Karen Swallow Prior: The Prodigal in All of Us

A thought-provoking and challenging reflection. Read it all.

Steven* (*not real name), also a freshman, was immersed in all that life at a Christian college offered. His charisma, activism, and faith were infectious to others—including Smith. “We bonded over our bookish pretensions and freshman philosophizing. The world was in our pockets, and we were like brothers,” Smith says. The two decided to room together sophomore year.

Early that year, Steven’s mother began having health problems. Soon she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Before school was out, she was dead. During her illness, Steven grew frustrated with Christians’ trite responses to his mother’s suffering. He was angry at God. By the time she died, Steven had turned to meditation and Eastern mysticism for solace. By senior year, he had come out as gay and walked away from the faith. Steven’s journey gave Smith a lot to think about.

When Lee,* Michele Sterlace-Accorsi’s husband of 24 years, walked away from Christianity, he walked away from his family, too. Much of their marriage had been difficult, says Sterlace-Accorsi, but the years of raising their four children were mostly good. The couple built a large home in upstate New York on a plot of land with woods and a pond. The family went to church each Sunday, the children attended Christian schools, and prayer began and ended the days and preceded family meals.

…At some point in their lives, one of every three Americans will leave Christianity, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Religion and Society. Called “leavers,” “deconverts,” or “ex-Christians,” they are targets of fresh concern among church denominations watching their numbers shrink. Pollsters and bloggers tick off reasons why so many are leaving, such as intellectual hurdles to belief, immoral or intolerant church leaders, and profound suffering. But the leavers phenomenon is nothing new. It goes back at least to the parable of the Prodigal Son, told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 15:11–32.

What about the people whom the prodigals leave behind? The ones who love the leavers? The ones left to hold down the forts of remaining families and faith communities? Few theological and practical resources exist for the two out of every three Christians who remain with the Father while they watch their “younger brother” leave.