The phenomena of people of faith leaving the church behind has been noticed by sociologists, researchers, and pastors for some years now. It has been more obvious in some places than others, of course. Alan Jamieson’s work has been the most prominent to date. I want to run some of that work against some of the more recent studies.
In “You Lost Me,” Dave Kinnaman explains that “the problem of young adults dropping out of church life is particularly urgent because most churches work best for ‘traditional’ young adults – those whose life journeys and life questions are normal and conventional. But most young adults no longer follow the typical path of leaving home, getting an education, finding a job, getting married and having kids—all before the age of 30. These life events are being delayed, reordered, and sometimes pushed completely off the radar among today’s young adults.
“The research points to two opposite, but equally dangerous responses by faith leaders and parents: either catering to or minimizing the concerns of the next generation. The study suggests some leaders ignore the concerns and issues of teens and twenty-somethings because they feel that the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have their own children. Yet, this response misses the dramatic technological, social and spiritual changes that have occurred over the last 25 years and ignores the significant present-day challenges these young adults are facing.”
It’s an important study, and this morning as I think about the kinds of faith journeys my children and “Millennials” in general are on, I am thinking of the work by Alan Jamieson, surveying church leavers in New Zealand, and before him by James Fowler.
Jamieson broke down church leavers into three distinct groups. The first he called “Displaced Followers.”
“I refer to them as followers because the faith they continue in has not substantially changed from the faith package they followed within the EPC church. They are called displaced because events and circumstances have encouraged them to leave the EPC church with which they continue to hold great affinity.”
He further broke down this group into “hurt” or “angry.” Both the Hurt and the Angry were said to have left because of specific complaints. But what interests me in particular is the kind of faith this group adhere to. Jamieson writes, “The Displaced Followers continue in a received faith. They have not disengaged from the faith they received when they entered the church. The faith they received when they made their decision to follow Christ and join the church is the same faith package they follow today as EPC church leavers. Typically such a faith is based on an external authority beyond themselves.”
The second group he called “Reflective Exiles.” For this group of leavers leaving is typically a process which occurs over a long period of time: 18 months or more. Jamieson writes,
“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 [for leaving] I have called Meta-grumbles. These are not grumbles about specifics within the church. They are not questioning peripheral aspects of EPC faith, but the deep rooted foundations of the faith itself.”
Jamieson offers that the title ‘reflective’ is given because of the reflecting and questioning stance towards their faith. He calls them “exiles” because they are, albeit by personal choice, exiled from a community and a way of understanding themselves, life and God which has been very important, even foundational, to them in the past. This group is primarily involved in “deconstruction,” a very insecure process of questioning.
The third group he calls “Transitional Explorers.” Jamieson writes,
“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. To varying degrees this faith incorporates elements of the previous church-based faith. However these elements of faith have now been tested and found to be valid and worthy of being retained …”
The final group Jamieson calls “Integrated Way-finders.” Jamieson writes,
“Where the Transitional Explorers are in the process of reconstructing their faith and developing an emerging self-ownership, the integrated faith people have to all intents and purposes completed this faith reconstruction work.
“The process could be likened to the building of a house out of timber from a previous home. The first part of the process involves moving out of the old home and carefully tearing it down. In the demolition phase the timber, window and door frames, roofing materials and fittings are assessed as to their usefulness as materials for the new house. This process is what I have called the “reflective phase”.
“The next part of the process involves building the new house out of the materials retrieved from the old one and the incorporation of a number of new materials. This is the “transitional phase”, where much of the structural faith building is done. Finally the house is complete and livable and the person is able to move in..
“Here the structure of the faith is to all intents and purposes complete and the person is able to appropriate it as their own faith system. People .. may well be involved in ongoing questioning .. but the major structural work is now done.
“The term ‘integrated’ is also descriptive of a second aspect of these people’s faith, in that they are seeking to integrate their faith into all aspects of their lives ..”
If you have recently read Kinnaman, then you are hearing echoes of this earlier work by Alan Jamieson. And Jamieson himself builds on earlier work by James Fowler.
Fowler was interested in Christian faith, but even more in the human growth involved in faith journeys of all kinds. Through his research he was able to generalize progress in faith and moral-spiritual maturity into six stages of growth.
The first two stages described undifferentiated faith. This is a completely inherited and unreflected faith based on the authority of significant others.
Stage three describes a faith more deeply held, but still somewhat unreflective. It sees the world in black and white terms and is more about conformity than about faith. It is the transition between this stage (3) and the next in Fowler’s list (Individuative-Reflective faith) where people run into trouble.
In Alan’s work he also saw that it is the transitional points between faith stages where people run into difficulty. But as we know well through the New Testament and through the history of Christian spirituality, it is when our faith is tested that it is refined and like gold, becomes more pure. In his book Chrysalis Alan frames the transition to a deeper faith along five lines: disenchantment, disillusionment, disengagement, disidentification and disorientation. (Similar to the work of Hagberg and Guelich and their stages in transition, with the first being “the wall.”) Andrew Pritchard put it like this:
“Transitions between faith stages are often troubling, difficult times when people are unusually vulnerable. A faith transition is a time when the old, familiar way, the container of faith that used to fit so well, has now become tired and limiting – but as yet we have not reached the security of the new. It is like the transition of chrysalis to butterfly. The old shell is broken, the butterfly is half out but has not had a chance to spread its wings, much less dry them in the sun! The old is irrevocably past but the new isn’t there yet.” (Fowler, Faith and Fallout, in Reality Magazine, Issue 33)
Fowler’s work has been simplified by some into four phases:
The diagram below (credits to Alan, small changes by me) runs Alan’s research up against the faith development work of James Fowler, and shows where church leavers generally are mapped on their own faith journeys.
Notice the difference in the journeys between “grumblers” in general and the “meta-grumblers.” Also notice that most of the church leavers continue on a journey that remains specifically Christian.
Finally, notice that “Transitional Explorers” and “Integrated Wayfinders” all fall into the more developed faith stages described by Fowler.
“You Lost Me”
Dave Kinnaman has broken the church leavers into three distinct groups, retaining some of the flavor of the research and conclusions of Alan Jamieson.
Exiles and Nomads are on a spiritual journey, and the church doesn’t seem to be answering their questions. We are mostly answering questions the last generation was asking, and the new questions sometimes make us uncomfortable.
Prodigals are those who doubt the truth of Christianity. Many have a degree of hostility toward the church and have been hurt by Christians.
Exiles are particularly interesting. Many are ex-pastors and ex-leaders but there is a disconnect between church and faith. The dynamics of institution often intrude and subvert the inward journey. Yet many retain a vital and evangelistic faith and are strongly following Jesus with other Jesus followers who no longer fit in traditional church settings. Many exiles are artists and musicians.
This LINK is a diagram that runs Kinnaman’s categories against Jamieson’s work. And the diagram following, lifted verbatim from “You Lost Me,” and then located in a chart, places Exiles, Nomads and Prodigals side by side in a summary of some of the key characteristics.
Finally, I have been struck by Richard Rohr’s reflections on the second half of life in Falling Upward. Agreeing with every developmental psychologist, he notes the very different spiritual, physical, and emotional tasks required of us in the second half. Somewhere along the line, we enter a place of transition, and then find ourselves on a different journey. The world does not look the same. Our actual beliefs may not have changed very much, but the way we hold them has changed. We move from simplicity to complexity and back to simplicity again, and we walk with more wisdom and humility.
But what struck me is the reality that some grow older, but not wiser or more gracious. Some remain stuck in a black and white world, living in fear and denial – they simply never grow up. Rohr notes that institutional religion is a first-half-of-life phenomena. Many churches never grow up. They stick their heads in the sand and pretend that the world is the same today as it was yesterday. The journey described above it not taken only by individuals, but also by entire communities of people. As Scott Peck expressed it,
“There are two reasons people become religious: to approach mystery – and to escape mystery.”