by Mikal Keefer
Spoiler alert: Stephanie goes to church weekly—but only because she’s paid to be there.
She works at a health care facility. Because one of the residents likes church and Stephanie grew up going, she loads Dave and his wheelchair into a van and takes him.
She tolerates the music and occasionally considers the sermon. “But only when the English pastor speaks,” she says. “He’s funny, and his accent makes everything he says sound smarter.”
Stephanie walked away from church after a middle school youth leader invited her into a leadership development program.
“She asked that we confide in her so she could disciple us,” says Stephanie. Though she’s now 24, the pain in Stephanie’s voice as she describes what happened is still fresh.
“I did as she asked, telling her what I was thinking and feeling.”
But then several other girls in the program ridiculed Stephanie for what she’d shared in confidence. The youth leader had been “sharing” Stephanie’s secrets so others could learn from her mistakes.
“I felt betrayed—I was betrayed—and that soured the whole church thing for me,” says Stephanie.
The truth is Stephanie actually misses church. If not church itself, she misses the sense of community that comes with finding a home, friends, and a shared interest. She’s all about that and hasn’t lost her taste for spirituality.
So sooner or later Stephanie—or someone like her—will dip her toe back in the water and visit you on a Sunday morning.
What will you say to her?
Knowing Stephanie as I do, and having gotten her permission to share her story, let me offer three suggestions:
- Don’t talk—listen. She’s not interested in the distinctives of your theology. She wants—she needs—to tell you her story. And she needs to see you lean in and listen…probably several times.
- Give it time. Like many who’ve exited the church, Stephanie left because she experienced pain there. Let her come back gradually, as she feels comfortable and trusts you. Don’t push.
- See number one. Stephanie doesn’t need a pep talk, she needs to feel safe. Correcting her thinking, behavior, or beliefs in an effort to assure she’s walking the straight and narrow won’t accomplish that.
Take a page from Jesus’ playbook: Honor her heart, love her, and she’ll decide on her own to let God sand off her rough edges. Let God’s love—through you—draw her closer to God.
I hope Stephanie visits you soon. In fact, I pray for that—often.
Because Stephanie is my daughter.
For more stories from people who’ve decided they’re done with church, read Church Refugees by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.