The Genovese Syndrome in the Church

It was around 3:20 in the morning on a cold night in March of 1964, when Kitty Genovese returned from her regular shift at a bar in New York. She parked her car, and began her walk to her apartment complex like every weeknight for the past year.

This time though, Kitty noticed a man following her, so nervously, she headed up an adjacent street hoping to get away from the man. To no avail. The man grabbed her and stabbed her.

She screamed in pain, “He stabbed me! He stabbed me!” A man looking down from his apartment complex yelled “Let that girl alone” so the assailant, taking his time, walked away. But as soon as the lights went out in the apartments, he quickly returned and stabbed her again. This time more people seemed to notice as she cried, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” This time more lights went on as more people took notice, so the attacker drove away.

Finally the assailant returned and found her in anguish as she desperately tried to crawl up the stairs to her apartment and stabbed her for a third and final time. The police were finally called at 3:50 am. In less than 2 minutes they were on the scene. A man and an elderly lady came forward to speak with police and no one else.

The New York Times reported that there were almost 40 people who heard or saw the attack that night and did not call the police. “A simple phone call and she would still be alive,” sighed a detective.

As the story gained interest many of the neighbors were interviewed and asked why they didn’t call the police. All kinds of excuses were given. Some of the most memorable were:

people nowdays“I was tired. So I went back to bed.”

“We were afraid, we didn’t want to get involved”

“I didn’t want my husband to get involved”

“I thought someone else would do it”

It was 4:25 am when the ambulance arrived to take her dead body away, then and only then the people came out.

While it’s easy to point the finger at these neighbors and say that they were selfish and lazy, I think that this attitude easily creeps into our churches as well. The Genovese Syndrome (a.k.a. The Bystander Effect) is alive and well in our congregations.

People come in and out of churches. They come and sit in our pews, even for a few months, and then leave without ever being talked to or checked on. Perhaps because of our misunderstanding about what our role in the Church is and because the Church has become a place where attenders are encouraged to be spectators rather than participants, we seem to lack a desire and a fervor in caring for those who may leave our churches and go back into the world.

James, in James 5:19-20 wants to encourage churches to be different. He wants the people in the Church to see themselves as the potential instruments God can use to win back a wayward Christian. Notice what he says,

19 My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

While I love evangelism and usually see it in every passage, I do not believe that James is thinking evangelistically here. Notice he says, my brethren, he is speaking to fellow Christians and says if any of them strays from the truth. James believes that Christians can stray. And of course James knows better than anyone that there are those who claim Christ but who are not genuinely saved. After giving us 5 chapters about how critical it is that we live out our faith in a manner that pleases Christ, his desire now at the end of his letter, is to encourage believers to go after those who fall away. To not let them leave without our arms at their ankles imploring them to stay.

Any of us could be in a situation where we need to be rescued.

As the hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

This is reason 3697 of why membership is important. We should affiliate ourselves with a local Church, with elders who shepherd their people; this in turn will provide protection for our families, because any of us are capable of straying from the truth. And the fact of the matter is this, that not only do you need others help in your life but that people around you are in need of your help.

And yet so many times we keep to ourselves. Like the cowards on that night in New York, in 1964, we fail our brothers and sisters in Christ when we keep our mouths shut.

Of course we ultimately know that it is not our fault when someone else sins, goes off theologically, or ultimately, walks away from the Church. But there is a sense in which, part of our job as believers, is to be there when our brothers and sisters fall. Of course as I’ve written before the way we approach them matters. But few of us are in danger of speaking too harshly, because in order to speak harshly we have to speak to begin with.

Do you know someone who has stopped coming to Church? Do you know someone who believes in a doctrine or has a view that is dangerous? Why don’t you talk to them? Why don’t you ask to get coffee with them?

So many excuses come up in our mind.

genovese syndromeI don’t have time, it’s the pastors job, I don’t want to get involved, I’m afraid, I didn’t know them that well. So many excuses that sound so similar to those men and women that night in New York.

James ends his letter with a positive note. He tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. And then, as if it is inevitable, he warns us about our role when one of us walks away from the faith. And announces that he who rescues a wayward believer, saves his soul from death and covers a multitude of sin.

While it is impossible to know if someone who walked away was truly a believer or not, James says that rescuing them is saving their soul form death.

James’ brother Jesus in a similar passage in Matthew 18:15-18 talks about the process of church discipline. Jesus talks about the fact that if your brother sins, you confront him, and if he repents, that you have won your brother. It is an absolute victory.

But if he doesn’t repent and after several more steps continues to be unrepentant, that you are to treat him as if he or she is not a believer (a gentile and a tax collector). You are called to evangelize them again as if they were never saved. The implication is that a true believer repents of their sins when confronted.

James wants us to go and rescue people who once claimed to be Christians and who have strayed from the truth. Do you know anyone like this? Don’t be the bystander who selfishly refuses to sound the alarm.

Will you be the one who will love them enough to go and attempt to rescue them?

We can’t convince anyone to repent, we can’t keep anyone from dying, but we can, with God’s help and with courage given to us by the Holy Spirit, lovingly warn them and attempt to win them back to Christ.

  • Thought provoking post, Jordan! Many good points. One difficulty I have with the analogy is that in the church situation raised, people aren’t usually so obviously crying for help. Not that that makes for an excuse not to aid, but it seems we often have to confront someone about something which they are not even convinced of, thus creating an uncomfortable confrontation. Then the rejection gets us down as we are accused of legalism or prying or any number of ways we can be rejected. So I see why some people start to shy away and “just mind their own business” as well.

    Imagine a situation where once you were faked into believing there was a stabbing, only to have your own wallet stolen: might make you hesitate to help next time. Just thinking “out loud.”

    But your point stands and there are many who have never tried to help, I’m sure!

    • Jordan Standridge

      Thanks for the encouragement Michael. And good thought, every illustration breaks down at some point! I would say that this passage gives a strong image of “saving”. Also from our perspective when our brothers and sisters fall we are to see their sin as a speck, in Galatians 6:1 we are told that they are “caught” in sin. And ultimately we are told that the devil seeks to destroy the believer. Being a Christian is tough business even when we are mistreated by the world and sadly even our brothers and sisters, we are to hang tough and persevere in obedience to Christ.

    • Jason

      I think there are a lot of cases where people might be crying for help and we miss it because we aren’t paying enough attention to notice. It’s also much harder to have a “mind your own business” attitude with people whom we have a close relationship, because we often share our business in that type of relationship.

      Honestly, I found the first picture the most telling as to why we have a problem in the church in this regard. Our society has made an art of standing at arms length and “caring” instead of doing the messy work of actually engaging with other people. In the age we’re in, there are many people (including myself when I’m careless) who are likely to associate the word community to a web page of a site before we are actual relationships with other people…

      • No disagreement, brother! It is a multi-faceted problem to be sure!

  • Janise Rose

    Unfortunately, in this day and age, many churches have fallen away from the truth themselves or engage in cliques that exclude others from their group. Both my daughter and myself are
    unchurched Christians because of the above reasons. I am certain we are not alone in experiencing this within churches. This leaves many true believers outside of the fold, so to speak. There are many true believers without a church family these days. I have talked to some of them, and searched online for others who have had a similar experience of not being able to find biblically sound churches where they are welcomed, more than just superficially. It may be The Genovese Syndrome, as you called it, but I think it goes deeper than church members not wanting to get involved or reach out to those that have left the church, for one reason or another. It is great if you are blessed to be part of a church family but, speaking from experience, that is rare for many Christians these days.

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Janise, sometimes I think we make the mistake of viewing church like being the new kid in a high school cafeteria. They are full of people we don’t know, the tables are full and no one motions us over. So after a few awkward moments, we retreat to the bathroom to eat alone with our feet up in the stall (I speak from personal experience). 🙂

      What I’m saying is, I can’t imagine that that is the scenario God would want for His children in the church. I also believe that true believers understand the importance of the fold, not because they are welcomed to a table, but for the opportunity to welcome others to theirs. To share with them the wisdom God has given them.

      If this is your mindset, you will begin to view church as a place to reach out to others who are wandering around with their trays hoping for someone to motion them over. And trust me, they are everywhere. I’m sure you and your daughter have much to offer!

      • Janise Rose

        Thank you, Jane, for your reply.
        I agree with what you have pointed out but there are exceptions to this.
        When you live in an area where many of the churches, if not most, have allowed New Age, seeker-sensitive, watered down theology into their churches, then that, imo, is not a place for a true believer. Then there really are churches that, though they teach the truth, are forming cliques where those outside if these group are greeted warmly and spoken to, that is as far as it goes. If you are not married, or have young children at home, and even sometimes when you do, you are seen as “not fitting in”.
        I have searched for a place to belong, a place where the truth is taught, and not found either. It is not just my observation but one I have discovered many have gone through. It is unfortunate, but it is still a fact, I am sorry to say.
        Thank you again though for your reply.

        • Jane Hildebrand

          I understand. And I agree that we do live in difficult times. May God lead you to a place where truth is taught and you feel welcomed and loved.

          • Janise Rose

            Again, I thank you, Jane for your kind words. I’m afraid in the area in which I live there are no churches where I could find biblically sound teaching and members that are welcoming, having tried all the non-Catholic churches already.
            I posted mainly because I see the issues within mainstream Christianity as either watered-down,New Age, contemplative, seeker-friendly or what is known around here as the”chosen-frozen”.
            I believe that God can be all that I need, as the body of Christ does not always inhabit a building.
            There are many Christians in the world today that, for whatever reason, do not have access to a biblically-sound church.
            Nevertheless, we are all part of the body of Christ.
            Blessings to you, Jane.

      • Jason

        Thank you for this post Jane. This is a challenge I’ve (fairly) recently taken up myself. It hasn’t always been the easiest pill to swallow, but it’s the very best medicine.

        My wife and I were constantly “outsiders”. We’re now doing the tough work of inviting others over for meals, offering to help people when we overhear that they have a lot to get done, etc…

        What I’m finding is that sometimes all it takes is walking over to the table that isn’t waving me over and asking if anyone is sitting in the empty seat.

  • tovlogos

    Thanks, Jordan — I don’t emphasize the church, I naturally try to bring attention to the word of God. You see/hear many peculiar experiences when one brings up the church as an oasis. many times I’ve walked into a house, always carrying my Bible everywhere, and during a normal conversation, periodically answer a question by opening the Bible and reading a verse. It surprises a person when I do that, but I am never rejected — I not preachy — I simply answer the question.
    Once a man waited until everyone left and asked me a question.
    He asked me if I knew where the Bible speaks of being still, and knowing God was God. I said sure — that’s psalm 46:10. Then he said could you show me. I showed him, and he was so amazed. He was testing me. (Thank God the Holy Spirit stepped in and brought that to my memory) Then we talked about knowing the Bible, without which, you cannot make an informed decision about discerning the veracity of a church. I never saw him again; and that’s the way it goes sometimes.

  • Janise Rose

    I thought the cartoon of the man lying on the ground and people passing by making comments but not doing anything to help him up or ask if they could help speaks volumes of how many in the church today handle someone who needs help. Comments are made that sound well intended but no one actually steps up to help.
    For many, attending a biblically-sound church is not possible due to the area they live in maybe and the lack of churches that are biblically sound.
    Though finding such a church is wonderful, it is not always possible, regardless of what some believe. There are an abundance of shut-ins and unchurched Christians that don’t have a church family, but they are still Christians. True Christians are not always in churches for many reasons.
    The Body of Christ is not in a building necessarily.