A Churchless Faith

Alan Jamieson


What makes people stop attending church and what happens to their faith after they have left?

As 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.

I 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'.

Two 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.

I 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).

The 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.

To 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.

Displaced Followers

The 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.

This 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.

Both 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.

The 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.

The Displaced Followers' post-church faith can be characterised under four headings.

The 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 Christ 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.

Their 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.

While 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.

The 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.

Finally, 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.

Reflective Exiles

The 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.

For 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'.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Secondly, 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.

Finally, 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 tentative.

Transitional Explorers

The 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.

To 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.

To 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.

As 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.

The 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).

Alongside 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 system.

Integrated Way-finders

The 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.

The 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

s materials for the new house. This process is what I have called the "reflective phase".

The 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.

Finally 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.

This 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.

The 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 within themselves.

The 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.

 

The 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.

One 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.

Some 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.

It is to these emerging post-church groups that we will return in the next article in this series.

 

NOTES

1 The number of interviewees (n) =19.

Alan 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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Why I left a church...

Male 37 years

I 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.

The 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.

I 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 for fellowship.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Female 43 years

Weddings, funerals, and maybe an occasional Easter or Christmas service sums up my appearances in church these days.

I 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.

Not 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.

It 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.

I 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 ones.

Over 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.

Churches 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.

Our 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 obey him.

Female 70 years

I 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.

"Therefore 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.

Male 70 years

I'm really finding it difficult to stay connected with the church. I've just about had enough of it.

For 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.

God 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.

Do 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.

Disillusioned, 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.

The institutional church is so frustrating. It's simply driving me crazy and making me very angry. I want to sit down and weep.

Male 44 years

I 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.

I 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.

We 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.

In Turkey we had seen how real fellowship and worship could be. Our experiences in New Zealand local churches were mere shadows in comparison.

The 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.

The 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!

There 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.

Back 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.

Often 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.

Female 36 years

For 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.

I also had some difficulty accepting the autocratic style of leadership.

Church 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 eccentricities.

So 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.

After 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 for you.

Male 64 years
Female 60 years

Sometime 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.

We 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.

But 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.

We 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 God.

So we left.

We 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.

He 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.

Male 25 years

My 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.

Church 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.

It 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.

Therefore, 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?

When 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.

Female 53 years

In 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.

Once 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.

I 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.

I 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.

May 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.