I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too. At the time, it seems right.
Now I’ve received it. Multiple times. Maybe you’ve received one or two yourself.
I’m talking about The Email. You know the one. The one you send to That Person who’s not in church anymore.
You start off with nice friendly normal stuff. Then you let them know you heard about their new status and that you understand but are sad, give them some words of love to show them you don’t judge them and finish off by Leaving The Door Open just in case they ever want a Way Back In.
There’s something you don’t know about these emails though. I’m sure to hear it would break your heart.
What you don’t know is that on the other end of your niceness is a person whose heart has been bruised and day has been ruined.
I used to be a Pastor at an evangelical church in Australia. Now I’m not.
I’m not even a Christian.
It’s a long story that is taking a surprisingly long while to disseminate through the Christian acquaintances I used to have. It’s been three years now since I left but about this time last year, I got an email from a childhood friend who, I’ll admit, has always been made of much sweeter stuff than I.
She began with some niceties and then mentioned that she had read a few entries on my blog after seeing them on her Facebook feed.
Here’s the rest of it:
“To be completely honest with you, I was devastated to read about your “Coming Out Of The Closet” and no longer believing in God. You and I had similar upbringings and even chose the same path of bible college and becoming a Pastor. After reading your sudden thoughts on Christianity and God, my heart was saddened and I have felt sad all week just thinking about you. How could this happen? Why would it happen? Should I say something or just mind my own business? This message is not to judge or condemn you but to once again offer my hand of friendship. I don’t expect a reply or for you to change your new way of thinking and please know that my intentions are not to preach at you.”
If in the years to come the choices you’re making for your new life no longer bring you joy, and that feeling of loneliness is starting to eat away at your heart, where you suddenly realise that no matter how far away you travel you still can’t find what you’re looking for, please know that on the South Coast of NSW a childhood friend would love to take you out for a drink.”
Normally with these emails I just say ‘Thank you so much’ and let the person get on with their life. I understand where they’re coming from; they feel like they’ve done what they needed to do by reaching out to me and I know they’ll never get in touch again after the one message so… a polite nothing response is the win-win situation.
Behind my polite response though, my adrenaline is pumping. I feel sick in my stomach. It makes me want to lie down with the lights off.
I wish she had just never even bothered to send the email.
Why? I ask myself. “Why do I get so angry about emails like this? Just reply, say thanks and move on.’
But I do. So this time (I get these sort of emails quite a bit) I thought I’d try an experiment.
What I did was, I took her phrases and substituted her beliefs about the lifestyle I currently live, with my beliefs about the lifestyle she currently lives.
It ended up as a reply email that contained – between niceties – the following:
“To be completely honest I hate receiving emails like yours mostly because I used to send them to people myself so I know how you’re feeling and that really at your core you want me to believe again in Jesus. It sends my stomach curling because just as strongly I want you to discover this wonderful new world I live in now. I wandered around the kitchen this morning wondering, Why are people so happy to interpret their life experiences only by what they were taught as a child? How can people believe a story they’ve never actually checked out for themselves is true?
If in years to come, you decide to explore the world and make a decision about what is truth for yourself and you discover that there’s actually a lot more you were never told and that realisation that its possible you may only believe what you believe because you were taught it as a child sends your world topsy-turvy, please know that on the South coast of Spain (or whichever country I happen to be living in) a childhood friend would love to take you out for a drink.”
Then I hit send without re-reading.
Yeah, I should know this by now – never hit send without re-reading.
Because the next day, I felt sick . I would never ever in a million years send such an email to someone, even though technically I agree with everything I said. I would never attack someone’s intelligence or ability to make life decisions so directly, encased as it is in an offer of friendship and expression of empathy.
It made me realise why receiving nice emails from nice Christians always makes me so angry.
It’s because they’re offensive.
It feels good to admit that. Sometimes it’s hard to say because I know the writer means well. I know it’s from a place in their heart that is all sugar puffs and cotton candy and wanting to offer love and grace and way of acceptance back into the house of the Lord if ever I need it.
Unfortunately that doesn’t stop it tasting like rotten egg. Or causing a reaction more akin to having been slapped in the face instead of soothingly invited back into a welcoming community.
The question is, why, when the writer means to be so nice, are these emails so offensive?
How could an email reestablishing contact with someone who has left the faith be written in a way that actually… well, reestablishes contact instead of just hurting them and redoubling their intentions to never return?
From my experiences on both sides of the email writing and email reading scenario, in my opinion, it all comes down to assumptions. Assumptions made by people and subtly expressed through the choice of words if not outright mentioned.
Here they are:
— – — –
3 Assumptions Christians Make About Backsliders That Make Connecting Emails Offensive
1. A backslider is (or soon will be) unhappy / lonely / scared / depressed / hating life…
A little after receiving this email, I went to a yoga class for the first time in about 9 months. Lying in savasana at the end of the class, I had a flashback to my first few months of yoga classes years ago as a Christian. I would lie on the ground at the end, eyes closed, body straight out, hands by my side and cry.
Cry for what reason I didn’t know at the time but it couldn’t be stopped. It was always as if the stretching had squeezed the crying out of my muscles. I would stuff the weeping feeling back down into my chest when it was time to go home and do it again the next session.
Lying on the ground in the duskiness again, I mentally ran a comparison of myself in savasana now against the memory of those first savasanas. Peace. Wholeness. Not a drop of weeping or emotional instability.
Despite losing my career, the respect of most of my friends, my home and large swathes of my identity, not to mention purpose in life, I was – and still am – the happiest and most stable I’ve ever been.
It’s not a phase. I am better this way. This is me on the other end of a conversion experience.
Christians want to believe that people who leave God behind are, or will be, unhappy. They think that, in time, their life will come to a point where their ‘new life no longer brings them joy’ and they will be ‘crying out in loneliness’.
This just isn’t the case.
Some people become happier discovering Jesus and many people become happier by losing Jesus.
It’s offensive to assume that someone is unhappy because they have left the church. It’s downright sadistic to assume that because of that decision they will someday be depressed and lonely.
If you’re writing a message to someone who’s recently left church/God, don’t assume they are or soon will be regretting that decision.
2. A backslider is on a journey searching for something
The assumption here is that I left church because it wasn’t fulfilling a need.
Apparently I’m looking for something to fill me up and I think I can probably find it somewhere else. Of course, Christians know that eventually I’ll realise it was under my nose in Christianity the whole time and just needed a ‘journey’ to realise this.
Firstly, I was really happy as a Christian. So happy in fact, I pretended to be one for a long time when I really wasn’t – even to myself – just to keep enjoying the experience of being one!
I didn’t leave Christianity because I wanted more from life. I left Christianity because it didn’t make sense.
Secondly, that thought pattern just doesn’t make sense. The first time I really allowed myself to think whether Christianity might not be true, I laughed and shook my head. Life just didn’t exist for me outside of Christianity.
If I did leave it because I felt I was missing something, what are the chances it was actually under my nose the whole time? Wouldn’t this be something wrong with Christianity, not me?
If you’re writing a letter to someone who has left church, please, you know it all and they’ll eventually realise how right you were. ‘On a journey’ is a condescending way of saying ‘Eventually coming around to my way of thinking…’ and that’s just arrogant.
3. I have had negative experiences from the church that made me turn away from God
This one wasn’t in my friend’s email above but is often in emails from people who knew me at the church I was a Pastor at. Bottom line is, a lot of people leave that church because of the way they were treated.
Not for me though. Sure, I look back on stuff now and think ‘that was messed up’. At the time I didn’t agree with everything that was going on, but that was the never the driving force behind questioning God.
I was always taught that God and Church are separate and I always considered them so. I never let my opinion about what people in the church did right or wrong form my opinion of whether God is real or not.
I began questioning God when I was most happy with the church and my role in it. I began questioning because I wanted to be more involved and more full of faith than I was. Not because I was hurt.
Don’t assume that the person has ‘taken offence’ and that’s why they’ve left church.
Some, actually most, of us left cos we allowed our brains to question things.
— – —
Mostly, these assumptions hurt my feelings because they insult my intelligence. It’s assumed that, at the core of it, it can’t possibly be that I decided not to be a Christian, in full and sound mind because of plausible, logical reasons that also at the same time made me feel good and right.
More than anything, I want to communicate to this person – to all people who email me – that they’ve got me totally wrong.
But that never happens because in reality they’re not interested in understanding me or getting answers to the questions ‘how did this happen and why?’ They just want to express their opinion and let me know they are waiting for my life to fall apart so I can agree with how they think again.
Newsflash: This doesn’t work.
If you have questions like ‘How could this happen?’ and ‘Why would it happen’… ASK! Just ask questions if you really want to know. I would have happily told my friend how it happened.
You don’t need to have answers. You’re just trying to connect anyway. At least asking questions would have given her an opportunity to connect with me, something that would seem a prerequisite to a drink if I was ever feeling low and like I needed God again.
What’s most incredible about this story is that I just went to check out my friend’s Facebook wall to see what she’s up to.
I can’t anymore. She unfriended me.
So I guess that drink is off the cards. Sadly, I doubt either of us would’ve taken up the other’s offer anyway.Read More
Gah! That moment when you lose your keys! Or think you’ve left your wallet somewhere… or throw your iPhone into a rubbish bin. *cough cough*
Maybe you’ve never had that last one happen to you but I’m sure you know the feeling of searching. The feeling of not having something that you need and there’s no immediate way to grasp it. Keys are just the beginning. Jobs. Boyfriends. Answers.
After years of searching, first for approval, then love, then answers, I thought I was all done! Until I realised I still had searching for myself, meaning of life and purpose to go!! So by now searching and its tensions are pretty familiar to me. I think we’re always Searching for Something on some level. And you know, actually, I’ve learned to appreciate it.
There’s something about The Search, the openness, vulnerability and instability of it that makes me feel alive. It reminds me that there’s something more for me in the future than what I have at present. The Search Is Hope.
Still, it’s uncomfortable. And it can jiggle your world in sometimes unsustainable ways. When the uncomfortableness of a Search gets too much, we tend to grasp at anything. A job we don’t really want. A person who’s not quite right. An answer, a group or a meaning that just bandaids the yawning questions.
Here is how I’ve learned to release the tension of searching, just for a while, so my heart can relax for a moment. Use a combination of these things to give your heart a break from the tension of searching, so you can muster the courage to continue all the way to the end… all the way to the place you were really looking for.Read More