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The Loneliness of Those Who Leave the Church


From your earliest recollection, you remember the church.

You remember the preacher, the piano player, the deacons, and your Sunday School teacher.

You remember the youth group and all the fun activities.

You remember getting saved and baptized.

You remember being in church every time the doors were open.

You remember everything in your life revolving around the church.

You remember praying and reading your Bible.

You remember the missionaries and the stories they told about heathens on the other side of the world.

You remember revival meetings and getting right with God.

You remember . . .

Most of all you remember the people.

These were the people who loved you. You thought to yourself, my church family loves me almost as much as God does.

You remember hearing sermons about God’s love and the love Christians were supposed to have for one another.

Your church family, like your blood family, loves you no matter what.

But then IT happened.

You know, IT.

You got older. You grew up. With adult eyes, you began to see the church, God, Jesus, and the Bible differently.

You had questions, questions that no one had answers for.

Perhaps you began to see that your church family wasn’t perfect.

Perhaps the things that Mom and Dad whispered about in the bedroom became known to you.

Perhaps you found out that things were not as they seemed.

Uncertainty and doubt crept in.

Perhaps you decided to try the world for a while. Lots of church kids did, you told yourself.

Perhaps you came to the place where you no longer believed what you had believed your entire life.

And so you left.

You had an IT moment — that moment in time when things changed forever.

You thought, surely, Mom and Dad will still love me.

You thought, surely, Sissy and Bubby and Granny will still love me.

And above all, you thought your church family would love you no matter what.

But they didn’t.

For all their talk of love, their love was conditioned on you being one of them, believing the right things.

Once you left, the love stopped.

Now they are praying for you.

Now they plead with you to return to Jesus.

Now they question if you were ever really saved.

They say they still love you, but deep down you know they don’t.

You know their love for you requires you to be like them.

You can’t be like them anymore. . .

Such loss.

Time marches on.

The church is still where it has always been.

The same families are there, loving Jesus and speaking of their great love for others.

But you are forgotten.

A sheep gone astray.

Every once in a while, someone asks your mom and dad how you are doing.

They sigh, perhaps tears well up in their eyes . . .

Oh, how they wish you would come home.

To be a family sitting together in the church again.

You can’t go back.

You no longer believe.

All that you really want now is their love.

You want them to love you just as you are.

Can they do this?

Will they do this?

Or is Jesus more important to them than you?

Does the church come first?

Is chapter and verse more important than flesh and blood?

You want to be told they love you.

You want to be held and told it is going to be all right.

But here you sit tonight . . .

Alone . . .

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar
    John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    Another significant factor for me was the issue of miracles. I had been persuaded by Pentecostals and Charismatics that miracles were occurring today, therefore we can know that they occurred in biblical days. I received the so called Baptism in the Holy Spirit with tongues.

    I believed for many years that healing, miraculous sign gifts etc were occurring today. But when I saw people die of cancer and failure of God to heal Charismatics of organic diseases, I began to question it all. Tongues appeared now, not as evidence for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit but simply people talking gobbledegook.

    Failed prophecies, failed healings, failed words of knowledge etc. lead me to believe that miracles are not occurring today. Then, I began to question whether they ever occurred.


    John Arthur

  2. Avatar

    Good luck, John; the vitriol is coming dude, believe me. We’ve all been through it. If you haven’t yet, you’ve just been very fortunate

  3. Avatar

    The thing I have found oddest is how much more important the opinions of the pastor and little minions are than just about anything. My mom especially is more concerned with what people will think of HER with regards to anything I do. She doesn’t know I’m an atheist, although she knows we don’t do church and did not subject our children to church, either.

    We used to visit my parents on occasion, they live about five hours away.
    There was an incident years ago between the pastor of their church and my son as an 8 year old. When I went to confront the pastor, my mom BODYBLOCKED me and said, “Now dear, don’t go off half-cocked, your father and I have to live here.”

    She was more concerned with what the pastor would think of *her* than what he’d possibly done to her grandson.

    I’ve never forgotten the lesson inherent in that.
    God is more important than the people you love.
    Screw that shit.

  4. Avatar

    For the reasons cited above, I am not out to anyone anywhere except here on Bruce’s blog. I’ve slowly “declined to continue to serve” in all the various roles I was involved in except for helping in the nursery once a month and helping my wife with her children’s SS class when her co-teacher can’t be there. If I were to come out to the church as an atheist in their midst, I think they would pity my family more than if I came out as an alduterer (which I am not!). My best friend, who I can talk to about anything, except this, has been my best friend since we were put in the same bed in th chruch nursery when I was 1 week old and he was 4 weeks old.

  5. Avatar

    I wish you well. I stayed at church for years after my de-conversion. It was hard on me mentally and finally began affecting me physically.

    When I finally outed myself, I personally felt free, but I was isolated from everything I had ever known. You are right about the pity. My wife had a lot of support for her family, the church and her network of believing friends. All I had was this blog and my friends at work. A very few Christian friends remained my friend, and I am grateful for them. The rest treated me with indifference. Since it has been a couple of years, a few will speak to me when we meet and one even came to see me at the hospital recently.

    All the best to you.

  6. Avatar

    Hi Bruce. As I read this it is Sunday morning. My Catholic family is attending mass. Again. Without me. The religious gap between us is always there. I cannot talk with them about this sacred subject. I sometimes get very lonely.

  7. Avatar

    welcome back to the world of blog. I just realized you are writing again. I have some catching up to do and plenty of alone time to do it 🙂

  8. Avatar

    Yes it is VERY lonely.

    You lose those “friends” that were church family.

    You decide/choose to find out about the Bible, after leaving the church, from sources OUTSIDE the church (like from Bart Ehrman). What an eye opener!

    I felt that the only personal proof I had left, of God’s existence, was “speaking in tongues” – turned out to be glossolalia – a brain-based thing.

    I learned that the things that were so called “proof” that God was all around, was only the correlations, connections, & associations my mind was making to attribute it to “God”.

    Justifications were really only “Special Pleading”, “God of the Gaps”, “cherry picking” & etc.

    I found out information that the average person doesn’t know – sharing that info was/is practically impossible – with no one else looking for it, they could care less.

    Yes it is VERY lonely.

  9. Avatar

    It feels very lonely indeed. And while isolation can be depressing, I could only imagine the horror of living in oppressive theocratic and totalitarian states.

  10. Avatar

    “get right with God” I hadn’t heard that phrase in a very long time, but sure heard it constantly growing up.

    I’m trying to solve the loneliness problem by attending a small Episcopalian church near my house. I’m 59 almost, and my husband is 60, so we’re starting to become “the elderly.” I’ve always been more comfortable around older people, very uncomfortable with peers, don’t know why. Anyway, I have absolutely no agenda of any kind and plan to be honest when asked about my faith-which I was asked about that last nite! I said something like, “Well, I tend to be analytical, so I’m open but skeptical.” The questioner seemed a little taken aback. So, we’ll see how it all goes.

    I just felt the need to have a connection in the community. There must be others out there who’ve lost their faith but eventually see the good of meeting with others once a week and making some friends. It’s wonderful to try to be brave enough to just be who I am. I no longer have the need to discuss any of it with Christians.

    Bruce, do you and Polly ever feel the need to attend a small, liberal church just to be with people?

  11. Avatar
    J.D. Matthews

    I feel every word of this.

    My mother told me that she always knew I was going to be one of the biggest leaders in the Church of Christ. I was single-handedly going to revolutionize the church with my preaching and bring the Lord’s Church all the way back from apostasy. Do you know what kind of burden it is to lay that on a young man’s shoulders?

    And now, I’m an atheist. I’m not welcome to share a meal with them. Oh, she knows that I’ll eventually return to Christ, or so she says, but until then, fuck you, J.D. She has to choose God over her own only begotten son. And the rest of my family, save but a scattered, distant few, feel the same.

    They don’t love. They don’t have a fucking clue how to love. Instead of actual flesh-and-blood human beings, and despite how much it tears hearts to pieces, they will choose an invisible asshole in the sky. A god whom they have never once laid eyes on. A god who has NEVER deigned to speak a word to them. A god who, if he were to exist, ignores their pleadings and prayers with depraved indifference. A god who thinks they are lower than the shit on a pig farmer’s shoe and can only tolerate them if they are groveling in his presence or if blood is shed for his pleasure. THAT is the fucking shitbrick that they love more than they love you or me.

    At times, I have to wonder… if it didn’t hurt so damned much… might we actually be better off for not having these people in our lives? But still, the pain…

    • Avatar

      Very well expressed, J.D. Matthews! One door and only one and yet its sides are two! Mommy’s on the inside and fuck fuck fuck you! The lesson that I learned from this rejection helped me in therapy to understand (in my feelings) that I was not loved as I needed to be loved and was not given the open arms to bond with as a child. God so loved the world that he tortured his only son. Christians like those you speak of want to harm their children, not give them bonding and love. They use the Bible as a bat to smack the truth into children. They are miserable fucks who smile and say they love as Christ loved.
      I am sorry you are estranged from your kin but what else can we do but stand to the side and protect ourselves from harm, first and foremost? I regularly get mail from my older brother full of Thank the heavenly father this and all glory to Jesus that! I ask him to stop and periodically tell him to fuck off but he is so full of love he intends to get through to me …. Jeebus, it is tiring sometimes.
      Thanks for telling it like it is…

    • Avatar

      JD, I’m sorry for you. I can’t understand how a mother can push her son out of her life over beliefs in an invisible being. But you must follow the path that your inner voice has led you into. You can’t go back to believing what you no longer see as truth. And may I say that just reading your brief account, I was very impressed by your ability to message your thoughts, feelings and experiences. I totally understand why people felt you were destined for great things in the church. Maybe life has something truly significant in store for you as you continue to connect with people who need to recover from religion.

      • Avatar
        J.D. Matthews

        Thanks, Angie. 🙂 For several years now I’ve been active in support groups for those leaving my fundamentalist denomination (the Church of Christ). I’ve spent a lot of hours mentoring and being mentored. Sometimes I wonder if I might be better served to stop talking or thinking about religion or my old church, but there is always someone out there who is asking themselves the hard questions and who needs to know that they are not the only ones out there asking those questions. And they need someone who speaks the same language they do. Therapists are great, but they don’t always know the language or thought processes of fundamentalism or certain denominations. I have been fortunate to get to know and love many wonderful people while we both escaped from fundamentalism and religion. I appreciate your kind words and encouragement!

  12. Avatar

    Thanks for reposting this Bruce. I needed it in a week when one of my former church friends is dying and everyone that treated me like shit is now calling up attempting to gossip about the dying. So much of the modern church is so damn toxic.

    • Avatar
      John Arthur

      Hi Suzanne,

      “So much of the modern church is so damn toxic.”

      Yes. When church members start gossiping about a dying person, they have reached a low. What matters to them is their gossip, not the welfare of the dying person. They have forgotten that the Johannine Jesus is said to have told his disciples to love one another, even as Jesus has loved them.

      Gossip is one of the worst problems in most Evangelical churches . Many of these folk do not care about whether their talk is based on compassion and kindness. Nor do many of them bother to find out how factual the stories they hear actually are. Chinese whispers can be very damaging to the reputation of a person, but these folks do not care how much mental and psychological damage they do. What they say says more about the gossipers than it does about the one who is on the end of such malicious gossip .


      John Arthur

      • Avatar

        The gossiping just makes it so obvious to the keen observer that “people are people wherever you go.” They are no different from the cliques in high school or the office you work in, etc. But, unlike those places, the church people claim to be quite different and have a much higher standard. But, it’s not working!! Can’t they see this?

  13. Avatar

    I just recently officially left church. First thing I was lost was my relationship. It hurt so much that religion is greater than love. I feel tempted sometimes to just go back because of the loneliness especially in a religious country like Nigeria but i know i can’t pretend that i believe what I don’t. I do feel free. Living without fear and knowing it’s just this life has given me so much zeal to live. I know it will get better. Thank you for this. It feels good to know I’m not alone.

    • Avatar

      Hey Yomi, I feel for you.

      My brother is head of a large international school in Nigeria, and also an out and out atheist. He doesn’t overly spread the word that he’s an atheist, but he finds it immensely difficult to reconcile his views with those of Nigerians generally. He is called on to lead prayers in morning assembly and refuses, always using an excuse, and regularly refuses invitations to ‘Jesus’ parties. I’ve actually told him to be rather more careful and diplomatic, as his views are actually a matter that could place him in personal danger.

  14. Avatar

    Hi Geoff,

    It’s amazing the kind of hypocrisy that flows from religious people. No one cares how good you are as long you are an atheist.
    I don’t unnecessarily announce my atheism because although we have tolerant people in lagos where I stay, i do not deny the existence of extremists. I do wish there was some sort of support group.

  15. Avatar

    You don’t even have to be an atheist to be shunned by the IFB. If you use a different Bible version, listen to different kinds of music, or don’t follow lockstep with their “standards” you will be ostracized. I lost enough friends when I divorced my pastors daughter. I have learned to keep certain opinions to myself. I am blessed to be married to a woman to whom I can vent about the events of our lives.

  16. Avatar
    dale m

    Yep. U sit alone. But you’re free to stand and question the whole god damn world. You’re an atheist now. All growed up. You’ve reached the heights that they will never see. Perhaps this is where the smaller gods sit … agape at the world below …. at a frightening height. So look outward. There R others. U belong with the other Olympians now !

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Bruce Gerencser