In the last post we linked to an article written a few years ago by John Wilks called ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ (EVANGEL, 26.3, AUTUMN 2008). To the question whether church life can actually become an obstacle to spiritual growth his answer is YES, it often can. And the evidence says that many people struggling with or walking away from church are mature, committed believers. Their church experience is one of feeling stifled or constricted. This post surveys his argument and his proposals.
Wilks engages with the research of two authors in the 1980s and late 1990s.
Alan Jamieson: A Churchless Faith
The first is Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith: faith journeys beyond the churches (2000). Based on interviews with over 150 people from evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (EPC churches) mostly in their 30s and 40s, this New Zealand pastor developed several categories to describe their journeys.
1. Displaced Followers
About 18% of leavers. Left due to frustration and negativity towards a particular local church and/or its leadership. Not a rejection of faith per se, these remain committed believers. Only about a quarter return to church life somewhere else, most work out their faith apart from a church community but linked in with wider resources of relationships, teaching, books etc.
2. Reflective Exiles
These leavers exit around questions and issues primarily concerning foundations of Christianity itself. It may be questions concerning the love and justice of God, or perhaps these days we can imagine it being around Christian teaching on sex and gender. Regardless of the precise reason, few of such leavers return to church, but few leave Christian faith altogether.
Jamieson talks of these are ‘counter-dependent’ – they find faith expression outside EPC communities. This can be a destabilising process of deconstruction since their faith has been integral to self-identity. They are in unknown new territory with all the uncertainty that brings.
3. Transitional Explorers
This group can be seen as having moved on from Reflective Exiles towards a place of integration – through deconstruction towards reconstruction. This typically has involved a lot of indepth questioning and debate and/or a personal following of intuition of what feels most right. Most remain believers, a small number become agnostic.
4. Integrated Wayfinders
Jamieson came up with this description to try to capture a sense of completion – a new place of integration. Further on from the previous group to a point of finding a clear way forward – a new expression of faith that works. Their leaving of the church is symptomatic of an exploration where they have found more freedom and depth, often with others, outside the confines of church.
The point to note of these 4 groups is that very few are rejecting Christian faith. They leave church because they feel it has become an obstacle to spiritual growth.
James Fowler: Stages of Faith
The second author Wilks discusses is James Fowler and his examination of stages of faith (Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981). These go from birth to death so Wilks just talks of stages 2-5. Fowler’s work is dated now and has been critiqued but is still useful.
The key idea here is of a linear progression, linked with age and experience, with later stages associated with older believers.
Stage 2: The Literalist
This is what Fowler calls a straight-forward, even simplistic faith (he puts 20% of adults here). Characterised by a belief in literal interpretations, this faith is largely unexamined.
Stage 3: The Loyalist
Most church members are at this stage. Fowler describes it as an uncritical acceptance of the values and beliefs of the church. Questions like ‘Why do we do this?’ tend not to be asked. A strong sense of belonging, identity and purpose are all connected with church life.
Stage 4: The Critic
This stage sees a shift towards questioning beliefs and practice. Answers that just appeal to tradition (this is the way we do things) or authority (accept what you have been told) do not satisfy. Critics want to work things out for themselves. Values and beliefs are reassessed, uncertainty about cherished positions can bring turmoil but also new discovery and growth.
Stage 5: The Seer
Fowler sees this as a place of peace and resolution – the believer has reached a place of integration – even if that means accepting ambiguity and a lack of easy black and white answers. (I don’t like the term ‘seer’ – it carries too many gnostic associations of arrival at a higher spiritual level). What Fowler is trying to capture is a sense of being beyond the turmoil and disruption of the critic.
Wilks sees the two separate pieces of research mapping on to one another with leavers overlapping primarily with stages 4 and 5.
He outlines a few implications:
- There tends to be a linear progression of faith development
- There tends to be a gradual order of progress that comes with experience and reflection – people do not jump from the first to the last stage
- Moving from one stage to another is far from easy – it often involves much angst. It is only when remaining within a stage becomes impossible that someone will transition. But such a shift may well mean leaving behind previous certainties and embracing new uncertainties.
- Wilks argues that the research suggests that faith development cannot be reduced down to learning more information. Of course it includes this, but it also embraces feelings – around meaning, purpose, questioning, and working out things for oneself.
- Neither Fowler or Jamieson are arguing that one stage of faith is superior to another. This is not some gnostic ladder of ascent to a higher plane of faith. Movement through the stages is not inevitable.
- Very few people leave churches due to loss of faith. For Jamieson it was 1%. 81% left because they felt unable to develop spiritually within an EPC church.
Implications for Evangelical / Pentecostal / Charismatic Churches
Wilks is honest in saying there is a temptation to avoid the realities of this discussion within evangelically minded churches. It is difficult, he says, to ask these questions. He says he tried writing the article doing this but couldn’t do it. Obviously what he concludes is not necessarily true of every church, they are general trends. What follows is a summary of three questions and his answers.
QUESTION 1: “Is Evangelicalism a movement which caters for people in a small number of these stages? [His answer ‘Yes it is’]
Jamieson concluded that EPC churches shaped worship, teaching and role models around Stage 3 (loyalists) to encourage and reinforce belief but leaving little space for exploration, questioning and doubt. Wilks agrees with this. It does not tend to welcome self-criticism. Those who ask critical questions can often be seen as disloyal, divisive and ‘un-sound’ and are therefore not listened to or are dismissed. (My comment – this can be true within a local church or a broader denomination. Religious institutions can be incredibly effective at silencing or marginalising dissenters).
If this is often (not always) the case then Wilks concludes that it’s not surprising people feel increasingly marginalised and eventually leave when they enter Stage 4.
QUESTION 2: Is it possible to make a faith journey and remain an Evangelical at all stages of the process? [His answer ‘Only just – but it is not easy]
Fear of questioning is understandable. It may be seen as undermining the leadership, or leading others astray. This can include questions about science and the Genesis creation accounts for example. Or same-sex marriage, or sex before marriage, or the role of women in leadership or penal substitutionary atonement or the exclusiveness of Christian salvation, or the trustworthiness of the Bible, or the historical reliability of the resurrection or the deity of Jesus etc etc
And sure the New Testament does reveal a need to teach truth and reject both doctrinal error and un-Christian behaviour.
But here’s the paradox.
The more questions are either shut down to ‘protect’ the church and its leadership, or are never seriously addressed in the preaching and teaching, the more likely it is those in Stage 4 on will be unwillingly squeezed out.
Jamieson’s work shows that they don’t want to go. They aren’t leaving because they don’t believe any more. They are leaving because who they are – what they think and feel, what is important to their faith and life – has no place in their church community.
So Wilks argues church leadership needs to respond with
“‘Bring it on’ … bring your questions, doubts, uncertainties and let us debate them vigorously and robustly, with respect and rigorous deliberation. Let us reject all half explanations and simplifications, let us look at the difficulties with all their complexity and confusion”
QUESTION 3: Is there something about Evangelicalism that means it deliberately prevents people from attempting to make a faith journey?” [His answer ‘There shouldn’t be, but I think there is.’]
Linked to that last quote, Wilks argues that there is nothing inherent within evangelical faith that means its members can or should remain in Stages 2 or 3. Quite the opposite should be true. There should be nothing to fear from questioning.
But it’s one thing saying this and another facing up to Jamieson’s findings. Wilks challenges leaders to respond, not by avoiding the issue or seeing people who question as problems, but rather actively to encourage believers to “investigate this for yourself.”
“We need not reject our stage 4 disciples and eject them from our churches …. none of us should need to reject the desire to question and investigate.”
“Are we willing to change our perception of stage 4 as a crisis of faith most likely to lead to a loss of faith to one where we view it as a positive period from which we can expect growth?”
Recall that Jamieson did his research c. 2000. Wilks wrote in 2008. Today every Christian with access to the internet has access to information and teaching on pretty well anything you can think of. Leaving aside the fact that it’s hard to sift the wheat from vast amounts of chaff, this has two consequences.
One is that long gone are the days when it was actually quite difficult for someone to do even basic biblical and theological research for themselves. Only leaders/clergy were trained and were generally recognised as experts. Now at a few clicks there are excellent teaching, preaching and written biblical and theological resources are available.
Trying to close down questions locally reminds me of a lovely wedding our family watched on Zoom the other day. Due to the pandemic It was outside and the bride ‘entered’ the ‘aisle’ via double doors, built into a frame in the middle of a field. It was a nice image of a church wedding but with no building in site. You’ll get my point – what works as an image in an outdoor wedding won’t work with questions in modern church life. Shutting the doors in the middle of a field means that people will just walk around them.
In other words, not giving space for critics to be listened to, respected and heard, and for their questions to be addressed means that they will most likely continue seeking answers somewhere else. Wilks puts it this way:
“Let us face honestly and seriously the consequences of ignoring this problem. There is a leakage of people through the back doors of Evangelical churches. They are not peripheral people, people who were not converted properly or who have lost their faith. To the contrary, they are often key people, people who put years of hard work into making the church happen and work, and who feel that their spiritual needs simply are not being met. As they move from a stage faith to one in stage 4, where they are now questioning and evaluating everything, they discover that they are no longer welcome in the typical Evangelical church. After gradually sliding out of their areas of responsibility they slip away.”
Another is that, for good or ill, authority has been radically decentered. I say for ‘for ill’ because I happen to believe that authority matters. Church tradition and doctrine has historical and theological weight and should be respected. Theological and biblical expertise matters. Church is not an individualist ‘free for all’ where every half-baked Bible interpretation has equal merit.
But it is ‘for good’ in that faith should never be ‘second hand’ – just accepted unquestioningly on someone else’s authority. Such faith has thin foundations, especially in a secular, pluralist, post-Christendom culture like ours. It is not good enough today – if it ever was – for leaders or denominations just to appeal to authority in the face of critical questioning. It is, in effect, saying ‘the church is not the place for you’. Leadership that has confidence in God and his Word trusts him, it welcomes questions, especially from experienced committed believers who want to grow and develop in their faith and worship of God.