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.
- Fowler’s first ‘stage’ is pre-faith – infancy
- Stage 2: the literalist. Young children. Simple belief. Largely unquestioning. Secure in belief but largely unexamined.
- 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.
- Stage 4: The Critic. Questions. Turmoil. Unsettled. Willing to jettison long-held beliefs.
- 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 …..
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- What implications does a model of encouraging reflection, questions, faith journey and growth have for those in church positions of authority and leadership?
- 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 … 😉