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Church Leavers

By Alan Jamieson.

A Churchless Faith (SPCK: 2002) is a popular notion, a catchy title for a book and the lived reality of a growing number of committed Christian people. But it is in fact fundamentally and theologically an oxymoron. Five years after interviewing church leavers for the book Churchless Faith we went back to the same people and asked them how their faith had changed. Our second study, soon to be published under the title Church Leavers: Faith Journeys Five Years On (SPCK: Aug 2006) includes three findings that will interest pastors and ministers.

1.      Their Christian faith is relatively stable

The majority of respondents indicated a stability of faith. Most did not move or change their faith in the five year period. In fact, the stability of their faith positions across the five year period challenges pervading views about the faith of church leavers. Many, perhaps especially those in church leadership, would draw a connection between leaving church and a loss of faith. The results of this study appear not to support this view.

2.      The Christian faith is in essence a community affair

In the original research I argued that belonging to a faith group was highly influential in individuals’ personal trajectories of faith. But at that point a causative effect could not be shown. This subsequent study does now clearly indicate a relationship between faith group involvement and people making moves towards a clearer, personally stronger and more definitive Christian faith.  It shows the significant influence of faith groups in people’s individual faith journeys. Of those who moved to the position described as holding a clearer, stronger and more definitive Christian faith, participation in a faith group was almost universal.  This indicates that much can be gained by understanding the role and function of these groups.

In all forms of community we share our common humanity. In Christian communities we share both our common humanity and our faith, hope and love. For Christian faith, as the early monks taught, cannot be lived alone, because, as they rightly asked, “Whose feet do we wash?” When we are isolated and cut off from community, whom do we care for? Who cares for us? And with whom do we worship, pray and live?

In his work on faith development, James Fowler talks of the power of “religio-cultural force fields”.  These force fields are made up of the interactions, groups and affiliations people have.  Belonging to a faith group represents one such force field that can encourage and ‘fund’ an individual’s personal faith development.  

From our experience through ‘Spirited Exchanges’ (see, which is discussed in the book, we see being involved in an open and honest faith group as a key factor in people’s ongoing personal faith development. 

3. What sort of leaders

While the research shows the significant influence of faith groups it also shows the very clear views of leavers regarding church leaders. While churches in New Zealand seem to be heading to corporate models drawn from the business world, the leavers had a quite different set of priorities for church leaders. Universally the leavers looked primarily for ‘character’ strengths including integrity, vulnerability and willingness to express weakness. They pointed to the need for theological and pastoral training, spiritual and psychological maturity, and the deep personal skills of empathy and listening. These concerns raise significant questions regarding the priorities of church leaders and leader training.

Alan Jamieson

Author of 'A Churchless Faith'

Ministry Today

You are reading Church Leavers by Alan Jamieson, part of Issue 38 of Ministry Today, published in November 2006.

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