I recently came across a web article on the ‘done with church’ generation. When I saw the title, I rolled my eyes a little, expecting it to be yet another whingeing session dressed up as a mission strategy—but when I read it, I was pleasantly surprised. It offered the start of a genuine exploration of why committed Christians, who have been heavily involved in their local congregation, might simply give up on the church as an organisation.
John is every pastor’s dream member. He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously and leads others passionately. But last year he dropped out of church. He didn’t switch to the other church down the road. He dropped out completely. His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member. It wasn’t triggered by any single event. John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision. He said, “I’m just done. I’m done with church.”
The article goes on to explore the dynamics involved for people who have been in church for a long time, and for whom things feel jaded. Two particular issues relate to questions of learning, growth and discipleship, and the question of participation and passivity.
After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all. One of Packard’s interviewees said, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”
The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.
I can see why these issues might be particularly important within certain church traditions, particularly in the States. But they have relevance to a range of church traditions on this side of the pond too.
I followed the links and discovered that the article was by Thom Shultz who has proposed four reasons why people leave church, and the ‘four acts of love’ which will win them back and keep them. If you are thinking to yourself ‘Not another American programme for off-the-shelf guaranteed success and church growth’, just stay with me for a while!
The four reasons (from research) why people say they left church are these:
“I feel judged.”
“I don’t want to be lectured.”
“Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.”
“Your God is irrelevant to my life.”
These are fascinating, in that though they arise from what drives existing church members away from church, they relate closely to issues that keep non-Christians away from encountering church life for themselves. In fact, Thom’s website moves seamlessly from the language of ‘why people leave church’ to ‘why people stay away from church.’
The ‘four acts of love’ he proposes are equally fascinating, and have a lot of resonance with things we are exploring as a gathered, city-centre congregation at St Nic’s in Nottingham:
- Seeking to understand.
- Authentically welcoming others and being glad to be with them.
- Caring curiosity.
- Being a friend even though it’s not your ‘job.’
- Accepting, no matter what.
- Profoundly relational.
- Something that takes time.
- Unnerving, surprising, and messy.
- Seeking to understand.
- Listening, really listening, before speaking.
- Asking great questions.
- Asking ‘wondering’ questions.
- Allowing others to talk—even in a sermon or Bible study.
- Using pair shares.
- Offering nonjudgmental responses.
- Trusting the Holy Spirit and believing that God is on our side.
- Radically relational.
- Open to learning from others with different beliefs.
- Open to learning from people of different ages.
- Admitting mistakes.
- Free from churchy, insider language.
- Putting people first.
- Communicating directly.
- Realizing God is actively involved—all the time.
- Grasping God’s power.
- Accepting there are things we can’t explain.
- Trusting the Holy Spirit.
- Being relevant—and realizing that God is relevant to everyone.
- Expecting God to show up.
- Trusting that God will do what only God can do.
- Telling others—in an authentic, natural way—what God is doing in our own lives and in the lives of others.
- Allowing people to express their faith in their own ways.
On reading this, I was immediately drawn to them for several reasons.
First, they do not read like an off-the-shelf programme of things to do, but some serious challenges to personal and cultural issues within the life of our congregations. They appear to me to tap into real concerns that people have about much church culture, in a similar way to the Progressive or Emergent movements in the US and (increasingly) in the UK.
Secondly, they appear to be rooted in genuine theological and biblical reflection, and have significant theological implications. The radical and challenging nature of Jesus’ hospitality has underpinned recent work on ethics, such as Richard Burridge’s Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics and Luke Bretherton’s Hospitality as Holiness.
But this means that these ideas, whilst being ‘far from theoretical musings’ and ‘practical acts [which] show Jesus’ love to people who crave it’, actually have significant implications for how we think about faith, community and mission. The idea that teaching in the church needs to be conversational and involve listening isn’t just about good pedagogy—it also challenges rigid notions of truth as something settled and certain. As I have commented elsewhere:
Why should we presume that the truth about God (or even about the physical world, like the nature of light of the working of gravity) can be expressed adequately in human language? If the Word was God, (John 1.1) then we can say enough in language to make meaningful statements about God. But if God’s ways are higher than our ways (Is 55.8), how can we presume to pin down the truth about God in what we say? (‘There are two things which are infinite: the universe; and human stupidity—but I am not sure about the universe.’ Albert Einstein.) We have to say, then, that all our statements claiming truth about God are provisional. This is not (contra postmodernity) because there are no absolute truths, but because (contra modernity) we can never state these absolute truths with absolute clarity. God cannot be measured.
As an example of how this works out in practice, one of Shultz’s recent blog posts reflects on the perennial discussions about sexuality in churches.
While speaking before a group I mentioned that the debate around homosexuality will present some complicated issues for the church. A man in the back of the room disagreed.
“There’s nothing complicated about it,” he said. “My Bible says homosexuality is a sin. Period. End of story.”
But for the people around him, it was not “end of story.” It was, however, the end of their conversation with him.
After a short exploration of the way ‘The Bible says so!’ closes down discussion, he offers these five principles for engaging with contentious issues:
1. Remember the goal. The real goal should be to help people grow in relationship with the Lord. Winning a doctrinal argument at the expense of driving someone away from God is not a win.
2. Use fearless conversation. Allow give and take. People want to be involved in the conversation, especially with sensitive issues.
3. Let scripture speak. Absolutely, include applicable scripture in the discussion. But also allow others to include additional scripture and their perspectives on context and interpretation. Accommodate a robust biblical exploration of the issue–even if it makes the issue more complicated than a simple proof text.
4. Invite questions. Create an environment where people know it’s safe to ask difficult questions. And ask some good questions yourself, such as, “What does this scripture mean to you?” Use the occasion to direct some of the questions to God. Including God takes the conversation to a higher level.
5. Exercise humility. Sometimes it’s best to say, “I have questions too. I don’t have all the answers. Only God does.” Posturing absolute certainty on difficult issues often undermines a person’s credibility.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this approach is what it does not say. Shultz might agree with the Progressive/Emergent movement in their the diagnosis of the problem with contemporary church life—but he does not appear to agree with the remedy. A Lutheran, he appears to believe that leaders like Brian McLaren have thrown the theological baby out with the cultural and social bathwater. He still wants to get to an orthodox/traditional belief about God and Christian discipleship, but is proposing a refreshing and different way to get there.
Shultz has kindly agreed to send me a copy of his book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, which I will post about. In the meantime, do these ‘four acts’ resonate with you? Have you come across this yourself?
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