A Churchless Faith

Although new data from Christian Research suggests that the huge decline in overall church membership may have now turned the corner, there are still fears that some traditional denominations may not survive the next 40 years. On the other hand, many new churches in the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic streams (EPC) are growing.

It may seem paradoxical, therefore, that Alan Jamieson chose to study a group of people who have left these new churches, rather than those exiting the traditional denominations. However, the subtitle of the book, Faith Journeys Beyond the Church, makes it clear why he has chosen to do this. Whereas we might assume, rightly or wrongly, that a decline in church numbers reflects a loss of faith and commitment, the opposite is happening in Jamieson’s group of EPC church leavers.

They are leaving the church ‘disgruntled, disillusioned and disaffiliated’, but they are not leaving the Christian faith. Ninety four percent had held leadership positions in the churches that they left, so it is not surprising that only one percent have lost their faith. They wanted to move on in their faith journey and they felt unable to do this in the EPC churches, because of church structures, problems with leadership style, rigidity of doctrine, inability to question beliefs and many other factors.

Jamieson divides the leavers into four groups according to what he calls the leavers’ ‘trajectory’: disillusioned followers, reflective exiles, transitional explorers and integrated wayfarers. All have a slightly different reason for leaving and are going forward in slightly different ways. Many have joined house groups and some have started attending other, different churches. Other than the constraints already mentioned, there is a common thread in the balance between conversion and spiritual development. Within certain parts of the evangelical movement, the emphasis on conversion has led to a reduced understanding of and focus on faith development. This lack of emphasis and opportunity is one of the reasons why committed Christians left their churches.

The second part of the book focuses on development. There is a very clear and helpful chapter describing James Fowler’s five stages of faith development. The book is perhaps worth reading for this chapter alone, which is a straightforward account of what some see as a very difficult subject. Finally, the author makes suggestions that could help EPC churches overcome the shortcomings that prompt people to leave in this way.

There are many areas of this book that will be of interest to all Christians. It will be of particular value, of course, to leaders in EPC churches who may be suffering a loss of members. However, there is anecdotal evidence that people are leaving the mainstream churches for some of the same reasons that Jamieson analyses in this excellent book. It therefore speaks to leaders of all churches because it reminds them how important it is to concentrate on continuing faith development.

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