Friends Exploring the Frontiers of Faith
A study of post-church groups in New Zealand
The first time I visited 'Group #8'1 I was met at the door by one of the children of the host family and taken into the living room to meet others who had arrived early. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and seemed very at ease in each other's company, yet also happy to have a visitor. Food was cooking in the kitchen and others were bringing food with them as they arrived.
Slowly the room was filling with people and the table was being set ready for a meal together. Over the next half hour as people drifted in spiders2 were made for the children, while the adults chatted and caught up on each other's news. Conversations ranged over various every-day events including political news and the rugby - both the All Blacks and the local school-boy teams as some of the children in the group play, and their dads are faithful supporters.
The children moved easily in and out of conversations with adults and their own games. Clearly they too were an important part of the group. There was obvious concern and care as one group member explained how a friend had died in tragic circumstances that week. People acknowledged in genuine ways the struggle it must be coming to terms with this loss.
When everyone had arrived the meal began. This was not simply a formality or pre-cursor to the group time but an integral part of what they shared together. Time was taken over the meal and people chatted, socialised and ate as the children came in and out from another room where they had been playing games or watching a video together.
After lunch Brian, who was to lead the discussion, got everyone's attention and asked people to take a seat. He began with a couple of word pictures and then showed two original modern paintings. The paintings were used to challenge our assumptions regarding the meaning we take from what we see - and how we connect what we see in a picture with our own prior experience.
Drawing on the group's knowledge and experience, and a reading from a book entitled Wisdom of the Soul, he slowly guided us to the points he hoped we would make. He wanted the group to see that we need to give ourselves time and space in order to see what is beyond the immediate. We need to really get in 'behind' what we see, like Jesus did - to see beyond the immediate and the taken-for-granted.
Although the Bible was not explicitly used, group members' contributions included overt and covert references to specific biblical passages and stories. Clearly these people knew the scriptures well.
While members of the group take turns at leading and there is no appointed leader, a couple of people do provide the 'glue' of the group, ensuring that matters of basic organisation and communication are covered and giving some energy to group life. While talking to people after the discussion I realised how important the group was to them. It provided strong friendships and there were obviously very close links among the group members. One couple spoke of feeling very supported by the group through a difficult personal time.
Speaking about what attracted them to the group people mentioned a variety of factors, among them: the intimacy, feeling that they were being heard, the humour in the group and the feeling of safety the group provided. Others said that this was a place where they could be themselves with no pressure to have to be something different. That there was a sense of freedom from having to pretend - and support and acceptance while some took the time they needed to heal.
Still others said the fact that they had a shared history with other group members was important to them and that they enjoyed the diversity in the group - the space to hear one another's differences and not to have to toe a party line; the fact that it was OK to simply 'be who you are'.
As I left I felt that I had been with a very warm and relational group, seeking to provide not only support and encouragement for each other on their respective Christian journeys, but also a place of nourishment for one another. This is not a group striving to meet other people's expectations or trying to 'get it right'. They seemed settled in their faith and in their stance as a group outside the church.
New Zealand-wide Research
That description is a snippet from an ongoing study of post-church groups around New Zealand, which I have undertaken with Jenny McIntosh. Our study has analysed groups from north of Auckland to Christchurch, in both urban and rural settings.
We have visited the groups, talked informally with group members and studied accounts they have written of their group life. A substantial questionnaire given (where possible) to a small sample of participants from each group3 has also yielded considerable information. The material drawn from these sources forms the basis of the discussion that follows.
Post-church groups are formed by people who, having left 'institutional'4 forms of church, want to support and sustain each other in their spiritual journeys. These groups are predominantly made up of people who have left evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic churches (abbreviated here to EPC churches). As one group's web site states:
In a functional and theological sense both institutional and post-church groups may be seen simply as different forms of church. From a functional perspective institutional churches and post-church groups may meet for similar purposes: to worship, to pray, to teach and be taught and to share the sacraments.
From a theological perspective all followers of Christ (Christians, from the Greek christianoi: 'Christ people') are by definition part of the Church - the house or community of the Lord (from the Greek Kyriake: 'belonging to Kyrios: Lord'). This is the Church universal - the church made up of all those who belong to Christ.
The distinction being made here between institutional forms of church and post-church groups is not based on a functional or theological basis but on a structural and sociological understanding. As one respondent put it:
The groups described in this article are typical of post-church faith groups around New Zealand. Like the people we met in the first group, those who make up post-church groups tend to be those in mid-life and older - average age 40-45 years (see table 1). Over 90% are married with families and most are well educated - sixty percent have either a tertiary degree or have done post-graduate study (see table 2).
These well-educated, mid-life married parents have typically been significantly involved in their respective churches for decades. The range of leadership positions listed by the various group members covered every conceivable leadership role in church life (see table 3).
Many had worked full-time (13%) in a church and more than 85% had held two or more significant leadership roles. Interestingly, fifty-six percent of them had been part of the overall church leadership group (elders, deacons, vestry, church councils and boards).
Nearly all the respondents (over 93%) had left all forms of established church prior to joining or becoming involved in their post-church group and most (over 70%) continued to have no involvement in any institutional church.
Of those who did retain links with institutional churches, two were regularly involved in a local church as well as the post-church group, two attended special events or seminars from time to time, two went to midweek services and three had "occasional" forays to an institutional church. One respondent's only ongoing contact was through continuing to tithe to a church that he no longer attended.
Beyond these connections the people who made up the post-church groups are no longer part of an institutional church in any way.
Sixty three percent of the people had been a part of their post-church group for two or more years (10% for five or more years) and only 16% had been part of their group for less than 1 year.
Sarah: I felt that church was negatively impacting my relationship with God. I really tried hard to see how I could change to make my church experience more positive but it didn't work that way. I began learning about other ways to relate to God besides those I had been taught at my church and found they fitted much more with who I am. My church did not seem to allow the kind of emotional reality that I was experiencing during a particularly painful episode in my life. Church was like a box into which I no longer fitted.
James: Once we decided to leave our church it was easy to go. We have never missed it. We almost felt like we had outgrown it. It seemed that in church we were eternally covering the same ground.
So why do these middle aged long-term committed leaders within EPC churches leave the institutional churches they have been a part of for so long? The reasons people gave for leaving their churches can be grouped into two areas of concern.
The first relates to the structure and orientation of the churches.
Leavers gave the following reasons:
· the shallowness of the format and approach
· the seeming ineffectiveness of the church
· the church was dysfunctional
· the church was an autocracy
· the church was too inward looking
· the church was boring
· the church contributed to people's burnout
· they disagreed with the philosophy of the leadership
· the church was manipulative
· the church was controlling
· the church was abusive
· there was a lack of biblical teaching
· there were too many factions
· there were 'power' issues
· they wanted to explore new ways of 'being' church
The second grouping of reasons related to personal growth and the spiritual/faith journey of individuals.5 Here the leavers felt:
· they had grown beyond church
· church was like a stuck record
· church hindered their connection with God
· church provided them with no support
· church was too narrow
· they had too many questions
· they were not heard
· they wanted to be freed to make contact with non-Christian people
· church was too limiting
· they wanted more contemplation
· they had been discarded
· church did not scratch where they itched
· they wanted a more intimate and participatory environment
Most people spoke of a combination of church related concerns and personal issues of growth or needing something 'different' for their own spiritual development.
This is consistent with Marg Gillings' (1999) research.6 In her study of sixty "informal Christian communities" - a sizeable number of which would fit the post-church category (groups that support the ongoing Christian faith of people who have left institutional forms of church) - she found that the principal purpose of the groups was to provide a place where people could "find their meaning".
Jill: People come to our group because they need a venue where they can share more openly and honestly. I was one of those people.
When the institutional churches can no longer provide a place for long-term church leaders to explore their lives and Christian faith and find meaning in them, they have left7 and either joined existing post-church groups or formed new ones. Such groups will not only allow, but encourage people to question, explore and search beyond the boundaries of discourse and teaching prescribed implicitly or explicitly in the institutional forms of church.
The churches these people have left - which are predominantly conservative evangelical in theology and charismatic in style - are typically full of answers. The post-church groups these leavers form are in contrast focused on questions: exploration of questions, opening up of questions, looking behind 'answers' and challenging the 'known'. This is a common feature of all the groups.
Jill: The group provides me with friendship - a place to grow spiritually. It is like being part of a family where I can relax a little and be me. It provides an environment of grace rather than law (I find this tends to bring out the best in a person). In contrast the traditional church has tended (partly due to size, partly doctrine) to encourage individualism and performance. This group rewards 'being' rather than 'doing' and is supportive even if you haven't succeeded in something.
All the groups were formed, at least in part, to provide a forum to discuss topics and issues that are not normally up for discussion and exploration within church structures. One Auckland group describes a principal role of the group as "being a safe place where people can question, rethink, refine and develop their beliefs without being judged or demeaned." Perhaps we could say that questioning is the spirituality of thinking.
A recurring theme in the questionnaires returned by members of post-church groups was one of friendship. People repeatedly said that they continue to go to their group because they have close friends there who care for them, support them and whose company they enjoy. Clearly there are very strong communities of care, friendship, accountability, humour and depth formed in these groups.
But an equally common theme related to 'safety'. Variations of "the group provides a safe place where I can be myself" turned up time and again in answers. The issue of safety related to it being safe to grow spiritually; to participate; to be open, honest and real and to have vigorous, intelligent discussion and debate. One respondent said, "Our group is not precious."
The post-church groups were described as "relevant" and as "a reference point for my life".
Stronger Christian Faith
In a previous study8 of the faith journeys of 108 EPC church leavers the importance of post-church groups in providing a context for future faith exploration was established. Five years after completing this study a subsequent questionnaire was sent to the 108 people originally interviewed to ask where they were in their faith and in relationship to the church today.
The results reinforce the significant influence of post-church groups in people's individual faith journeys. Seventy-nine percent of those who indicated they had moved over the subsequent five years to a clearer, stronger and more definitive Christian faith had been regularly involved in a post-church group.
While the original study argued that such groups were highly influential on individuals' personal faith trajectories, a causative effect could not then be shown. Five years later a clear connection can be shown between involvement with faith groups outside the institutional church and people making moves towards a clearer, personally stronger and more definitive Christian faith.
But post-church groups, like churches, also have their struggles. Typically they are made up of a pretty homogenous bunch of Pakeha, middle-class, middle-aged baby-boomers who tend to focus on faith and life issues affecting them or people like them. Some groups, however, had developed an outward focus by supporting various missions.
Post-church groups typically struggle to provide adequately for the faith development of their children and teenagers. Although aware that this is an important priority9 they find it difficult to meet the range of ages and needs. In fact this is the overriding concern of people in post-church groups.
In their 'flat leadership' (or no leadership) systems there is sometimes little sense of direction and for some members there is insufficient leadership.
Because some members of post-church groups have become weary of worship as they experienced it in institutional churches - particularly of singing worship songs with little content - singing and associated activity may not have a high profile in some groups. This can result in other members feeling there is a lack of worship and prayer in their group life.
Yet despite these concerns people are highly committed to their post-church groups and see them as crucial to their lives and faith journeys.
Also, all the groups have processes of review, often set at regular intervals, so members can raise concerns. In this way the groups ensure that they continue to develop and work on both their strengths and their weaknesses.
An indication of the future?
Many of these post-church groups are liminal in nature. By this I mean they are indications of what may lie ahead.
Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep first used the word 'liminal' (from the Latin limen 'threshold') to signify an in-between time. Drawing on the image of the neutral zone that often existed between ancient nations - these zones were often deserts, marshes or virgin forest where everyone had full rights to travel and hunt - van Gennep says: "Liminality, therefore, can be described as an ambiguous, sacred, social state in which a person or group of persons is separated for a time from the normal structure of society."10 It is the threshold of the new.
Liminal groups are primarily focused on what lies in the future. In faith terms this means looking to develop, build and nurture an ongoing faith.
Clearly we are in an in-between, or liminal, time as a society. Modernism is rapidly giving way to what has been called 'post-modernity'. Everything around us seems to be rapidly, fundamentally and permanently changing.
Using the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's11 analogy this means the 'solid' social structures of modernism are being liquefied. Bauman's description of the emerging culture is "Liquid Modernity". In this new 'liquid' world the old certainties, stable institutions and predictable linear ways of living and thinking no longer make sense. In so many spheres of life (including work, relationships and faith) what was once stable and predictable is increasingly fragile, unpredictable, friable and liquefied.
One of the stable and predictable features of modern life was the church. As we move into a new post-modern or 'liquid-modernity' the church, too, has to change. If it doesn't it will simply continue to lose people - like those who now attend post-church groups.
The struggle for the church is in knowing how to change. Who can they learn from? What are the crucial issues they need to face?
It is in seeking answers to these questions that churches can learn from post-church groups. The people in these groups know what they - and people in a rapidly changing culture - are looking for. Perhaps Sarah best sums up what that is:
I was looking for a place where I could be real - a place whose understanding of God and the spiritual journey allowed for reality. I was looking for a place where relationship was important and where it was acknowledged that there would be differences in the way we each outworked our spiritual journeys. A place where there was freedom for me to grow in the way I felt God was inviting me to. A place where I could support others and be supported by them.
3 A total of thirty questionnaires have been received from people in various groups. The questionnaire asked eight demographic questions and 32 open-ended questions about the group, why people attended, what they saw as the strengths, weaknesses and future of the group etc.
4 'Institutional' church is here defined as an organisational and legal entity typically with constituted leadership structures, pooled financial resources and corporate times of meeting for religious activity centred on the Christian message. Typically the organisational structures of institutional churches include specific buildings ('churches'), specific and often paid roles (priests, ministers or pastors), financial systems (often with charitable tax status) constitutions and formal connections with other similarly structured and constituted churches (denominations).
5 These findings are consistent with those from a survey of leavers from one EPC church where the most common struggle with the church listed by leavers was that it was too restrictive and didn't provide a safe place to question or doubt or explore faith issues.
7 Such leaving is never easy and seldom quick. For most people the leaving is very traumatic and involves a great deal of grief. Often they hang on in church until something happens that gets them angry, disappointed or hurt enough to finally leave.
8 "A Churchless Faith: Faith outside the evangelical, Pentecostal/ charismatic church of New Zealand" (1998) PhD Sociology Department Canterbury University. Subsequently published as A Churchless Faith (2000) Philip Garside Publishing; Wellington, and (2002) SPCK; London.
Andrew Connolly's Story
Unavoidably this narrative is a personal one. Others who know us may have experienced things quite differently. Some may not agree with our interpretation of things. Unapologetically, however, this is how we've experienced the process of church leaving and rebuilding - the pain, confusion, richness and growth.
It was mid 1997 and Sue and I were struggling with the church we were attending. (I had been connected to this church for 16 years.) We tried hard to look for the gold in amongst the dross but it was exhausting.
The Toronto/Pensacola thing was bubbling away and aspects of this emphasis grated on us. Just the thought of inviting our non-church friends to church made me blush. I like them too much to put them through even one service. Yet I did want them to know the love and freedom that Jesus can bring - but for us church was not a good example of this.
Sue and I were startled to realise what we were teaching our children too. Once when we were sitting listening to the preacher with our four-year-old, he looked up and asked Sue, "How come that lady (the assistant pastor) is always angry?" Sue asked him what he meant. He replied, "She's always yelling." We decided this environment was not only soul destroying for us, but the image of God that was modelled was not one we wanted our children to imbibe as a predominant image.
We'd both been in ministry for many years, in New Zealand and overseas. We'd spent more years at Bible College than I care to admit. We weren't freshmen. We began asking ourselves: Why bother with church? The weekly ear bashing; never feeling 'good enough'; not having a forum or voice to air our concerns and struggles; feeling as if we were on a different planet; uncomfortable with the power dynamics - what was it all about?
We decided to leave church to rethink it, to be truer to ourselves. Really it was a step of radical discipleship.
Three days after we'd made this decision and told the elders we bumped into another couple who unbeknownst to us were also in the process of leaving the same church. We got together a few weeks later to share our stories. For two months - sometimes with Derek and Avril and sometimes just Sue and I with our two little ones - we visited churches and 'groups' around Auckland to see what God was up to.
With two littlies this was an exhausting exercise and after eight visits we couldn't keep it up any more. Then for the first time in our lives we asked ourselves, "What do we really need to grow and nurture ourselves?" This was a new and radical question for us, as 'shoulds' and 'oughts' and 'doing the right thing' despite how we felt was so much part of who we were as Christians.
One of our visits took us to Bread and Breakfast. We liked their kaupapa so the four of us decided to meet fortnightly for breakfast and discussion on Sunday mornings. Others heard about what we were doing and before long there were about eight families meeting together for breakfast. We took it in turns to lead the discussions and met in group-members' homes. We called our group KonXians.
We decided that as part of our de-construction and re-construction process we'd do the Alpha course together. For the last three years KonXians has invited various guests to share with us at times, but largely we have shared the responsibility of facilitating group activities among ourselves. We have found it helpful to have a facilitator to oversee the general running of things and ensure decisions are followed through on. This role is accepted by a volunteer with the consensus of the group.
One of the things that we have struggled with is the place of children in the life of KonXians. Theologically we believe that they are part of the church/group but practically it is hard to meet both the children's and adult's needs in the group context. We've tried various ways of dealing with this tension - none have worked swimmingly so we're still working on this.
Values of honesty, integrity, grace, encouragement, respect of difference, open and frank discussion (we're really good at this!), critical thinking, fellowship, generosity and openness are important to the group. If something isn't working, eg for the children, the men, or the women, we'll discuss things and try something new. We find a real freedom in exploring and 'writing' our story1 as we go rather than attempting to adhere to a prescribed way of doing things.
At the beginning of each year we retreat together and answer two fundamental questions. First, do we want to continue this year? It was never intended that we keep going forever. Secondly, we ask ourselves what has worked well over the previous year, what hasn't, and what do we want to do differently? With a bit of effort this discussion leads to decisions and the skeleton of a programme for the year.
Demographically we are largely a white, middle class, professional and family-orientated group. Many of us are teachers, counsellors, students or social workers. Most of us have been following Jesus for ten to twenty years or more and have held many and wide ranging church responsibilities. Many of us came to KonXians feeling wounded, some by churches and some by life experience and disappointment with God.
We range in age from twenty something to fifty something with the majority in the middle. There are a few singles and one couple with no children and a few group members whose partners don't hang out with us very often. For all of us, KonXians has been a safe place to reform and rebuild faith among fellow journeyers.
In the early days of the group's existence it was very encouraging to read books and articles by authors like David Tomlinson,2 Larry Kreider,3 Scott M Peck, Dave Andrews, Henri J M Nouwen, James Fowler and Mike Riddell - along with various Reality articles and the initial findings of Alan Jamieson's research. Above all this literature showed us we weren't alone and seemed actually to be part of something organic that God was doing all over the world.
The disciplines of spiritual direction and spiritual formation were also part of most of our lives. Out of these influences and our own context we wrote ourselves a 'manifesto' that outlined who we are and what we're about. Interestingly, this has been shelved for the last couple of years and I doubt whether newer members of the group even know it exists! Looking back it seems to me the creation of this manifesto was our way of attempting to describe, legitimate and earth ourselves. Once this was done we didn't need it anymore.
I think the local churches were somewhat suspicious of our group at first. As time went on and relationships with these churches were maintained we were invited to join the local Ministers' Association. Various members of the group have attended these meetings from time to time but it has been difficult with most of us working during the day - and to be honest it has not been a high priority for us.
For us there have been tremendous benefits in being part of this way of churching. It has been a safe and supportive context to ask ourselves some hard faith questions, to deconstruct some old beliefs and explore some new ones. I think we genuinely like one another and hold one another in high regard - honest sharing of ourselves is valued and supported, no subjects are off the menu.
We share around the facilitation of meetings so no one family carries all the responsibility. Because we have no overheads there's always plenty of money for the things we want to do and lots of money gets given away to other organisations.
It's easy to invite new people and they are welcomed, respected and listened to.
There have also been some ongoing difficulties. We haven't yet found a rhythm that works well for the children. We don't get together outside our fortnightly meetings as much as participants say they'd like to. Most of the group are heavily committed in other areas of life as well, which often leaves little time for growing group relationships.
Group decision-making can be a time consuming and arduous process. Many of us miss worshipping God with the big band, big congregation feel.
At the outset we realised that KonXians couldn't meet everyone's needs. We encouraged one another to maturity by recognising this, and assisting one another to find ways of meeting our needs outside the group if necessary.
At times I've heard people criticise groups like ours. One criticism is about us ignoring the needs of our children. As I've mentioned this is a problem - I admit we don't do this well. In the absence of a 'programme', however, we all take very seriously our mandate as parents in modelling and teaching our children about the Kingdom of God.
Another common criticism concerns our inward focus and lack of 'mission'. I think we have had periods of introspection as a group, but overwhelmingly there is a desire within the group to serve the community. Largely this is achieved in our workplaces and we always welcome visitors into the group. We have discussed various projects as ways of serving the community as a group but this hasn't happened as yet. Admittedly we're not easy to find. We're not listed in the phone book and we don't have an address. This group 'invisibility' however is not to be confused with not having a local and international mission passion.
KonXians has been going five years now and in the last year or so has lost some energy. In a sense the group has lost its 'new and radical' edge - that energy of being part of something new that God is doing. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next six months or so the group decided to stop doing things the way we have for the last five years and re-invent itself. Who knows what shape it will take?
I think KonXians, and groups like it, will always be on the margins ecclesiastically and socially. That's where we belong. Groups like this will always be small because if they ever grow large they soon become mainstream and lose the freedom and sense of community that can only be found in small groups. Jesus seemed to hang around the social and ecclesiastical margins as well. It seemed to be where he felt most comfortable. It was when he went to the power centre that the trouble erupted.
1 See "The Fifth Act" (a chapter in N T Wright's The New Testament and The People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). Wright's analogy of creating the final act of a five-act play is instructive in the creation of our own faith journey narrative.