'Post-congregationals' leaving church, not faith
December 13 2002 by Craig Bird , Associated Baptist Press

'Post-congregationals' leaving church, not faith | Friday, Dec. 13, 2002

Friday, Dec. 13, 2002

'Post-congregationals' leaving church, not faith

By Craig Bird Associated Baptist Press

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - People who leave the church aren't necessarily abandoning God, according to a pastor and sociologist studying what he calls "post-congregational" Christians.

Rather than being marginal churchgoers, Alan Jamieson found in research for his book, A Churchless Faith, that 94 percent had been leaders - such as deacons, elders or Sunday school teachers - and 32 percent had been full-time ministers.

Jamieson also found that for many the break came not because they lost their faith, but because they wanted to save it.

Rather than writing off those who leave the church due to burnout, spiritual abuse or frustration at not being allowed to ask hard questions, Jamieson believes congregations should listen to those who opt to go their faith journey alone. Ironically, he says, they might be the Christians best equipped to reach postmoderns.

Twice a month, 30 or more people gather at Jamieson's church, First Baptist Church in Wellington, New Zealand, for "Spirited Exchanges." Seated at cafe-type tables and sipping tea in the subdued light of the basement, they talk freely. No topic is off limits - the nature of God, homosexuality, spiritual abuse, the role of women.

The focus, Jamieson told FaithWorks magazine, is "on where we are going instead of what we have left."

"Spirited Exchanges is not designed to be church," Jamieson says. "It is a place where people can talk about anything they want to talk about, without any sense of being 'out of line' or being told their thoughts are inappropriate."

He is aware of about 50 other groups like Spirited Exchanges.

The three-year-old program has brought Jamieson criticism from all directions. "Some people insist I am encouraging people to leave the church, and others are just as indignant that I am scheming to lure people back into the church."

But Jamieson is unshaken in his commitment to teach churches to become "leaver sensitive." The reasons: (1) leavers need the church, (2) the church needs leavers, (3) leavers take their time, skills, efforts and wallets with them, (4) leavers tell their stories to others, and (5) leavers take their children with them.

Other researchers back Jamieson's findings that many of the unchurched are still spiritually inclined.

"Relatively few unchurched people are atheists. Most of them call themselves Christian and have had a serious dose of church life in the past," pollster George Barna said in Re-Churching the Unchurched.

David Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates there are about 112 million "churchless Christians" worldwide, about 5 percent of all adherents, and he projects that number will double by 2025.

Jamieson isn't the only author to focus on reaching out to churchless pilgrims.

American pastor and student worker Mary Tuomi Hammond, in The Church and the Dechurched, turns her attention to those battling emotional, spiritual or mental scars they associate with their church experience.

Included among that population, she identifies "rabid atheists, silent agnostics, committed humanists, practitioners of distinctly non-Christian spiritualities." But she also finds believers who still cling weakly to a faith they carried with them when they fled.

Hammond's wounded souls "are among the church's strongest critics, because they are outsiders who were once insiders."

She has been chastised for "attacking the faith" by recounting stories of spiritual abuse, but she denies that charge.

"My love for the church compels me to challenge the church to hear and attend to the cries of its own wounded," Hammond said. "I love the church and I wrestle with it. I love the Lord and I wrestle with my faith as well. In that visceral relationship between loving and wrestling, I find strength, hope and life that cannot be extinguished."

She challenges congregations to become "church for the dechurched." She points out that Jesus spent most of his ministry reaching out to the "de-synagogued." But she warns it can be a long and difficult effort.

"As Christians we must face the issues we would rather not address, ask the questions we cannot always clearly answer, and listen to the voices that are most difficult to hear," Hammond said.

Jamieson asks why so many people with a deep longing for God are coming to the conclusion that they must abandon their congregational homes in order to continue growing spiritually.

Adapting the work of sociologist James Fowler's Stages of Faith, Jamieson divides "leavers" into four types: (1) disillusioned followers, (2) reflexive exiles, (3) transitional explorers and (4) integrated way-finders.

Jamieson says many churches are unaware - and unconcerned - about those who have left. The overwhelming majority of the 108 leavers he has interviewed said no one from their church ever talked with them about why they had left.

Jamieson recalled one pastor's declaration that Jesus' parable of the lost sheep doesn't apply to those "who know where the paddock is and intentionally wander away."

Jamieson uses a different analogy to make his point. He envisions a non-swimmer attracted to the beach. Befriended by a swimming club, he enters the water and takes lessons. A quick study, he soon is going to the beach at every opportunity and inviting his non-swimming friends to do likewise.

But eventually, he senses a faint inner stirring to swim beyond the flags that mark the "safe" area. His old coach advises him such thoughts are dangerous. Gradually he becomes uncomfortable at the beach and begins staying at home. But the call of the deep haunts him. Eventually he plunges back into the ocean, this time to swim beyond the flags, totally alone if necessary.

Rather than abandon such swimmers, Jamieson says, the church should accompany them.

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Bird is a free-lance writer living in San Antonio, Texas.)

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12/13/2002 12:00:00 AM by Craig Bird , Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments
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