‘Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing’ (Heb. 10:25).
We all know someone who has left church. Perhaps they moved house, got divorced, started to play Sunday sport or had an argument with the minister. Maybe they simply lost their faith. Some church-leavers I have interviewed simply ran out of good reasons to bother with church. Others, however, spoke with emotion about ‘blatant hypocrisy’ and ‘spiritual abuse’.
Given that the 1990s were known as ‘the decade of evangelism’, it is startling to learn that over a million people left our churches during that time. As a result, there has been an influx of research into why people ‘jump ship’.
While the explanations given are numerous and diverse, the most interesting conclusion is given by Alan Jamieson, a sociologist and Baptist minister from New Zealand. His research seems to show that the majority of church-leavers do not reject Christianity. Instead they pursue what he calls ‘a churchless faith’. This seems to apply to a significant number of British church-leavers too. As Esther, one young woman I spoke to explained: “I haven’t given up on God – just church.” Consider, also, the fact that that while church attendance dropped so severely in the nineties, the 2001 British National Census revealed that 71.6% of the population still identified themselves as ‘Christian’.
However, while we would all like to believe that those with whom we once shared fellowship are still committed to Christ, outside of the church, there are some serious questions which need to be asked.
Self-righteous sinners or successful saints?
Clearly, many church-leavers continue with Christian habits. They give to charity, watch ‘Songs of Praise’, even read Christianity+Renewal magazine! Tony Horsfall, in his article ‘Jumping Ship’ (to which this is a sequel), states that people who leave church have not necessarily lost their faith. They simply ‘nourish their souls through joining events like Greenbelt… attending Christian conferences… using the Internet.’
But let us not allow ourselves to be comforted too readily by such explanations. In reality, without the discipline of church accountability, the beliefs and life-principles of leavers can all too easily become diluted. This is rarely revealed in the interviews, however, as few people would want to admit the possibility that they have ‘fallen away’ (Hebrews 6:6). Instead, church-leavers naturally claim that they are continuing in faith, rather than facing the alternative.
Scratching the surface or digging deeper?
The second question involves the extent to which we take people’s reasons for leaving – such as Sunday working hours, or family commitments – at face value. Typically, a pastor will only be aware of the last straw in a person’s leaving process, rather than the complex journey that led to their final ‘jump’. I was amazed to discover that for half of my interviewees, the real cause of their leaving was different from the reason they had given at the time. For Jane, her given reason was academic: “I succumbed to a liberal interpretation of the Bible.” But as we talked for almost two hours the underlying issues began to emerge. Her husband had died of cancer, and this had provoked serious doubts about how a God of love could allow such suffering.
It is clear, then, that before we can even begin to effect a decrease in church-leaving we must first understand the deeper, causal issues.
Back-door bribery or back to basics?
One important point made by Tony Horsfall last month is that ‘it makes no sense to welcome people in at the front door if they are slipping out unnoticed by the back door’. While this is very true, it is all too easy to respond by pandering to the needs of potential leavers, in the desperate hope of maintaining their allegiance. Although many of the suggestions offered to prevent people leaving (mentor schemes, support groups, etc) are very helpful, they are merely back-door solutions. Surely it is prevention rather than cure which should be our goal. After-all, one can only pull drowning men out of a river for so long, before walking upstream to discover why they are falling in.
Many books have been published in recent years on how to get people into our churches. Now more and more are being written on how to stop people leaving. But nobody seems to have connected the two. Here lies a crucial missing link: what could churches do differently when people arrive that might prevent them from leaving years later? I suggest that one largely overlooked factor in a person’s decision to ‘jump ship’ could be a deep-seated lack of confidence in the faith-package with which they were presented upon arrival. Questions become worries, worries become doubts, and eventually a personal life-change or an argument within the church will provide the perfect excuse to leave.
So is the gospel-package we are presenting, strong enough to last?
Consumerised church or crucified Christ?
We live in a consumer culture where freedom of choice rules. Individual loyalty to any one institution (be it a bank, sports club or marriage) is on the decline. Instead, people wish to sample the newest buzz or latest experience without any obligation to commit. Unsurprisingly, this has affected people’s attitudes towards church. “I want to be able to go to church without it having to become my life,” admitted John.
In response to this current cultural climate it is very tempting for churches to seek new ways to attract their potential ‘customers’. But while we must follow St. Paul in seeking to be ‘all things to all men’ (1 Corinthians 9:22), it is also essential that we resolve to preach nothing ‘except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). I have been increasingly concerned when reading books on evangelism strategy to hear respected pastors insisting upon ‘first-class multimedia… modern buildings…professional sound-systems,’ and claiming that ‘if people are well served, they will come again…whether it be a Honda showroom, a restaurant, or a church’. I quickly have to remind myself that the Church of Jesus Christ is not governed by supply and demand, but by the God who himself has ‘called you to his eternal glory in Christ’ (1 Peter 5:10).
I am not, of course, suggesting that the arrival of professional sound systems can be blamed for church leaving! It does seem clear, however, that if churches are marketing themselves as a commodity – able to satisfy people’s every felt need – then if churches are marketing themselves as a commodity – able to satisfy people’s every felt need – then they are bound to fail. Either people’s needs will be met, and the church will have served its purpose; or unmet, and they will leave anyway.
Furthermore, while the frequent calls for churches to be more relevant to their ‘postmodern social context’ can hardly be ignored, this has sometimes been at the expense of more fundamental issues. I was shocked when 40% of my interviewees claimed that on joining a church they had not been taught about sin. What good is a stateof- the-art amplification system, if the message we are amplifying is not the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ?
If we cannot offer people something when they arrive which is more lasting than what can be given up because of a Sunday sports fixture, then something is seriously wrong. As Rick Warren, the senior pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, California aptly states, “we need to decide whether to impress people or influence them”.
Simplified salvation or effective evangelism?
It was the American sociologist George Ritzer who first made the comparison between modern western society and a McDonald’s restaurant. His work, which examines how the McDonald’s traits of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control affect the way society functions, has received widespread recognition. More recently, the label ‘McDonaldized’ has also been applied to the church (see John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church).
The key principle of ‘McDonaldization’ is the achievement of the optimum means to a given end. The church has an ‘end’ of converting people to Christianity, but in seeking to do so effectively we can all too easily adopt a one-size-fits-all formula. As Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Seminary observes, we give a “one shot, close the deal, presentation”. Esther’s recollection of her conversion experience troubled me: “There was nothing that made me feel awkward,” she said, “and I kind of identified with what the speaker had to say…so I thought ‘why not?’” Is it really surprising that before too long, Esther found herself slipping out through her church’s back door, just as easily as she had walked in the front?
So how is it that pre-packaged, no commitment gospel messages have come to represent the accepted norm in so many of our churches? Part of the reason could be the emphasis given to ‘mass-evangelism’ over the last 50 years.
Billy Graham, for example – the most successful mass-evangelist in history – always stressed the need for each individual to be ‘born again’, as a oneoff event. Not wanting to discredit Dr. Graham’s ministry in any way, the effect has been that most evangelicals now tend to see the ‘Damascus Road experience’ as a benchmark for how conversion always happens. Consequently, Christians who have not had a dramatic experience but have simply started a gradual journey of faith can feel somewhat excluded. “I’ve never had a sudden conversion experience” explained Wayne, “and it’s always bothered me because everyone’s had one and I haven’t”. This sense of not fitting into the accepted mould certainly contributed to Wayne’s initial disillusionment, which eventually led him to ‘jump ship’.
We can so often give the impression that a heart-felt ‘sinner’s prayer’ is all that is required for a life-long commitment to Christ. This message naturally leads to the belief that church-going is not necessary for the Christian; hence ‘a churchless faith’. But like the seeds in Jesus’ parable which fell on the shallow soil, ‘in the time of testing they fall away’ (Luke 8:13). The overemphasis on an individual, one-off, salvation experience can easily undermine the fact that we are the Church, and that it is through the Church that God will bring about his plans for the world. If the word ‘Christian’ is merely a label, acquired cheaply from an evangelical vending machine, then people will feel free to leave their churches and still call themselves ‘Christians’, in much the same way that after a cookery class one will still continue cooking, at home!
Cursory commitment or gradual growth?
One observation – offered by Jamieson, Horsfall, and others – is that many people embark on a journey of discovery that for a time at least leads them away from church. What a tragedy. Is it not possible to develop a theology of journey within our church programmes and evangelism strategies? Then, when the doubts and questions do arise, they might not be viewed as reasons to leave, but simply as part of the course.
Also, we might be able to instil that sense of belonging and growing together, that is so needed in today’s world, by encouraging the belief that conversion means being adopted into God’s family. This perspective, along with any notion of identity or costly sacrifice, is noticeably absent from many ‘seeker-friendly’ presentations. Surely the message, “you are a valued family member”, is more likely to provoke a long-term commitment than the message, “here’s what we have to offer: take it or leave it”.
In conclusion, as with any problem worth tackling, there are no easy answers. My intention has been to highlight the possibility that while ‘faith issues’ are rarely blamed for church-leaving, the given reasons are often symptoms of underlying spiritual concerns. We, as the Church of Jesus Christ, might benefit from spending less time contemplating why some have left us and more time reviewing the basic salvation package we offer. This may involve a revival of the language of journey and/or an emphasis on our identity as members of God’s family – the Church. It will also involve many other developments and changes not mentioned here, for which we must be prepared.
What does seem clear to me is that a good builder will invest time and money in securing firm foundations before he starts, rather than desperately erecting scaffolding when the building starts to crumble ten years later! We are called to invest in people’s lives and to be good builders.
Quotations from: John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church, (Darton, Longman & Todd), Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Hodder & Stoughton), Tony Horsfall, Jumping Ship, (C+R, 02/04), Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith, (SPCK), George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society, (Pine Forge Press), Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, (Zondervan)