It’s not a secret that young adults are leaving the church and, in many cases, leaving faith as well. Yet, the numbers only show the big picture, not the stories of the individuals. The lives of those individuals have changed from being one where faith is a central component to one where faith is merely a side project, if existent. And I can’t help thinking that those stories of faith slowly fading, of wrestling with pain, or of doubt creeping in and taking over don’t happen overnight. So where are the people reaching out to the real, living, breathing people who are experiencing these realities?
I once heard a story of someone being at a pier where people were jumping into the water. Suddenly, the screams of delight ceased as people began to notice a young woman struggling in the water. Shouts came from the pier encouraging the woman to swim harder and to keep kicking and telling her she was getting closer to the ladder. Someone dove in to help her, and they both climbed out of the water to safety. But in those tense moments before that person jumped in, the noise was all directed at the woman in distress. Meanwhile, in the water itself, silence reigned.
As the people around us—our friends, family members, coworkers, acquaintances—begin to struggle with faith, what do our responses look like? Are we standing on the pier shouting, “Read your Bible” and “Pray more” and “Go to church,” or are we willing to dive in for the difficult, slow work of helping someone sort through their faith? Are our friendships, our churches, our Christian communities, safe spaces for people to ask the hard questions without being thrown easy answers, or worse, being ridiculed and dismissed? Theories and solutions for how to reach the religiously unaffiliated abound. While there’s certainly merit to some of them, many miss the fact that these are individuals not statistics. Each person has their own unique path of how they got to where they are, and each person has their own possible way to return and be encouraged to continue on the journey of faith. Sweeping generalizations can be helpful, but we have to be willing to set them aside at some point and concentrate on the specific individuals we actually know and care about as people.
I think of how Jesus did his ministry. He spoke to many crowds, but the majority of his time was spent with his twelve disciples and a few select others. His disciples didn’t “get it” for a long time, not understanding who Jesus was or what he had truly come to do. Even as Jesus’ death was near, Peter, one of Jesus’ “inner circle,” denied even knowing him. Yet, Jesus didn’t cast him off as soon as that happened. Jesus knew that coming to faith and staying in faith required more than hearing a sermon in a crowded sanctuary—it required relationship.
I’ve often wondered if the disciples had a hard time believing that Jesus really was who he said he was, especially after he was no longer with them in bodily form. This guy they had just devoted several years of their life following was now gone from the earth and had left them the gargantuan task of spreading his word to the ends of the earth. Yet, the disciples persisted. I like to image that they came alongside each other as they questioned, doubted, and worked through what faith needed to look like now that Jesus was no longer with them the way he had been before.
This is our task, too—to build relationships and communities that have space for the stories and the questions of those who aren’t certain of where they stand with Jesus. There are no guarantees. No matter how welcoming and compassionate our friendships and faith communities are, some people, whether through conscious choice or a slow fading, will leave. Yet even then, that doesn’t give us a pass to drop out of their lives. Preaching words they’ve heard before may not be effective, and there are no guarantees they’ll ever come back to faith—but that doesn’t mean we disappear from their side, leaving them to find their way through life alone. We may mourn that someone no longer ascribes to the same beliefs we do, but we shouldn’t have to simultaneously mourn the loss of our relationship with them.
People who are drowning in faith may need a life raft thrown to them, but even more effective is someone to come alongside them and stay alongside them as they work their way through the questions. It’s not that we have the power to save people, as much as we might want to do that–ultimately, God is the only one who works in someone’s life to direct, or redirect them to a true, thriving relationship with him. But we can listen, love, and share the work God has done in our own lives, and maybe those stories can bring hope to someone else.