In search of Turangawaewae
In this, the last of his series on church leavers, Alan Jamieson looks at theformation of post-church groups andwhat may be learned from them.
Many church leavers exit the institutional church saddened by the fact that the place they once belonged to, supported and enjoyed has become a place where they no longer 'fit'.
The vast majority of the exiles from the church I met spoke of missing the sense of community and belonging that they once enjoyed in their church environment. The church was for many years their Turangawaewae - the place where they belonged, the place where they could stand. It was the group that reinforced and validated their sense of faith identity.
After leaving their church they long for a new Turangawaewae - a new place to belong, a new place to stand. In order to meet this need many form - or link up with - faith groups outside the institutional church networks.
Although these evangelical charismatic and Pentecostal (EPC) church leavers are abandoning their church, the majority are still keen to meet with others who are travelling a similar faith journey. In fact 65% of the people I interviewed were involved in a group since leaving their church.
The role of these groups varies considerably. Some function as gatherings of the discontented in the process of leaving the church, others as discussion groups primarily focused on concerns that were not given space in the EPC church environments, while still others are attempts to be church for those who have left the institutional churches.
My findings, based on the twenty plus groups I was able to research, are not alone but are bolstered by the work of Marg Gilling1 - senior lecturer in adult education at Massey University, Wellington, and researcher on faith groups in New Zealand - who has located more than 50 faith groups with diverging styles; and researchers like Terry Veling2 who is asking to what extent these groups may indicate something of the future of the church.
The post-church groups I observed had one common feature: they were formed to provide a forum for people to discuss topics and issues that were 'out of court' in the EPC church environments they had left. They are places where doubts about faith, anger, and disappointment with the church (or with God) can be expressed and where questions can be raised which address the foundational core of the theology, practice, beliefs and world view of EPC churches.
They are places where things are said without ecclesiological fluff or church 'niceness'. Places where a spade is called a spade and where telling it like it is - the good the bad and the ugly - is not only tolerated but celebrated. Safe places where there is no censorship of feelings, intuitions, doubts and ideas.
For many of the people who find these groups so important, previously buried feelings, nagging doubts and heretical thoughts are finally spoken, heard and validated. As one person I met said of her group: "The group was there so other people could hear your story and validate you. People who knew where you were at. We had ground rules such as: your opinion could change from one week to the next and that was all right."
Marg Gilling sums up the attractiveness of the groups she met with by echoing the comment she heard from so many people all around New Zealand - "In the church I can't be me. In this group I can."
These post-church discussion groups - characterised by their informality, shared leadership and shared meals - are not the only type of post-church groups springing up. Another set of groups are fulfilling many of the roles of 'church' for those within them. This second grouping of post-church groups I have called 'quasi-churches' because they have taken on many of the functions of a church but are nevertheless distinctly different from the institutional churches the group members have left.
The activities of the 'quasi-church groups' include times of prayer, worship, teaching and the sharing of communion together. Some have even written their own liturgies and prayers. There is also room for discussion and story telling.
Money is collected from the group - which normally operates a trust account to which people can make anonymous deposits. The money is then given to needy causes such as overseas aid agencies or refugees who had moved into the local community; or it is used for the care of the poor, the sick or the abused in the community.
Many of those who attend these groups most definitely see them as 'church'. Not church like the institutional church they have left, nor like the house churches of previous decades, rather these are groups which provide a place for the nurturing of faith and involvement in God's world in an open and accepting community of people who are forming close relationships with each other.
These groups are places where the group members feel they belong, places where they can stand in their faith and in the world, places where 'faith identities' are rebuilt and strengthened - places of Turangawaewae.
But they are not static places. The people in these groups have no desire that the groups should become institutionalised like the churches they have left. Rather they are groups that exist for as long as they are meaningful and helpful to the core group of people who make them up and give energy to them, and when that ceases then they end. That ending is not seen as failure, but as the opportunity for members to form - or link up with - other groups, and make other connections with people of like faith.
Often the new connections people make are to similar groups, or to other Christian churches and structures. For example some begin courses of theological study, link up with spiritual directors, attend Catholic Masses, liturgical communions, Taize, Celtic or alternative services, or become involved in service and community ministries. Hence the end of a particular post-church group does not mean the end of the faith journey of the people who make it up, or the end of their search for Turangawaewae.
The irony is that although the number of post-church groups is increasing, few church leaderships seem to be aware of them or in touch with them. Yet talking with those involved with these groups could help church leaderships to understand why people leave churches like theirs, why others in the community don't want to belong and may be able to give pointers as to how the church could better position itself in our changing society which seems so resistant and uninterested in the Christian church.
After meeting with those involved in these groups I listed five areas in which our EPC churches could gain from dialogue with those in post-church groups.
A focus on community, integrity of participation, dialogue in finding truth, minimalist structures and transparent leadership.
Perhaps because of the size of these post-church groups and the institutional structure of the churches the group members left, there is a high priority within them for participation, dialogue and facilitation (rather than leadership). There is also a preference for minimal structure.
These are groups in which people are allowed to find their own faith, and to choose their own ways of living out that faith. In this way they reflect something of the emerging culture.
Like the Celtic communities of a previous era, these groups are relational networks which are people-centred rather than message - or belief - centred. The environment thus created may be very appealing to those who have never considered the Christian faith because of its connection to church structures and institutional modes of operation.
Secondly, the people who make up these groups realise that finding the truth is a complex and difficult journey. The groups tend to be open places where one expression of truth does not set the agenda. Consciously, or unconsciously, these people realise that truth is multidimensional and paradoxical. 'Real Truth' is connected to both historical, and emerging, representations of truth.
Their search is for a 'truth-to-live-by'. It is a search for meaning rather than facts, understanding rather than doctrine, with a focus on what is 'honest and real'. These are places where people can give voice to their points of confidence in God and to their doubts, questions and unresolved areas of faith.
Again such groups may be very attractive to people who have dismissed Christian faith because they have found EPC church manifestations of that faith too confining and restrictive to allow exploration of the nuances of what it is to be a Christian.
A high priority given to emotions, intuition and laughter.
The post-church groups I observed allow plenty of room for people to express themselves. This expression may involve intimate sharings of feelings including anger, disappointment and frustration with God, church, themselves and their faith. Gut feelings and intuitions and honest and 'real' expressions are encouraged. These are often coupled with a lot of laughter. Maybe the rawness and honesty of such group interactions encapsulates a strength that EPC churches could learn from.
An openness to a broad eclectic use of worship styles.
The 'quasi-church' groups, unencumbered by traditions and set ways of operating, are free to draw models for their worship from all the streams of the church and contemporary culture. What matters is the degree to which a worship style connects with people's lives and 'moves' them.
An openness to people who think differently and believe differently.
For a number of people I met, openness to the views, beliefs and faith of others was based on their own deep and personal convictions and faith commitments. Being well anchored in their own relationship to Christ, they were free to talk with those who had differing viewpoints without being personally threatened or feeling that they had to defend God. Such people were often key members of their respective post-church groups. (It must also be acknowledged, however, that there are those whose openness is merely a reflection of the free-floating nature of their beliefs and faith.)
The journey for the institutional EPC churches to an honest engagement of post modern culture involves a major shift.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that these groups of leavers have to offer EPC churches and their leaderships is their knowledge of the difficult journey they individually travelled from the centre of an EPC church to the formation of an integrated and communal Christian faith. In so doing they may stop ideas that EPC churches can sail into an increasingly post-modern context with only some superficial changes to the way they operate, as if business as usual is all that is needed.
EPC church leaderships need to realise the extent of dismantling and rebuilding necessary to move the present EPC faith and church structures to a place of connection with a post-Christian, post-modern and sceptical society. Discussions with the members of post-church groups may highlight the extent of change needed and give pointers as to how to begin.
Church leaderships could learn a lot from open discussions with those involved in post-church groups. In an age where fewer and fewer people are interested in church, it would seem a good strategy for church leaderships to look to ex-longterm leadership figures and listen to their perceptions and views.
But let's not romanticise these groups, they too have weaknesses, blind spots and areas that need correction. Because of this, the dialogue should not all be one way. Church leaderships also have priorities and perceptions that could strengthen the life of the post-church groups. EPC churches' emphasis on mission, evangelism and helping their children and youth to develop a Christian faith could be important reminders to many in the post-church groups.
Most important of all: finding out about post-church groups, being aware of their existence and learning to dialogue and network with them, will strengthen both church leaderships and those in post-church groups, in a changing society that demands a plurality of forms of 'doing church'.
The major reason I see for discussions between post-church groups and church leaderships is this element of 'what awaits us in the future'. Maybe the post-church groups give us some indications of the shape of a major part of the church in the future.
Ward and Wild in their book Guarding the Chaos use the term 'liminal' to describe many of the post-church groups they were involved with because they pointed to new ways of being church in the future. 'Liminal' means the 'in-between' stage between states, the period before the new, which is a pointer to the new. It was originally used by anthropologists to describe marker events in people's (and communities') lives which were in-between times yet pointed to the future - for example the period of time when an adolescent male is taken into the bush in African societies prior to returning as a full male member of the tribe.
What if today's post-church groups are liminal groups, groups that give indications of a shape of the future? It wouldn't be the first time.
Walter Brueggemann3 points out that when people in the Christian community are asked about the model of the faith community in Old Testament times, they tend to refer to the faith community based on the monarchy and the temple in Jerusalem (dating from 1000 BC to 587 BC). He states that contrary to popular belief this was not the only model, but was in fact preceded by the exilic model which began with Moses and led up to the time of David (1250 BC-1000 BC) and followed by yet another model after the collapse of temple dominance and the exile of Israel under the Babylonians (587 BC).
The post-exilic community is the one in which the synagogue (which is 'the place of the text') began, as well as the formation of the Beth Midrash ('house of study'), and eventually, the appearance of the rabbis who are teachers of the tradition. These sprung up because a new community demanded new forms of the faith.
Could it happen again? Are the post-church groups of today forerunners of new forms of the faith in our own rapidly changing society? Certainly there are many people looking for a spirituality and a faith that makes sense of their lives, connects them with the reality of God and provides them a place to belong - their own Turangawaewae. Yet they are walking right past the institutional church in their search. Maybe God is allowing a new thing to grow.
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.