There are many reasons that people stop going to church. Reasons that people still inside the Church often don't seem to understand. Because of this, people can feel - or fear being - misunderstood, marginalised or otherwise maligned for leaving their faith community. The Church may not mean to treat people this way, nor is its intention for the most part to cause harm of any kind. Yet the experiences are many, varied and valid.
Maybe you felt like people didn't see you or hear you. Perhaps your search for connection and community was left unfulfilled. Maybe the ways that the church served its members and community had an underlying agenda that treated people as ministry opportunities more than people.
Perhaps you found that the relationships and community that developed around the sense of belonging to a church or adherence to particular doctrines were ultimately too superficial, and that once you left, the only communication you had with old friends, if any, was either of disapproval of your leaving and/or of praying for you to "come back to the faith".
Perhaps those in leadership took advantage of their positions of power and abused the more vulnerable people in their congregation in any number of ways. Maybe you disagreed with the political allegiances of the leadership. Maybe you were pushed out because of your sexuality, or your acceptance of someone else's.
Perhaps there was too great a discrepancy between what was taught in church and what you believed the Jesus of the gospels actually embodied. Potentially you just found too much inconsistency between what was taught on Sunday and how the church actually treated its members and the wider community. It's possible that your church was known more for who and what it was against than for love and service to all.
Perhaps you found that church attitudes were more about people having to accept the church and conforming to its beliefs, rather than the church truly getting to know the people and their beliefs. Maybe the church's vision of Jesus was more about Him (and the Church by proxy) being worshiped and served by people, than of Jesus rejoicing over and serving them.
Maybe you could no longer worship a god who had planned, no matter how lovingly, to punish the majority of his children for a condition that they were supposedly born with. How could you truly love a God who demanded love from you on the threat of eternal torment? Or enjoy an eternity of bliss knowing that loved ones, friends and neighbours were experiencing everlasting hellfire?
It could have been that your church's worldview disregarded the accepted science on the creation of the universe, climate change, sexuality or viral epidemics, putting many in harms way for the sake of "faith".
Any doubts or misgivings you may have had were possibly met with consternation and tired platitudes, rather than helpful spiritual guidance. You could have felt that your spiritual growth was being stifled and smothered, corralled and controlled, rather than encouraged to develop in its own way. Maybe you've felt like you have to go it alone. Or maybe you simply stopped believing in God altogether.
If any of this resonates with you, the next step has no doubt been quite disconcerting. It can be tough to let go of something that has been such an ingrained and integral part of your life. Taking such a big step into the unknown that is life without church can be like stepping into a void of fear and doubt. Not many of us take this step lightly. What is life supposed to look like when it no longer revolves around church?
If I've learned anything through my own experience, it is that this void of uncertainty is not a void of nothingness, as much as it may seem at the time. It is a void of ultimate potential, of growth, of development towards deeper understandings of life, love and the cosmos.
Some who have taken the step of faith into the void continue to use "God" as the name for the deeper reality beyond what they had always known. Others do not - or choose other words entirely. But if God truly is the God Who Is Love, then this Love is not offended by the names we use to describe the ineffability of the Divine nature.
Take heart. This void is not the end. Yes, maybe of life as you once knew it, but if the Bible tells us anything, it is that chaos and order, black and white, life, death and resurrection all intrinsically work together, entwining with and interdepending on each other to create increasingly more complex, colourful and beautiful expressions of incarnation.
Maybe you will return to church with a newfound understanding of faith. Or maybe you will embrace a wholly newfound expression of connection to the Divine. Maybe God will no longer mean anything to you at all, even in the midst of a deeper appreciation of humanity and its place in the universe. Perhaps life will begin to look like something different entirely.
But whatever happens, give yourself grace for every step of the journey; even if others don't. Learn to accept and love what IS - in THIS moment - as well as what once was. Be mindful of not becoming embittered, but trust the creative process that you are now going through: the uncertainty of Easter Saturday, the Spirit hovering over the chaotic waters of creation, the silence between the Old and New Testaments.
You are right where you need to be. And all is well with the world. You are not alone.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft