The way we treat deserters

“You can tell a lot about a place by the way they treat their own ….
The way they treat their own deserters.”

David Bridie, ‘The Deserters’

She is walking away

Statistics (see below) show that a significant number of people, active church members and apparently believers, are leaving their churches and in many cases leaving the faith. In a sense (from an insider’s viewpoint) they are like David Bridie’s deserters.

What can people tell about us by the way we treat our deserters?

A case study

Nate is an atheist who only a few years ago was a believer and a member of an evangelical church. He blogs at Finding Truth and, despite the fact that we have strong disagreements over many things, he has become a friend. And he has an interesting story to tell.

In Missing the Point he reports that since he left his church and the christian faith “my immediate family no longer associates with me or my wife because we left the church”. He goes on to say:

“When I left the church, I was very open about why I was leaving, and I was more than willing to talk to anyone who wanted to convince me I was wrong. …. I was surprised at how many people declined to talk to me. …. in Jesus’ Great Commission, Christians are told to spread the word. Shouldn’t they have been pursuing me for a discussion, instead of it being the other way around?”

At the same time, in Perhaps an apology is in order, he balances the ledger by pointing out that there were some christians who persevered with him, even though the discussion was painful, for which he is very thankful.

He’s not alone

I have heard of ex-christians who have kind words for their former fellow-christians who have continued to love them and be friends.

But more often I have heard stories which followed a similar pattern to the negative responses Nate received. Ex-christians are sometimes seen as deserters who have turned their back on God, salvation and their fellow believers. Sometimes the most difficult part for new unbelievers is telling their family. Some even hide their doubts because they work for a church and don’t know where to go next (I know of several in this position).

And I have observed some nasty insults and demeaning put-downs by christians on the internet – as if that is likely to encourage a return!

Why is it like this?

I will show you a better way

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says his better way is the way of love – not keeping an account of wrongs, but showing patience, kindness and perseverance.

Let us avoid being clanging gongs, as Paul describes, but let us remember that God loves each ‘deserter’ and has shown us that a good shepherd is willing to go to great lengths to care for a straying sheep (Luke`15:1-7). Let us make sure we don’t put people in categories like ‘deserter’ or ‘enemy’, and react to them accordingly. Let us not allow our disappointment or sense of betrayal to move us from the path of love.

Rather, we might respect their choice as an honest expression of where they’re at, disagree with them politely but not preach at them, maintain the friendship, and pray for them to find stronger reasons to return. Let our churches be places that treat our ‘deserters’ with compassion.

Besides, the statistics also show that many who ‘deconvert’ later come back to faith. Let’s not make that harder than it needs to be. Rather, let’s pray that their departure is a temporary step that leads to a stronger understanding in the future.


  • A 2011 US Gallup poll showing that the percentage of theists dropped from 98% to 92% in 44 years, while the number of non-theists grew by the same amount, from 1% to 7%. With more than 200 million adults, that 6% represents about 12 million people.
  • A 2008 UK study which showed that the number of people converting from atheism is almost as many as the number deconverting.
  • A 2009 US study showing that many people change their religious beliefs several times in their lives, with “most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another”.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. This was a great post, unklee. And thanks so much for writing about it, and for using some of my posts in the process. I too, consider you a friend. 🙂

  2. Unklee – as you know I have been asking some of the awkward questions to which there are no easy answers, for a very long time. I found the article, “What I actually believe” and at the same time as I read a comment on Facebook suggesting that we can sometimes be too blunt. The two things together encouraged me to rewrite the introduction to my blog and rename it.
    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  3. Thanks to you too Nate.
    G’day Peter, thanks for dropping by. I agree with a lot of what you say on your blog. I’m sorry about your friend Dave, I think he and I also would have a lot in common. If I have any more to say, I’ll make comments on your blog. Best wishes.

  4. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I’m sure you’re right. I guess the differences are (1) I’m a christian so I’m most concerned that christians behave well, (2) christianity is more of a movement than atheism is, so the effects may be more pronounced.

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