Walking away from church

An article I read preparing for teaching ‘Evangelical Identity, History and Theology’ on our Master’s course was ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ by John Wilks. Evangel 26.3. Autumn 2008.

I ‘know’ John a wee bit via email regarding Evangelical Quarterly where he is one of the editors.

The issue he comes at is why mature adult believers leave evangelical churches via engagement with Alan Jamieson’s Churchless Faith  These were believers who had not lost their faith; they remained Christians. They were often people who had had leadership positions and years of ministry experience. They left often because the church had become an obstacle to faith. Now that isn’t a shocker, but it is ironic that people leave the church because they cannot grow in their Christian faith.

  • Jamieson found only 1% of people left church due to loss of faith
  • 18% left due to disputes with the local church
  • 81% left because they could not develop spiritually in an evangelical church

Jamieson had several categories:

  • Displaced followers:  frustrated, angry, hurt rejection of the church.
  • Reflective Exiles:  wrestling with questions of faith in general
  • Transitional Explorers:  open to new spiritualities, dissatisfied with previous experience
  • Integrated Wayfinders:  have arrived at a new understanding of the Christian faith

Wilks takes Jamieson and connects him to James Fowler’s work on development of a faith journey through life.

  1. Fowler’s first ‘stage’ is pre-faith – infancy
  2. Stage 2: the literalist. Young children. Simple belief. Largely unquestioning. Secure in belief but largely unexamined.
  3. Stage 3: The Loyalist. Where most church members are. Largely uncritical acceptance of the church and its practices. Rarely asking ‘Why do we do this?’. Strong sense of belonging.
  4. Stage 4: The Critic. Questions. Turmoil. Unsettled. Willing to jettison long-held beliefs.
  5. Stage 5: The Seer. Through turmoil, to a new sense of peace. Acceptance of ambiguity, tensions and unanswered questions. Happy to ignore solutions offered by authority.

Wilks sees Fowler’s stages 2-5 map onto Jamieson’s 4 categories. There is a sense of a linear progress he says; yet also plenty of messiness and moving back and forward in the stages. Moving from one stage to another will often involve difficulty and pain and uncertainty.

And development of a faith journey does NOT necessarily depend on learning more. Yes faith does have a strong cognitive element but it is more like space to question, think and reflect than just learning of information

From here, plenty of questions arise about evangelical churches.

Would love to hear your thoughts on these sorts of questions …..

  1. Do evangelical churches tend to only cater for people only in the early stages of faith? Are questions and new ideas welcome in your experience? Or is such lateral thinking unwelcome? Is there such an assumed ‘final product’ of belief in the gospel (faith, repentance, forgiveness, new life) along with a confidence that the Word has been heard and understood,  that there is a strong sense of ‘having arrived spiritually’ (‘saved’) and therefore little more to really learn or experience?
  2. Is it possible to remain an evangelical through all the stages of faith in someone’s life? Wilks thinks, yes, but only just. Is survival only possible by quelling questions and keeping them to oneself or is that not your experience?
  3. Is there anything about evangelicalism that innately prevents people from making a faith journey? Wilks says there shouldn’t be (but there often is). The best approach here is to engage with hard questions, to welcome debate, to encourage reflective discussion. In other words, there is no need to be afraid of the truth. Again – is this your story? Or have you had experience of being shut down and awkward for asking questions?
  4. Are evangelicals willing to understand and expect to see faith as full of difficult transitions? Of hard questions? Of liminality and alienation as well as of joy, hope, clarity and truth?  Or is it your experience that those questioning are only really accepted at a stage 3 belief?
  5. Do evangelicals tend to view faith journeys with suspicion and thus tend to suppress movement beyond stage 3? Are you part of a church that welcomes questions and debate or has little place for it?
  6. What implications does a model of encouraging reflection, questions, faith journey and growth have for those in church positions of authority and leadership?
  7. What sort of questions do you think should and need to be explored within a growing and developing faith journey?

A prize for the person who gets all 7 questions right … 😉


8 thoughts on “Walking away from church

  1. I hope you get some thoughtful replies. I’ve posted on some similar issues from a personal perspective. I guess I am somewhere between stage 4 and 5. But leaving church just isn’t an option for us. Yet we can’t seem to find a place where we belong. For 5 yrs now, we (spouse and I) have been what I call spiritual refugees. Different than a church hopper. I see a church hopper as someone who jumps from church to church for immature or petty reasons. We desperately want a church home, and are willing to overlook lots of minor things. Yet feel shut out of any churches we have visited over the last several years. We are evangelical at heart, yet feel increasingly alienated from evangelicalism. I guess we are displaced, reflective and transitional! To answer some of your 7 questions…Movement beyond stage 3 is not encouraged. Hard questions make people uncomfortable. Not only that, there is shock that certain questions would even be vocalized. But keeping questions to ourselves isn’t an option for us. That is being fake and hiding who we are. Authenticity and honesty is important to us. Leadership does not want to listen to the concerns of the disenfranchised or marginalized. If you try to share concerns, even in a diplomatic and gracious way, you are seen as a complainer and the blame is placed back on you entirely. Etc.

    Recently we decided to broaden our search for a church by trying ones that do not fall under the distinct category of evangelical. We have been visiting a mainline protestant denomination for a couple months and feel hopeful that this will work out for us. Yet, we are evangelical at heart and leaving for the mainline is difficult. We don’t

    • I somehow accidentally pressed post too soon as I was cut off in my final sentence. But I was wrapping it up anyhow. While I think this mainline church will work for us, it is going to be a challenging transition. It’s like we don’t quite fit anywhere.

  2. Hi Laura, thanks for your story and honesty and for reblogging. I hope that you and your spouse can find a really good home where you can serve and use your gifts to the full.
    Various thoughts in no particular order!:

    It is not mere passive receiving of information that transforms, but reflective learning and putting faith into practice. There is usually plenty of scope for the latter in busy church life but little time and space for the former. Making space for growth and questions creates an open atmosphere for that learning together to happen. That takes plenty of faith and courage for leaders. But done well it releases people rather than stifles.

    Post-Christendom culture, where church members live, takes nothing for granted. To try and live in a bubble is missionally disastrous. That’s why I like Keller’s Reason for God and others who are engaging seriously the objections and attitudes to Christian faith in the wider culture. It’s one reason I blog and enjoy reading other blogs.

    Some have criticised Jamieson in that the ‘blame’ is too easily one way – on the local church. A fair point. Some will leave because the church doesn’t fit to their own agendas, and the church is not a democracy etc.

    Wilks does not talk about this, but I wonder what significance one’s theology of the local church has. For example, a gathered church model of believers (independent evangelical / Baptist type churches here in Ireland) versus a denomination with a wider diversity of believers and religious attenders.

  3. Fowler’s construct seems more useful to me than Jamieson’s, but perhaps that’s because I recognize mself as a Fowler Stage 5.

    Whenever I hear of people leaving the local congregation, not to engage in Christian community elsewhere but to eschew such community as not being all that helpful in the ir own spiritula growth, I tend to wonder what their tiem of spirit they’re growing. Even the best church community is hard, believe me I know. That doesn’t make it optional, though.


    P.S. I followed over from Laura’s place. Glad I did!

    • Welcome Tim, thanks for your comment. I agree with you. Theologically and spiritually, community is at the heart of being a Christian.
      I guess it depends a lot on the community. To caricature a bit to make the point: a church marked by grace and love, with a vision for mission flowing out of the gospel is a very different sort of community compared to a place that just provides a service to attend once a week. Or, to put it more positively, if the church is being the church, it is a joyful, missional and attractive community to be part of….

  4. Food for thought – I guess I never really thought about it. But times are changing in the needs of the church and the Christian. It will be interesting to see where God leads His people. Blessings!

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