THE letter began, "Dear Editor, Like so many other church members, I am concerned over all those (young and old) who leave the church. We are prone to think, It could never happen to me. But it can—even before the really troublous times fall upon us. It happened to me. While literally sitting in my church pew, I said to myself, 'You never thought it could come to this. You know the church is right. You could, without very much effort, find all the Bible verses to prove that our doctrines are right, but you have found difficulty in putting them into practice.
" 'While you felt warm toward the church, there was always some little thing you would fix up later. It would be easier later. Even if you were on your death bed it would not be too late to repent. But here you are now sitting in the church, knowing that you are not a part of it. You are lost. You are concerned, terribly concerned, but you don't seem to be able to do any thing about it.' It can't be too late, but it feels too late. For me it IS too late. Would the pastor understand, or would he just tell me what I already know? What shall I do? What can I do? I feel powerless even to pray."
This is the first paragraph of a letter that came to me a little while ago. It was from a young woman (I hope she still considers herself young) whom I had known these many years, a talented young lady, a most articulate and charming girl (and this is not meant to be flattery; I emphasize this on the off chance that she may read this), and one whom others would consider to have more than her share of ability. The world, it seemed in those days not-so-far-off, was at her feet.
Now, as the neat typescript of the letter stares inscrutably back at me, I cannot but detect the awful truth (as will be apparent to even the most cursory reader) that something went wrong somewhere. If you do not sense it, she spells it out in those almost bitter (but she is not bitter) words, "You are lost." It is a cry in the darkness, a cry in the night, a cry of a thousand voices in similar circumstances, a cry for help, which they believe cannot be given. Thus it is a tragic cry, because those who utter such a cry as this believe that there is no hope for them—and that, in itself, is their greatest tragedy. For the soul that thinks itself lost is not inevitably lost at all; and the voice that cries for help is the one that will surely be answered.
Not Aware of Torments
The problem we face is that there are so many around us who feel exactly as this young woman does, and we do not know about it. We of the ministry stand up and preach our sermons, with our benign smiles, we shake hands at the door and wish the worshipers God's blessing, but we cannot know all the torments that tear our congregations apart. We cannot know all the nuances of domestic issues, of parent-child relationships, of financial debilities (due either to "bad luck" or to plain, bungling mismanagement—it hardly matters); we cannot know all the play and interplay of emotions between individual worshipers in our congregations, and because of this we must deem ourselves as less-than-perfect and nigh-on-unworthy shepherds.
And we are, even though we may not be entirely to blame. The very demands on our time, the limitations of our earthling natures that ensure that a man can cover no more territory at a given moment than his boot soles can cover—these things set the limits of our effectiveness to a certain extent.
But that does not ease the hurt when a soul cries out, "I am lost!" and reckons himself or herself separated from God because of past acts or present problems. The young lady whose letter I have quoted above is not an evil woman. On her own say-so, she has made her mistakes, but she has repented bitterly with tears. On her own admission, she missed the mark here and there, but who shall cast the first stone? Is anyone qualified to point an accusing finger?
"Statistics prove that children who attend church schools are less likely to leave the church than those who don't. This kind of research is good. I wonder whether another form of research would be helpful. Has any church pas tor compiled a full list of all the people in his district who have left the church, and merely asked them why? What I had in mind was to skip the sermon, the plea to come back, and even the prayer at this stage. Pray in the car, pray as you walk to the door. If you can't over come your irresistible urge to pray with the person, ask permission tactfully, but keep in mind that the person may feel obliged to say Yes and not mean it.
"What you are after is facts. You are not just picking on one person. You are making a survey. You are not asking the person to divulge anything he doesn't want to. ... Be very judicious with your questions and curb your irresistible urge to smother the person with help and advice. . . . Believe me, there can be a great deal lost if you rush in with sermons, prayers, and perfect solutions. And you don't want to lose the person, do you?"
This girl is talking a lot of good sense, isn't she? You don't want to lose them, of course, otherwise you wouldn't be there. But you can overwhelm a wandering soul with your wisdom and you can frustrate a weeping heart with your foolish eagerness. We are all liable to make that mistake. It takes one who has felt her lack and who can look objectively at her situation to say so clearly. But she hasn't finished her letter. Hear her out . . .
"Do not despair if no one comes back to church. You have given the person a chance to talk. He may realize that his reason for leaving is invalid. He will certainly think. He will appreciate the fact that no pressure at all was applied. You may come up with some wonderful answers for keeping more people from leaving.
"There are some people who don't want to come to church, but at the same time they wish they did want to come."
That last sentence (the closing sentence of her letter, incidentally) is the most poignant cry of all. This woman (whose name, sad to say, is Legion) imagines that she is lost (though you and I know full well that she needn't be) and she is scared. She is scared be cause she knows the doctrines and could substantiate those doctrines with appropriate Bible texts.
But something is lacking—and it has been lacking for a long time. Something hasn't clicked—and she has been aware of this for some time too. Something has prevented the full realization of what Christ can do for her (and for any one who has slipped and fallen) from penetrating her consciousness, her understanding. Satan has built a barrier between her and her Lord, which she cannot herself break down, and she wishes she could.
Lack of Fellowship
This article ought to include ten points for the reclamation of such a soul as this, but I shall not attempt even two such points. I will, however, permit myself one tiny suggestion as to what we might do to find the owners of voices such as this, voices crying in the night of their own hopelessness. It is not a deep thought; it throbs through the letter of this forlorn girl who so much wants to be part of the church, but feels that she has separated herself from it. It is simply this: Many who are lost or who feel themselves lost, are so because they have no one with whom they can have the relaxed joy of ordinary fellowship.
So many who drift away from the church have no other quarrel with us than that we will not give them a little of our time—and (most important) a little of ourselves. After all, it is just a little fatuous to herd converts in the front door and let the weak lambs die in the fold for lack of attention.