Willow Creek is hardly the first to notice the large number of mature Christians leaving the institutional church. A Churchless Faith by Alan Jamieson (2000) is a study of this phenomenon. It’s out of print, but summarized here.The following are several excerpts from the book that strike me as particularly insightful. (I’m not sure what “EPC” stands for. I think “evangelical Protestant Christian,” but that’s just a guess.)
Many are people of deep Christian faith who are longing to continue and develop in their faith. … they have moved outside the church but … claim to have continued in their Christian faith. …
Very few church leaders talked of incidents where they had sat down with leavers … to hear people’s reasons and learn from them.
One of the most disturbing results of the research is that the majority of those leading and pastoring in the EPC churches are ignorant of the crucial reasons why people leave the church. …
What the leaver needs now is time, space, resources, understanding, validation and support for their own inner journey.
If you can’t leave the ship, get some distance between yourself and those aspects of ship life that cause you the most distress.
… they would ask that the person use the time they would have spent involved in church in other ways that nurtured their faith.
Another important gift someone can give the struggler is to connect them with an experienced and empathetic companion.
… church leaders need to understand the leaving process and be able to pick the early and relatively obvious clues that people are going through a faith struggle.
These thoughts seem very wise to me. Let me summarize my take on this, with a little of my own commentary:
* Do exit interviews when people leave. Try to get an honest answer. Don’t debate or bully. People are generally reluctant to criticize the church they are leaving. It’s just not nice, you know. But a few will open up–but only if you seem genuinely open and non-threatening. Don’t interrupt to defend yourselves. Save your reply, if any, for the end. Precede any response with an apology.
* Look for warning signs. I don’t know Jamieson’s list, but I’d think a member’s decline in attendance, especially skipping worship in denominations that are worship-centered, is a pretty clear warning sign. (Of course, church attendance is devilishly hard to track in a congregation of more than a few hundred, particularly if you have multiple services. Do the best you can.)
* Don’t assume that people who skip services are “backsliders.” Rather, assume they are hurting people in need of a non-judgmental ear. Listen.
* If they find classes boring or not responsive to their needs, and you can’t point them to a better choice, encourage them to find a way to participate in the congregation’s life that meets their situation. Some people have trouble finding their way into ministry. Others need to be outside the church working within the community. Not everyone fits the three-services a week model. Be glad!
Or help them do study on their own. Most Christians have no idea how to find good study material out of the tens of thousands of books out there!
Or hook them up with an online community of similarly minded people who can help them.
* Find them an empathetic companion–preferably a mentor. A member who hates classes but loves carpentry can be matched with a similar spirit who uses his gift to serve others. A member who wants to become more dedicated to prayer can be matched with someone pursuing the same path or who’s already been there. Not all education has to take place in a classroom.
* Stop treating attendance numbers as the ultimate test of your merits as a leader. Numbers are great tools. They matter. They are not the goal of church leadership.
Still, as helpful as these thoughts are, they are not the solution. Perhaps we’ll find it as we continue to investigate the problem.
Cartoons for this series are all from http://www.sheepcomics.com/default.htm:
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