makes people stop attending church and what happens to their faith
after they have left?
I approached the front door of
the first of over a hundred church
leavers I would interview, I thought I knew what happened to the
Christian faith of those who no longer went to church.
could easily understand why people choose to leave the church, I'd
watched others leaving; and had contemplated shifting out myself
on more than one occasion. Part of what held me in was the belief
that leaving the church was inevitably the first step to a dwindling
faith - the ultimate Christian disgrace - 'backsliding'.
and a half hours later I left by the
same front door somewhat bewildered.
The couple I had just met didn't fit my expectations. They had left
their eldership role in a growing Pentecostal church nearly five
years previously, yet their faith had obviously continued to develop,
their understanding of God at work in their lives was undoubtedly
continuing, and they were involved in their community as an outworking
of their faith.
was intrigued and somewhat mystified. My plans to conduct a quick
study of half a dozen or so church leavers, which would confirm
my prejudices, were in disarray. In fact the study grew into a four
year project involving 162 interviews with both church leavers and
leaders in Evangelical Pentecostal and Charismatic churches ( a
group which I refer to as EPC churches).
people I tracked were predominately in their 30s and 40s. They had
made Christian commitments (as well as commitments to their respective
churches) as adults (over the age of 18 years) and had been actively
involved in their churches for an average of 15.8 years.
try and sum up the faith journies of 108 people spread from Dunedin
to Auckland (with a few Australians thrown in) isn't easy. Each
person's journey was in fact quite distinctive with its own twists
and turns, but what I did find was that those church leavers I interviewed
fell into five clear groups.
first category of leavers are those I titled the "Displaced
Followers". I refer to them as followers because the faith
they continue in has not substantially changed from the faith package
they followed within the EPC church. They are called displaced because
events and circumstances have encouraged them to leave the EPC church
with which they continue to hold great affinity.
group of leavers made up 17.5% (n=19)1
of those I interviewed. They left in two major categories either
as the 'Hurt' - those who had expectations of particular care or
support from the church body in times of need which they found were
not met when they needed it; or as the 'Angry' - those who left
the church in disagreement with the leadership of their church because
of the direction, vision or leadership structure of either their
church or EPC churches in general.
the Hurt and the Angry can be said to have left because of specific
grumbles with the church. These specific grumbles centre around
the leadership, direction and operating nature of the church.
level of critique of the Angry and the Hurt does not extend to questioning
the whole basis of evangelical/pentecostal/charismatic faith itself.
On the contrary, it is these understandings of what the church should
be that such leavers use as the foundation for their claim that
their church has failed.
Displaced Followers' post-church faith can be characterised under
Displaced Followers continue in a received faith. They have not
disengaged from the faith they received when they entered the church.
The faith they received when they made their decision to follow
and join the church is the same faith package they follow today
as EPC church leavers. Typically such a faith is based on an external
authority beyond themselves.
faith is dependent - that is, although they no longer attend an
EPC church each Sunday they remain dependent on the wider EPC community.
A whole variety of such sources of dependency are available to these
leavers including major seminars, trans-church based groups (for
example Promise Keepers), Christian workshops, books, magazines,
television and radio programmes and preachers.
the Displaced Followers remain dependent on this wider EPC community
they also remain dependent on the personal disciplines of the EPC
church. These include either continued practice of, or the sense
of obligation to quiet times, financial giving (beyond friends and
family), service etc.
post-church faith of the Displaced Followers is an unexamined faith.
Their grumbles centre on the church rather than the underlying taken-for-granteds
of the EPC faith.
they exhibit a bold faith. By this I mean they are very clear and
definite about their Christian faith and the correctness of their
decision to leave the church from a Christian perspective. Of all
the groups of leavers it is this group who typically quoted a number
of passages from scripture to reinforce their present faith position
and the rightness of their decision to leave the church.
second category of leavers - those I call the "Reflective Exiles"
(n=32)- leave their church from a quite different position. Although
they too may have problems with the leadership, direction and practice
of their church (or EPC churches in general) these issues are not
the fundamental reasons for their decision to leave.
this group of leavers, and those we will consider next, leaving
is typically a process which occurs over a long period of time,
perhaps 18 months or more. This process of moving away from the
church begins gradually with feelings of unease, a sense of irrelevancy
between church and what happens in other important areas of their
lives, and a reducing sense of fit and belonging to the church community
and its 'faith package'.
gateway through which this group leave the church I have called
Meta-grumbles. These are not grumbles about specifics within the
church. They are not questioning peripheral aspects of EPC faith,
but the deep rooted foundations of the faith itself.
title 'reflective' is given to this group because of the reflecting
and questioning stance towards their faith which now characterises
them. I call them exiles because they are, albeit by personal choice,
exiled from a community and a way of understanding themselves, life
and God which has been very important, even foundational, to them
in the past.
faith of the Reflective Exiles can be characterised as counter-dependent.
Where the Displaced Followers remained dependent on the wider EPC
community the Reflective Exiles are pushing against anything EPC.
When I asked this group of leavers what nurtures their faith now
the most common response was "It certainly isn't . . . "
followed by some description of aspects of the wider EPC community
and the personal faith disciplines of the previous grouping.
the Reflective Exiles are engaged in a deconstruction of their previous
faith. That is, they are engaged in a process of taking to pieces
the faith they had received, accepted and acted within for so many
years. To do so is personally a very destabilising process for them,
as their faith has been an important part of their world view, the
foundation of important life decisions and an integral part of their
sense of selfhood. They are involved in an ongoing reflective process
which involves a reevaluation of each component of their faith.
and not surprisingly, their faith is very hesitant. Many spoke of
having "put it [their faith] all down for a while and leaving
it", because it got too confusing and disillusioning. Because
of feelings like this their ownership of their faith is somewhat
third group of leavers are those I called "Transitional Explorers".
The transitional faith interviewees displayed an emerging sense
of ownership of their faith. This is shown in a confidence of faith,
a clear decision to move from a deconstruction of the received faith
to an appropriation of some elements of the old faith whilst giving
energy to building a new self-owned faith.
varying degrees this faith incorporates elements of the previous
church-based faith. However these elements of faith have now been
tested and found to be valid and worthy of being retained to the
level of satisfaction necessary for the individual involved.
use an analogy from the courtroom, the internal jury has reached
a verdict on these faith elements and now sees them as being plausible,
'beyond reasonable doubt'. What constitutes reasonable doubt varies
from person to person.
mentioned earlier, for some the examination process involves rigorous
theological and philosophical debate through reading and/or interaction
with others. For others, reasonable doubt is based more on personal
experience and what is plausible to them at an intuitive gut-level
or through a deeper trust of their own feelings.
transitional faith stance indicates that the internal jury has begun
to read its verdict on at least some of the elements of faith and
is reporting a verdict of positive personal appropriation ("this
is something I can hold to"). The Transitional Explorers represented
18% of those interviewed (n=19).
these Transitional Explorers were a small group of those who were
transitioning to alternative faith stances. This grouping was made
up of two people who had moved to a more new age based faith and
five who had so many questions, doubts and issues with the Christian
faith that they were best characterised as agnostic in their belief
final category of leavers were called the "Integrated Way-finders".
Where the Transitional Explorers are in the process of reconstructing
their faith and developing an emerging self-ownership, the integrated
faith people have to all intents and purposes completed this faith
reconstruction work. While there is a sense in which the 'integrated
faith' is also still open and being constantly redefined and adapted,
the major faith examination is now complete.
process could be likened to the building of a house out of timber
from a previous home. The first part of the process involves moving
out of the old home and carefully tearing it down. In the demolition
phase the timber, window and door frames, roofing materials and
fittings are assessed as to their usefulness a
materials for the new house. This process is what I have called
the "reflective phase".
next part of the process involves building the new house out of
the materials retrieved from the old one and the incorporation of
a number of new materials. This is the "transitional phase",
where much of the structural faith building is done.
the house is complete and livable and the person is able to move
in. This final phase may include minor ongoing work to the house,
rooms may still need to be painted, repairs made and at times modifications
of various degrees undertaken. Although this work is ongoing, the
basic structure of the home is complete and it now affords a safe
place for the individual to live in.
final phase in the faith journey is what I have called the "integrated
faith" phase, because here the structure of the faith is to
all intents and purposes complete and the person is able to appropriate
it as their own faith system. People at this final phase, like the
builder of the home, may well be involved in ongoing questioning
and occasional periods of faith reevaluation (on some occasions
involving quite substantial reevaluations), but the major structural
work is now done.
term 'integrated' is also descriptive of a second aspect of these
people's faith, in that they are seeking to integrate their faith
into all aspects of their lives. Of these people, like no other
grouping previously discussed, it can be said that there is a more
fully rounded faith that seeks to integrate the physical, mental,
emotional, sexual, relational and spiritual aspects of their selfhood
in a way deeply connected with their faith. Hence people at this
faith phase are very aware of the deeper personal issues that lurk
term 'way-finder' may seem at first somewhat curious. Its use is
intended to signal that the people in this faith position have found
something of a way forward in their faith. In this sense they are
way-finders. There were 30 interviewees in this category.
reasons why these people left the church and the post-church faith
they established need to be understood not only as the personal
journies of the individuals but also as the story of groups of leavers
in a rapidly changing society.
of the surprising results of the research for me was coming to see
that for the majority of leavers (65% of those interviewed) this
was not a solo journey but one which involved them in groups of
people in similar faith transitions. I found that there are a considerable
and growing number of such post-church groups which meet to discuss,
question and reformulate and understand their faith.
of these groups also meet to pray and worship together in ways that
appear to have more immediacy and relevance to their whole lives
than what they experienced in their respective EPC churches. Many
of the leavers I interviewed and others I met, especially those
I categorised as Transitional Explorers and Integrated Way-finders,
are part of these new groups which are experimenting with ways of
being church - ways that may prove to be more appropriate in our
rapidly changing society.
is to these emerging post-church groups that we will return in the
next article in this series.
The number of interviewees (n) =19.
is part of a Wellington-based group called 'Spirited Exchanges',
which provides a forum for those who have left church or are finding
it unhelpful in their continued journey of faith. The group is an
endeavour of Wellington Central Baptist Church, where Alan is co-senior
pastor. He has completed a PhD (in sociology) on the topic "Churchless
Faith", which analysed why people leave churches and their
journies of faith outside the church.
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I left a church...
haven't been to church for more than six months. Some people say
that you cannot be a Christian in isolation - you need a Christian
community. I couldn't agree more.
reason why I left church is not because I wanted to separate myself
from a community of believers, but because the church I was going
to wasn't functioning as such a community. A Christian community
is exactly what I am after - but is not what I have found in church.
have attended Pentecostal church services for many years and have
never liked the worship - since to me worship isn't singing songs
and singing songs isn't worshipping. The preaching, usually, is
banal at best. I find that a very occasional communion service with
watered-down raspberry juice is a fairly lame imitation of what
should be a profound celebration of a Christian mystery. And I am
something of an introvert, so I don't like hanging around afterwards
find Pentecostal church services rather content-less. The theological
merit of most songs is dubious, and much of the preaching (in my
church at least) is anecdotal and only scratches the surface of
Scripture and tradition.
am after a community which can take the good things in the Pentecostal
experience (mainly its insistence that every believer can and should
have a direct encounter with God through his Holy Spirit, and that
all believers are empowered for service) while exploring other Christian
traditions and expressions - such as liturgical prayer, silence
and meditation. I hope for a group that can discuss faith with theological
depth and insight - where the teaching mines the depths of the Scriptures
for their treasure.
left church not because I do not believe in church, but because
what passes for church falls so far short of what is possible, and
what I hope for, that to go on a Sunday morning is simply depressing.
After I read Dave Tomlinson's book The Post-Evangelical I recognised
that there are many others, like me, who give up church-going because
it seems the church is going nowhere.
funerals, and maybe an occasional Easter or Christmas service sums
up my appearances in church these days.
have attended church for most of my life. At 15 years of age I became
a 'born again Christian' finding a living relationship with Jesus
Christ. For the most part I attended charismatic style churches
and was privileged to receive some excellent teaching from scripture
and befriend many good people.
the sort to look for trouble or to step out of the mould for the
sake of it, it was strange to find myself growing uncomfortable
with the way I perceived church. As a leader of a women's group
I met once a month with the church hierarchy. It was at these meetings
that I became aware of the politics and orchestration of situations
within the church.
was often apparent that sermons were designed to motivate people
for a coming event or to help bring in the money for the building
fund. Much time, energy and money was spent in the building up of
church plant. It often seemed that projects were the goal, rather
than a desire to be led by the Holy Spirit and used by him.
also felt a growing discomfort about the performance nature of the
Sunday services. In Sunday morning services those musicians and
worship leaders deemed to be 'good enough' performed at the front.
In the family service the Childrens' Church leaders organised a
presentation where each set of leaders tried to outdo the previous
months of pondering these things, I decided that church walls tend
to protect Christians from the world and get in the way of their
interaction with ordinary people.
are full of people who sit and watch the front. Faith is not given
much opportunity to grow and for many, there is little opportunity
to use the talents God has given them. There is too much hierarchy,
too much assessing the spirituality of others and too much controlling
on behalf of God.
family stopped attending the 'church in walls'. We would come home
from church frustrated and cross and found it was better not to
go at all. It was a lonely venture. Mostly people didn't understand.
Those we had considered our friends no longer contacted us and we
accepted that we were now not part of the 'club'. Ultimately it
doesn't matter that people didn't understand, or that now we were
in a 'box' labelled 'backslider'. What matters is that we stay in
communication with God - listen to his voice, walk with him and
came out of the organised church about six years ago because I believe
the Lord called me out - out from so much mixture with the world's
ways and the compromise and even the error that has crept into much
of today's structured church.
come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not
touch what is unclean, and I will receive you" (2 Corinthians
6 :17-18). It is not a backslidden people who are coming out, but
rather a people whose longing is to walk more closely with the Lord.
really finding it difficult to stay connected with the church. I've
just about had enough of it.
a long time, at every local level throughout New Zealand, it has
impressed me as being thoroughly anachronistic and irrelevant. In
the preaching of the church the great social issues of the day are
simply not on the agenda.
is moved to the depths of his being by the plight of the poor and
his anger and wrath are upon those who create poverty and upon those
who ignore it. That message is central in the prophets and the gospel.
the clergy not care? Do the office bearers not care? If local church
leaders want to become relevant, they must begin to listen - they
must begin to engage in some elementary research to inform their
preaching and all their work.
I've been disengaging for some years now. Maybe I should quit. But
how can I give up completely? I am torn apart. I love the people,
the office bearers and the clergy - but I also love the community
outside the church, especially the poor in the community.
institutional church is so frustrating. It's simply driving me crazy
and making me very angry. I want to sit down and weep.
attended a Presbyterian Church from the age of five. I taught Bible
Class, sang in a worship-type group and attended a Discipleship
Training School and a Bill Gothard seminar overseas. After that
a further intensive year of work with my local church saw a number
of the young people commit themselves to Christ.
then joined a street ministry group which eventually formed its
own church where I became an elder. After several years of growth
this group folded and my wife and I then spent a number of years
in a local 'indigenous' Pentecostal church where we led a home group.
experienced a deepening call to the mission field which culminated
in our going to Turkey some ten years ago. On our return we went
back to our home Pentecostal church a number of times, but felt
we could not continue there.
Turkey we had seen how real fellowship and worship could be. Our
experiences in New Zealand local churches were mere shadows in comparison.
organisation we went to Turkey with had people from a good variety
of church backgrounds from around the world. Yet here we could fellowship
and worship in a real and meaningful way. There was no special 'brand'
imposed on us, and we respected each others' backgrounds.
local church we attended had mainly Turkish congregants with about
three foreign families. In this young church we could see the need
for meeting and sharing for the purpose of growth and development.
Back in New Zealand we felt that we had been meeting for the sake
of meeting, and that reasons had to be developed to keep people
coming to church - in fact we had even heard it said in leadership
meetings in our local church that we should be developing short
term projects to keep people excited about church!
were times when every mission in Turkey would meet and consult together,
holding various meetings including a men's camp and a women's camp
(the only useful ones we have ever attended). There was a common
purpose and a willingness to share the workload rather than competing
needlessly to achieve a common goal.
in New Zealand we see only glimpses of such fellowship. We see some
valid worship and ministry here, but none strong enough to get us
deeply involved. We still pray, read the Bible, discuss with Christian
friends, and help financially support three missionary families
on their fields.
I get the feeling that God wishes to increase his blessing on the
church but that it is our structures, beliefs and 'territoriality'
that limits him.
the last seven years I have attended a Pentecostal church. I came
to realise that my theology differed somewhat from that of some
of the people I sat next to week after week, but I never felt I
had the freedom to express these differences openly for fear of
being called deceived (which did happen) or being branded a heretic.
also had some difficulty accepting the autocratic style of leadership.
should be a place where a person is nurtured, and encouraged. A
place which is safe, where one can express one's creativity and
ask questions without fear. Alas, all too often it is a place which
is narrow in its thinking, suspicious, and not accepting of people's
for now I no longer attend church. Now, when I meet with like-minded
(and even not-like-minded) individuals who are lovers of Christ,
I say this is church. You don't have to be in a church building
to pray with others, worship with others, laugh or cry with others,
but you do need to be in a relationship with people.
being in the 'safe' confines of the church for so long (over fifteen
years) leaving was a big decision. Suddenly the boundary lines that
church culture has in place (telling you what you can and cannot
do) were no longer there. It is a risky business, but satisfying
when you make decisions for yourself, rather than having them made
Female 60 years
around 1978 we quit organised religion. Not because of bad experiences,
though with a combined total of 83 years of religion between us
(then!) we knew a fund of religious horror stories. But bad experiences
are par for the course wherever you find people.
had both come from deeply religious families. We and our children
were active in church life. We had followed a path that led from
a serious Calvinist-oriented beginning, through the middle-of-the-road
evangelical organisations, to a growing and successful charismatic
church. We had accepted the religious structure at its own evaluation,
given it our best shots, taken seriously the concept that it was
the area in which the Lord worked.
eventually we could no longer ignore the fact that what was called
church was a continual source of disappointment, compromise and
frustration. The rules, the protocol and the shibboleths prevented
what we understood as God's will in our lives from being done fully.
We could not honestly support a religious system and follow the
Lord's leading at the same time.
were tired of long hours spent trying to fan sparks of enthusiasm
in reluctant believers. We begrudged the thousands of dollars going
towards administration and building and endless in-house activities.
We saw how Christians were encouraged to accept the lead of ministers
and elders, rather than actual and dynamic personal direction from
experienced a distinct letdown. The togetherness, the in phrases,
the uplift of music all had combined to form a powerful stimulant.
Going cold turkey gives painful withdrawal symptoms. But what we
did not lose was the presence of God.
is as important to our lives as ever. Perhaps more important. Because
now we didn't have to distinguish between the emotion generated
by prolonged praise and worship and the real yet unspectacular business
of everyday life with the Lord.
decision to leave church was a necessary step in a journey which
started almost three years ago when I realised that I had a truckload
of Christian knowledge and yet didn't really know what I believed.
This was a little unsettling for someone who had been brought up
a Christian and had followed it through diligently, including going
on three outreaches overseas.
became less and less a place for me to grow and be inspired, and
more of a place for me to endure irrelevant teachings and worship
which I couldn't seem to participate in. Church, for me, became
part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
is as if I'm going through a spiritual adolescence, wanting to grow
up. The church seems to want to keep me in a dependent parent/child
relationship. I rebel against that pressure but, like some teenagers,
don't have the strength to claim my freedom to grow and take responsibility
while I'm still attending church.
unless I wished to remain a child, I needed to leave 'home'. Hopefully,
as I grow stronger, I will be able to enter into a more adult to
adult relationship with the church, without feeling overpowered
by the inherent (and, dare I say it, un-Christlike) power of that
institution. If Jesus came today, could he bring himself to be aligned
with the institution of Christianity?
I decided to leave the church, it was one of the most freeing, yet
most scary decisions I've made thus far. I decided to throw away
the composite of realities that had been given to me to believe
in, and discover what was actually real for me. What was scary was
that I had very little reality with God to call my own. I have truly
had to start again from scratch.
church I feel like I'm going over old ground. I feel I've moved
on from what is being discussed. When I return to church it is for
the communion service alone. The sermons don't even touch me any
more, they seem to have no substance. When I look around and see
the same people still sitting in the pews with the same things being
discussed I realise that if I do start attending church regularly
again I will become frustrated and that will only lead to criticism
which I don't want to get into.
all my energy went into working in groups within the church, and
that felt right and proper. But now I feel God wants me out in the
community working alongside everyday people sharing my gifts, where
people are interested in what I have to share rather than fighting
me for my differences.
do miss the singing at church, and the sharing of my faith with
others, but I feel deeply sad that the church has not been able
to move fast enough to keep up with the changes that have occurred
in the 20th century.
still believe that God created the world and bestowed his gifts
on his people; we live each moment in his blessings. I believe that
Jesus is the saviour of the world and is constantly redeeming his
people. I believe God's Holy Spirit works through me in all that
I do with other people. I believe his light goes out to those I
work with and that people catch the wonder and joy and power. They
become curious about what I have to share, without me having to
speak in a Christian language to them.
God continue to be with all those who have left the church not really
wanting to, but feeling that they have to, rather than staying constantly
frustrated with the possibility of becoming very critical.