Hey church planters and ministry people.  Has your church ever been ghosted? I know ours has – several times in fact in its three short years. Sounds spooky eh?  The spectre of a spectre. The presence of a presence.

Now before you get out the holy water and the crucifixes, or scrabble around in the basement looking for The Exorcist in your VHS collection (remember VHS? – Vintage Ed), let me explain.

Ghosting refers to the virtual disappearance of a lover or partner from someone’s life. Someone they had been dating for a while and who assumed that if they were going to break up there would at least be a text message ( the break -up bar is low in these digital days – Ed).  The New York Times, of course, knows what it is all about.  And it’s what Charlize Theron did to Sean Penn recently. You can read about it here.

And here’s the NYT’s explanation of this new verb:

Ghost, a word more commonly associated with Casper, the boy who saw dead people and a 1990 movie starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, has also come to be used as a verb that refers to ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.

And it sounds like it can be painful and confusing:

Justine Bylo, 26, an independent account manager in publishing, has felt what this is like firsthand. She once invited a man she had been dating casually for about eight months to a wedding. As the day approached, he stopped responding to Ms. Bylo’s text messages, and she ended up attending the wedding alone. A few weeks ago, she found out that he had been dating another woman at the time.

“It happens to me so often that I’ve come to expect it,” Ms. Bylo said. “People don’t hold themselves accountable anymore because they can hide behind their phones.”

Well, it could be worse. At least it wasn’t their wedding he didn’t show up at. However it’s a common enough phenomenon to have gained cultural traction.  Once Huffington Post and Elle magazine start running polls on it you can bet it has leached into the cultural oxygen. Oh, that and the fact that about 16 per cent of men, and 25 per cent of women have been “ghosted”.

And probably about 100 per cent of churches.  You could call it holy ghosting, if you like. People who come for a lengthy period of time.  Not just one-off visitors, or the try-before-you-buy crowd that you can spot a mile off.  But people who are there for a few months, start attending a group, sign up and attend your Incubator introductory course, and even who get others involved with their own external ministries (I am saying all of this from experience).

Then one day they are gone.  They don’t write, they don’t call, they don’t even text! Why? Because they don’t have to.  There’s no social shame in ghosting a church these days, only the social shame of bumping into one of the leaders with whom you cut off contact.  And hey, in this fractured age of upward and outward mobility, there’s always somewhere else to shop for groceries, clothes AND church.

And guess what?  None of this “It’s not you baby, it’s me!” nonsense.  No, there’s a lot more confidence in the church ghoster. “It’s not me baby, it’s you! You didn’t have/do/say/ what I was expecting you to have/do/say.” One person finally emailed me and said that they had found a more “established church”.  Gee, maybe we should have worked out more or something!

Part of the problem of course is that people who ghost churches can sense our desperation.  Nothing worse than a church pastor stalker who not only wants an exit interview, but who is willing to change if you give him a chance!

Okay, so I am just being cheeky. And it’s just a bit of social observation “fun” at one level.  But it has happened to our church in a number of its iterations: as a house church, it was just plain weird when it happened;  as a small gathering it was kinda painful;  and as we have increased in number, I have almost come to expect it!  The news of a ghosting usually takes a bit longer to filter up to me as our congregation size increases, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect others.

Here’s a revealing observation from the NYT article:

Anna Sale, 34, the host and managing editor of the WNYC podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” believes that social media enables the avoidance of difficult conversations. “As people have gotten less and less comfortable talking face to face about hard things, it’s become easier to move on, let time pass and forget to tell the person you’re breaking up with them,” she said.

Make no mistake. If it’s an increasingly social phenomenon then it’s going to be an increasing church phenomenon.  It’s a long way from how Paul saw the church.  You don’t date a church as if it is another body.  You are part of that body and to start doing the heavy lifting, or the hearing, or the chewing, or the seeing, then suddenly deciding that you can “ghost”, hurts not somebody else only, but you as well.  For Christians it’s not just ghosting, it’s something more ghoulish than that: a bunch of disconnected body parts floating around, ephemeral, detached and decaying once removed from the body.

Let’s leave the last word to Ms Sale:

“If you go on more than three dates, you’ve indicated you’re interested,” she said. “To disappear after that is confusing.” She added, aptly, “Breakups can haunt you.”