Here I Don’t Stand Anymore

Some further musings prompted by Luther’s most famous bit of German.

Do you know some people well who, at one time were committed active Christians, but who have now, for whatever reason, either stopped believing all together, or have dropped out of any church involvement?

If you were to ask them why, what do you think they might say?

Luther’s stand of course was not at all related to whether he believed in God or not. Within the Christendom world in which he lived that was virtually a non-question. His ‘here I stand’ was on a particular interpretation of what the Bible said about salvation – how someone is put right with God.

But in our increasingly post-Christendom European context, to say ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’  is, I suggest, to proclaim and live out a public faith in a culture that views  being into church, God and all that sort of stuff as unusual, private, irrelevant, if not outright weird and even dangerous.

BTW, Steve Holmes has a nice post on the day to day realities of living in post-Christendom Britain.

Anyway, this brings me to a very special meeting with three friends I had recently. We were all at London School of Theology (LBC in those days) and (gulp) started our degree course 25 years ago this September.  We hung out a lot together over those 3 years but this meeting was the first time all 4 of us were together since we graduated.

We had great craic in a hugely enjoyable day. Here we are – looking exactly as we were in 1986. I didn’t have hair then either 😉 From the left, Eric Harmer is pastor of Barton Evangelical Church in Canterbury; Darrell Jackson is Director of NOVA Research Institute linked to Redcliffe College and Arthur Magahy, with his wife Nicky who was also at college with us, are Mission Trainers at IMC in Birmingham, the training centre for BMS World Missions.

My interest here isn’t so much in what we are doing now, but a conversation that came up that day. We got round to talking about the challenges of ‘continuing to stand’ over the years through good and bad times, through joys and disappointments.

And we recalled lots of students at college in those years. Many are, to use Paul’s phrase, ‘pressing on’ and continuing to ‘run the race’.

But more than a few, for whatever reasons, are no longer doing so. These weren’t nominal believers but people who were active and committed enough to go off to study theology full-time at an evangelical college.

It seems to me that this would be a significant topic for some field research. I know the general church stats in the UK and Europe are of significant decline, but much of that can be attributed to the decline of Christendom and the fall off of large numbers of nominal members of denominations.

But what of decline and loss within active evangelicalism? What’s your experience and interpretation of this reality? For it is just as much if not more a local church issue as one for theological colleges.

Is it a subject that we don’t like to talk about too much? Pastorally sensitive? Theologically problematic? To be expected given the spiritual battle that the Christian life represents?

And is there an irony here that while evangelicals are mission people who expend great energy, prayer, creativity and money on evangelism and church planting, relatively little is said or done about the significant numbers of former evangelicals quietly walking away from church life and/or faith altogether?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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10 thoughts on “Here I Don’t Stand Anymore

  1. Such an important subject to consider. I suppose there is not one answer that fits everybody, but I have been thinking about people who I can see drifting away. One of the thoughts that came to my mind is that there is a wrong understanding in some cases of what it means to be a disciple. It is a reduced to a moment in life when one has made a decision of Jesus as Saviour, to save us from our sin, and for a “real life” after we died, while the invitation to life to the full is for now. The kingdom of God is at hand, is here, it is available now, 24/7, when I am in the car, at work, when things don’t go my way, I can always take everything back to Jesus and I learn, as a disciple, dependency on the Master. A life of constant repentance, repenting from wanting to have my own kingdom established rather than His.
    I think we treat Jesus as somebody who only knows abotu the religious bits of our lives, we don’t think He really knows about life as whole, and if we are doing that, we actually don’t think that He is fully God, we reduce Him to a nice person and a great teacher.
    The other thing is, that in many churches, attendance and programmes can deceive us. If somebody is there every Sunday we assume they are doing all right, we have equalise attendance, busyness with holiness. We are not very good at exercising grace with truth and ask the hard questions and to say to somebody: You know what, I think you need a break from leading worship, or from teaching the children, take time to listen to God, to be renewed.

  2. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that you don’t wrap up this doozie of a question into a nice neat little package for me!!! Its exactly a question that’s been hovering around me for a little while now and so when I read the start of your post I thought you’d cracked it 😉

    Its also interesting to me, because I thought this was a relatively new trend – like, lots of people in their late-20s, early 30s shrugging their shoulders and turning away… But it appears its always happening across all ages.

    Its painful though, huh? I hope you get some more comments on here, I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences too.

  3. Great question Patrick. I see David Fitch there in your blogroll and I think I would be in broad agreement with how he might answer the question. While needing a healthy dose of analysis to make it transferable to the Irish situation his proposal that the “inerrant Bible”, the “decision for Christ” and the “Christian Nation” are “Master-Signifiers” of evangelicalism which have hindered the mission of God may explain at least part of the problem. Fitch isn’t rejecting the authority of Scripture, conversionism or a transforming and transformative Kingdom of God but just how each of these have been applied within evangelicalism. I think we need to look again at what the Bible is, why Jesus didn’t ask us to make converts but to make disciples (Ana mentions this above) and what it means to be missional in society. Then we will get a picture of what we are calling people to in the first place. I guess an initial question therefore must be what is it that people are actually walking away from?

  4. I’m seriously interested in following this question up.

    I’m intrigued that so far a wrong view of discipleship and poor pastoral care (Ana), along with misapplied emphases within evangelicalism (Richard) have been put out there as contributing factors. In other words, the ‘fault’ mainly being within evangelical church life and theology. Is that a fair summary?

    I’m not disagreeing as such – each would need further discussion. And I’m sure we could add many other reasons from ‘within’ evangelicalism.

    But are there not also factors of personal responsibility at play? – sin, disobedience, unbelief etc that the NT frequently speaks of and warns against? Certainly some of the people I can think of made ethical choices to live a life at odds with Christian discipleship and so ‘walked away’.

    Meinmysmallcorner – you mention lots of people shrugging shoulders and giving up – can I ask what’s your best guess as to why?

  5. Good point Patrick. I think it’s a case of both/and.
    One the one hand I do think it is harder to live out of life of Christian discipleship today. One has to not conform to the pattern of this world. Although in the past the church in Ireland attempted to create a world in which Christian discipleship meant conformity.

    On the other hand in the NT sin is contrasted with the sinless Christ. If your Christology is based on a man who came to engage in a legal transaction with the Father to get us off this planet while ignoring the social, political, environmental and political realities in which we live then this will be the Christ you are asked to obey. This in turn will affect your ecclesiology. I am reminded of the story of John Wimber who after his conversion went to a church. After the service he asked some people when they would be doing the healings, rising people from the dead and all that stuff in the Bible. When the parishoners said “Oh we don’t do that here,” his reply was “So I gave up drugs for this!”

    I think we are all called to obey the God who “dwells in inaccessible light” knowing that our Christology (or any other area of theology) will never be perfect and that Christian discipleship makes certain demands of our behaviour, relationships, time and resources. But I think at this time the failings and inadequacies of the past are coming back to haunt us. Once every 500 year changes will always bring challenges so it is no surprise that things like this are happening.

    That’s all part of the bigger picture. As to your specific question, I have no idea. Maybe someone should ask them?

  6. “Maybe someone should ask them?” – that’s what I’d be interested to follow up, specifically Bible college students.

    I’d guess there would be a plethora of reasons and it would be interesting to see if common trends emerged. One’s I’d be aware of through people I know would include loss of faith that God exists, ministry burn out, church division and relationship issues, sexual ethics, boredom with internal church politics, materialism, erosion of belief in the goodness of God (theodicy related questions), frustration with evangelicalism (judgementalism, narrow framing of the gospel, negative attitudes towards women in ministry).

    And one friend I talked to about this made an important point – any Christian continues to ‘stand’ daily by the grace and love of God and through his empowering & guiding Spirit of God and not through that person’s special qualities.

  7. Aside from the very obvious answer of sin, I can’t say I’ve made general observations as to why believers who seem to be ‘very solid’ abandon the faith/church. However, I have seen some common factors in the sad and increasing trend of young ministers throwing in the towel.

    In my context, there has been a tragic lack of personal investment (discipleship, accountability, support) from the older generation to the younger. Young ministers are disillusioned when they charge fresh from Bible college or ministry school into active ministry. Besides the usual troubles with exposure to politics, competition and mistrust between churches and denominations, and compromised ministry philosophies, these young people are being exploited and mistreated by those who should be raising them up as sons in the faith.

    Little interest taken in their vision, personal lives, or spiritual health (unless these things are somehow perceived to reflect poorly on the church), and they are seen as a commodity to be used up rather than someone to be poured into. That, combined with weak discipleship/bad theology, is lethal. There is, of course, always personal responsibility for the choice to walk away, but it is a sad thing when a generation of leaders represents Christian ministry as unattractive or illegitimate to the next–for the sake of blindness? unrepentance? pride?.

    Don’t get me wrong…there are many fine veteran ministers out there who are excellent fathers, trainers, and disciplers. But where I have seen a mass exodus of active and involved individuals, these have been consistent problems.

    • I should clarify – I’m not just referring to hanging up “church ministry”. Many of these folks have abandoned involvement in ministry and either concurrently or subsequently stopped believing all together.

  8. My best guess…

    For those who ‘shrug their shoulders’ and walk away, it often seems to happen in the way that someone used to paint, or play tennis, or read… for example. Its not really a conscious decision as a crowding out. No more time, no more inclination, no motivation and, I guess, no-one to encourage them. Then, one day, they’re not going to church anymore and just don’t ever really think about faith.

    Other scenarios I know of where I’ll make my best guess…

    Ministry burnout – you’ve mentioned this. Just sick to the back teeth of living up to expectations of others/their own perfectionism or idealism. Leading then to projection of these feelings on God : ‘how can God expect me to do that?’ ‘if I don’t do this, He just makes me feel guilty’ ‘If God is perfect, how can he use people who are openly living ‘in sin’ to speak to others?’ (this comment was particularly based around someone saying they’d been encouraged/learnt a lot by a homosexual minister) ‘If He doesn’t live up to His own standards, how can I?” From my own experience, also I could well imagine disillusionment getting into the cracks – why doesn’t God show up more often and more powerfully?

    Fingers burnt by the church/a church. Thinking specifically of some of the newer emerging churches who seem to promise so much by way of community, making that and discipleship and pastoral care their BIG selling points. It hurts all the more when these people fail to provide what they seem to be promising. “If I can’t find it here, I won’t find it anywhere…”

    Personal suffering… I suppose this is linked to what you say about erosion of belief in the goodness of God. For example : “If we can’t have children, that means God doesn’t want us to have children. How can I believe God loves me when he seems to have chosen to deny me this?” These words are not spoken lightly or flippantly by someone who believes they should have every selfish whim and a perfect life, but words of real pain from someone who at one time had faith to move mountains. Is God big enough to overcome these obstacles? Is faith big enough to survive?

    “Radical discipleship”. This one doesn’t come from a specific example I know of, but is a question I’ve been pondering of late (http://meinmysmallcorner.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/was-it-meant-to-be-dynamite/). We’ve been preaching a gospel of “radical discipleship” which defines “radical” as ‘beyond the comfort zone’, ‘evangelising’ every single person you ever see – whether you’ve ever met them before or you stop them in the street/on the bus/in the public toilets, arms wide-open worshipping, perfect “quiet times”, jumping from burning buildings, stopping lion’s mouths, handling poisonous snakes… “You should do this because what Jesus did for you was so incredible and now you’ve gotta live like that to prove you think he’s incredible…”

    I can’t help but feel there’s something askew. Yes, what Jesus did has transformed everything, but is everyone called to live like the apostle Paul? If so, what were all those people he wrote to doing? Shouldn’t they have gotten off their butts and been too busy being ‘radical’ to sit down and read something like Romans??? Sorry – I’m becoming facetious. But do you know what I mean? Our definition of ‘radical’ means that there are multitudes of people (I imagine) who spend their days, for example, running around after 2 small kids under the age of 5, trying to keep a house in some sort of workable order all day until they fall into bed exhausted at night only to feel a creeping sensation of guilt because they haven’t managed to brush their hair never mind get out of the house and talk to someone (anyone!) about Jesus… Sooner or later it just slips away.

    Sorry, this is becoming a blog-post in itself… I’ll stop now!

  9. An interesting (and rather depressing) angle on this Crystal. Others can comment on this better than I but I suspect that there is a fairly high frequency of minister/pastor burnout in Ireland as well. Who pastors the pastors?

    What you and others say highlights for me the importance of mentoring, accountability, and being in community with others (a small group) where real honesty and transparency can happen. and that is even more important for leaders who tend to be isolated and expected to ‘perform’.

    And this is where the individualism of evangelicalism can be a huge weakness – there needs to be space to confess and repent together, as well as encourage one another. That we see the Christian life as a journey together.

    Meinmysmallcorner – I’ve felt those questions too and really like what you say in the post. It is fascinating how the NT has a book like Acts with all the big drama, yet also much teaching to the early Christians on living simple godly lives, ‘staying where they were’ (Corinthians 7) and living quietly subversive lives of love.

    I found this one by Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk really helpful – in that he brings it back to grace and not on relentless evangelical activism (and guilt) that actually I think displays a lack of trust in God (it is all ‘up to us’). http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/its-ok-to-just-be-a-christian

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