I was asked this week to answer some questions for leaders in the Baptist churches of Virginna (USA) as they prepare for their annual conference. Below are their questions and my responses.
1. Your book, “A Churchless Faith,” was a pioneer in suggesting that people in western cultures were beginning to imagine life and spirituality apart from congregational involvement. That is an alarming word to those invested in congregations today. How would you counsel church leaders today to respond to church leavers?
When people talk about being unsatisfied, disgruntled, looking at leaving a dance can easily begin. In the dance the disgruntled person steps back from the pastor and leaders. The pastor and leaders, in turn, sense the person’s unhappiness or pulling back and step back too. This so easily begins a series of backwards steps from both pastor and disgruntled person that so easily opens a cavern of mis-understandings, lack of communication and potential blaming of each other.
Counter Intuitively the best thing a pastor can do is step towards the seemingly disgruntled, even angry person. Step toward them to engage them in conversation.
Now those early conversations will probably involve more listening and soaking up of emotion by the pastor or church leader than anything else. Many things may be said that are untrue but the feelings behind them need to be heard even if the source of the feeling is deeper than the person can identify or name at this point. But this listening and absorbing of pain and misunderstanding is the basis of future trust and conversations that help heal and rebuild faith.
If you want an unfair analogy – it sometimes feels like parenting teenagers. You just have to suck up the awkward feelings and comments as they individuate. But they won’t be angry, disgruntled and searching forever. Well, at least not as long as they are helped in productive ways early on.
Finally leavers are your friends. They will tell you things about the church that the satisfied church members never will. They will point out the sort of things that stop outsiders engaging with your church but never tell you. What these disgruntled potential leavers tell you won’t come easily and it will be painful to hear. But reflect on it. Sift what is said. What do you and the church need to hear? What is more about the person’s own journey and needs to stay with them? What can you consider as you plan and build for the future of the church?
But whatever you do don’t ask the disgruntled potential leaver to lead change in the church. That won’t help them or the church. At this point they need to work on the deep issues of their own faith. Trying to solve ‘church’ issues won’t reduce their angst or lay the foundations for a deeper engagement with God, scripture, prayer, discipleship or mission. And asking them to lead change in the church will often lead to them creating new things for disgruntled people, like themselves, they others are not actually drawn to and that they themselves wouldn’t be part of once the internal deeper faith work is underway for them personally.
2. You identify several types of leavers: – “disillusioned followers, reflective exiles, transitional explorers, and integrated wayfinders.” What trends are you seeing in New Zealand, and do you have any observations of church leavers in North America?
The trends in NZ are pretty alarming. The rate of leaving is increasing but not only among the middle aged. An increasing trend is for the active retired to leave as they holiday more, go mountain biking, sailing or spend time at the batch (holiday home). The other demographic increase is among the 25 to 35 year olds. A group that would previously have been settling into church as leaders and creative innovators now has many leaving with a sense of dissatisfaction. And then there are those coming each week who are leaving internally. They are present but inside the lights are out. Other things keep them coming – their children, friendships, playing in the band etc. Yet they are not engaging in the way they would have previously.
I did my initial study on church leavers 20 years ago and since then the trends have only increased.
But there is another side. People are coming to faith as well. Young people, immigrants and more vibrant church models are drawing people in. However studies of immigrant families show that the second and third generation of immigrants don’t stay in church any more than the general population. And many of our vibrant churches have both a big front door (attracting new people in) and a big back door (people leaving).
I am aware of the volume of writing coming from America abut church leavers and notice the increasing concern and volume of research and pastoral work in this area. 20 years ago when I was researching church leavers the dominant work was coming out of Europe. Today this is being significantly; I should say hugely, added to from an American context.
3. What can the North American church learn from the New Zealand experience of the church as it interacts with a culture that has increasingly seen the role of the church as an agent of transformation to be irrelevant?
New Zealand is arguably the most secular country in the world. One of the Scandinavian countries may beat New Zealand for that dubious title but however you read the data we are among the most secular cultures in the world. In this sense we are decades ahead of many American denominations in our engagement with a highly secular people, a godless popular culture, and our engagement with church leavers. I know many will say I don’t understand America. I get the same reaction when I make comments like this in Australia. My response is that I’m not sure Australians and Americans see the degree of ignorance, hostility, cynicism and deep dismissiveness in the NZ culture towards the Christian faith.
On the flip side there are groups of Christians and churches that are creating more locally community focused forms of church that are showing new ways of engagement as followers of Jesus and with the people and places they live. Such groups, despite difficulties, are pointing to new forms of church. I find this very exciting, relationally far more demanding that institutionally focused forms of church and, dare I say it, closer to the New Testament descriptions.
4. What are some ways your church has interacted positively with church leavers? What signs of hope do you see in these engagements?
I have moved churches eight years ago from one that was very involved in providing groups, personal mentoring and resources for people leaving or considering leaving churches to one that is focused on forming community approaches where people from the church live. This is providing ways that young and old, Christian and non-Christian and those struggling with church and those who have left years before can engage around working-bees, BBQ’s, meals as well as rhythms of prayer, bible study etc.
I am less focused on providing programmes for leavers now and more focused on relationship based discipleship.
5. Your books help us recover the idea of the value of embracing “the dark night of the soul” in spiritual journey. Say a word about that, and talk about how have you seen value in churches engaging people who are in deep spiritual questioning? What do the journeys of “leavers” look like “five years on?”
Firstly the dark night of the soul, as John of the Cross described it, is a great description of the lived experience of many people of faith as their sense of God and all God was to them seemingly disappears. Or at least is not accessible to them in the ways they had previously come to experience God. I think Protestantism, including we Baptists, have lost the deep insight of the voids of faith that are clearly explored in the writings of some of the great Catholic leaders of prayer like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius, Benedict, the desert fathers etc.
These crisis of the soul are the invitation for pastors and mature Christians to care deeply. Many years ago I found reading the Starbridge series of novels by Susan Howatch (https://www.goodreads.com/series/75351-starbridge ) helped me to see these opportunities to come along side someone. [Small side note these are novels with spiritual hero’s at the centre of them and it is only as you read the whole series that you realize there are in fact no spiritual hero’s only broken people dependent on a loving and deeply powerful God.
Five years on people’s trajectories away from God (and or church) or towards God (and church) are typically simply further down the path and direction they were headed five years earlier. That is they keep moving down the same direction they were pointed to when they left the church. Without a wise Christian mentor or a solid commitment to a group of Christians who engage with faith questions and practices very very few people change their path of increasing disengagement with God and people of faith after leaving the church.
6. Can you say a brief word about how your background in the military and as a sociologist have informed your pastoral leadership?
Both the military and the mileu of academic sociologists are very secular. Bbing used to both the culture and academic underpinnings of secularization and secular mindsets may have been formative for me. What I have also found helpful is the military wisdom of ‘lingering with intent’. Which means to be their for people when people want to talk or need you, winning their respect because through skill and care and then building relationships.
7. Do you have any thoughts about the unique value of the Baptist voice in engaging a culture that increasingly ignores the church but is all-in for spiritual searching?
Baptists are inherently covenant people. People of deep conviction and commitment to God and each other. We believe in the body of Christ in the community of the church. We, at least historically, made deep commitments to this body of believers. If we can mine those deep covenant commitments to build Christ centred community together where we live and with those who live around us then I see hope. But if we become increasingly more and more an institutional model of church our fragility will also increase.
Baptists are also prophetic people who showed and lived an alternative community. Maybe there is much we can learn from our history that could help us shape our future. Maybe deep commitments to community that are lived out in relationships marked by promise-making, truth-telling, costly sharing, regular hospitality and life-together are the way ahead. Maybe some communities of Baptists will learn from the past and be living alternative communities of Christ in our own context. Then we’d be prophetic again!