Hi, it’s me again.
No, not that Brian.
No, not that one either, the other Brian.
No, spelled with an ‘i’.
No, I’m the Brian who writes a blog.
No, this blog.
Yes, that Brian.
Yes, and I’m sorry you feel that way.
Anyway, I’m back from a brief but busy time away from blogging. If you missed me, thank you. If you didn’t even know I was gone, did I mention my name is Brian?
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It’s the week following Labour Day and my heart goes out to students of all ages as they head to school this week and next. I still experience some emotional fatigue each September as the old childhood feelings of short summers and long school years seep back into my memory.
All over the continent local churches are gearing up for fall programming with convicting ads, shiny kick-off events, bold new strategies, semi-motivated volunteers and another round of fresh hope.
However, there has been an interesting phenomenon occurring for awhile now that most church leaders acknowledge but few know how to deal with – a continuing stream of dedicated, involved Christians who are quietly leaving church. Not just leaving their local church, but leaving the tradition of participating in any church.
If I’m understanding the demographic of this blog correctly, I would guess that a large percentage of you believe in God but don’t attend church. You likely have some sort of Christian background but are intentionally disconnected from its formalities.
Others of you have been core church people but are considering walking away or have already walked away. Another noticeable percentage are connected to church but you are in a place where you are able to consider good questions about what church is or is not. And of course a few of you don’t relate to this at all, but I think this discussion will be helpful for you too.
There are many opinion-givers out there who advise pastors how to grow their church and respond strategically to culture but ultimately they just re-package the same information and tactics. In the meantime church leaders remain stuck and unable (unwilling?) to respond to what is truly happening around them.
So let’s be clear: I’m not writing about our usual labels of ‘post-christian’ or ‘nones’ or ‘secularized’ (we just love labels), I’m writing here about people of vibrant faith. This is about those who once were churched but who no longer attend. It is about those who love God so much that they have a crisis of conscience which compels them to walk away from formal gatherings. Permanently. They become statistically invisible because they have left the singular, broad category that measures these things.
The topic was so interesting and familiar to me that I pursued it some more and present the following which is generally true across most (all?) churches:
- The ‘churchless’ are not classic malcontents or church-hoppers (as insiders describe them), these are solid, dedicated people.
- Nor are they usually ‘nominal’ or secular Christians. In fact, they are more likely to be thoughtful and deeply spiritual.
- Most of these people had been active in their church for more than ten years, a large number for more than twenty years.
- They are not necessarily introverts or loners. In fact a large percentage actively seek Christian community after they leave.
- 40+ percent of the population call themselves Christian but don’t attend church (churchless).
- Nearly half of the churchless would identify as devout, born again, prayerful, Bible reading, Jesus followers.
- It is not an issue of finding a ‘right fit’ but rather an issue of dissatisfaction, searching, conviction, personal journey.
- As discomfort in their church community grows, they begin to slowly distance themselves from the core and its activities, then from church entirely at some point of crisis.
- This is typically misunderstood as rebellious or wayward or elitist by church friends who also distance themselves.
- The churchless exodus has been increasing for a number of years but noticeably for two decades.
- It is always after a prolonged period of internal dissatisfaction and honest struggle.
- This is happening in most western Christian churches across denominational and political lines.
- Recent trends have been especially noted in the evangelical traditions.
- Contrary to popular opinion, these people don’t usually leave because of politics or doctrinal differences in their church.
- On the occasions when there is some conflict, it is typically just the final tipping point.
- They are occasionally introverts in extrovert-styled churches.
- Common struggles have to do with shallow or questionable: ethics, values, doctrines, life-style, community, spirituality, leadership, priorities, use of resources, life balance.
- The churchless will often refer to narrowness of opinion and a reluctance to hear honest questions or struggles.
- Often they feel that discipleship and Christian service are getting lost in the business, activity, marketing and personalities of the organization.
- The churchless journey begins with honest struggles, questions or doubts that don’t get full or satisfactory responses from their current setting.
- Various layers of dissatisfaction slowly build, layer upon layer as they think, read, investigate, feel their way forward spiritually.
- 1/3 of the ‘leavers’ came to feel as though they no longer ‘belonged’, primarily because of their own inner changes.
- There is often a tipping point that is motivated by an event (health, move, relationship, leadership) but it is rooted in a long process of reflection and examination.
- People who decide to leave their church usually suffer a prolonged period of grief, healing and re-orientation.
- Overwhelmingly, the churchless come to a place of peace with their decision, grow into greater spiritual depth, and are unlikely to return.
This has been a quick introduction to a reality which is becoming familiar to many of us. I want to be clear that this is not a consideration of what is right or wrong but hopefully a healthy introduction to the phenomenon that will help both the ‘churched’ and the ‘churchless’ to be more gracious.
There are reasons why people leave church – deeply personal and important reasons. We’re all wired differently and we are at different places in our journey so this is not a black and white interpretation – we simply must stop guilting fellow Christians and judging their faith by how regularly they attend a church.
For those of you who are currently churched, I am asking you to set aside your prejudice to imagine the plight of those who honestly struggle to fit something as personal as their faith into a church where they can’t breathe or be themselves, or how it might feel to have to decide between your church and being faithful to God. For many, that is the choice. I can easily think of not one or two, but many friends whose faith I absolutely trust and who have reluctantly, but intentionally, put church aside.
At the same time it is too easy for the churchless to be hyper-critical of those who stay; to assume that their own baggage is somehow also baggage for others. The churchless should know that the discipline, structure and traditions of regular formal worship bring their own benefits for many.
Church can be an idol. Not going to church can be an idol. What I’m saying is simply that God’s Kingdom is bigger than either or both.
I will be blogging in the future about why I think this trend is happening and what the implications might be.
Most importantly I hope to offer some practical and encouraging ways to re-imagine the kingdom of God and our place in it. Each of us, in church or out.