There are many reasons why people end up on the down side of denominational and personal faith. Sometimes it is substance abuse, sometimes guilt over adultery or other problems, or perhaps just poor social skills, but the end result is the same. People in this situation often do not fellowship, they stay away from their own religious group’s meetings and eventually begin to regard themselves as religious loners or outcasts, unworthy and in many cases, unsalvageable. It is not uncommon for them to say “I used to be a (fill in religious denomination).”
Almost a decade ago, author John R. Mabry devoted a whole chapter to this group in the religio-sociological study Faith Styles: Ways People Believe (Morehouse, 2006) and his work is still relevant. Mabry showed that often these people not only feel estranged from God and fellow believers, but also begin to see God as an angry judge whom they cannot please. Yet they may still have strong spiritual beliefs which they cannot fulfill because of their feelings of lack of acceptance.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament makes it clear that many of the people Jesus helped were living on the down side of faith. The prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and others who were shunned doubtless felt estranged from God as well as from the religious groups of their day, yet some nevertheless had deep spiritual feelings, as the Gospels show. Such people came to him because they recognized his acceptance, not because he radiated a higher standard that everyone must meet. Estranged from God or not, many of these individuals clearly sought God’s help when they saw God’s acceptance of them.
We read the stories, but do we see them in lives around us? Those on the down side of faith are out there. Whether we know one or more of them now, or discover them in the future, it’s more than likely that we will run into them as we go along. And when we do, we need to remember the special difficulties these people face and the acceptance they need. As Mabry states in his book, although we may not be able to solve their problems, we may find opportunity to show them a kinder response than they have experienced before. And that is something that can go a long way. It may only be a first step, but for some it may be the vital first step on the road to restored faith.