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Why Our Christians Friends Leave Us When We Deconvert

church is a family

One thing being a part of a church does for us is give us a community through which we find meaning, purpose, and identity. I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. For many years, I attended church twice on Sunday and on Wednesdays for prayer meeting. These church families I was a part of were central to my life. Most of my friendships were developed in connection with the church and my work as a pastor. I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I developed scores of friendships, not only with congregants but also with colleagues in the ministry. As a pastor, I would attend pastor’s conferences and meetings. It was at these meetings that I had opportunities to talk with my preacher friends, sharing with them my “burdens.”  We would laugh, cry and pray together, knowing that the bond we had as fellow followers of Jesus and God-called preachers of the gospel was rooted in loving each other as Christ Jesus loved us.  A handful of preachers became close, intimate friends with my wife and me. Our families would get together for food, fun, and fellowship — hallmarks of Baptist intimacy. We saw vulnerabilities in each other that our congregants never would. We could confide in each other, seeking advice on how to handle this or that problem or church member. When news of church difficulties came our way, we would call each other, or take each other out for lunch. These fellow men of God were dear to my heart, people that I expected to have as friends until I died.

As a teenager, I had lots of friends, male and female. Most of my friends were fellow church members, though I did have a few friends in the “world.” I always found it easy to meet new people and make friendships. I had no qualms about talking to complete strangers, a gift that suited me well as a pastor. As a nineteen-year-old boy, I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. I quickly made a lot of new friends, including one who sleeps beside me to this day. I lived in a dorm room with three other men. Virtually every waking hour of my life was spent with fellow students — at church, school, and social events. As anyone who has ever lived in a college dormitory will tell you, dorm life is busy and full of activity. Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence, and, as an expert joker, I found great satisfaction in pulling one over on my fellow students. I lived on a dormitory wing that was labeled the “party” wing. The other dormitory wing was called the “spiritual” wing. My fellow party-wing residents loved Jesus, but they loved having a good time too. The spiritual wing? They loved Jesus too, but frowned on doing anything that might be perceived as bawdy or mischievous.

One day, a pastor by the name of A.V. Henderson preached at chapel (students were required to attend chapel five days a week). I have preached and heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime. I remember very few of them. I do, however, vividly remember Henderson’s sermon, even forty years later. Henderson was the pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Detroit. Temple was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) megachurch founded by Baptist luminary J. Frank Norris and later pastored by G.B. Vick. The 1970s were the zenith of the IFB church movement. Most of the largest churches in the United States were IFB churches. Churches such as Temple Baptist were pastored by men who were great orators and pulpiteers. Henderson was no exception. Henderson’s chapel sermon was from the book of Job. It was, by all counts, a thrilling, rousing sermon. However, Henderson said something during his sermon that I didn’t, at the time, understand. He said, with that distinct Texas drawl of his, that people will go through life with very few true friendships; that most people were fortunate to have two or three lifelong friends. I thought at the time, what’s he talking about? I have lots of friends! Forty years later, I now know that A.V. Henderson was right; that true friends are rare indeed; that if you have two or three such friends, you should consider yourself fortunate.

Next Sunday, it will be nine years since I last attended church; nine years since I have listened to preaching; nine years since I have sung the hymns of the faith; nine years since I have dropped money in an offering plate; nine years since I broke bread with people I considered my family. In early 2009, I sent a letter to my family and friends detailing my loss of faith. You can read the letter here — Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. I grossly underestimated how people would respond to my letter. In a matter of days, I received angry, venomous emails, letters, and phone calls. One ministerial colleague drove four hours to my home, hoping to turn me back towards the faith. You can read the letter I sent to him here — Dear Friend. I was shocked by how hateful and vitriolic my friends were to me. And here I am nine years later, and I still, on occasion, hear from someone who knew me and is shocked over my betrayal of all that I once held dear.

The friendships of a lifetime are now gone — all of them, save my friendship with an Evangelical man I have known for fifty-two years (we walked to elementary school together). A.V. Henderson’s words ring true. I have one friend who has walked with me through every phase of my life. The rest of my “true” friends have written me off (2 Corinthians 6:14), kicked the dirt off their shoes (Mark 6:10, 11), or turned me over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (I Corinthians 5). I was naive to think that it could be any other way.

Many people believe in unconditional love. I know, at one time, I did. I have learned, however, that unconditional love is largely a myth. (Please read Does God Love Us Unconditionally?) Unconditional love suggests that nothing we do to those we love can break the bond we have with them. Many people carry the notion of unconditional love into their friendships. We think, these people love me, no matter what. They will always be my friends. And then something happens. In my case, I spit in the face of God, pissed on the blood of Jesus, and used the pages of the Bible to wipe my ass, so to speak. I repudiated everything I once believed, and in doing so called into question the beliefs of my friends. The bond that held our friendships together was our fealty to a set of theological beliefs. Once these beliefs were questioned and discarded by me, that bond was irreparably broken. If the connection Christians have with their churches is akin to family, then when people walk away from the beliefs and practices of these families, they are, in effect, divorcing themselves from their family.

Marital divorce tears the bond between husband and wife. When Christians divorce themselves from Jesus, the bonds they have with their friends are ripped asunder. While this divorce can be amicable, most often it is not. My divorce from Jesus and the church was very much like a high-profile tabloid divorce. And even though the judge signed the divorce decree nine years ago, repercussions remain to this day.

I have learned that few friendships last a lifetime. Most friendships are dependent on time and location. Remember all your friends who signed your high school yearbook? Are you still friends with them today? Remember the best-buds-for-life from your college days? What happened to those friendships? Were these relationships true friendships? Sure, but they weren’t meant to last a lifetime. And that’s okay.

I don’t blame my former friends for the failure of our friendships. I am the one who moved. I am the one who changed his beliefs. I am the one who ripped apart the bond of our friendship. I do, however, hold them accountable for their horrendous treatment of me once I deconverted. They could have hugged me and said, I don’t understand WHY you are doing this, but I appreciate the good times we had together. I wish you, Polly, and the kids well. Instead, I was treated like dog-shit on a shoe bottom; a person worthy of scorn, ridicule, and denunciation.  By treating me this way, they destroyed any chance of restoration. Why would I ever want to be friends again with people who treated me like the scum of the earth?

I have spent the past decade developing new friendships. These days, most of my friendships are digital — people that I will likely never meet face to face. This has resulted in Polly and me becoming closer, not only loving each other, but also enjoying each other’s company. For most of my marriage, Jesus, the church, and the ministry were my first loves. It’s not that I didn’t love my children and wife, I did. But they were never number one in my life, and Polly and the kids knew it. I was a God-called man who devoted his life to Jesus and the church. Polly knew that marrying a preacher meant that she and the kids would have to share me with the church. Little did she know that she would spend way too many years getting leftovers from a man who loved her but was worn out from burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Now that religion no longer gets between us, Polly and I are free to forge an unencumbered relationship. We have always loved each other, but what has now changed is that we really like each other too and are best friends. And in Polly I have found one of the true friends A.V. Henderson preached about forty years ago. I am indeed, blessed.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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  1. Avatar
    Dell Anderson

    I feel and share your pain. Being an introvert, the loss of semi-structured social life is both harder and easier to bear. Harder in that I know the pleasant social interactions I gave up, but easier in a way because it’s actually a relief to have more ‘down time’. I still keep in touch with some old friends, but it’s sometimes awkward, as if they are trying too hard or don’t know how to relate even though I am essentially the same person inside (or perhaps because of it! ;-).

    But seriously, how does one compete with a friend’s hectic life pursuit of goals that seem alien to you, her favorite shows, or their pursuit of Twitter or Instagram photogenic material? And it goes both ways. It’s difficult to share one’s deep personal thoughts or concerns with people who too often resort to platitudes about “the Lord’s will” or “God knows best”.

    If it is any comfort to you, it is my impression that close friendships are becoming more and more difficult to maintain for everyone in this age of super-specializations, both in career and world views. There are so few existential shared needs to unite us that we cocoon in our little boxes and chill with Netflix binges in lieu of actual human contact.

  2. Avatar

    Why do our Christian friends leave us when we deconvert? Because we don’t agree with them anymore. Be on the same page as them or you’re not their friend anymore. People are fickle. I lost them all.
    This month….it’s 13 yrs for me.

    • Avatar
      Dell Anderson

      DJ you are so right. I am reminded of what my (also unbelieving) spouse says: “They are afraid” of the truth. Afraid of someone who dares to question the dogma. It’s not about you, it’s about religion’s need for social coercion. Shunning apostates is one of the more effective means of stemming the potential loss of current customers..err parishioners… from the religious enterprise. How else can churches enforce belief without convincing evidence?

  3. Avatar

    I lost friends, family and marriage.

    Life begins anew .. . And I’m better for it, though I’m sick of the pharassiacal, self righteous judgement of even my children. … ?

  4. Avatar

    It’s sad (and appalling) that Christians, who we are taught are supposed to always take the high road, to lead by example, to live in the example of Jesus who was supposed to be the perfect human/deity, treat you with such vitriol because you left their religion. I can understand people being upset that you left, but to treat you with such venom does nothing to prop up their “testimony” of which many are probably quite proud. BUT, we have to remember that (a) evangelical Christians are taught that atheists are anathema to Christianity and (b) the religion itself teaches that Christians are not to associate with non-Christians in fellowship. It took me awhile to realize that atheist does not equal Satanist or inherently evil, vile, hedonistic, etc. I didn’t want to use the word, and still, around certain people I don’t use the word because I know they associate it with those same traits. Plus, Christians are only really supposed to interact with non-Christians in a proselytizing or exemplary role, or just casually as in completing a surface transaction (like buying groceries in a store, or speaking with a mechanic, for example).

    I haven’t yet come out to many members of my family. My brother is into some sort of hard-core first-century Christianity – he loves the angry and mighty God of the OT, he likes reading about the shared histories of Judaic and Christian cultures, and he baptized his sons himself when they were about 6 and 8 years old. We have a great time together as families when we see each other (which is about once a year as we live far apart), and I believe that if we come out to him as agnostic atheists it will irreparably damage our relationship as families. My sister-in-law has told me that my brother says that I am the only family he has left, and if I were to ignore the importance of family but also the importance of his religion, I would be doing us all a great disservice. Maybe I am just a coward.

    My half sisters and half brother on the other side (not related to the religious brother) are all non-religious in different forms. Some of them know of my atheism and share the same thoughts.

    Most of my friends where I live now are either cultural Catholics or non-religious, so my atheism doesn’t bother them at all.

    I have one friend from childhood in whom I have confided my atheism. I knew I could trust her. Her response was, “Who am I to tell you what you what to believe when you have spent so much time studying and thinking about it”. She is still a liberal progressive Christian, and she does believe in God and Jesus, but she doesn’t hold nonbelief against her friends. Her sister is a Wiccan.

  5. Avatar
    That Other Jean

    I’m sorry you had to go through that when you left your religion, Bruce. It seems to me that many Christians, especially the more fundamentalist ones, “speak the truth in love” to those they see as being mistaken, but completely forget the love. What comes out is venom and judgement. Fortunately, non-religious people tend not to be so uptight about what other people believe, or don’t.

    Congratulations on your closeness to Polly. I’ve seen marriages fall apart when two spouses are forced into each other’s company–through illness or retirement–and discover that they really don’t like each other much. I’m glad it’s different for you two.

  6. Avatar
    Justine Valinotti

    The reason why those people treated you as they did, Bruce, is that their religion is one of exclusivity. While they might say their church welcomes everyone, it also demands exclusive allegiance: There can be no deviation in one’s fealty.

    So, while I have great sympathy for you, I am not at all surprised.

  7. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    My close friend abandoned me after I told her I was no longer a Christian. At the time I took a chance and told her. I never saw her again and she cut down all emailing until it was nothing. I’m over it but it is sad. I do have ONE Christian friend who is has issues. But since she is willing to stay friends I can put up with her issues.

    Like you and Polly, Bruce, Bob and I are best friends. Bob went all the way to atheism while I went to Universalism. (Although technically I may be an agnostic, as I believe in God/Divine Being/Whatnot but know I cannot prove it, which means I guess I don’t have enough faith.) My beliefs aren’t so different as they’ve been but seeing them through the structure of Christianity is over.

  8. Avatar

    I am glad you left christianity. Some never do. I left in 2004 after some really awful experiences. I even lost a friend who was christian with me, but come to find out, he was abusive and cruel so i dodged a bullet. I cut ties with my family because i had to. Most of them were hard into the religion and will never leave.

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Bruce Gerencser