I get a message every other month or so from a friend or relative who knows someone who isn’t merely struggling with their faith but who has announced they’re past that point. They are leaving the church. Their exit narratives, like our monthly testimony meetings, often follow a similar formula including a list of problems they’ve discovered in church history, belief, or practice.
I got another message today. Chances are good you’ve received one at some point, too.
When this happens you might be tempted to rush in with rebuttals to each listed point, some more easily confronted than others. (Joseph Smith’s polygamy? Yeah, I’m not personally comfortable with that, either. Joseph Smith used a seer stone to seek treasure, then used it to translate the Book of Mormon? That’s an interesting discussion. Have you read such-and-such? etc.) My experience suggests if things have gotten to this point, debating with typical apologetic responses might just make the situation worse.
But there is one particular thing they’ve almost certainly come to believe that you must rebut as much as possible: the idea that they will be shunned, harangued, shamed, or pressured to change their views, the belief that every meeting and conversation you have with them from here on out will be weighted with judgment (in both directions, sometimes), the possibility that your love is contingent on their relationship to the church and now you will see them as less worthy of love.
If you’re like me, it can genuinely hurt when a sibling, parent, child, or friend experiences big faith changes. Odds are high (though not certain) that your loved one has already been experiencing fear, grief, and disorientation as they’ve come to see the world differently. They are likely still coping with a loss. What’s worse, they fear more losses. They likely expect you to distance yourself. They expect this because, to our own shame, it actually happens sometimes.
So in response to an announced departure from the church, the best testimony of all—a true witness of Christ—is to “prove them wrong” about their sense that you’ll withdraw love. Manifesting unqualified love—regardless of anyone’s feelings or beliefs about the church—is the best way to prove people who leave the church wrong.
[P.S.–If you’re part of the choir I’m preaching to, I hope you still find this post useful to send to people who are trying to figure out how to cope with loved one’s faith transitions.]