Recent conversations have burned poignant impressions onto my spirit. They reflect an issue we’d rather not acknowledge: People who walk away from faith—or at least from the faithful—late in life.
American Christians have made a huge fuss over the increasing proportion of our population called Nones, who claim no religious affiliation or faith identification. But my conversations focused on friends more accurately considered Dones, who followed Jesus most of their lives but now are done with Christ, or at least his church.
That final distinction is important, because I’m not so sure my friends are as jaundiced about Jesus as they are fed up with his followers.
In one case, my friend still maintains a relationship with Christ but, for the most part, is repelled by Christians and their churches. In the other case, my friend has just about dropped out of church completely and is “not so sure about the Jesus thing,” but still seems interested in an authentic community of Jesus’ followers, if only she could find one.
New twist on ongoing trend
The mid- to late-life trend away from church has been going on at least as long as Baby Boomers have been reaching mid- to late-life. Ever the consumers, many thousands of Boomers used the church to help them raise their kids. Churches that emphasized excellent facilities and programming for children and youth reaped great rewards.
But when the final teen graduated from high school, Mom and Dad graduated from church. Free from ongoing parental constraints, they began traveling on weekends. Maybe it started with a quick getaway, or perhaps a trip to see the kids in college. Soon, they lost the habit of participating in church. Besides, they already got what they thought they needed.
That’s a practical, utilitarian loss. The parents traded regular attendance, and maybe even decent investment and supportive leadership in the church, in return for getting Bubba and Missy through high school in relatively decent shape. Transaction over.
What I’m concerned about is deeper, and it feels more tragic. This is the loss of faithful, thoughtful people whose Christian faith, at least at one time, centered their lives—such as my friends. Now, they may be conflicted about Jesus, but they’re certain they don’t want to be constrained by Christians.
While I would be sad if this only happened to my friends, I wouldn’t be broadly concerned. But it’s more widespread. Many pastors can name the formerly faithful who just walked away. They decided not to be part of the fellowship anymore. Maybe they still care about a relationship with Jesus; maybe they don’t. (For the record, this does not include homebound who would attend if only they were able.)
Taking a toll
Why this happens is as unique and individualized and, frankly, as random as the former believers themselves. So, generalizations may not help much, but here are some observations ….
First, the effects of aging accumulate, whether it happens to cars or people. The dents, dings, scratches, and wear and tear add up. For vehicles, those literally are dents, dings, scratches, and wear and tear. For people, they are heartaches, disappointments, tragedies, illnesses and shortcomings. They take their toll—physically, emotionally and, eventually, spiritually.
Some people see God working through all the challenges and obstacles of life. For them, setbacks lead to perseverance, which refines and strengthens their faith. But other people sense God’s absence during such episodes. And so every incident of devastation deepens their level of doubt. Eventually, they’re so far down a spiritual hole, they can’t see any light.
Similarly, some folks can’t get over other people. Often, it’s easy to confuse Jesus with his followers. We talk about the church being the Body of Christ. We talk about being the presence of Christ in the world. But even though we’re redeemed, Christians still are people. Human, fallible, weak, sinful people. We mess up, and when we do, we hurt people. And some see this as God hurting people, God letting people down.
Hypocrisy is an example of this. But so is heartlessness. Rigidity and rule-following for rule’s sake. Sanctimony and overt piety. And the simpler, but no less cruel, slights of ignorance, selfishness, guile, gossip and cold standoffishness.
Also, people walk away when the church contrasts poorly with the rest of the world. This bumps up against social issues that dominate discussion these days. Quite often, the church plays the hard-hearted older brother to the world’s prodigal son. No sense of empathy, just judgmentalism. No expression of joy, only disdain.
So, sensitive Christians who have been part of church and immersed in its culture for decades find themselves embarrassed and ashamed—for and by their fellow Christians. They get tired and ask why they want to be associated with such an outfit anymore. And they walk away.
This tragedy does not lend itself to simple solutions. We could hope a lifetime of Christianity would provide all of Jesus’ followers with the resources to withstand onslaughts to faith. But we live in a broken world, and that’s not always the case.
Loss of faith late in life should remind us not to take one another for granted. We need each other, and we need to walk alongside each other, especially in the hard, dispiriting times.
We need to look out for the lonely and alone, even in our midst. We must pray for eyes to see, because looking past them is easier than seeing them. To use a biblical image, the sheep who get separated from the flock are most susceptible to getting lost or being attacked by predators.
We must labor to live our faith authentically and to insist on integrity and transparency from one another. Putting a cosmetic cover over faulty faith to show a pretty face to the world is dishonest. But it also does irreparable harm to those inside the church, who see behind the façade and grow to doubt the authenticity of any manifestation of faith.
Mostly, we must practice compassion and care for one another. We all need the love of faithful, tender hearts, the care of Christians who put others before self.
Follow Marv on Twitter, @marvknoxbs