There are people who hear my story and wonder, “How are you still in church? How are you still a Christian? Most people would have walked away and never looked back.”

If you know my (and my wife’s) story, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, that’s not for today. Suffice it to say that there was a point in our lives when we were hurt by the people we looked up to the most. When we need them, our friends turned their backs on us and adults in the church talked crap about us. They made it painfully obvious that we weren’t welcome.

It would have been so easy to give up. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some of my friends who, seeing the way we were treated, walked away from the church knowing that we were just one more example of judgment and condemnation where there should have been mercy and grace.

But we didn’t leave. We never left.

The reality is that people are leaving the church. They are walking out the doors and never coming back. And they aren’t just leaving the church, they’re leaving their faith in Christ. The reasons are nearly endless:
-The politicization of the pulpit
-The oppressive treatment of women
-The pitiful track record with issues of race
-The judgment and ostracism of the LGBT community
-The bait-and-switch that comes from growing up in youth group and then having to be a part of “big church”
-The enticing offers of the secular world
-The anti-science position of many religious leaders
-Ongoing coverups of sexual abuse

I could go on, but you get the point.

It used to be that young people would leave church during their college and young adult years, but they would come back after a time because they wanted their kids to be raised in church. That is increasingly not the case. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

My goal in this post is not to sound alarmist or overly pessimistic. In fact, people have been turning their backs on Jesus almost from the beginning.

There’s this weird scene in John 6. Jesus had just fed 5,000 men with just five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The crowds wanted to make him king by force, but he never sought out political power. He and his disciples left the crowds behind, but they kept on following him.

Jesus could tell that they were just after a free meal, they wanted to see more miracles, they wanted a show. But instead, he told them, “Eat me” (my paraphrase).

Literally. This is where he has that whole discussion with them about how he is the bread of life. He is the manna, the bread of heaven. His flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. Jesus tells them, “Eat me.” And they were like, “I’m out.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
(John 6:66-69)

Let’s just be honest. There are times that it is hard to be a Christian. Full transparency, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to count myself among the Christian community I see on Twitter and Facebook. If that’s the best that Evangelicalism has to offer, I’m out, too.

But Peter’s faith wasn’t in the church. It wasn’t in the crowds. It wasn’t in the religious establishment or the government or political parties. Peter’s faith was in Christ.

People suck. Nobody would have blamed us if we had just walked away after high school. We wanted to. There are people we still don’t want to talk to. There are churches we still don’t want to go back to. But we had to learn early on that our faith is in Christ, not the church. People can say and do the worst things. Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more.”

Crowds are fickle. People waffle. If all our preachers taught like Jesus, there might not be any people left in the pews. He seemed to intentionally drive people away.

He told us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

He told us that lusting after women was as bad as sleeping with them.

He told us that being angry with a brother put us on the same level as a murderer.

He told us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.

He told us to turn the other cheek when someone slaps us.

He told us that it’s nearly impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

He told us that we can’t serve both God and possessions.

He told us that we can’t rely on our own good deeds in order to get into heaven.

He told us that if we follow him, we better be ready to die.

He told us that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven in front of the religious establishment.

He actively turned people away who wanted to follow him. Not because he didn’t want them, but because they didn’t truly want HIM.

One of my professors at Harding drove this into us – “What we win them with is what we win them to.” It would have been incredibly easy for Jesus to win people over with miracles and healings and free food. But Jesus was calling them (and us) to something much deeper, something much more radical.

When I see the statistics about people leaving the church and the rise of those who check “None” on the census question about religion, I have one question.

What did we win them with in the first place?

Are we winning them with flashy lights and a professional worship band?
Are we winning them with lock-ins and trips to amusement parks?
Are we winning them with games and gossip sessions?
Are we winning them with “we’re right and everyone else is wrong?”
Are we winning them with shame, guilt, and threats of eternal damnation?

When I needed it the most, I didn’t find love, grace, forgiveness, and support in my church. But I did find it in Christ. I found it in John 8 and John 4 and Luke 7 and John 21.

My faith is not in the church or in religion. My faith is in Christ. Where else could I go? He has the words of eternal life. And now I want nothing more than to share those words of life with others, so that they can find grace and love and acceptance and forgiveness in the church.

If you’ve walked away from it all, would you consider coming back to Jesus?

If you’re on the brink, just know that you’re not going to find what you need out there somewhere. The world, as we’ve seen, can be every bit as quick to condemn as the church.

Let’s talk. Let me introduce you to the Jesus I know.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”