The Christian church is haemorrhaging. Past decades have seen a steady decline in church membership and attendance. Many theories propose reasons, usually focusing on the front rather than the back door. Before the church bleeds out, a spotlight on the exits and those who leave permanently is required.
“Out-of-church” faith is a growing phenomenon. There are countless Christians in this category. They are often the most committed of Christians—praying, insightful, deep-thinking— yet they’ve grown tired of “playing the game” inside church systems. Their involvement goes back many years. They had commonly been leaders, but now they have left.
It isn’t Christianity they’ve turned their backs on. It’s today’s church system they’ve given up on. Many feel they are “waiting” for something.
Churches find this difficult to explain and to deal with. Church government rationalise it as, “They’ve been hurt and have a root of bitterness”; or, “They’re not a team player”; or, “They are backsliding.” Conversely, in conversation with such people, I find they’ve been sitting in church for years and can no longer tolerate the status quo. What gets to them is their sense of “lack of God,” even in the most “Spirit-filled” churches. “Where is God in all of the activity?” they ask themselves. “Surely it isn’t supposed to be this way?” While worship fads and spiritual development programs come and go, mediocrity and apathy are constants. Leavers have a deep spiritual hunger, unrequited, so they quietly slip out the door. Some have told of how they felt God “calling them out.” Some visited other churches, hoping to find a “right” place. Tragically, it is soon easier to stay at home with God. Some start home fellowship groups, or meet with others casually. But many meet with none at all. The latter consider themselves in a “wilderness” place—alone with God.
The question, then, is, could this be a move of God? This is a radical thought and many leaders would think the opposite: logically, anything that leads people out of the church cannot be of God, can it?
The concept of going through a “wilderness” just prior to entering the Promised Land is totally biblical. In fact, it features throughout the Bible. Jesus went through such a time Himself. But it isn’t possible to remain alone forever. Someday, if “wilderness people” would be part of a new move of God’s Spirit, they’re going to have to come out of their wilderness and become part of the “Body” that Jesus brings together. Otherwise they could miss out altogether.
The “leaver-sensitive” church
Over the past two decades, so-called seeker-sensitive services have become a common theme in growth churches. These congregations have moved focus from a congregational-increase to a community-transformation paradigm, an emphasis that’s largely been very successful. But the parallel tell-tale of declining congregations is an inattention to the many departures. The exit door is wide open and unattended. No care, no responsibility and, usually, no idea of the damage being done.
Church leadership will be more aware of and committed to the newly converted or arrivals from other fellowships. But there are good reasons to look more carefully at the exits. Some who leave know beforehand where they’re headed, others join other fellowships, but a vast number simply become de-churched and reinvest in family and associated pursuits. They don’t enter an agnostic or atheistic pathway; rather they retain Bible reading, prayer, giving and alternative forms of fellowship.
The journey out of church doesn’t seriously shake the core values of faith. Leavers remain committed, with a boldness of faith both in explanation and practice. They have conviction concerning the rightness of their decision to leave. Many, the more angry among them, have remained true to their spiritual culture and tradition.
Church leadership finds it convenient and less difficult to let members slip away, with their focus on the front door, or even more seriously on the tradition or institution. For such, there’s a challenge in the words of Ezekiel: “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. . . . For this is what the sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them” (Ezekiel 34:4–11).
Church leaders are first of all shepherds. The ancient crook carried by bishops is a reminder of this. They are not CEOs, complete with growth-focused management and marketing tools.
The cost of leaving
When people leave, the sense of grief and rejection is often mutual between stayer and the leaver. I am an ordained minister; I resigned on polity grounds. But I’ve maintained my connection with my denomination. I wouldn’t deny myself, and still don’t exempt myself from their fellowship. Although I disagree with some of the polity, doctrinal and moral standards, I will not break away from continuing fellowship. On some occasions I’ve been greeted with a bewildered response by colleagues at meetings, conferences, synods, assemblies and worship events. So I’ve come to appreciate, many who’ve been left behind find it hard to cope with the challenge of a leaver’s presence, influence and the change they underscore.
Leavers are in their thirties and forties and usually heading into their most productive years in careers and businesses in many cases. As they go, the resources they have to offer the church and its mission—human, economic and spiritual—depart with them. The claim of leavers is, “No-one came to talk, causing us to wonder if the church cared about our departure.” Even if a visit doesn’t bring about their return, it significantly reduces the negativity of their experience—and the complexity of the story they tell.
Priority, perspective, action
People need space to explore and question. Doubt is no more an enemy of the Christian faith than certainty is a friend. The creation of a safe place in which difficult things can be spoken and explored is important. An environment where journeys of faith, of God at work in life, can be aired is an essential latch on the back door. Here doubts can be reviewed without judgement. Space to grieve over faded dreams, lost trust and possible departure is a means of offering healing and grace. But it must be done sooner rather than later.
A journey or a trip?
The Christian journey is a significant process. It isn’t a short trip, with a specified route. Rather, it is a life-long journey through which we “become mature people, reaching to the very height of Christ’s full stature” (Ephesians 4:13). In preparation for this journey, as part of the kit, it’s important to speak openly about the “dark” places of Christian faith—the perceived absence of God, and the times when God’s face seems hidden. Leavers often crave liberty from the darkness, and in the face of those who’ve experienced victory or real success, share their confession and too often forlorn hopes.
Encouraging people to talk about the difficulties and struggles even when there is no happy ending lets people see the depth of experience in others’ lives and what they gain from it. People need to be reminded of the struggles of faith in others, and also be encouraged to take responsibility for their own. This means learning to hang in during the difficult times and hang on to God.
Like it or not, there’s a tendency in Christians to put faith down when life gets tough and confusing, and especially to make the church the scapegoat, even when it is not the church’s fault. In these times, more energy and determination is required in the quest for the new thing that God is doing. Discerning the new language God is speaking is best done and can be provided by a caring community.
The early-warning signs
In managing the phenomenon of church leavers, fellowships need to first of all install early warning radar sensitive to people’s faith struggles. Radar blips would include a slow and growing dissatisfaction in a person who is otherwise settled and happy with church life; concerns in relation to worship music and style; a perceived pastoral insensitivity; and, withdrawal from church activities outside of the worship life, including leadership. Apart from the obvious, you see this trend developing in unexpected ways. It could be merely changing seating, with a move toward the back pews, or offering to lead the children’s programs away from the adult church family is another. Or it could be something more significant, such as an expressed doubt in or an alternative theological view.
In the end, when a church detects that someone is struggling with either their faith or their church, the best strategy is to simply listen. Leavers are far more open to discussion than you might expect. Their cry for help cannot and should not be ignored.