Instead of ignoring these dissenters, or isolating them as irrelevant complainers, church leaders might do well to listen to them. It would not be the first time in the history of the church that a disgruntled minority was right and church officials wrong.
We may have to come up with some new categories, however. Alan Jamieson, a New Zealand sociologist, has been studying what he calls “church leavers” for the past four years. He details his findings in a new book titled A Churchless Faith.
Interviewing nearly 200 mostly conservative evangelicals who no longer attend any church, Jamieson has discovered that many of these so-called leavers have not abandoned their faith at all. They left their church, but not their beliefs.
Several different factors may promote church leaving. According to Jamieson, about 20 percent of those leaving the church did so in response to some turmoil within the church. These folks did not lose their faith in God, but they did lose faith in church leaders and church structures. Many in this group report feeling hurt and angry by the behaviors of church leaders and other members.
The overwhelming majority of those who left their churches, however, actually left to pursue a more honest development of their faith. These folks, many of them church leaders and even professional ministers, found as their faith continued to grow that they were in conflict with official church doctrine. Pursuing faith remains an important part of their lives. In fact, in some instances, the reason the leavers left the church was to actually have the freedom to pursue their faith down avenues not allowed by official church structures.
One recurring source of disillusionment reported by this larger group of leavers is the emphasis many churches place on numerical growth. Many church-leavers believe that “reaching people” has more to do with raising money to build bigger buildings than it does about building a community of faith. Many church-leavers believe that church leaders view their members as a mere means to an end. Instead of energies and resources being directed to the actual needs of people, the resources of the congregation are used to build and maintain their brick and concrete status symbols.
The numbers of people we are talking about clearly do not reflect a significant majority. According to one study, there are about 112 million “churchless Christians” worldwide. That number represents about 5 percent of the total number of professing Christians in the world.
Large congregations and denominations will find it easy to ignore the significance of church-leavers. They can dismiss these small numbers of people as a tiny, disgruntled minority out of step with the real faith and unwilling to conform. And that may be true.
But I can’t help but wonder if these church-leavers might be an early warning for communities of faith. What does it mean when our brightest and most sensitive find it difficult to have voice within the community of faith? Instead of ignoring these dissenters, or isolating them as irrelevant complainers, church leaders might do well to listen to them. It would not be the first time in the history of the church that a disgruntled minority was right and church officials wrong.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.