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.