Census 2011 – Religion in Ireland

Results on Religion from the 2011 Census

Just  a reminder – the overall population of the Republic of Ireland is around 4.5 million.

84% of the population self-identify as Roman Catholic (3,861,300)

Church of Ireland (Anglican) at 6.4% of the population, up to 129,039 in 2011.

49,204 : The number of Muslims living in Ireland, making it the most important non-Christian

45% : The increase in the number of people identifying themselves as having no religion (269,800 people)

13%: The percentage of 25-29 year olds who had ‘no religion’ the highest for any age group

40.9% increase to 40,161 the number of people seeing themselves as ‘Christian‘, rather than any denominational label. ( Perhaps given the traumas of the Catholic Church, quite a few people who no longer want to be described as members but still want to identify as Christians? Perhaps some evangelicals in here too? There was a bit of an effort in the 2006 census to encourage evangelicals to self-identify as such. The numbers doing so in 2011 actually declined (5276 down to 4188). I’d guess this was because people reverted to denominational label or chose ‘Christian’ instead.  ‘Evangelical’ as a self-chosen label doesn’t really translate very well in an Irish context.)

Atheists in Ireland went up from 929 to 3925.

Orthodox went up 117.4% from 2006 to 45,223 in 2011.

And here’s a shocker regarding Ireland and its close assocation with J N Darby and the huge impact of Brethrenism historically and globally – a total of 336 in 2011.

Don’t know what on earth happened to the Methodists since 2006: down 43% from 12,160 to 6842.

Significant percentages of what the Census calls ‘non-Irish’ people lie behind the growth of many of the religious categories. Probably mainly Polish immigrants within the growth of Roman Catholicism for example (up by 179,899 people from “mainly European” communities). Simliarly for Apostolic / Pentecostal growth – probably mostly African (mainly Nigerian).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evolving Irishness (9) the disintegration of ‘faithinireland’

A few months ago I did a series on evolving Irishness – one that never quite got finished. I think it ended with this post.

I was going to look at the unravelling of the three cords that held classic Irish nationalism together – the territorial, the sacral, and the noble historical narrative of freedom and liberation.

Well to fast forward via some symbolic moments – two in the last week:

Territorial: sorted and parked gratefully in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the moderation of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution to include Unionist consent.

Sacral: on 21 March 2012 the publication of the Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland didn’t quite put it this way, but I would – the narrative of a triumphalistic 20th century ‘Catholic Ireland’ ended in a “a great sense of pain and shame”. Whatever the future of Catholicism in Ireland it is going to be a profoundly different sort of story in the 21st century.

Historical: As Diarmuid Ferriter concludes in this Irish Times article, the publication last week of the Mahon Report on top of Moriarty and others, may well lead to a fundamental re-assessment of the entire historical narrative.

As late as 1997 Tom Garvin was proposing convincingly that Irish politicians, despite mistakes and sins, managed to create and sustain a viable independent state against all the odds.

Now we have the most popular Taoiseach of the modern era jumping before he was pushed out of his own political party and being one of the most (conveniently) reviled figures in Ireland alongside Seanie Fitzpatrick of Anglo Irish Bank.

Ferriter writes

But the cumulative affect of the various tribunal reports, most recently Mahon, may require political scientists and historians to question or qualify some of their earlier assumptions about the achievements of independence.

For fundamental questions are everywhere today on what sort of Irish State developed since Partition. These are words from Mahon and he’s being all judicial and polite:

“systemic and endemic corruption”

a devaluing of democracy itself

“corruption affected every level of Irish political life”

“little appetite on the part of the State’s political or investigative authorities to combat it effectively or to sanction those involved.”

“general apathy on the part of the public towards . . . corruption” and its “corrosive and destructive” consequences

I said ‘conveniently’ above about Bertie, because a lot of people voted him and Fianna Fail in repeatedly, especially in the 2007 election when what Mahon was talking about was public knowledge. Mahon poses questions about the very structure of Irish political and social life – one’s Fintan O’Toole picks up and says this

And what, finally, of the other big part of the story: public tolerance for toxic political behaviour? It seems obvious now to point to the rage and contempt hurled in Ahern’s direction as evidence of a great sea change in attitudes.

A sceptic might point to Michael Lowry’s 14,104 votes in North Tipperary last year. And a cynic might ask the most uncomfortable question of all: would Bertie still be elected taoiseach today if the Celtic Tiger were still roaring along? Given the choice between easy money and hard morality, it is not at all obvious that the Irish people would not, yet again, suspend its disbelief in Bertie’s laughable lies.

Ferriter concludes:

As we edge towards the centenary of the events that comprised the revolution of the early 20th century, we face a stark conclusion: this is a State bereft of meaningful sovereignty due to its bankruptcy and a State whose governing culture has been exposed as rotten.

We may have little to cheer about in 2016.

Blimey – when you have Irish judges, historians and left-leaning journalists all sounding like Ian Paisley c 1960s ranting about the corruption, authoritarianism and darkness of ‘Catholic Ireland’, whatever you may think of Dev, you know things have gone rather pear-shaped for his vision of Irish sovereignty, freedom and integrity fueled by strong spiritual values.

Given the title of this blog, allow me this 😉 – faithinireland has disintegrated. ‘Catholic Ireland’, in terms of an overarching complete package identity of national identity, culture and religion, has been tried and found wanting.

There is a sense of a need for a new beginning and a fresh narrative around today and it isn’t clear (to me anyway) what it might be or where it might come from. Given the austerity being imposed by the Troika, being enthusiastic Europeans  is less appealing. Sinn Fein are doing well but only in a reactive way.

If that’s one rather bleak sketch of the current culture, what implications has this for ‘gospel ministry’? Or to put it another way, what has the Christian narrative to offer in a culture suffering from a crisis of hope?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Some thoughts on losing faith, love, the Spirit and the ambiguous nature of church (1)

Going back to a previous post on losing faith. A common theme that all the leavers had in common was a bad church experience.

Yes every story will have two sides and we’re only hearing the disenchanted voices here. Yes, there were other factors in their leaving – not least perhaps a pretty thin grasp of Christian orthodoxy?

But let’s face it, what’s being said here is all too recognisable for anyone who has been involved in church life for any length of time. So what follows are a couple of posts sketching some basic perspectives that need to be kept in mind in order to ‘keep going’ as a Christian actively engaged within a church community.

Love to have your thoughts on this too. What would you add? What keeps you pressing on being part of what is a ‘volunteer activity’? Or have you been tempted, or have given up? Why? When is it right to leave a church?

Anyway – here’s the first one:

1. An understanding of the ambiguous nature of the church

Churches are ‘ambiguous communities’.

One the one hand (if there is spiritual life at all) there will be grace, care, friendship, sacrificial service, fun, worship, teaching, vulnerability, community – centred around the good news of the gospel and the love of God. There is nothing on earth like a Christian church functioning well – as a globalised, equal, diverse, self-giving, repentant and joyful community focused on taking its part within the redemptive mission of God.

Coming at this via pneumatology – to be in Christ is to have the Spirit. A Christian by definition is someone who has been baptised in the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). It is the Spirit who unites believers across all social, ethnic and gender barriers within the one body of Christ. And the sign of the Spirit’s presence is his fruit so it is not unreasonable to expect that authentically Christian churches will be attractive communities of people marked by healthy relationships borne of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness etc).

If this vision isn’t grasped experientially through the Spirit, the church will be doomed to mere functionality, legalism and tradition. If such life isn’t at the heart of the community, flowing out from each individual’s own living faith in Christ, then over time it will probably (and rightly) die.

On the other hand, churches are full of people being people: personality clashes, disappointment, disagreements, power struggles, factionalism, small talk with strangers, different visions of what the church should be, conventionalism, conservatism, formalism, individualism etc. And then there are sins of pride and lust and envy and jealousy and adultery and greed and unforgiveness. You get the picture.

If ‘idealists’ and ‘reformers’ don’t get this, they will always be disillusioned, disappointed, frustrated and angry at other people’s failures to believe and behave in a way the idealist thinks they should. But such judgementalism can be a mask for spiritual arrogance and a lack of humility and awareness of our own brokenness. Jesus has a bit to say about beams and specks here.

I remember talking with a leader of a church that people routinely held up as a wonderful example of what church should be (for there was a lot of good stuff happening). He downplayed the hype, and said the church was just like any other group of Christians – a bunch of sinners in the process of being saved (and he listed, [without naming names!] a bunch of robust sins as examples).

Was he too negative? Is seeing the church and the Christian life this way too pessimistic? Or was he simply being realistic?

How you answer that will to a large degree depend on your anthropology. Are you with Luther’s Reformed realism of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner)? As beggars telling other beggars where to find bread?

Or a more optimistic anthropology – like Wesley’s doctrine of ‘perfection’ and the holiness movements that followed; leading into the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements and their (usually) emphasis on victory, transformation and the power of God to enable the Christian to live a holy and pleasing life for God’s glory.

There’s the ambiguity of the church in a nutshell. For both are true.

To keep engaged in church for the long haul, without becoming either jaded or cynical, both sides of that ambiguity have to be held in tension.

Personal experience of the Spirit and a passionate vision of what the church is and can and should be.
Alongside a realistic understanding of self and others as imperfect people in need of tons of grace, forgiveness, ongoing repentance.

Comments, as ever, welcome

20 thoughts on St Patrick and the rare virtue of humility within contemporary evangelicalism

On this 17th March, some thoughts on Patrick and the rare virtue of  Christian humility within quite a bit of contemporary evangelicalism.

In days of celebrity pastors, relentless slick marketing, an embedded ‘culture of success’  and much competitive point scoring between various factions within much evangelical church culture, Patrick’s Confession stands out as first and foremost an honest story of a humble man.

Consider his own words:

1. He knows he is a sinner. He has no pretensions of learning. He is honest in admitting his failings

I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many

2.He is thankful to God for his saving graciousness. He knows he has much to learn and is inexperienced and unqualified to lead

God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance

… I am, then, first of all, countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and,indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.

3. His mission flowed out of simple gratitude and love not other agendas.

Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity.

4. His self-awareness of his own limitations did not however paralyse him into inaction – this would have been self-absorption. But rather it  propelled him to share the gospel with others. In other words, he put others before himself.

I am imperfect in many things, nevertheless I want my brethren and kinsfolk to know my nature so that they may be able to perceive my soul’s desire.

5. He feared God.

So it is that I should mightily fear, with terror and trembling,this judgment on the day when no one shall be able to steal away or hide, but each and all shall render account for even our smallest sins before the judgment seat of Christ the Lord.

6. In days when celebrity pastors tweet opinions promiscuously and publishers rush to print their latest controversial theories, Patrick was a reluctant author, aware of the special responsibility that comes with doing theology via the written word [note to self – this applies to bloggers!]

And therefore for some time I have thought of writing, but I have hesitated until now, for truly, I feared to expose myself to the criticism of men, because I have not studied like others, who have assimilated both Law and the Holy Scriptures.

7. He is well aware of the upside down nature of God’s kingdom, what Paul calls the ‘foolishness of God’ – in choosing the weak things of the world to shame the wise, the powerful and the eloquent. And he is well aware that any ‘success’ he had in ministry is due to God’s ‘foolishness’.

Therefore be amazed, you great and small who fear God, and you men of God, eloquent speakers, listen and contemplate. Who was it summoned me, a fool, from the midst of those who appear wise and learned in the law and powerful in rhetoric and in all things? Me,truly wretched in this world, he inspired before others that I could be– if I would– such a one who, with fear and reverence, and faithfully, without complaint, would come to the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility.

8. He became a man of deep and fervent prayer – and prayer is among other things, a true sign of dependent humility and faith in the living God and not ourselves.

But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day

9. He was persistent and determined and in ministry for the long haul, through disappointments, suffering and persecution. He was not confidently setting ministry targets and arrogantly assuming they would be reached through effective human action alone. He knew what it was to depend on God.

And I was not worthy, nor was I such that the Lord should grant his humble servant this, that after hardships and such great trials, after captivity, after many years, he should give me so much favour in these people, a thing which in the time of my youth I neither hoped for nor imagined.

10. He trusted God to answer prayer (back to the link between prayer and humility)

‘Be converted by faith with all your heart to my Lord God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that today he will send food for you on your road, until you be sated, because everywhere he abounds.’

11. He did not only know about God, he knew God through the Spirit and how it is the Spirit’s power and strength that is essential for living the Christian life – not our own wisdom, cleverness or resourcefulness.

And so I awoke and remembered the Apostle’s words: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for utterance.’ And again: ‘The Lord our advocate intercedes for us.’

12. He had no sense of a ‘right’ to be listened to or to be respected or to be in control. So often the tone I hear within wealthy, powerful and Western evangelicalism is one of presumption and authority and of power. One of the great challenges for the West is to to listen and learn from Christians in the Global South in contexts of minority status, powerlessness, persecution, famine, poverty and insecurity. It is in these places that God appears to be most powerfully demonstrating his ‘foolishness’.

So that whatever befalls me, be it good or bad, I should accept it equally, and give thanks always to God who revealed to me that I might trust in him, implicitly and forever,and who will encourage me so that, ignorant, and in the last days, I may dare to undertake so devout and so wonderful a work;

13. He did not blow his own trumpet. How refreshing in these days of endless ‘How to’ books that unlock the latest secret for church growth (or whatever).

But it is tedious to describe in detail all my labours one by one.

14. He resisted the lure of popularity and money – authentic humility is freedom from pleasing others and being distracted from God’s calling.

And many gifts were offered to me with weeping and tears, and I offended them [the donors], and also went against the wishes of a good number of my elders; but guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel

… And I gave back again to my Christian brethren and the virgins of Christ and the holy women the small unasked for gifts that they used to give me or some of their ornaments which they used to throw on the altar.

15. He was obedient to God, wherever that led him – even if it meant death. He knew his life was not his own and felt honoured to be called to be a missionary to the Irish.

Christ the Lord … commanded me to come to be with them for the rest of my life.

16. Even with an extraordinary ministry that is celebrated to this day, Patrick continued to have a humble and realistic opinion of himself – he knew fallen human nature too well.

So I hope that I did as I ought, but I do not trust myself as long as I am in this mortal body, for he is strong who strives daily to turn me away from the faith and true holiness to which I aspire until the end of my life for Christ my Lord

17. He writes not to increase his own kudos, but out of a desire to encourage and build up others.

Now I have put it frankly to my brethren and co-workers, who have believed me because of what I have foretold and still foretell to strengthen and reinforce your faith.

… Behold, I call on God as my witness upon my soul that I am not lying; nor would I write to y ou for it to be an occasion for flattery or selfishness, nor hoping for honour from any one of you. Sufficient is the honour which is not yet seen, but in which the heart has confidence. He who made the promise is faithful; he never lies.

18. He was courageous and brave – but not in a macho, heroic way. He considered it an honour to suffer for his God and for the people he loved.

And if at any time I managed anything of good for the sake of my God whom I love, I beg of him that he grant it to me to shed my blood for his name with proselytes and captives

19. His humility is rooted in eschatological hope. In other words, he is not desperately acting as if everything in God’s purposes depended on him. He has his identity, mission and purpose in right perspective.

We, on the other hand, shall not die, who believe in and worship the true sun, Christ, who will never die, no more shall he die who has done Christ’s will, but will abide for ever just as Christ abides for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time and now and for ever and ever.

20. He consistently seeks to turn attention away from himself, his gifts, his success, his impact in Ireland and to the grace, power, love and mercy of the one true God.

But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.

And so I’d guess that he’s be the first to comment here that I shouldn’t be holding him up as an example … but it’s  my blog 🙂 Honoured to be named after him.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

More being Irish in 2012

On this St Patrick’s Day here are some more definitions of Irishness from an Irish woman I happen to know.

Irishness is…

Describing someone with longstanding, persistent and untreated psychosis as “a character”.

Saying “There’s definitely no recession here!” every time you see more than 5 people in a pub.

Saying “Ah but he’s very good to his mother” about some utter langer

That mini heart attack you get if you go out and forget to turn off the immersion

“You’re not drinking??? Are you on antibiotics?”

Wallpaper on your school books

Being Grand!!

Boil everything in a huge pot for 3 hours

Being absolutely terrified of a wooden spoon.

Learning a language for 12 years and not being fluent

Knowing that Flat 7UP heals all illnesses

Calling Joe Duffy or any radio station instead of the guards 🙂


Being Irish in 2012

As Paddy’s Day approaches here’s something seasonal from the Irish Times

What would be your definition of being Irish?

Last week we asked readers to tweet their definition of Irishness. Here are a selection of edited #beingirishmeans tweets, and the winner of our €200 prize

#beingirishmeans calling all ATMs drinklinks – Michael Collins

#beingirishmeans having an Aunt Mary – Frankie Fitzgerald

#beingirishmeans you don’t have the foggiest idea of how to speak Irish – Raheen Jackson

Apparently #beingirishmeans accepting paying €36,000 each to bail out Anglo but despising #occupydamestreet for protesting about it – The Barbarian

#beingirishmeans the only Irish you can speak is “an bhfuil cead agam dul go dti an leithreas?” – Kain Devine

#beingirishmeans you owe more money than you could ever afford to repay without having borrowed it in the first place – Niamh Redmond

#beingirishmeans knowing Father Ted off by heart – Lorna mcGinley

#beingirishmeans You can say “Any craic?” to a policeman and you won’t get arrested – Niamh Manning

#beingirishmeans answering How are you? with How are you?. Foreigners never quite grasp that insist on saying how they are – Fiona McCann

#beingirishmeans having freckles – Niall

#beingirishmeans you’ve been greeted with “D’ya know who’s dead?” by your mother – Ellen Power

#beingirishmeans saying prayers in school daily, even though you’re athiest – Frankie Fitzgerald

#beingirishmeans enjoying a traditional Irish breakfast at any time of the day or night – Caroline Egan

#beingirishmeans nothing really. Other than buying into the view that there could possibly be an all-encompassing national stereotype – Cathal McQuaid

#beingirishmeans Being accused of being “D4” in a pub in London – Alan Duff

#beingirishmeans getting travel directions that consist of pub names, churches and roundabouts – Beano

#beingirishmeans watching the Late Late Toy Show every year regardless of your age – Diane H

#beingIrishmeans sympathy for fraudsters – Allan Cavanagh

#beingirishmeans that if Penneys ever closed, half the country would be naked – Gareth McGregor

#beingirishmeans we must persevere – Aidan O’Callaghan

#beingirishmeans every other nationality loves you. – sarah and grainne

#beingirishmeans everything to me!? – aCASTLEinFIRTHland

#beingirishmeans growing up thinking that olive oil was only used as a treatment for sore ears – Paul O’Kane

#beingirishmeans you complain about everything but never do anything about it – Adam Kane

#beingirishmeans going to Mass just to check out the talent – Charlotte Ryan

#BeingIrishmeans never having to say you’re sorry . . . oh wait no, that’s just the Government – Editor in Chic

#beingirishmeans our own words craic, banter, shift, feckin, cop on will ya, few naggins be grand, morto, skittin, jaysus, state of yer wan – zoey finn

#beingirishmeans throwing on the shorts and sunnies when it hits 17degrees cos u don’t know when it’s gona be sunny again – okee o keeffe

#beingirishmeans hating the winner of the €200 euro – marc synnott

#beingirishmeans having aunties that are actually “friends of the family” – ciara oneill

#beingirishmeans adj. (I·rish) 1. the ability to be your best when youre at your worst – Cathy Orr

#beingirishmeans knowing all the words to Fairytale of NY, never knowing a stranger (aren’t any), and not forgetting the green of Ireland – Pamela Boyd Shields

#beingirishmeans If there’s not some form of potatoes with it, then it is not a dinner – Linda Callaghan

#beingirishmeans you can mime the whole national anthem – Colm Keegan

#beingirishmeans at least one of your relatives holds political office – Sandra Purcell

#beingirishmeans Lying to everyone! Doctor: I’m fine thanks!. Priest: Nothing to confess. Garda: I wasn’t speeding. God: I believe in you! – Dermot Heaney

#beingirishmeans Great pride in our Nobel prize winning authors, but never reading their works – mell61

#beingirishmeans binge drinking you way into A&E on a Saturday night – Eleanor Tiernan

#beingirishmeans being in debt and indentured, till death and dentures us do part – brownbread mixtape

#beingirishmeans emigrating and suddenly developing an overblown grá for Guinness, hurling, the Irish language, U2 and Catholicism – David Mahon

#BeingIrishMeans It’s Paddy’s Day. Not Patty’s Day – Hugh Curran

#beingirishmeans that you most likely hate #eurovision but secretly watch the final every year – Ivor Connolly

#beingirishmeans you don’t wait for the lights to turn green when crossing the road – Johnny R

#beingirishmeans climbing Croagh Patrick just for the pints after – Pam

#BeingIrishmeans forcing children to play the tin whistle, or perform an Irish jig for all the relatives in the sitting room – Sarah Barrett

#beingirishmeans not actually living in Ireland. Sad truth! – laura masterson

In 2012, #beingirishmeans struggling to keep huge, lavishly-furnished houses. With no heat. – Mary O’Donnell

And the winner is . . .

#beingirishmeans emigrating because the country’s in tatters, and telling the world how much you miss it – Julia Cashman

Losing Faith and the scandal of the evangelical mind?

I’m reading some stuff on Losing Faith and Keeping Faith, and specifically this book by Phil Zuckerman, Faith No More: why people reject religion which I’m to review and may blog about.

Gladys Ganiel and Claire Mitchell have a chapter on ‘Leaving Evangelicalism’ in their analysis of Northern Ireland Evangelical Journeys. This is the first of two posts on their chapter. I spoke at the book launch of this book which is well written and researched.

Some of their observations include:

Faith is not somehow ‘lost’, as if it is misplaced or suddenly disappears. Rather it is a gradual process with a high degree of choice being exercised. Those who ‘left’ thought about it over time and there were a number of layered reasons underpinning the decision to ‘move on’.

  1. Intellectual doubts: the existence and character of God; suffering; faith and science, pluralism.
  2. Negative church experience: hyper-spirituality, division, unanswered prayer, hypocrisy, legalism, guilt, excessive control.
  3. Social relationships: pressure to believe for parents, loss of friendships and close relationships after leaving.
  4. New cultural experiences and increasing independence: moving physically to a new culture and context

Leaving is not the end of a journey. Most of their sample is now agnostic; some may return to some form of religion, some have a modified vague sort of faith, some have become atheists.

Some observations:

As I’ve reflected on this chapter a bit more, I’ve hesitated posting because it’s hard to share my thoughts about the stories told in this chapter without sounding either patronising, judgemental or both! So please hear that this is not my intention – these stories are important to listen to and learn from and that’s my main aim.

First, a quibble with the terminology used:

The stories are really of people leaving Christianity not evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is an expression of Christianity. If they are living up to their name, evangelicals don’t, for example, believe in ‘evangelicalism’, they believe in and seek to follow Jesus Christ. Their primary identity is Christian, so when they lose their faith, it is a loss of faith in the person of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rather than simply a system or cultural expression of religious belief (evangelicalism).

And this is why I was really struck by how the leavers in this chapter described their leaving – the reasons for leaving mostly had little to do with issues core to Christianity itself, had quite a lot to do with negative experiences of evangelical sub-culture, and lots to do with the very particular political and social sub-culture of Northern Irish evangelicalism.

Now the authors know their stuff and do have this important caveat – they are summarising long open-ended discussions in which there was often a fair degree of hesitancy and angst in the telling personal stories. So what is captured does not tell the full story(s). The interviewees were being asked about their personal faith journeys, not offering papers of self-reflective theological assessment!

But it was striking (to me anyway) that there was pretty well no mention by anyone of words like ‘Jesus’, ‘Spirit’, ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace’, ‘service’, ‘joy’, ‘hope’. Nothing about the Christian faith being about the good news of Jesus and his compelling, attractive, self-giving, life and what it has felt like to ‘leave’ this behind. Nothing about the Christian life being a call to love the triune God and live a kingdom-shaped life. Nothing about a hope-filled future and an experience of the Spirit. Nothing about the call to serve and love others.

And nothing much about (older modernist?) issues of the historical reliability of the Bible, the historical veracity of the resurrection and such like.

Most of the reasons for leaving appeared highly subjective and experiential rather than offering a compelling critique of the intellectual or theological integrity of Christianity itself. For the most part, the picture of Christianity that was ‘left behind’ is one I’d have little interest being part of either (guilt, control, super-spirituality, boring church, etc).

Reasons for leaving included: realising that other religions made competing faith claims; struggling with the reality that people die; being unable to deal with difficult questions about faith; being undermined by someone’s supposed ‘prophecy’ not being fulfilled; finding being prayed for an empty experience; being disappointed that God did not answer prayer the way the person expected; excessive control and legalism within the church (which I’ll post about next).

These are hardly revolutionary new challenges to orthodox Christianity. Nor do they engage with the heart of what it means to be an evangelical Christian and what it means and feels like to leave ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ’ behind.

This all suggests a couple of interesting things:

The first one is obvious enough when you think about it, but is often overlooked in preaching, teaching, theological education and evangelism – and the authors bring this out really well.

People do not ‘believe’ in nice neat categories. Faith is not (for most people anyway?) a detached, rational, set of propositions that are intellectually grasped and then rigorously worked through in a nice linear way. Faith is multi-layered and intensely personal and messy and complex and emotional and relational and instinctive and heart-felt as well as having a cognitive theological basis.

The second is connected to the first – from reading these stories of leaving I have to wonder if the intensely personal / messy / complex / emotional / relational / instinctive / heart-felt aspects of faith have so overwhelmed the cognitive theological basis within contemporary evangelicalism that even those (like the interview sample in this chapter) who are described as (former) ‘evangelicals’ seem to demonstrate scant theological or historical awareness of the actual content and depth of Christian orthodoxy.

So I wonder if this chapter on ‘leaving evangelicalism’ offers profound and deeply uncomfortable challenges to evangelicals, NOT so much because of its devastating exposure of the intellectual foolishness of believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, but because it appears much of contemporary evangelicalism is nurturing an ad-hoc individualist spirituality that is so thin and subjective that it cannot withstand much questioning or God not fitting into preconceived notions of what he should do, or the reality that Christians are imperfect sinners who mess up all the time.

Many have written on the ‘emptying out’ of (Western) contemporary evangelicalism, perhaps most famously Mark Noll. It seems to me that this chapter adds weight to ‘the scandal of the evangelical mind’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.