Faith needs nurturing to remain alive; otherwise, it will be cut out
I know that elders spend much of their time praying for and trying to reach people who have left the church. Sometimes those people have lost their faith. Sometimes they have moved on to some other religious group where they feel more comfortable with worship and acceptance. Sometimes these people have been hurt by other believers, and so they are looking for space away from their hurt.
My colleague and former student Brian Simmons wrote a book this year about Falling Away (HillCrest, 2006). Brian tells many stories about people of his generation and about his students who represent a younger generation. He shares useful information about apostasy, and his book can be very helpful to any person who seeks to know why churches are losing precious souls who have once believed but no longer believe in God.
I found his myths about falling away useful for organizing my understanding of this process:
Myth 1: Falling away is a simple thing.
Myth 2: People run away from God.
Myth 3: People falling away consider themselves apostates.
Myth 4: People fall away because of doctrinal disagreement.
Twenty years ago I would have taken issue with the notion that these are myths. Now I understand that these are hardly ever the reasons why people fall away from a faith that they had once made their own. I have always known that falling away was a complex thing, and behind each fall is a story of hurt, disappointment, betrayal or changing values.
From my vantage point as an elder in a large church near a university campus, I think that a marriage problem eventually turns into a faith problem. If a young couple discover that they are not living “happily ever after,” they may be disillusioned about the faith that brought them together. A separation and divorce usually mean that one or both will stop attending church and will eventually decide to live a secular life or seek another kind of Christian fellowship.
If the problem in a marriage includes infidelity, the guilty person usually will drop out of sight from assemblies and even friends who shared their faith. Often the person who has been faithful will become angry with the church leaders because they did not act promptly and decisively to rebuke or punish the offender. And they leave the church that they think also has been unfaithful to them.
Young people who go into the military are fairly likely to experience training and lifestyles that weaken their connection to church and their faith in God. The people I have seen go into the military have either returned to civilian life with no faith at all or they come out with unshakeable faith because they have learned to trust God totally.
I know that the coming of children to a family is often a time of pressures: Parents are too tired to attend church and too stressed out to take the kids into public. New parents who are too busy with new responsibilities for spiritual study and prayer gradually die to the Lord.
The whole world has recognized that an empty nest is not as ideal as younger couples expect it to be. Lots of couples have nothing to hold them together, and so they end a 25-year relationship. I have observed that many couples send their last child off to college and they begin to be less involved with the church and those whose faith has encouraged them.
What I think is important for our faith is serious discipline in communicating with God. We must pray regularly and seriously. We need to take our praise and our needs to God, and we need to do that with others whom we respect and love. As a church leader, I am really concerned about being sure that all church members are connected to other believers. We need brothers and sisters whom we trust and can depend on throughout our lives.
Falling away will continue as long as time goes on. We should never assume that it can’t happen to us or to those we love. Churches must create communities that nurture and encourage serious spiritual growth and development. We must constantly seek patterns of fellowship and worship that keep people connected to each other and to God. We should be praying daily for all our Christian friends because Satan is out to wreck faith.
Oct. 1, 2006