The last few times I’ve been at church, I wait for acquaintances to ask, “Where have you been?”
It’s an understandable question. Two years ago, our family went abroad for a half-year. After our sabbatical was over, I didn’t go back to church.
Why was I gone so long?
It started before our sabbatical: I felt a sense of weariness with the whole Sunday ritual. I kept lifting up my jaded faith to God and, much to my surprise, felt a gentle tug to stay home for a while.
After a few months of lazy Sundays, I found the source of my cynicism: the spiritual abuse I’d experienced in my church’s high school youth group two decades ago.
When I pinpointed my unease, I started to heal, especially with the gracious, candid help of several of my pastors.
As I healed, I started feeling hungry for Sunday again. But two years is a long time to skip Sundays. I’d been a leader in my church—part of the worship team, a small group leader, volunteering in childcare. I knew people noticed my absence.
I worried about being judged.
My self-consciousness isn’t unusual. In her new book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans writes about the awkward period where she avoided her childhood church. When she started attending new churches, she felt judged by a few people from her old church that questioned her wandering away from her old community.
Or take Addie Zierman’s experience in her memoir, When We Were On Fire. While on a hiatus from church, she felt so nervous about being judged by Christians that she’d throw curse words into her conversations to weed out the disapproving people.
Worse, I remember the sense of disappointment I felt as a small group leader when people stopped showing up every week. It was easier to judge their flakiness then feel curious about what motivated their exit.
When a part of Christ’s body leaves—even if only for a time—it can feel awkward for everyone. So how do we help people who’ve returned feel welcome at church again?
Trust God to be Lord Over Others’ Spiritual Lives—Whether They Show Up on Sundays or Not
Our children’s ministry director, an old friend, listened carefully when I told her I felt self-conscious about showing up again, especially because I’d not pulled my weight volunteering in my daughter’s class.
She looked confused for a moment, and shook her head. “When people don’t come, I just assume they found something that worked better for them.”
Her non-judgmental attitude took my breath away. She trusted God was still working in others’ lives, no matter what. She believed the best of me.
After talking to her, I have found it easier to let go of what other people think of me. I can believe the best of them, too.
Don’t Take Absence Personally
The response of our children’s director meant even more to me because we’ve been in church together for years. I quit the worship team her husband still serves with; I didn’t sign up to help in the ministry my daughter participates in.
It would have been easy for her to take my absence personally: assuming that I no longer valued my ties at the church, or her tireless service.
I’ve had friends leave our church, and I’ve always struggled to not feel slighted. Now that I’m the absentee, though, I know struggles with church are often complex. They don’t necessarily reflect how much you value a congregation or each person in it.
Take Time to Reach Out
For all my self-consciousness, I would have been more upset if people didn’t notice my absence. Like the preteen hero of Alan Bradley’s detective novels, Flavia DeLuce, “I hate being the center of attention, and yet at the same time I can’t tolerate being ignored.”
Sunday after Sunday, I smile and wince when people tell me they’ve missed seeing me. I feel a little self-conscious, but also glad to know people notice I’m back.
In the past, if someone stays home, I have assumed they might want to be left alone. But breaking through awkwardness is an act of great love. Whether or not the wanderer is ready to connect, reaching out to them helps them feel welcome.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
“Have you been traveling the world again?” an acquaintance said right before the service last month. Given my absence, he’d assumed we’d been abroad.
I blushed. “No,” I said, trying to think of how to explain my time away succinctly. I came up blank.
He looked confused, and then pained, and then he gripped my hand and shook it firmly. “Well, it’s good to see you now,” he said.
He’s a sweet guy—had I thought faster, I’d have spilled my story right then and there. But my awkward response made me aware of the beauty of an open-ended question:
“What have you been up to?”
“What’s your story right now?”
“What’s God been doing in your life?”
Honestly, these are the questions I always long to hear at church, even when I’m showing up like clockwork. It feels like Christ’s love when others show curiosity about me, and share their own wild journeys with God.
During my time away, God did a great work of healing in my life. But I think it is just beginning. The larger, and perhaps more important work is how to belong to the body of Christ, no matter how chipper I feel about my faith.
Like any relationship, the moments that bind the body of Christ together are often the awkward, nerve-wracking ones. Instead of being threatened by absences, God invites us to draw close together with gentleness, candor and welcome.