A Churchless Faith - A Summary of Alan Jamieson

Can you be a Christian without going to church? What about house churches? What about the kids? What about all my friends? Do you ever get over it? Will I ever be normal again?

Does recovery mean you have to return to the system that abused you? Of course not. This article is a summary of a longer article and a series written by NZ Sociologist Alan Jamieson. You can survive - and thrive - in the desert of religious exile.

Jamieson describes four types of church leavers.

  • Displaced Followers
  • Reflective Exiles
  • Transitional Explorers
  • Integrated Way-Finders

Displaced Followers

These are "followers" because the faith they continue in has not substantially changed from the faith package they followed within the organized church. They are called displaced because events and circumstances have encouraged them to leave the church with which they continue to hold great affinity.

This group of leavers made up 17.5% of those Jamieson 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; or as the 'Angry' - those who left the church in disagreement with the leadership of their church because of the direction, vision or leadership structure of the church.

While the Displaced Followers remain dependent on this wider church community they also remain dependent on the personal disciplines of the organized church. These include 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 unexamined faith. Their complaints centre on the church rather than the underlying taken-for-granteds of the EPC faith.

Reflective Exiles

The "Reflective Exiles" leave their church from a quite different position. Although they too may have problems with the leadership, direction and practice of their church, these issues are not the fundamental reasons for their decision to leave.

For this group leaving is a process which occurs over a long period of time, perhaps 18 months or more. This process begins with feelings of unease, a sense of irrelevancy between church and what happens in other important areas of their lives, and a shrinking sense of fit and belonging to the church community and its 'faith package'.

The gateway through which this group leave the church Jamieson calls "Meta-grumbles." These are not grumbles about specifics within the church or questioning peripheral aspects of institutional faith, but the deep rooted foundations of the faith itself.

He assigns the title 'reflective' to this group because of the reflecting and questioning stance towards their faith which characterises them. He calls them exiles because they are, though 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 Reflective Exiles can be characterised as counter-dependent. Where the Displaced Followers remained dependent on the wider EPC community the Reflective 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 . . . " followed by some description of aspects of the wider EPC community and the personal faith disciplines of the previous grouping."

Reflective Exiles are engaged in a "deconstruction" of their previous faith. They are engaged in a process of examining the faith they had received and acted within for so many years. Obviously this is a very insecure place for them, since their faith has been an important part of their world view, the foundation for life decisions, and an integral part of their sense of selfhood.

As a result, their faith is fragile. Many spoke of having "put it [their faith] all down for a while and leaving it", because it got too confusing.

Transitional Explorers

The third group of leavers Jamieson I called "Transitional Explorers". The Transitional Explorers represented 18% of those interviewed. This group 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 while 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 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.

For some the examination process involved rigorous theological and philosophical debate. 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 own feelings. The process varies between individuals depending on their learning style and personal makeup.

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 virtually completed this faith reconstruction work. While the process continues, there is a comfort level and stability that has been achieved.

Consider the analogy of building of a house out of timber from a previous home. The first part of the process involves tearing down the original home. 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 constructing the new house 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 the person is able to move in. This final phase may include minor ongoing work to the house, painting, etc. The basic structure of the home is complete. This final phase is the "integrated faith" phase. People may well be involved in ongoing questioning and occasional periods of evaluation, but the major structural work is now done.

"The term 'integrated' is 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' 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.

The reasons why these people left the church and the post-church faith they established need to be understood not only as the personal journies of the individuals but also as the story of groups of leavers in a rapidly changing society.

In Search of Belonging

"Many church leavers exit the institutional church saddened by the fact that the place they once belonged to, supported and enjoyed has become a place where they no longer 'fit'.

"The vast majority of the exiles from the church I met spoke of missing the sense of community and belonging that they once enjoyed in their church environment. The church was for many years their Turangawaewae - the place where they belonged, the place where they could stand. It was 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 the institutional church networks. "

* * * *

Read the rest of the article at Reality magazine.

"Walk On"

You got to leave it behind
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind

All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you deal
All you count on two fingers
And all that you steal
Leave it behind
You got to leave it behind
Leave it behind
You got to leave it behind

Listen to "Walk On" by U2.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005