A churchless faith
By Craig Bird A guest article from www.FaithWorks.com
What can we learn from the wounded and frustrated believers who are leaving the church to find God?
The post-congregationals have left the building.
Not just any building. Our church buildings. That means no Sunday school and donuts at 9 a.m. or worship at 11. No more "You preach, I'll listen."
On their way out, they were overheard to say: "Why won't someone at least listen to the tough questions?" "If Christianity is about community, why am I so bruised and battered?"
Some of the leavers toss out the Christian God along with their spiritual past.
But others say they are leaving in order to rescue
their faith. Many say they struggle to find a way to worship in honesty, to forgive "church abuse," to grow in Christ-likeness or to reach an equilibrium in their spiritual life.
Sociologist Alan Jamieson studies the spiritual quests of these "post-congregational" Christians. He compares them to travelers who abandon a luxury liner in mid-cruise. They grow tired of the endless buffets and entertainment, the carefully designed activities, or the captain who makes all decisions about the ship's speed and direction. Longing to experience what is not on the itinerary, they sell all they have to buy a small boat and leave the well-traveled sea lanes for uncharted waters. For these "leavers," Jamieson says, the danger of going it alone is still safer than the scripted sameness of conformity.
What Jamieson has found in his studies has surprised him. In researching his book, A Churchless Faith
, he interviewed 108 leavers. Most were not marginal churchgoers who finally quit but organizational linchpins. Ninety-four percent had been church leaders—deacons, home-group leaders, elders, Sunday school teachers—and 32 percent had been in full-time ministry.
In 1993 Jamieson, then a doctoral student in New Zealand, began his research one August night with a definite expectation. "I thought I knew what happened to the Christian faith of those who left the church—it died."
When he knocked on the door at his first interview, he met a couple he calls Stuart and Michelle. Two-and-a-half hours later, he left their home shaken, trying to make sense of what he had heard and felt. The couple were not backslidden church members. They 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.
Throughout his research, Jamieson again and again found longtime Christians with significant leadership resumes who, while definitely adrift from the traditional church, were just as definitely on a journey to know God—a God not intimidated by the hard questions that were unwelcome in their former churches.
Ironically, Jamieson says, the people perhaps best equipped to help postmodern seekers understand God were being lost to the church.
Counting lost sheep
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.
Evangelical researcher George Barna noted two years ago that large numbers of American adults regularly participate in faith activities—prayer, Bible reading, use of the religious media—even though they haven't attended a church service in six months. They are ignoring church, not faith, he said. "Relatively few unchurched people are atheists," Barna said in Re-Churching the Unchurched. "Most of them call themselves Christian and have had a serious dose of church life in the past."
An academic "amen" was sounded by two California-Berkeley sociologists. 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 professed faith. According to researchers Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, most of the new "no preference" respondents continue to hold conventional religious beliefs. "Most people who have no church still are likely to say things like: 'God is real. Heaven and hell are real. Me and my kids will go there when we're dead,'" Hout explained. The pair's findings, based on data from a wide range of public-opinion surveys on religion, were reported in American Sociological Review.
For a worldwide view, the massive World Christian Encyclopedia estimates there are 112,575,000 of what author-researcher David Barrett classifies as "churchless Christians." That's 5 percent worldwide. And that number will double to 125,712,000 by 2025, Barrett says.
Some would consider it old news that mainline Christian denominations have shed adherents in droves. But Alan Jamieson and others warn that evangelical and charismatic churches are faring no better. While many boast massive numbers of converts, they are like a powerful vacuum cleaner with a collection bag full of holes—a lot of what is being taken in the front is leaking out the back.
Tim Miller and Rael Facio are two churchless Christians who found each other on the road of leavers. They are members of the Fellowship of Christian Cyclists in Southern California who met on the group's website, during a cyberchat for "non-churchgoers."
As a young boy, Tim Miller said, he was scared away from the church by a preacher who claimed everyone has a black spot of sin that grows bigger as they get older. Miller remembers "hoping I die young (before the black spot got too big) so I'll have a chance to get into heaven." He walked away from the church, but years later still professes a faith that is "a very private thing that is in my heart." Yet he and his wife, an atheist, "agree God needs a place in our children's lives."
Rael Facio made the journey from atheist to Christian in college "after reading the Bible for myself and finding the answers to all the questions the Christians I asked couldn't answer." He admits he sometimes is "actually afraid of what the Bible has to say," and avoids it for that reason. But he takes comfort that "the Lord doesn't have a problem with that, as long as I don't turn my back." He describes his spiritual journey as "still very off plumb, but every year things improve."
Facio advises Miller to ask God to give him a cyclist prayer partner. He adds: "Take a pocket Bible with you on your rides and stop somewhere and read for an hour. True faith is what God gives us when we seek him."
Alan Jamieson is not the only recent author to focus on such churchless pilgrims.
While Jamieson's A Churchless Faith
functions as a travelogue of various and stumbling 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 injured—those battling emotional, spiritual or mental scars they associate with their church experience.
Though highlighting different streams of the post-congregational exodus, and unaware of each other's work, the two Baptist ministers come to the same conclusion: The church—the universal one—needs to notice and nurture her dechurched believers, for the spiritual benefit of all concerned.
Hammond offers her readers a virtual internship in a religious intensive-care unit. She 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."
Included among that population: "rabid atheists, silent agnostics, committed humanists, practitioners of distinctly non-Christian spiritualities"—and bleeding believers who still cling weakly to a faith they carried with them when they fled.
The wounded souls of Hammond's world know all about that "God who seems so absent." He disappeared when Christians afflicted them and when their painful prayers for rescue seemed unanswered. "They are among the church's strongest critics because they are outsiders who were once insiders."
Like Jamieson, Hammond has been chastised for "attacking the faith" by recounting stories of spiritual abuse. Neither will wear that label.
"My love for the church compels me to challenge the church to hear and attend to the cries of its own wounded," Hammond replies. "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."
Jamieson, meanwhile, casts his searchlight in a much larger arc, asking why people with a deep longing for God decide they must abandon their congregational homes to continue growing spiritually.
Adapting the work of sociologist James Fowler's landmark Stages of Faith
, Jamieson divides "leavers" into four types: disillusioned followers, reflexive exiles, transitional explorers and integrated wayfinders.
Jamieson, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Wellington, New Zealand, told FaithWorks
he was shocked to learn 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 doesn't apply to those "who know where the paddock is and intentionally wander away" and that godly ministers don't waste time chasing them.
Jamieson feels differently, and he paints a different parable to make his point.
He envisions a non-swimmer attracted to the New Zealand beaches. Befriended by a swimming club, he enters the water and takes lessons. A quick study, he soon is going to the beach at every opportunity and inviting his non-swimming friends to do likewise.
But eventually, perhaps after years, he senses a faint inner stirring to swim beyond the flags which mark the "safe" area. His old coach advises him such thoughts are dangerous. Gradually he becomes uncomfortable at the beach and begins staying
at home. But the call of the deep haunts him. Eventually he plunges back into the ocean, this time to swim beyond the flags, totally alone if necessary.
Rather than abandon such swimmers, Jamieson says, the church should accompany them.
Thus was born 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 people back into the church."
But Jamieson is unshaken in his commitment to teach churches to become "leaver sensitive." The reasons: (1) Leavers need the church, (2) the church needs leavers, (3) leavers take their time, skills, efforts and wallets with them, (4) leavers tell their stories to others, and (5) leavers take their children with them.
"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 the God who can seem so absent at times reappears later with more clarity and connection than people may have experienced before."
Alone no more
Mary Hammond likewise challenges congregations to become "church[es] for the dechurched." She points out that Jesus spent most of his ministry reaching out to the "de-synagogued." But she warns it can be a long and difficult effort, as her own journey attests.
When her husband, Steve, was called to be pastor of a Baptist church in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1979, it had 12 members. Mary and Steve, who eventually became co-pastors, prayed for the church to grow but with little success. Then one morning in 1998, Mary says, she felt a definite call of God: "I have sent you to the one and not the 99."
They have since rearranged their ministry to address the needs of the dechurched. Ministering to the "one" is time-consuming and filled with contradictions, Mary admits. The "one" is "off the beaten trail, perhaps too unorthodox for the 99, too needy, too confused or even too cynical."
But, she insists, "As Christians we must face the issues we would rather not address, ask the questions we cannot always clearly answer, and listen to the voices that are most difficult to hear."
Recently someone sent Alan Jamieson a copy of a water-safety poster that pictured a fish swimming toward the left as the rest of the school swam to the right. The caption read: "Don't swim alone."
Although he works with a lot of lone swimmers, Jamieson admits the poster is "a pretty good reflection of my feelings. That's why we need to go out beyond the flags ourselves. It's dangerous for anyone to swim dark spiritual waters alone."
Craig A. Bird, a former missionary, is a freelance writer living in San Antonio, Texas.
The author recommends the following two books:
The Church and the Dechurched by Mary Tuomi Hammond (from www.chalicepress.com)
A Churchless Faith by Alan Jamieson (from www.pilgrimpress.com)
This article reprinted with permission from www.faithworks.com