How should we respond when our pastors 'fall from grace'? Heather Tomlinson investigates
Nick Page, with the assistance of the Very Hungry Caterpillar, explains how to turn your crisis into a chrysalis
Here’s how it happens. You’re standing in church, singing a worship song and suddenly nothing makes sense. Admittedly that’s often the case with worship songs, but this is a more powerful, more overwhelming avalanche of nothing-makes-senseness. Words which formerly seemed so profound, now have all the depth of a car park puddle. The sermon dissolves into a verbal pick-and-mix of religious clichés. Prayer becomes dry and meaningless. Suddenly you look around and wonder why you have spent so many years of your life in this place.
Deep breaths. It’s OK. Don’t panic. You’re just having a Mid-faith Crisis.
Losing faith in church
It’s often been said that the fastest growing denomination in the UK is Christians who no longer go to church. There are many reasons why people leave church, but one of the key reasons is that church no longer seems able to address their questions and doubts. It’s not so much that they have lost their faith in God: it’s more that they have lost their faith in church.
This is one of the reasons Joe Davis and I launched Mid-faith Crisis – a podcast for any Christian who has ever asked themselves “Is that it?” We were both aware of so many mature, faithful Christians who somehow drift away from the established Church.
“I’ve barely been to church (by which I mean, Sunday services), for the past couple of years or so,” wrote one listener. “This is not good, but sadly, going is even less helpful! This is a church I’d been attending since 1986 – but in that time we’ve both moved (naturally) and now find ourselves in rather different places.”
Nor is this feeling limited to those in the pews: “I’m the main worship leader at my church, and once in a while I have thought, ‘If I wasn’t – would I be as enthusiastic about Sunday morning church?’ But because I have this ‘job’ to do – and I can’t let anyone down – I just keep getting up to do what’s expected, without question.” While, more poignantly, one woman wrote that the church “is such a lonely place for someone in mid-faith crisis…I’m actually too ashamed to express my lack of faith so I keep all this to myself”.
Dislocation. Loneliness. Even shame. But these feelings are perfectly normal. It is – in a very real way – a stage they are going through.
Change is coming
Think of a butterfly. Those of you who can remember anything from your school biology classes will recall that butterflies don’t start out all colourful, delicate and fluttery. They start out as small, hairy tubes of solid appetite known as caterpillars. As the title of that great book of spiritual formation, The Very Hungry Caterpillar makes clear, caterpillars exist for one purpose: to find a leaf and start eating. And then, when they have eaten enough, they stop, and turn into a chrysalis. (The name comes from the Greek word for gold: it derives from the fact that many butterflies have a kind of metallic gold colour at this stage. That’s research, that is.) It looks for all the world as though they are dead. They are unmoving, hanging on to the leaf by a thread. And yet, inside, change is taking place.
This is the Mid-faith Crisis. As caterpillars of faith, we happily munched through everything: Bible studies, home groups, prayer meetings, worship songs, four-hour sermons. Nom, nom, chomp, chomp. Then, suddenly, the leaf seems to lose its flavour.
What causes this? Maybe just growing older. Perhaps it’s a crisis, like an illness, the collapse of a relationship or a redundancy. Sometimes it’s actually a profound religious experience. But something shakes us to the core and we are left, like the chrysalis, clinging on by a tiny thread.
It feels bad. Painful. As though we’re losing everything. But, viewed rightly, it can be golden.
The five stages of faith
Faith is a journey. And it has stages we go through. There are various models to describe this, but we’d suggest there are five stages on the journey:
You acknowledge the existence of God, through some kind of conversion or religious experience. It can be instantaneous, or it can occur over a long period.
You join a safe, secure community, adopting their beliefs, asking questions and trusting their answers. You learn the rules of faith: who’s in, who’s out and who, indeed, is shaking it all about.
In which you take up active ministry. As a mature Christian you are involved in teaching, or leading, or generally being fully ‘purpose driven’. And here’s the thing: this is where most evangelical models of Christian growth stop. For many church leaders this is the aim: “You’re a believer. You play the banjo in the worship band. You lead a house group. My work here is done.” I suspect that many church leaders don’t even acknowledge the existence of any stages beyond this. (And it has to be said, many Christians do settle happily on their leaf.) But for others – indeed, for many church leaders themselves – the journey continues…
In which you ask, ‘Is that it?’ This is the chrysalis moment, the crisis point. This is where so many deeply committed people leave the church. To those at earlier stages it looks and feels like betrayal. People offer helpful books, maybe some prayer ministry, possibly an exorcism or two. Words are whispered: “doubting” or – worse – “backsliding”.
Certainly, some people lose their faith entirely at this point. In the musical Hamilton there’s a song where the hero and his wife are trying to deal with the death of their son. The lyrics describe a moment “when you’re in so deep / It feels easier to just swim down”. And sometimes in the Mid-faith Crisis, giving up seems easier. But we have to have courage. Hold our breath. Cling on.
This is the journey seen in so many heroes of the faith. It is Job on the waste tip, scratching himself with shards of pottery and screaming at God; it is the psalmist crying, “How long, oh Lord, how long?” It is Paul being whirled into his indescribable seventh heaven. It is Thomas Aquinas who, after all his thousands of words of theology had an experience so profound that “all that I have written seems like straw to me”. It is John of the Cross, locked in a cell, weaving poetry in his head during what he called “the dark night of the soul”.
It is Martin Luther, racked by his Anfechtung – a hard-to-translate term which encompasses temptation, trial, suffering, terror and even despair. It is CS Lewis weeping over his wife’s death. (He did not feel in danger of ceasing to believe in God: “The real danger,” he wrote, “is coming to believe such dreadful things about him.”) Stage four is so disruptive, and even painful, that it doesn’t feel like part of the journey: it feels like we’ve come to a halt.
“I don't think you can appreciate what a mid-faith crisis is like unless you have been, or are going, through it,” wrote one listener. “Certainly the ‘me’ of five years ago would struggle to understand the ‘me’ of now…It’s at a much more fundamental level than the usual doubts and difficulties. Those who haven’t experienced this can’t, I don’t think, really appreciate what it’s all about. This is why it can be so difficult to find people to talk to.”
Yet, for those who dive into this darkness it can be a moment of profound change. If we can hold on and believe that even in this bewildering, disorientating darkness, we are held in the hands of a God who truly, really loves us, then that is a light we can follow out of the pit. Slowly, then, we can swim back up. Follow the light. And break the surface into…
The butterfly starts to emerge. Stage five people realise God’s love in a way that they had never experienced before. For people in the earlier stages it looks like you have gone all wishywashy and generally hippy-like, but maybe it is just that some previous ideas and convictions have been jettisoned. There is a new acceptance of vulnerability and ambiguity. And you just dwell, you just abide in God.
And in some ways it resembles stage three. You return to serving, worshipping, teaching, acting. But it comes from an entirely different basis. It’s difficult to describe a stage-five person. But you know them when you meet them. I have met very few truly holy people in my life. But all of them have been lost in the depths at some point. And all of them have emerged holding God’s hand.
A journey, not a race
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is all New Age wibble. Or maybe you’re thinking that it sounds like spiritual enlightenment for the chosen few. Or maybe that it’s just wrong…OK. Clearly I don’t know what you’re thinking, but anyway, a few things need to be emphasised.
First, it rarely looks this neat. It’s generally a lot messier and fuzzy round the edges. Second, it’s a journey, not a race. The stages and the people in them aren’t ‘better’ than one another. Those at later stages are not necessarily heretics, nor are those at earlier stages simplistic or naïve. We are all just at different points in our spiritual life. Third, there are no shortcuts. You can’t hop from stage two to stage five. Each stage has to be encountered.
So, what do you do if you find yourself in that darkness? Well, the key thing is not to blame others, to think that our crisis is all the fault of the minister/pastor/vicar/archdeacon/ banjo leader/Pope/Patriarch of Constantinople, etc. But this is something in us. It may well be that house group series on ‘Metalwork in Leviticus’ was not the most exciting 17 nights of your life, but that’s just a symptom, it’s not the cause. All right, it might be a bit of a cause, but generally, our church leaders are doing their best. They are coping with numerous crises, spinning a great many plates (and often going through a Mid-faith Crisis of their own).
We need to grow up and take responsibility for our own spiritual formation. Too often, people treat church as a consumer experience: “I’m not getting much out of the worship”, “It’s not giving me what I want.” Listen, church is not a washing machine. It’s not a package holiday. You don’t get to leave a two-star review on TripAdvisor.
The thing is that church is really built for the early stages. It’s good at delivering certainty and security in the early part of your faith, but for this bit, you are on your own. That said, there is more that churches could do to facilitate and accommodate this process. They could make sure that they understand what is going on. They could provide safe spaces to talk.
The real point is that the Midfaith Crisis does not have to be the end. That song I mentioned earlier, it ends with some wonderful lines: “Forgiveness. Can you imagine? / Forgiveness. Can you imagine?… have pity / They are going through the unimaginable.”
Many people in our churches are going through the unimaginable. It can be unimaginably painful, disorientating, unsettling for all of us. But it can also be the source of unimaginable life and unimaginable joy.
Nick Page is a writer and speaker. His books include The Dark Night of the Shed, A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity and the forthcoming A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation. His partner in crime on the Mid-faith Crisis podcast is Joe Davis, Baptist minister, local celebrant and speaker for Renovaré UK and Ireland. Mid-faith Crisis is a podcast for any Christian who has ever asked themselves, “Is that it?” It’s available at iTunes or from midfaithcrisis.org