with the interpretation that the meme complained about writing off the church instead of Christians, I re-shared it on my Instagram and Facebook stories asking for people's gut-level responses. Interestingly, most everyone shared my interpretation. Even Christians presently active in their faith and a local church made the same interpretative association.
But the non-Christians (or former Christians) who responded? They unanimously picked up on the same thread. For them, this was exactly what I feared: yet another means of ostracism from the church.
To be fair, some noted that, yes, people are quick to hold grudges or reach irrational conclusions. I don't want to discount the reality that sometimes people dismiss Jesus/the church/faith for petty or dubious reasons.
What I want to caution against is holding on to those handful of circumstances and projecting those motivations on anyone who ever leaves the church for any reason.
Getting back to the meme, the responses I received ranged from hilarious (one friend who isn't a Christian commented, "I don't eat at McDonald's, either.") to poignant ("Relational/emotional/spiritual trauma is much more damaging than anything McDonald's can do to me."
As I reflected further on the meme, its defense by the ministers I knew, and its almost universal criticism from non-ministers when asked their opinion, the parable of the lost sheep came to mind.
In Matt. 18:10-14 Jesus told the story of a shepherd who left 99 sheep safe and secure in the sheepfold to go and search for 1 that had "gone astray." Jesus noted that, "if he finds it... he rejoices over it more than over the 99 that never went astray."
We've reached a place where we, as 21st century North American Christians, have flipped that parable on its head. Instead of leaving the 99 that are safe and secure to search out for the 1 that has wandered, we pat the 99 that stay on the back and talk down about the 1 that goes astray.
This isn't the way of Jesus. Regardless of how valid we perceive someone's complaint to be, as believers our responsibility is to seek out those who leave and make sincere attempts to bring them back.
There's no formula for how to do this. Every situation is likely unique and will require a respectful, loving, Holy Spirit led approach. I can't prescribe exactly how to go about that process.
But I can tell you that sharing memes that shame leavers is diametrically apposed to the heart and attitude of Jesus.