Since 2003, I have been walking a Christian path without the church. At first, it was not by choice – it was due to complications from surgery coupled with chronic illness resulting in being unable to leave my home for very long at one time. But I had already been struggling with deep questions about my faith – yet staying in the church despite being given trite answers. My illness forced my hand. I could no longer attend church – or any group event. I had to search for answers on my own.
Churches are designed to help people mature in service and discipleship; but most churches are not equipped to help with the internal struggles of identity and meaning. Although the church is supposedly not the institution, not the building, and not the Sunday worship service, there are Christians who stop attending church precisely because too much emphasis is placed on the institution, the building, and on Sunday services. They would much rather spend time with other believers in smaller communities throughout the week than with large numbers of people once a week. Hence, there is a phenomenal growth of small House Churches.
Many Christians are leaving church in order to rescue their faith. They see the institutional church itself as the problem. Another part of the problem is that the members of a church cannot grow past the level of their leaders, unless they pursue growth through other sources – which is all too often discouraged by many church leaders who believe that the Bible is the only source for the Christian faith. Too many Christian leaders view education from sources outside the church as a threat.
In a study called Barriers to Belief, Reverend John Campbell writes, "many have indicated that one of the greatest barriers to belief in God is the Church itself." It is not simply a matter of working from within the church to fix the problems. The solution is not in making slight changes and adaptations to some new forms of the organization, but in a much more radical rediscovery of the very nature of the church.
New Zealand Baptist Pastor and Sociologist Dr. Alan Jamieson wrote about the spiritual quests of these "post-congregational" Christians – those who leave the church. What Jamieson has found in his studies surprised him. In researching his book, A Churchless Faith, he interviewed 108 leavers. Most were not marginal churchgoers who finally quit, but, instead, organizational linchpins. Ninety-four percent had been church leaders – deacons, home-group leaders, elders, Sunday school teachers – and 32 percent had been in ministry.
Jamieson thought he knew what happened to the faith of Christians who left the church – he thought it died. But when he went to his first interview, he met a couple who turned his ideas upside down. Two-and-a-half hours later, he left their home shaken, trying to make sense of what he had heard and felt. The couple had been key and effective leaders. They had not walked away from a relationship with God but continued to pray, worship, and study the Bible. They even prayed for Jamieson and his ministry before he left. These people were not backsliders.
Ironically, Jamieson says that the people perhaps best equipped to help this type of seekers to understand God were the very ones being lost to the church.Throughout his research, Jamieson found longtime Christian leaders with significant resumes who, while adrift from the traditional church, were definitely on a journey to know God – a God not intimidated by the hard questions that were unwelcome in their former churches.
Counting the leavers
What Jamieson found in his research among New Zealand Christians is echoed in America and elsewhere, as researchers have begun to ask hard questions about Christians who seek a churchless faith.
• While the number of Americans claiming no religious preference doubled – from 7 percent to 14 percent – between 1990 and 2000, surprisingly that did not translate into a corresponding decrease in the actual belief in God or Christ. Michael Hout and Claude Fischer published these findings, based on data from a wide range of public-opinion surveys on religion, in American Sociological Review. According to the researchers, most of the new "no preference" respondents continue to hold their conventional religious beliefs. Hout explained: "Most people who have no church still are likely to say things like: 'God is real. Heaven and hell are real. I and my kids will go there [heaven] when we're dead.'”
•Evangelical researcher George Barna noted two years ago that a large number of American adults regularly participate in faith activities – prayer, Bible reading, use of religious media – even though they have not attended a church service in many months or years. They are ignoring the institutional church, but not faith, he said. In Re-Churching the Unchurched, Barna said: "Relatively few unchurched people are atheists. Most of them call themselves Christian and have had a serious dose of church life in the past."
Barna also found that about one-third of young adults are leaving the church and not returning. This is in greater numbers than ever. Some reasons given are:
1) There is little intellectual discussion. Hard, searching questions are not allowed. Often trite answers such as “You just have to have faith” are given.
2) Many are increasingly disillusioned with the focus on attendance, buildings and cash.
3) The church is too involved in politics. It seems that many very good people in the church are not really interested in knowing the biblical Jesus, but only the republican Jesus.
4) Too many churches are into "entertainment evangelism."
5) And this is most telling: For too many people, the church is a substitute for Christ. Church is their focus, their identity, what they live for, what they work for, what they love and fight for.
• The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates there are 112,575,000 worldwide "churchless Christians." Yes, that reads over 100 million. That's 5 percent worldwide. And that number will double to 225,712,000 by 2025, Barrett says.
Some would consider it old news that mainline Christian denominations have shed members in droves. But Alan Jamieson and others warn that evangelical and charismatic churches are faring no better. While many boast massive numbers of converts, the church is like a collection bag full of holes – while new converts are being taken in through the front, the church is leaking just as many out the back. It appears that these churches are good at collecting new members, but not good at keeping their longtime members.
Searching beyond the basics
In The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich, the authors give great insights into why people leave the church – reasons many pastors have likely never considered.
Hagberg and Guelich propose that most spiritual journeys tend to move in six distinct stages. The first three are easy to see and hard to argue with: (1) Recognition of God, (2) The Life of Discipleship, and (3) The Productive Life. Certainly after most people become followers of Christ (stage 1) they begin to absorb as much content (stage 2) as possible. Then sometime later they begin to serve (stage 3). And since the authors propose that the stages are cumulative, people of faith continue to be good at these stages over the long haul. The first three stages of faith are where our churches excel and where most church leadership energy is expended.
But Hagberg and Guelich say there are still three more stages in spiritual growth – and it is the fourth I want to focus on because that is where I have spent the last decade. The fourth stage is called "The Journey Inward." The authors suggest that at some point our faith shifts focus from the externals of discipleship and service and begins to become internal. We begin to develop “a deep and very personal inward journey” that “almost always comes as an unsettling experience yet results in healing for those who continue through it.” We begin to redefine our faith and, to a great extent, our theology as we mature.
An attempt to grow beyond the first three stages within the Christian church is frustrating. This fourth stage is where my experience (and the authors') reveals the church's weakness. How does the church walk alongside those who are on the Journey Inward? What does the church do when someone hits the spiritual wall? Most churches do very little.
Obviously the church’s main focus is evangelizing and teaching the basics of discipleship. After all, most of the members are in stages 1, 2, or 3 and remain there for a lifetime. Churches do not specialize in people who have been following Christ for years and who are deeply questioning and reexamining their beliefs. These searchers often become so disillusioned with their church that they either physically leave or occupy their minds with daydreams, drawings, planning, etc, as they continue to occupy a seat in Sunday services.
When people search beyond the basic teachings, they find they must look for spiritually educational content and areas of service but away from their church. Some discover a new teacher across town who "really" teaches the Bible. Some discover service through missions, charities, or in foreign countries. While their true need may be for something deeper, they settle for something different.
Many Christians, like me, struggle to find a way to worship in honesty and find equilibrium in their spiritual life. During the “journey inward,” the questioning believer often hits a spiritual wall. For those few who are able to get beyond The Wall, stage 5 “the journey outward” and stage 6 “the life of love” comes from a faith that is your own unique walk with God. You have left organized, institutional religion’s herd mentality far behind.
Tending to the wounded
While Jamieson's A Churchless Faith functions as a travelogue of spiritual quests undertaken by those who have left the institutional church, American pastor and student worker Mary Tuomi Hammond, in The Church and the Dechurched, turns her attention to the spiritually injured – those battling emotional, spiritual, or mental scars they associate with their church experience.
Although highlighting different reasons for the exodus, and unaware of each other's work, the two Baptist ministers came to the same conclusion: The church needs to notice and nurture dechurched believers, for the spiritual benefit of all concerned.
Hammond has a consuming passion for people "who have lost a faith that they once valued or have left a body of believers with whom they were once deeply engaged." These are the souls who have lost their connection to God – included among that population are: rabid atheists, silent agnostics, moral humanists, new practitioners of distinctly non-Christian spiritualities, and bleeding believers who still cling weakly to faith. The wounded souls of the last group often come to believe that God is distant, having disappeared when other Christians attacked them. All these are among the church's strongest critics because they are now outsiders who were once insiders.
Like Jamieson, Hammond has been chastised for "attacking the faith" by recounting stories of spiritual abuse – but neither will wear that label. Hammond replies: "My love for the church compels me to challenge the church to hear and attend to the cries of its own wounded. I love the church and I wrestle with it. I love the Lord and I wrestle with my faith as well. In that visceral relationship between loving and wrestling, I find strength, hope and life that cannot be extinguished."
Providing spirited exchanges
Jamieson asks why people with a deep longing for God decide they must abandon their congregational homes to continue growing spiritually. He learned that many churches are unaware, even unconcerned, about those who have left. The overwhelming majority of leavers interviewed in his study said no one from their church ever talked with them about why they left. Jamieson's tone is sadly incredulous as he recounts one successful pastor's declaration that Jesus' parable of the lost sheep does not apply to those "who know where the paddock is and intentionally wander away" and that godly ministers should not waste time chasing them.
Rather than abandon these searchers, Jamieson says, the church should accompany them.
Within his own church, Jamieson has started a group called Spirited Exchanges. Twice a month, 30 or more people gather at Jamieson's church but definitely not for church. Seated at cafe-like tables and sipping tea in the subdued light of the basement, they talk freely. No topic is off limits – the nature of God, homosexuality, spiritual abuse, the role of women. But the focus, Jamieson says, is "on where we are going instead of what we have left."
"Spirited Exchanges is not designed to be church," Jamieson explains. "It is a place where people can talk about anything they want to talk about, without any sense of being 'out of line' or being told their thoughts are inappropriate." Jamieson says he is aware of about 50 other groups like Spirited Exchanges.
Not surprisingly, the three-year-old program has brought Jamieson criticism from all directions. "Some people insist I am encouraging people to leave the church. And others are just as indignant that I am scheming to lure black sheep back into the church." But Jamieson is unshaken in his commitment to teach churches to become leaver-sensitive.
"We need to realize that God is in the question as well as the answer, and that living with the questions is part of the journey," he points out. "For many people it would help if this journey was talked about, preached about, and discussed in the life of the church. This can reinforce the hope that God, who can seem so absent at times, reappears later with more clarity and connection than people may have experienced."
Where to go now?
Some say that they are called to be outside the church – to walk a path beyond the church, yet continue to walk with the Lord.
Being without a church will not keep someone from God's Grace. But it is important to be part of a community, even if it is online, because the Christian path is not just a private experience. The Christian path is also a community experience – one of sharing. If you are on a path beyond the church, may the Lord walk with you.
They have cradled you in custom,
They have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase
You’re a credit to their teaching--
But can’t you hear the wild? It’s calling you.
Poem: The Call of the Wild by Robert William Service
• The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich
• The Church and the Dechurched by Mary Tuomi Hammond
• A Churchless Faith by Alan Jamieson
• A good summary of the Haberg and Guelich book: http://restoringtheheart.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/stages-of-faith-hagberg-guelich-model-of-faith-development/
• Does God Want You to Leave Your Church? By Whitney Hopler
Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
• The Call of the Wild by Robert William Service (entire poem)