Christians, Don’t Back Away From Backsliders

After I left the church, I lost a lot of friends.

Christians have a weird relationship with ‘backsliders.’

Who are ‘backsliders?’ Well, the word is actually in the bible, surprisingly (translated of course). In Jeremiah, God’s speaking, and he equates backsliding with ‘forsaking God.’

These are people formerly in the church, perhaps people formerly involved in the kids work and student ministry, people who for all intents and purposes are doing everything a Christian should.

And then, usually slowly, they start to back off.

I know a lot of people who were super excited about their faith in university. We were all young, but that’s no excuse. You can still have genuine faith at that age. We were going on trips to Asia together to evangelize (spread Christianity), we were meeting two or three times a week, ‘living faith together’ and all sang with our eyes closed come Sunday afternoon (church was at 4 p.m. because that’s soalternative and cool!).

After university, so, so many people that I knew have backed off. Either they don’t go to church anymore, or we’ve talked, and if not backing off, they certainly aren’t moving forward (in their words).

I’ll touch briefly on whether backsliding is something that can happen to believers. This is rather tricky to discuss since Christians are quite confusing about where the line lies between a genuine Christian who simply is going through a rough patch, and the person who backs away from the church, at which point he or she is no longer regarded as a Christian.

Calvinists believe in the Perseverance of the Saints, meaning that once you’re truly saved, you can’t lose it. When pushed, Calvinists will regard Christians who have truly ‘renounced’ their faith (in deed more than word usually) as never having been believers in the first place, since it’s impossible to lose a genuine relationship with God.

And I’m rather OK with that teaching. Simply because I believe you can’t lose a genuine relationship with God. I think such a relationship can only grow.

Let me open for you just how confused the advice is on this line between a struggling Christian, and wasn’t-a-Christian-in-the-first-place. It’s certainly not just me saying it.

It is “possible for children of God to backslide, temporarily,” one blog says.

CBN claims that of the two sides of the line, one has “disastrous consequences.”

Another article sees the Christian life as a graph of seemingly moving “upward in our spiritual growth” (minor blips are OK) that plots time on the X axis and being “spiritual” on the Y. If someone returns from a place of being outside the church and the faith: They “soon discover that they are less spiritual now than when they first began to slide.”

A Gospel Coalition article says “There are two ways that you can get into trouble … the one is backsliding … the other is called apostasy.”

And which is it? “The answer … has to be, “I don’t know. You can’t tell.”

The idea seems to be, yes we accept that Christians don’t always feel their faith, don’t always have motivated, do have periods of doubts, do have times in their lives when they seem to be ‘sinning’ more. If it goes on for too long, however, that’s it. You weren’t a Christian to begin with and likely it’s going to take a while before you would ever return.

Let’s briefly consider, why do people back away from the church? I think Jesus’ parable of the sower gives a number of reasons. They had a lack of mentorship to cultivate good soil. They were just distracted by everything in life butthe church. They focused too much on the outward signs of faith, but not on the heart.

There are other reasons too. Perhaps they were put off by a traumatic experience early on, or by meeting a group of self-righteous Pharisee-like Christians that gave a poor impression of true faith. Some may find intellectual reasons, theological ones, to back off.

You can be a ‘mature,’ churchgoer who says the right words, occasionally sits during songs to pray (the super believers), isn’t afraid to post on Facebook about your faith and could be a mentor to younger Christians. None of these things mean you’re a Christian, of course.

The trouble with people leaving the church is it rather calls into question your own faith. If the guy that stood beside you singing isn’t really doing it with his heart, as it turns out, what’s to say you’re any safer?

So let me come to the point of this article. While I’m deeply concerned that Christians seem wholly confused by where the line is, this isn’t the point of this blog post. Let me say briefly however, I am not trying to define a mathematical line in the sand that we can all agree on.

My point is only that Christians don’t seem to be willing to really understand backsliders deeply enough to remotely gauge where someone is in relation to that line.

Either they give the standard “failing Christian relief package”: confession, prayer, reading the bible, worshipping, being more active in sharing the faith (evangelizing) and fellowship.

Or, they distance themselves from the person. And mark my words. This has happened more times with me and with the experience of others’ than I can count.

I genuinely don’t know whether it’s insecurity – people doubting their own beliefs – or the fact many Christians have a narrow circle of friends that barely goes beyond the walls of the church.

Either way, if you are going through a serious period of doubt, questioning yourself, God and your faith, a number of people that I know have experienced not love, but alienation. Small doubts are OK. Even encouraged. It’s a sign of maturity that you don’t regard your own salvation as assured but continually ‘work out your faith’ and not take anything for granted.

Many Christians barely know how to to give the “failing Christian relief package” in a way that isn’t wholly robotic and impersonal. But almost all Christians I met don’t know what advice to give when someone is really, really doubting their faith. Is there any better instruction you can give than, ‘read and pray?’

Or worse, ‘doubts are a sign that you’re a real Christian because non-Christians wouldn’t care about whether they had a relationship with God.’

Nonsense. Christians, especially those who grew up in Christian homes, have plenty of reasons to care about their salvation. You’ve been told that any other way is ‘sinking sand.’ You have a lot to lose. Your worldview, friends, even perhaps the direction your life is heading jobwise.

Doubting isn’t a sign of being a true Christian and more than confidence is.

One of the lessons, among many, of Luke 15’s parables of the lost coin, son and sheep is that all three instances were preventable. This may sound controversial. But for the lost sheep, if the shepherd had really been looking after his flock, surely he would have noticed one sheep was prone to drifting to the edge of the flock? For the woman and the lost coin, it wasn’t the coin that decided to lose itself. And for the lost son? I love that parable. But let me say one thing. What would have happened if the father refused to give the son his inheritance?

I’m not advocating forcing people to stay in the church. Far, far from it.

I’m advocating for Christians to better understand what’s going on in the mind and heart of their struggling friends. If you’re a church leader, like the shepherd or the woman responsible for those in their care, it’s arguably a bigger burden to shoulder.

But it’s by no means exclusive. All Christians must try with all their might to get over the insecurity they feel when someone approaches them in a ‘crisis of faith.’ If you feel insecure when a brother or sister opens up to you, because it really challenges what you believe: Let it!

Let it challenge you. Let it be a reason to question your core beliefs. Because that is OK. It’s OK to ask yourself where you stand before God. It’s OK to evaluate your faith, not just ‘I’m not feeling like reading my bible,’ but, ‘do I actually love God?’

I guarantee that many reading this will say that’s terrible advice. And that I shouldn’t sow seeds of doubt where there aren’t any. But that’s exactly what I want to do. I want people to think. I want people to ask questions of themselves, because if they are genuine believers, it will only lead to stronger conviction. And if they aren’t, they won’t be kidding themselves.

Many Christians don’t understand backsliders, because they don’t know what it’s like to truly consider giving up your faith. That statement is a pretty big one. Probably you’ll say, ‘every Christian has counted the cost.’ Or, ‘doubting is a daily experience for the genuine believer.’

Christians may have doubts about why they aren’t growing like other Christians. Or why they aren’t as ‘mature’ as others. But doubting whether you have a root at all?

The only solution to the way Christians talk to people struggling with their faith, either to roll out a standard package of help, or else distance themselves, is that Christians should not be afraid to get close to those struggling. Don’t be afraid to take time to understand and listen to them. Don’t be afraid to miss out one of the components of the “failing Christian relief package” (Oh No! I missed out fellowship!). Not everybody needs the same thing, and if you never take time to listen, you’ll never know what questions people are really asking. You’ll never know what goes on in the heart. And just as ‘surface’ actions like going to church, reading the bible and fellowship aren’t signs of true belief (many people do these without believing, as it turns out later), so they don’t create a Christian. They can’t change the heart.

Don’t be afraid to probe the backsliders heart. For it is at the heart, and there only, that a relationship with God will find a spark and be ignited.

Whatever you do, don’t alienate yourself from people who drift away. Please.

One, you miss a chance to actually understand that person’s heart, know what their struggles and doubts are, be able to walk with them as they explore deep questions and, after it becomes clearer what their real issues are, encourage them in the way they need.

Two, you don’t learn from it. Such a relationship will help you grow, I’m sure of it. You will learn from being close to those moving away. Your connection with God, I’ll wager, will only grow stronger.

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Being a Heart-driven Christian (and where I went wrong)

There’s a strange thing that happens when you grow up. We use the words “grow up” to mean someone who is behaving like a child; which I suppose means emotional, overreacting and not thinking rationally. I’ve got a hunch that our society, at least in the West where I grew up, believes maturity is about balancing out your emotions – no big peaks, no big troughs. People who express strong emotions are ‘unstable.’

I’m in no doubt that I am more emotional than the average person. I used to call it ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve,’ and no matter the times it’s got me into a regrettable situation (being “too” honest), I won’t change. I mean, I want to – that’s society creeping in – but it’s who I am. I’ve done tests, and stuff.

Growing up in a religious environment, let’s say the ‘conservative evangelical Christian’ (as defined in the U.K.) type, I noticed one of two extremes. We (including me, yes) pigeon-holed half the Christian population into the rational, theological, The Gospel Coalition-following camp. The best conservative evangelical Christian is the one that has a heavily marked-up bible. He or she sits in rustic coffee shops with a Moleskin and a fountain pen, diligently studying the texts for the ‘mysteries’ of God’s word. Perhaps they’ll take the word into different contexts, just to spice it up a bit. Like they’ll meet in pubs to discuss theology (since that’s sotrendy and hip, showing it’s possible to read the bible and drink craft beer). Maybe they’ll make a chic driftwood wall hanging with an obscure verse from Joel or Obadiah painted on it (it’s a thing).

The other extreme was ‘the other.’ We called them charismatics, most of the time. Even if not by name, we knew who they were. The former would inform themselves from a set of narrow theologians and texts that had been ‘pre-approved’ by the Christian world. Knowing God by Jim Packer, most things by C.S. Lewis (careful though), the City of God (if you’ve got the time), Tim Keller, John Stott, Spurgeon – and their peers, living or dead. This wasn’t an exhaustive list. The latter, the charismatics, generally considered these ‘heavy’ and ‘theological.’

You had exceptions. But most in the camp were wary of a dry faith that was well read, but lifeless. Just as the former camp was wary of thelack of teaching and bible centered-ness (sermon series that don’t follow a book of the bible might’ve been frowned upon).

I’ve not given a clear definition of either, and I’ve only given a definition based on observation from being in those circles for years. Decades. But I’ve not given a description that’s been self-defined by either camp. My guess is though that this blog is for people that based on my short little summary, know what I’m talking about, and have experienced something of that order.

The centrality of the bible to Christian tradition, especially the conservative evangelical tradition (meaning a reformed, bible-based theology – ‘originalist,’ if you will, like the U.S. constitution, the idea is that you must stick to the meaning of the text as it was intended, more or less), has made Christianity rather a thinking-man’s game. If you talk to anyone in this tradition who is in any way read up and considerate, they’ll usually renounce that, and quote a passage like ‘faith without actions is empty,’ or the same about a faith devoid of love.

And I’ve heard a lot of these defenses. The the conservative standpoint seems to be, “yes we accept there’s a danger of being a little boring and head-driven, but it’s better to be bible-based, and add things onto the edges (like feelings and actions), than the other way around.”

Let me come back to my first paragraph. If society believes emotions are something to be frowned upon in adulthood, I could swear the same thing is said in the conservative church. It’s not that emotions are prohibited, although you’d find sections of that camp that would absolutely do just that in practice.

Perhaps once every six months for about eight years, I’d tell a pastor, mentor or close friend: ‘I’m just not sure I feelmy faith.’ No doubt what sparked that introspection, and resulting conclusion (I didn’t have enough emotions) was probably looking, as though through a glass window with me outside and them inside, at others, some in the charismatic camp. People who recounted stories of overwhelming sadness or happiness when “experiencing” God got me right jealous. Who wouldn’t want that?

So I made this confession, and here’s the golden response that kept me quiet until the next crisis of self-doubt: “Faith is about truth, not emotions. Emotions come and go (‘Like the difference between Love and being In Love’), so don’t rely on that as a litmus test. Rely on the truth of being saved.’

It’s a very handy remedy to doll out to A.N. Other questioning, doubting Christian. A couple of lines, maybe even backed up by a cheeky verse, can work wonders.

It’s such a great remedy, by the way, that it kept me from asking myself the difficult questions for probably a decade. No joke. It put to bed my doubts for that long.

And, as a bright young enthusiastic student Christian, whose head was far larger than his heart, it was almost music to my ears. Probably that day I read my bible with renewed vigor and determination. But it wore off.

The realization eighteen months ago that I wasn’t the mature Christian I thought I was honestly hit me hard. I threw out a lot of what I thought I believed, perhaps too irrationally at the beginning. I’ve calmly taken back some of that now, after some independent thought and consideration. But it’s quite the shock to feel you’re living a lie. It’s a natural response; if you aren’t sure about one part of who you are, and what you believe to be important, where does it end? What canyou be sure about?

Let’s quickly talk about what happened. In a month or so period, I became acutely aware my life wasn’t like other Christians. I’d been drifting from the status quo for a while. Reading my bible was a chore if ever there was one, talking to God was essentially a guilt-ridden transaction of begging for forgiveness and promising not to do it again in exchange for a more-or-less weightless conscience. I drank too much for the average Christian. I couldn’t listen to Christiany songs for more than a few minutes before I got bored. As an insecure Christian man, I was also coming round to the idea that perhaps being in a relationship with someone who wasn’t from the faith wasn’t so bad after all.

Oh and I did a personality test. I’m ENFJ, by the way.

A month of introspection, mixed in with a little depression from life not going the way I had hoped it would, and my world view was taken from me like a carpet from under my feet.

The sharp among you might realize that it isn’t much of a worldview anyway, if it can be lost so easily.

The truth is that Christianity provided for me a platform through which to express some parts of my personality and connect with people. What I considered to be my faith was really my deeper character shining through. Like, I’m a compassionate person. I love people and have always wanted to help people (‘but that’s God given!’ you might say). I thought my faith was the cause of that – and while I don’t believe it was, it did certainly reinforce it. Or another example, I called being a social butterfly ‘fellowship’ and while it’s true that I had more in common with people in the church (same background, for a start), it masked the fact something was missing. Deep chats are another. I’m a deep thinker. Talking with Christians about theology and the big questions was seen by others as ‘working out my faith’ as Ephesians says.

Again though. Christianity isn’t about any of these things, if these things don’t stem from a genuine connection with God.

Here’s what I did.I examined myself, to see whether I’m in the faith. I examined to find whether ‘Jesus was inside me,’ and I didn’t find him. That’s a direct quote from the bible, by the way.

Christians are worn out of hearing Luther’s justification by faith alone, in my opinion. It’s completely lost its power. It’s just been exhausted through countless sermons that don’t scratch the surface of what that means. How it’s taught is that we can’t work our way to heaven, but Jesus has done it all.

‘Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian’

  • ‘Got it.’

‘Taking communion doesn’t get you to heaven’

  • ‘Makes sense, who even believes that anyway?’

We’ve almost got to the point where Christians put no value on these things, and I think that’s a real shame. Because such acts are a great litmus test to examine oneself.

‘Jesus has done it all’ seems to be a clear truth laid out in the bible. But it shouldn’t be a replacement for examining to see whether he lives in you. What I mean by that is, asking yourself whether you have a genuine connection to God. It’s pretty clear that God is a person in orthodox Christian belief. If he’s a person, I should miss him when I don’t talk to him. If it’s really a ‘relationship’ (albeit a little different from human relationships), as we so often say, there’s got to be the potential for interaction, and feelings and emotions that are stirred up, not to mention knowing the other. Knowing what he’d do or say.

The point is that the more we talk about truth, not emotions or relationship, especially the truth that ‘Jesus has done it all,’ it can so easily lead people into a situation like I had.

You don’t have a genuine connection or relationship, but you’re told that the signs of a genuine relationship shouldn’t be relied upon because they wax and wane.

Whether that be actions that stem from genuine connection or an emotional response.

So for this first post, I guess my point is this. The bible is pretty clear that a relationship with God is primarily one of love.

The idea that we should somehow be ‘masters of the text’ is wholly misleading, or that Christians should be primarily scholars. The Pharisees were exactly that. Their faith was one that had its eyes focused on the Old Testament texts rather than on the person behind the texts. The exact problem Jesus had with the Pharisees is they knew the texts, but they didn’t know God.

And the idea that “the Word was God” has been skewed to mean people think they have a genuine connection to Jesus simply by enjoying reading the bible. I find that misses the point.

I’m all for a bible-based Christianity. Sola Scriptura and all that. It’s not about lessening the value of the bible, or making faith about something outside the bible. It’s not even that we don’t learn about God, let him speak to us, be corrected and have our beliefs shaped by the bible. We absolutely should.

It’s that the Christian faith is not an academic exercise. Loving reading the Word alone doesn’t make a Christian. I used to love reading. I had a brain; I was in university where figuring out the links and meaning behind a text was something that stimulated me.

The change I’d like to see is firstly that the conservative Evangelical church (especially) doesn’t continually tout the line of ‘emotions come and go, but truth is forever.’

No. A relationship with Godis what is forever. I do agree emotions can of course depend on your mood and many other factors, but that isn’t what defines a relationship with God.

If anything, what defines a relationship with God is that emotions grow, not come and go.

Perhaps wise introspection, prayer or admission might be more helpful than suppressing those doubts.

Secondly, let’s not encourage young Christians to become academics. Different people work in different ways, and I’m not a big reader. That admission alone provoked judging eyes in the church. How can you be a Christian without enjoying reading? Of course there are other ways of listening, hearing, talking about the bible without being a pen and paper square.

But the point here is that let’s focus on nurturing people’s relationship with God first and foremost. Encouraging them to discover both who God is and who they are. Such a relationship won’t look the same for everyone. The bible will be a big part of discovering who God is. But there’s so much more.

Bear with me. If I wrote you a letter telling you about my friend, you’d maybe know one or two things about him and have something to talk about if you ever met him. If I wrote you 50 letters, you’d begin to understand how he ticked. But don’t get me wrong, the first time you meet him it’ll still be awkward. Because you haven’t got to know the person, in the true sense of the word ‘know.’It’s true that with God, it’s less two-way. He already knows everything about you, which sure helps. But you get my point.

Be at ease with asking the kind of questions that go deeper than just ‘why am I not motivated to read my bible.’ Be prepared to ask yourself questions like, ‘Do I know God?’ ‘In what ways am I connecting/relating to him?’

Whatever you do. Don’t stop searching after him. Maybe you’ve ‘found’ him, but there’s more.

If that means realizing that you don’t know him really all that well, that’s OK. It’s better to have a more realistic view of yourself, be honest with you and Him, than to kid yourself that because you’ve memorized Ephesians 3 you stand any closer to heaven than the Christian who has trouble reading. You really, really don’t.

Last of all. Let’s be people who are driven by our heart not our head. We are not heady Christians. If your knowledge of God outweighs your love for Him, you have completely missed the point. Focus less on being the most intelligent, well read Christian in class. It won’t get you any closer to heaven than the rest of us. If anything, it might even blind you from what’s important and make you think you’re closer to Him than you are.

It’s what happened to me.