Despite the almost mantra like status of the statement `people are leaving the church' there still appears to be little understanding about who leaves, when they leave, why they leave, and what happens to them and their faith after they leave? Of course everyone has their own view on these issues, but few, especially our church leaders, have taken the time to sit down and talk with an actual leaver or two. But then it is much easier dealing with stereo-types than actual people even if they don't help us understand what's really going on.
When I approached the front door of the first of over a hundred church leavers I would interview I figured I knew what happened to the Christian faith of those who left the church. I could easily understand why they choose to leave the church, I'd watched others leaving; and had contemplated shifting out myself on more than one occasion. Part of what held me in was the belief that leaving the church was inevitably the first step to a dwindling faith - the ultimate Christian disgrace - backsliding. Two and a half hours later I left by the same front door some what bewildered. The couple I'd met with just didn't fit my expectations. They had left their eldership role in a growing Pentecostal church nearly five years before I came to meet them, yet their faith had obviously continued to develop, their understanding of God at work in their lives was undoubtedly continuing and they were involved in their community as an outworking of their faith.
Intrigued and somewhat mystified my plans to conduct a quick study of half a dozen or so church leavers which would confirm my prejudices was in disarray. In fact the study grew into a four year project involving 162 interviews with both church leavers and leaders in evangelical Pentecostal and charismatic churches (which I abbreviated to 'EPC' churches). The people I tracked were predominately in their 30's and 40's they'd made Christian commitments as well as commitments to their respective churches as adults (over the age of 18 yrs) and had been actively involved in their churches for an average of 15.8 years. In this article we will consider ten common myths that prevail about church leavers before moving to consider the faith groupings of the leavers interviewed. The final section will outline the role of groups of leavers and ask some questions regarding to what degree the EPC churches can learn from such post-church groups.
Ten Myths about EPC church leavers
It is only the Traditional mainline churches that have large numbers of leavers!
While it is true that people are leaving the traditional churches1 people are also leaving evangelical charismatic and Pentecostal churches. These are the churches that have been growing both in New Zealand and overseas. They are the churches who with their focus on overt biblical teaching, vibrant worship and greater opportunities for participation have attracted many young converts as well as those disillusioned with the traditional churches. However the point is that these growing churches have a back door too. Estimates as to how large this backdoor vary; probably as much on who your talking to as anything else. Despite this studies like those done by Elaine Bolitho on the back door in the Baptist Churches in NZ have shown something of the degree of losses in these `growing' churches. Bolitho's study looked at membership figures for the Baptist churches. She found that between 1989 and 1996 the Baptist churches of New Zealand had a small overall membership decline (from 23,601 members to 23,031). However during this period over eleven thousand new members were added to Baptist churches. Taking into account those who died and the fact that Baptist churches had transferred more people in than out she found that 10,118 members were `lost' without record. This means that for these seven years the net result was a loss of 570 people - a percentage loss of 108percent of new members. In effect this means that for every one hundred new members to the Baptist churches of New Zealand one hundred and eight left. These leavers could not be accounted for as moving to another church or dying. This was a substantial increase in back door leavers from previous periods between 1948 and 1988 for which Bolitho provided comparative figures.1 If Bolitho's findings are similar in groupings of charismatic and Pentecostal churches it indicates that there is a sizeable number, perhaps a growing number of leavers from evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches.2
The people who leave are young adults, people on the fringe of our churches, and people who have not been in the church for very long!
Obviously some leavers are in these categories but they are not the only ones to leave. In the research I did, based on 108 interviews with church leavers across New Zealand, I found the church leavers from Pentecostal and Charismatic churches were predominantly middle aged (70percent between 35 and 45 yrs) and had been involved (as adults (i.e. beyond their 18th birthday) for an average of 15.8 years in their respective churches. While there are other categories of leavers, here is one category of leavers that few seem to consider.
Those with Children are less likely to leave!
In 1960? Time magazine had a lead article titled - `the children will lead them back'. The article suggested that people brought up within the church who left in the turbulent period of the 1960's were likely to return to church when they became parents themselves. This was later supported by Roof's2 study in which he stated 'unquestionably, the most frequently cited reasons (of people returning to church) have to do with family life. The influence of a spouse and keeping harmony within the family are strong factors, but far more important is the religious upbringing of children. The presence of young, school-age children and feelings of paternal responsibility for them drives (baby) boomers back to church.'3 While we may have an understanding that children will draw people back or hold them in our churches this too may be questioned by the people I interviewed, 80percent of whom had children under their care and nevertheless choose to leave their church with the almost inevitable result of the children leaving too. For some time now, youth leaders have been suggesting that the intermediate age group is becoming the crucial age point in terms of children's continued interest and involvement in church. It may be that when these kid's grumbling about going to church connects with the deep dis-satisfaction of the parents the stage is set for the family to eventually leave altogether.
Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it! (Proverbs 22:6)
Generally speaking there is an understanding that strong church beliefs and practice through childhood will influence their subsequent adult behaviour. While such an influence may well effect subsequent beliefs, values and faith contents recent research has begun to question this the degree to which church attendance and involvement is also set in childhhod. An American study of five hundred Presbyterian adults between 33 and 42 years of age found that 'the influence of positive parent-child bonds was very weak. They concluded that 'the effect of early social learning was weaker in our data, than in most past research and the reason is probably that our sample consisted of adults at least 33 years old, whereas earlier research looked at persons of high school age or college age. The effects of childhood social learning during childhood and youth apparently wear down under the pressure of later influences' This is supported by another study4 which found that spouses became more important than childhood religious backgrounds. In my own research, albeit qualitative research and therefore involving a relatively small sample, there were no indications of any major differences between the faith outcomes of those who had strong church childhood backgrounds and those who were from nominal family backgrounds or even a non-church background. The leavers I interviewed were made up of 28percent5 who had strong church backgrounds as children (that is they attended children's and youth programmes run by the church and were supported in doing so by their parents' own involvement in the church). A further 40percent came from nominal church backgrounds. (that is they attended some church-based children's programmes and/or youth programmes but were not supported by the regular attendance and involvement of their parents in a church). Finally 30percent of the leavers interviewed had no church background in their childhood and teenage years.
The people who leave lack commitment!.
All 108 of the people I interviewed had made adult (post 18th birthday) commitments to their Christian faith and to the church. For a number this was the continuation of a previous commitment while for others it involved a deliberate step of commitment in their adult years. 94percent of those I interviewed had also been involved in significant leadership positions within their churches and 40percent had been involved for one year or more as either a full-time (paid) Christian worker for a local church, para-church group, or overseas missionary organisation or studied full-time in a theological institution- many had done both.
Leavers don't have an adequate grounding in the faith!
Again this is hard to substantiate if the people I met are indicative of church leavers. The people I interviewed had been, on average part of their respective churches for 15.8 years, 94percent held significant leadership positions within the church and 40percent had been full-time for at least one year and a third of those interviewed had undergone some form of theological study. Coupled with this most spoke of very clear and vivid experiences of God at work in their lives.
They leave because of the increased pressure on people's time today!
Many church leaders point to the increased demands and options on people's time- the net effect of longer working hours, women returning to the workforce and greater leisure options with Sunday sport, shopping, television, and the growing restaurant and café industries. Although the leavers I spoke with were well aware of these changes to their lifestyle and a number spoke of them as contributing factors. None of the people who mentioned time pressure as a factor indicated that it was the major factor in their decision to leave. Underlying each persons account were far more significant factors than those raised by the time involved in being part of a church community. In fact many of the leavers were to replace church time with other faith nurturing commitments.
They leave because of personal issues and disagreements with church leaders! -
For a small percentage of those I spoke with the principal reasons for their leaving were to do with the direction or vision of the church or issues of disagreement with those in leadership. Seldom were these one-of-issues. Most involved a series of disappointments and disagreements with those in leadership over a protracted period of time. However for the vast majority of leavers such points of disagreement were a minor part of the overall decision to leave for many they merely acted as a final straw in a process of leaving that had been going on for a months and probably years.
They'll be coming back!
The leavers I spoke with were adamant they would not be returning to the kind of church they left. In some cases I have been able to keep in touch with these leavers and to date the majority of them have not returned. Some do become loosely involved on the fringe of a different group of churches to those they left. If they do they tend to do this by attending the occasional Catholic mass, Anglican communion, Taise, Celtic multi-media or alternative service. Even when people do go back to another evangelical Pentecostal or charismatic church they tend to stay very much on the fringes and not involved in the leadership and core roles that they were once in. Often there is another reason for their return; perhaps the church provides an attractive youth-group for their teenagers for example.
They are backsliding and giving away their faith!
When I began this research I expected to find that the longer people were out of the church community the more their faith would decline and in the end most would to all intents move away from Christian faith. This was not the case for a very high percentage of the church leavers I was to meet. In fact while these people are clear that they have left the church and have no plans to return they are equally adamant that they are continuing in Christian faith. To try and sum up the faith journeys of 108 people spread from Dunedin to Auckland with a few Australians thrown in can't be done through one account. Each person's journey was in fact quite distinctive with its own twists and turns. But what I found was five clear groups of faith trajectories of those who choose to leave the church.
Post-church Faith Trajectories
The first category of leavers are those I titled the 'Displaced Followers'. 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. This group of leavers made up 17.5percent (n=19)6 of those I interviewed. They left in two major categories either as the `Hurt' - those who had expectations of particular care or support from the church body in times of need which they found were not met when they needed it; the `Angry' - those who left the church in disagreement with the leadership of their church because of the direction, vision or leadership structure of either their church or `EPC' churches in general. Both the `Hurt' and the `Angry' can be said to leave because of `specific grumbles' with the church. These specific grumbles centre around the leadership, direction and operating nature of the church. The level of critique of the `Angry' and the `hurt' does not extend to questioning the whole basis of evangelical Pentecostal/charismatic faith itself. On the contrary it is these understandings of what the church should be that such leavers use as the foundation for their claim that their church has failed.
The `Displaced Followers' post-church faith can be characterised under four headings (listed in the table above/below). 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. Their faith is dependent - that is although they no longer attend an `EPC' church each Sunday they remain dependent on the wider `EPC' community. A whole variety of such sources of dependency are available to these leavers including major seminars, trans-church based groups (for example Promise keepers), Christian workshops, books, magazines, TV and radio programmes and preachers. While the `Displaced Followers' remained dependent on this wider `EPC' community they also remained dependent on the personal disciplines of the `EPC' church. These included either continued practice of, or the sense of obligation to quiet times, financial giving (beyond friends and family), service etc.
The post-church faith of the `Displaced Followers' is an un-examined faith. Their grumbles centre on the church rather than the underlying taken-for-granteds of the `EPC' faith. Finally they exhibit a bold faith. By this I mean they are very clear and definite about their Christian faith and the correctness of their decision to leave the church from a Christian perspective. Of all the groups of leavers it is this group who typically quoted a number of passages from scripture to reinforce their present faith position and the rightness of their decision to leave the church.
The second category of leavers - the `Reflective Exiles' (n=32)- leave their church from a quite different position. Although they too may have problems with the leadership, direction and practice of their church (or `EPC' churches in general) these issues are not the fundamental reasons for their decision to leave. This grouping of leavers and those we will consider next typically leave 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 titled `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. The title given to this group is `refective' because of the reflecting and questioning stance towards their faith which now characterises them. They are called `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.
The faith of the `Refective Exiles' can be characterised as `counter-dependent'. Where the `Displaced Followers' remained dependent on the wider `EPC' community the `Refective Exiles' are pushing against anything `EPC'. When I asked this group of leavers what nurtures their faith now the most common response was `It certainly isn't….' the things they described were aspects of the wider `EPC' community and the personal faith disciplines of the previous grouping.
Secondly the `Refective Exiles' are engaged in a deconstruction of their previous faith. That is they are engaged in a process of taking to bits 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 self-hood. They are involved in an ongoing reflective process which involves a re-evaluation of each component of their faith.
Finally and not surprisingly because their faith is very hesitant. Many spoke of having put it all (their faith) down for a while and left it because it got too confusing and disillusioning. Because of this sense their ownership of their faith is perhaps best described as hesitant.
The third group of leavers are those I called `Transitional Explorers' - 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 and 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 to the level of satisfaction necessary for the individual involved. To use an analogy from the courtroom, the internal jury has reached a verdict on these faith elements and now sees them as being plausible, `beyond reasonable doubt'. What constitutes `reasonable doubt' varies from person to person. As mentioned earlier, for some, the examination process involves rigorous theological and philosophical debate through reading and/or through interaction with others. While for others `reasonable doubt' is based more on personal experience and what is plausible to them at an intuitive, `gut-level' or through a deeper trust of their feelings.
The transitional faith stance indicates that the internal jury has begun to read its verdict on at least some of the elements of faith and is reporting a verdict of positive personal appropriation (this is something I can hold to). The Transitional Explorers represented 18percent of those interviewed (n=19). Alongside these `Transitional Explorers' were a small group of those who were transitioning to alternative faith stances. This grouping was made up of two people who had moved to a more `new age' based faith and five who had so many questions, doubts and issues with the Christian faith that they were best characterised as agnostic in their belief system.
The final category of leavers were called the `Integrated Way-finders'. 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. While there is a sense in which the `integrated faith' is also still open and being constantly redefined and adapted, the major faith examination is now complete.
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 `refective 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 liveable and the person is able to move in. This final phase may include minor on-going work to the house, rooms may still need to be painted, repairs made and at times modifications of various sizes undertaken. Although this work is ongoing, the basic structure of the home is complete and it now affords a safe place for the individual to live. This final phase in the faith journey is what I have called the `integrated faith' phase, because 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 at this final phase, like the builder of the home, may well be involved in ongoing questioning and occasional periods of faith re-evaluation (on some occasions involving quite substantial re-evaluations), 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. Of these people, like no other grouping previously discussed, it can be said that there is a more fully rounded faith that seeks to integrate the physical, mental, emotional, sexual, relational and spiritual aspects of their selfhood in a way deeply connected with their faith. Hence people at this faith phase are very aware of the deeper personal issues that lurk within themselves.
The term `way-finder' may seem at first somewhat curious. Its use is intended to signal that the people in this faith position have found something of a way forward in their faith. In this sense they are way-finders. There were 30 interviewees in this category.
The reasons why these people left the church and the post-church faith they established need to be understood not only as the personal journeys of these individuals but also as the story of groups of leavers in a rapidly changing society. One of the surprises of the research for me was coming to see that for the majority of leavers (65 percent of those interviewed) this was not a solo journey but one which involved them in groups of people in similar faith transitions. I found that there are a considerable and growing number of such post-church groups which meet to discuss, question and re-formulate and understand their faith. Some of these groups also meet to pray and worship together in ways that appear to have more immediacy and relevance to their whole lives than what they experienced in their respective `EPC' churches. Many of the leavers I interviewed and met, especially those I categorised as `Transitional Explorers' and `Integrated Way-finders', are part of these new groups which are experimenting with ways of being church- ways that may prove to be more appropriate in our rapidly changing society.
The church was for many years the leavers Turangaewaewae - the place where they belonged, the place where they could stand. The group that reinforced and validated their sense of faith identity. After leaving their church they long for a new Turangawaewae - a new place to belong, a new place to stand. In order to meet this need many form or link up with faith groups outside of the institutional church networks. Although these evangelical charismatic and Pentecostal (`EPC') church leavers are abandoning their church the majority are still keen to meet with others who are travelling a similar faith journey. The role of these groups varies considerably. Some function as gatherings of the discontented in the process of leaving the church, others as discussion groups primarily focused on concerns that were not given space in the `EPC' church environments, while still others are attempts to be church for those who have left the institutional churches. My findings, based on the twenty plus groups I was able to research, are not alone but are bolstered by the work of Marg Gilling7 (Senior lecturer … and researcher on faith groups in New Zealand) who has located more than 50 faith groups with diverging styles and researchers like Terry Veling8 who is asking to what extent these groups may indicate something of the future of the church.
The post-church groups, I observed, had one common feature - they were formed to provide a forum to discuss topics and issues that were `out of court' in the `EPC' church environments they had left. These are places where doubts about faith, anger and disappointment with the church or God, or questions can be raised that go to the foundational core of the theology, practice, beliefs and world view of the `EPC' churches. They are places where things are said without ecclesiological fluff or church `niceness'. A place where a spade is spade and telling it like it is - the good the bad and the ugly- is not only tolerated but celebrated. Safe places where there is no censorship of feelings, intuitions, doubts and ideas. For many of the people who find these groups so important previously buried feelings, nagging doubts and heretical thoughts are finally spoken, heard and validated. As one person I met said of her group - 'The group was there so we could have some other people who would hear each other stories and validate you. People who knew where you were at. We had ground rules - like what you agreed to this week, you didn't have to agree with next week. And your opinion one week could change the next.' Marg Gilling somes up the attractiveness of the groups she met with by echoing the comment she heard from so many people all around New Zealand - ' In the church I can't be me. In this group I can.'
These post-church discussion groups characterised by their informality, shared leadership and shared meals are not the only type of post-church groups springing up. Another set of groups are fulfilling many of the roles of `church' for those within them. In this second grouping of post-church groups those I called `quasi-churches' because they took on many of the functions of a church but were nevertheless distinctly different from the institutional churches the group members had left. The `quasi-church groups' included times of prayer, worship, teaching and the sharing of communion together (some even writing their own liturgies and prayers) as well as discussion and story telling. They collected money from the group (normally operating a trust account to which people could make anonymous deposits) and gave it to needy causes like overseas aid agencies, refugees moving into their communities or for the care of the poor, the sick or the abused within their own community. For many of those who attended these groups this was most definitely their church. Not like the institutional church they had left, nor like the house churches of previous decades but groups which provide a place for the nurturing of faith and involvement in God's world within an open and accepting community of people who formed close relationships with each other. These groups are a place for the group members to belong to, places from which to stand in their faith and the world, places to re-build and strengthen their own faith identity - places of Turangawaewae. But they are not static places, the people in these groups have no desire for the group to form a life of its own and become institutionalised like the churches they left. Rather they are groups that exist for as long as they are meaningful and helpful to the core group who make them up and give energy to them and when that ceases then they end. And their end isn't seen as a failure but as the opportunity to form or link up with other groups and make other connections with people of like faith. Often the new connections people make are to similar groups and to the formation of links with other Christian churches and structures. For example some begin courses of theological study, link up with spiritual directors, attend Catholic Masses, liturgical communions, Taize, Celtic or alternative services or become involved in service and community ministries. Hence the end of a particular post-church group does not mean the end of the faith journey of the people who make it up or the end of their search for Turangaewaewae.
The irony is that although the numbers of post-church groups is increasing few church leaderships seem to be aware of them or in touch with them. Yet talking with those involved with these groups could help church leaderships to understand why people leave churches like theirs, why others in the community don't want to belong and maybe able to give pointers to how the church could better position itself in our changing society which seems so resistant and disinterested in the Christian church. After meeting with those involved in these groups I listed 5 areas in which our `EPC' churches could gain from dialogue with those in post-church groups.
1. The post-church groups focus on community, integrity of participation, dialogue in finding truth, minimalist structures and transparent leadership.
Perhaps because of the size of these post-church groups and the institutional structure of the churches the group members left there is a high priority within them for participation, dialogue, facilitation rather than leadership and minimalist structures. They are also groups where people are allowed to find their own faith, beliefs and meaningful ways to live out their faith. In this way the groups reflect something of the emerging culture. Like the Celtic communities of a previous era these groups are relational networks which are people-centred rather than message or belief centred. It is a style and environment that may be very appealing to people who have never considered the Christian faith because of it's connection to church structures and institutional modes of operation.
Secondly the people who make up these groups realise that finding the truth is a complex and difficult journey. The groups tend to be open places where one expression of truth is not setting the agenda. Consciously or unconsciously the people who make them up realise that truth is multi-dimensional, paradoxical and connected to both historical and emerging representations of truth. Their search is for a `truth-to-live-by', a search for meaning rather than facts, understanding rather than doctrine and a focus on what is `honest and real'. These are places where people can give voice to their points of confidence in God and their doubts, questions and unresolved areas of faith. Again such groups may be very attractive to people who have not considered Christian faith but because they find `EPC' church manifestations of the faith too confining and restrictive for them to explore the Christian faith within.
2. The post-church groups high priority on the place of emotions, intuitions and laughter.
The post-church groups I observed give a lot of room for people to express themselves. This expression may involve intimate sharings of their feelings including their anger, disappointment and frustration with God, their church, themselves and their faith. Gut feelings and intuitions and honest and real expressions are encouraged. These are often coupled with a lot of laughter. Maybe the `rawness' and honesty of such group interactions encapsulates a strength that `EPC' churches could learn from. c
3. The post-church groups openness to a broad eclectic use of worship styles.
The `quasi-church' groups unencumbered by traditions and set ways of operating are free to draw models for their worship from all the streams of the church and contemporary culture. What matters is the degree to which it connects with peoples lives and `moves' them.
4. The post-church groups openness to people who think differently and believe differently.
For a number of people I met their openness to the views, beliefs and faith of others was based on their own deep and personal convictions and faith commitments. Being well anchored in their own relationship to Christ they were free to talk with others from differing viewpoints without being personally threatened or feeling that they had to defend God. Such people were often key members of their respective post-church groups. Could `EPC' churches learn from the faith and openness to discussion with differing views? Not wanting to romanticise we need to realise that there were others whose openness reflected the free floating nature of their own beliefs and faith.
5. The post-church groups journey tell us that the journey for the institutional `EPC' churches to an honest engagement of post modern culture involves a major shift.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that these groups of leavers have to offer `EPC' churches and their leaderships is their knowledge of the difficult journey they individually travelled from the centre of an `EPC' church to the formation of an integrated and communal Christian faith. In so doing they may stop ideas that the `EPC' churches can sail into an increasingly post-modern context with only some superficial changes to the way they operate as if business as usual is all that is needed. `EPC' church leaderships need a realisation of the extent of dismantling and rebuilding necessary to move the present `EPC' faith and church structures to a place of connection with a post-Christian, post-modern and sceptical society. Discussions with the members of post-church groups may highlight the extent of change needed and give pointers of how to begin.
Church leaderships could learn a lot from open discussions with those involved in post-church groups. In an age where fewer and fewer people are interested in church it would seem a good strategy for church leaderships to look to ex-long-term leadership figures and listen to their perceptions and views. But again lets not romantise these groups they too have weaknesses, blind spots and areas that need correction. Because of this the dialogue should not all be one way. The church leaderships too have priorities and perceptions that could strengthen the life of the post-church groups. The `EPC' churches emphasis on mission, evangelism and helping it's children and youth to develop a Christian faith could be important reminders to many in the post-church groups. Most important of all finding out about post-church groups, being aware of their existence and learning to dialogue and network with them will strengthen both in a changing society that demands a plurality of forms of doing church.
The major reason I can see for discussions between post-church groups and church leaderships is because of the groups glimpse of ways to operate for the future. Maybe the post-church groups give us some indications of the shape of a major form of the church in the future. Ward and Wild in their book -`Guarding the Chaos' - use the term `liminal' to describe these groups. Ward and Wild called many of the post-church groups they were involved with liminal because they pointed to new ways of being church in the future. Liminal means the in between stage between states, the period before the new that is a pointer to the new. It was originally used by anthropologists to describe marker events in people and communities lives that were in-between times yet pointed to the future - for example the period of time when an adolescent male is taken into the bush in African societies prior to returning as a full male member of the tribe. What if todays post-church groups were liminal groups, groups that gave indications of a shape of the future? It wouldn't be the first time. Walter Brueggemann9 points out that when people in the Christian community are asked about the model of the faith community in Old Testament times they tend to refer to the faith community based on the monarchy and the temple in Jerusalem (dating from 1000BC to 587BC). He states that contrary to popular belief this was not the only model but was in fact preceded by the exilic model which began with Moses and lead up to the time of David (1250BC-1000BC) and followed by yet another model after the collapse of temple dominance and the exile of Israel under the Babylonians (587BC). The post-exilic community is the one in which the synagogue, which is the place of the text, began as well as the formation of the Beth Midrash, 'house of study', and eventually, the appearance of the rabbis who are teachers of the tradition. These sprung up because a new community demanded new forms of the faith. Could it happen it again? Are the post-church groups of today for runners of new forms of the faith in our own rapidly changing society? Certainly there are many people looking for a spirituality and a faith that makes sense of their lives, connects them with the reality of God and provides them a place to belong - their own Turanagwaewae. Yet they are walking right past the institutional church in their search. Maybe God is allowing a new thing to grow.
* This paper has recently been published by Alan as a book on this topic entitled A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys beyond evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic churches, Wellington: Garside, 2000. For more information, reviews and orders see www.pgpl.co.nz http://www.pgpl.co.nz. See the review in this issue of APS.
1. E.E. Bolitho, Hole in the Bucket. Seminar to Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty Baptist leaders, October 1997 (Auckland).
2. W.C. Roof, A generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, San Francisco: Harper, 1993, 246.
3. This was supported by other studies and predictions - for example D.R. Hoge, B Johnson, D A Luidens, 'Determinants of Church involvement of young adults who grew up in Presbyterian churches', Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32.3, 246.
4. F.K. Willits and D.M. Crider, 'Church attendance and traditional religious beliefs in adolescence and young adulthood: a panel study', Review of Religious Research. Vol 31, no 1, 68-81, 1989.
5. These percentages have been rounded.
6. The number of interviewees (n) =19.
7. Marg Gilling is a Senior lecturer in adult education who is presently doing research for the Methodist Futures Group on faith groups.
8. T.A. Veling, Living In The Margins: Intentional Communities and the Art of Interpretation. New York, Crossroad, 1996.
9. W. Bruggemann, 'Rethinking Church Models Through Scripture', Theology Today. Vol, XLVIII. no. 2. July 1991.