Church Leavers

by Len Hjalmarson

coverOn March 16, 2010 Skye Jethani posted at Out of Ur on the De-Churched. Who are they? What is this all about anyway? How come so many believers are suddenly not attending meetings on a Sunday morning? Are they just a bunch of self-centered, disloyal, unsubmissive, I’d-rather-watch-football, un-disciples of Jesus?

Having been a de-churched believer myself for an extended period of time, but never having stopped following Jesus, I have my own take on the answer. But I’ve also had many helpful conversations over the years, and picked up small tidbits here and there. About four years ago I met Barb Orlowski, a Jesus-follower processing her own thoughts and feelings around all this. Barb was in the doctoral cohort a year ahead of me at ACTS. It was only a year and a bit before that when I had come across Alan Jamieson’s research work on church-leavers in New Zealand.

In The Present Future, leadership and spirituality author Reggie McNeal wrote, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving to preserve their faith.” What in the world? Talk about cognitive dissonance. Why would someone leave church to “preserve” their faith? In the same book McNeal opined,

“I say we have a church in North America that is more secular than the culture.”

“Just when the church adopted a business model, the culture went looking for God. Just when the church embraced strategic planning (linear and Newtonian), the universe shifted to preparedness (loopy and quantum). Just when the church began building recreation centers, [or theaters], the culture began a search for the sacred.

“Church people still think that secularism holds sway and that people outside the church have trouble connecting to God. The problem is that when people come to church, expecting to find God, they often encounter a religious club holding a meeting where God is conspicuously absent. It may feel like a self-help seminar or even a political rally. But if pre-Christians came expecting to find God. sorry! They may experience more spiritual energy at a U2 concert or listening to a Creed CD.”

If this is true, then, “Houston, we have a problem!” Could it be that one of the dynamics we are seeing in this new exodus has to do with a broken human institution and many broken leaders? Could it be that our typical assumption that God is active within the fortress but absent in the culture around us was just plain mistaken? Sure it could. These are some of the dynamics operative in the huge and growing exodus. But it doesn’t fully explain what we are seeing, and it certainly doesn’t offer a clear sense of the implications. We have to scratch a bit harder to clarify this fuzzy picture.

Out of Ur, “De-Churched”

Skye makes a nice beginning for us in his March article. He starts out by making a critique that Tozer would have strongly approved. He uses a video clip from Matt Chandler, who attributes the exodus of young people to the proclamation (explicitly or implicitly) of a false gospel of “moralistic deism.” This is essentially the “health and wealth” gospel, but founded on moralism. If you obey God’s rules he will bless you with what you desire. But as Skye points out, this becomes a problem when the blessing doesn’t come—or doesn’t come in the form we want. Moreover, the theology here is deeply skewed. It makes God into a mechanism and faith into a technique. I do A so God will do B. No personal majestic Creator necessary in this formula.

Skye agrees with Matt, but only partly. There is at least one more group of de-churched Christians. They haven’t walked away from faith in Chris, but have lost confidence in the institutional structures and programmatic trappings of the church. For them the institutional church is distracting, a drain on time, resources, and energy better spent on mission. Instead of supporting incarnational attempts, it extracts people from their missional contexts into endless meetings and political wranglings. It provides religious goods and services (see the first complaint above) without teaching us how to really worship. It bids us come – but not come and die (Bonhoeffer).

Skye breaks this group of de-churched down into two groups. I’ll use his terms but then characterize then my own way. Skye sees the relationally de-churched (“The church is a machine; it doesn’t know what to do with people”), and the missionally de-churched (“The church bids me come when I think I’m actually supposed to be ‘going’ out on mission.”) He breaks this second group down one more time into the “transformationally de-churched.” This third group would be closer to the group that make up the urban mission that is at the core of our METRO community. When we get involved with people in recovery, we discovery a raw edge to faith that makes it very difficult to sit through the heavily programmed, neat and tidy, everything by the timer, sanitized approach to meetings that is typical of large western churches. As McNeal somewhere else quips, Jesus did not say, “I came that they might have church, and that more abundantly.”

“Reflective Exiles”

coverBut Skye leaves out one group in his exploration and misses one of the nuances. At least one more category is needed, and Alan Jamieson supplies it in his research and interviews among de-churched believers in New Zealand. This additional category relates to the quotes from Reg McNeal which I offered above. It has some elements in common with the relationally de-churched and the transformationally de-churched in that there is just something about the institutional and programmatic approach to meetings that has stopped working for these people. But the problems go deeper than that. Alan identifies this group as only a sociologist would (shades of the work of James Fowler) as “reflective exiles.” Here is his description.

“For this group of leavers.. leaving is typically a process which occurs over a long period of time, perhaps 18 months or more. This process of moving away from the church begins gradually with feelings of unease, a sense of irrelevancy between church and what happens in other important areas of their lives, and a reducing sense of fit and belonging to the church community and its ‘faith package’.

“The gateway through which this group leave the church I have called Meta-grumbles. They are [questioning] the deep rooted foundations of the faith itself.

“The faith of the Reflective Exiles can be characterised as counter-dependent. When I asked this group of leavers what nurtures their faith now the most common response was “It certainly isn’t . . . ” followed by some description of aspects of [established church].

“Secondly, the Reflective Exiles are engaged in a deconstruction of their previous faith. That is, they are engaged in a process of taking to pieces the faith they had received, accepted and acted within for so many years. To do so is personally a very destabilising process for them, as their faith has been an important part of their world view, the foundation of important life decisions and an integral part of their sense of selfhood. They are involved in an ongoing reflective process which involves a reevaluation of each component of their faith.”

What is striking about this description is that it frames the church leavers as people on a journey. Historically and in the tradition of Christian spirituality, we might use the term “desert journey” or “pilgrimage” to describe the movement that has placed this group outside traditional structures. This begs the question of whether this journey might be a response to an inner call, a response to the Spirit? (I asked Alan about the inner journey in its relation to disengaging from traditional forms in an interview in 2007).

Alan describes a second group that are similar to Reflective Exiles, calling this group “Transitional Explorers.” He writes that, “The transitional faith interviewees displayed an emerging sense of ownership of their faith. This is shown in a confidence of faith, a clear decision to move from a deconstruction of the received faith to an appropriation of some elements of the old faith whilst giving energy to building a new self-owned faith.”

It doesn’t take a psychologist or therapist or a Scott Peck afficionado to recognize that both the Reflective Exiles and the Transitional Explorers are on a faith journey, an individuating process that was somehow restricted by their involvement in a faith community. Like adolescents, they had to somehow “leave home” in order to make their faith and their lives their own. Some of these will complete this work in a new setting (transitions require liminal space) and then reengage at a different level. This describes my own process in the last ten years quite accurately. From here Alan describes a final category that is also part of this journey, “Integrated Wayfinders.” But it’s probably more useful for me to move on and make another connection.


First, it’s helpful to read Alan’s entire article HERE A followup article asking, “What are these de-churched people doing next?” and “What can be learned from these groups?” is found HERE. One of the surprising results of the research for Alan was discovering that for the majority of leavers (65% of those interviewed) this was not a solo journey but one which involved them in groups of people in similar faith transitions.

Equally intriguing, leaving church can be a step in healing and growth for some. Andrew Pritchard runs the de-churched through the grid of Fowler’s “stages of spiritual growth” in an article HERE.

The classic work on “spiritual stages,” (other than perhaps the Enneagram) is Fowler’s work. He describes the third stage of faith development as “Synthetic-Conventional” faith. The transition from this stage to the next, “Individuative-Reflective” faith, is described like this: “”For a genuine move to stage 4 to occur there must be an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority. The ‘tyranny of the they’- or the potential for it – must be undermined. In addition to the kind of critical reflection on one’s previous system . . . of values . . . there must be . . . a relocation of authority within the self.” According to Fowler the strength of stage 4 has to do with its capacity for critical reflection on identity (self) and outlook (ideology).

The transition requires “an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority.” That is a fascinating take on the need to move from trusting human authority to trusting in God. I believe that this movement into a self-authorizing faith describes the heart of a shift to a universal priesthood. It is only when we are rooted in this place of radical sonship that we can effectively contribute to the life of a Jesus community. There are many voices out there who will try, often for complex and personal reasons, to tell us who we are. But only one Voice has true authority in this.

In terms of church leavers, Pritchard’s article is helpful. It reframes at least some of the process of leaving church with the hope that God is active here too. God Father’s us not only in traditional structures, but on the road, on the journey, wherever it takes us. For some that journey will lead outside the established church on a “road less travelled.”

In The Critical Journey, Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich describe six stages in the life of faith.

Stage One: Recognition. “we believe”

Stage Two: Discipleship. “we are learning about God”

Stage Three: Production. “doing things for God”

Stage Four: The Wall. “things aren’t working anymore”

Stage Five: the Journey Outward. “living from a new center”

Stage Six: the Life of God. “Its all about love”

Conclusion and Disclaimers

Language changes with time, and some biblical terms are particularly problematic these days. How does one “leave church” without leaving faith? If by “church” we mean the spiritual body of Jesus followers, then leaving church would be leaving faith. if by “church” we mean the organized and circumscribed activity of a local faith community, what some would call “the institution,” then leaving church is only leaving a specific group. In our own process we remained closely tied to others who were no longer part of a traditional meeting. I have often quipped that my wife and I ‘left the church to find the Church.’

As I close this short reflection, and with a nod toward the journey we all have to make – a journey that is mostly in community, but sometimes intensely personal and individual, I am thinking of the wisdom of Bonhoeffer in Life Together.

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of being in community.”

“Let him who cannot be in community beware of being alone.”

God may call you out of your faith community. Or, you may find yourself unwillingly on the outside. It will be a tough journey. Keep your eyes on Jesus. I know – the challenge is for some that this journey begins without conversation partners. But if you are reading this, then already you are gaining a broader perspective.

As God’s people in exile we face many daunting challenges in our time. Times of Reformation are always confusing and dangerous. Much that we thought could not be shaken is now being shaken. The rate of people leaving churches in North America is on the increase. The diaspora is hard on everyone – people, leaders, communities..

I offer a couple of downloads : a brochure titled Leading Through Change and Stages of Faith (from The Critical Journey)