We all will know of people who have drifted away from church attendance, as you can imagine I know many. Some I am still in good contact and friendship with. I shared this article with some of them, they confirmed that this is generally true for them. I found it very challenging, but also confirming. We can’t afford to be church-centred and church-focused, as the author of the report says at the end.
In his role as Regional Development Officer for the Church of Scotland and in his studies for a PhD, Steve Aisthorpe was able to talk to and survey a substantial number of those who were no longer attending ‘church’. These are some of his findings (as reported by my friend Geoff Knot):
Firstly some myths busted:
- It’s all doom, gloom and decline. Around the world, Christianity is growing and growing in may ways; depth, impact, numbers.
- There’s an inevitable slide into secularisation. Growing prosperity, health, education does not lead to secular societies.
- The end of Christendom is the end of Christianity. Our Christendom-shaped churches need to realise that substantial numbers of those disengaged from churches want to be part of a vital, revolutionary, compassionate movement of Jesus-followers that existed pre-Christendom.
- Decline in church attendance is synonymous with decline in Christianity. 2000+ people leave churches each week in the UK – the majority continue to be committed to their Christian faith.
- Christians who do not attend church are all ‘church-leavers’. Many with faith have not attended ‘church’ as they have found the experience does not mirror the course they attended for example. However, they continue to witness, meet others, etc.
- If congregations do the right things, leavers will be returners. They are not waiting for the local ‘church’ to change. They are content to live out their faith without reference to religious institutions. Most feel part of the wider Church. A minority would be open to meeting in an informal setting.
- Churchless Christians are driven by consumerism. Leaving a church is actually emotionally complex. The evidence points to decisions being rooted in a journey of personal discipleship influenced by deep changes in the individual.
Then some stereotypes, generalisations and assumptions about Christians that are not church-goers. These help deflect from deep examination of causes and therefore the need to change:
- The loner. Many meet up with others informally or online.
- The backslider. Most people reported their faith journey had been positively impacted – a deepening relationship with God.
- The petty-minded. Long-term struggle and deliberation can result in a tipping point over something trivial. This can be misconstrued.
- The uncommitted. Many have attended church for decades – the average in the research was 15 years. Considerable committment.
- The incomer. New to the area and expecting something different – no – most had lived in the area for many years.
- The Christian in name only.
He also looks at how churches can inadvertently create a culture that is helpful and comfortable to some people but challenging and excluding for others e.g. dress code, gender, lack of community, personality types, etc.
A significant recurring theme of those that had left was the frustration with change-resistant culture of congregations rather than alterations they disliked (rarely cited in the research). A transition has been happening for decades and existing structures and practices have for the most part failed to adapt to cultural change.
The research showed that crises of faith and life take people into seasons of being church-adverse. For a small number this may amount to a sabbatical after which they return. Others have no intention of engaging with the congregations currently available to them but still yearn for a different type of church. They often find other forms of Christian community, whether face-to-face, virtual, structured or informal. They are contentedly non-congregational. Reinforcing this separation is a lack of recognition of vocation e.g. business, irrelevance of sermons to everyday life and the ‘sacred’/’secular’ thinking in church words and actions e.g. praying for missionaries but not those in workplaces.
The research also showed that while love within the Christian community was often prominent in the reasons for embracing the Christian faith and involvement with a local congregation, it was often a perceived lack of love affecting themselves or others that contributed to or sealed a decision to disengage.
Unexpectedly, the research showed that a sense of commitment to participate in God’s mission was prominent in more than 50% of respondents. It was a concern for the missional challenges in their area that was a decisive motivator for their disengagement from the congregation. They explained that mission opportunities were inadequately met by the local congregation, due to, for example, a focus on internal matters. They have found a release of time to meet and talk to others outside of a faith community.
As Steve says, “The fact that Christianity sometimes becomes church-centred and church-focused rather than Jesus-centred and Kingdom-focused is a tragic reality. Congregations degenerate from being a movement to being a monument, from being dynamic to being static. Eagerness to follow and serve and grow in Christ gives way to routine, monotony and boredom. The main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing.”
Written by Tony Thompson