The concept of a journey is one of the most frequently used metaphors for life within Christian commentary. It is a helpful idea. We are on the move, and remaining static is not an option. However, neither is it the case that all our journeying is a case of making consistently good progress. Sometimes it is a bit like being “parked” on the M25, or turning round, having made the mistake of coming up a cul-de-sac.
I have been reading Alan Jamieson’s “A Churchless Faith” in which he explores the surprisingly common phenomenon of those who leave the (institutional) church, but retain a strong faith. At one level, it would seem to make sense to claim that being a follower of Jesus ought to include participating in his visible church on earth. For very many – the majority – of course, it does. But what of those for whom church no longer remains relevant and contributing to their spiritual growth?
As a minister of the church, I clearly want people to be part of it, and I think there is a lot to be gained. However, there is plenty of evidence that leaving the church need not equal leaving faith, and we need to allow for that and recognise that engagement with God can come in different ways. As Jamieson says: “People seriously thinking about leaving the church need to know that for many Christians part of the faith journey is travelled in small yachts rather than big cruise ships. This means that getting off to go sailing is OK. That in leaving and setting out to sail in a smaller craft they are not mad or bad but simply following a well-worn path to maturity of faith. After all, even Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4.1).” (p. 130).
Jamieson suggests, and I agree, that we would do well to develop a better theology of the (Christian) journey, recognising and engaging with its variety. If we consider some of the literal journeys recorded in the Bible, we discover good examples of how greatly a journey can be a struggle. Abraham and Paul both provide us with an indication of how difficult the travelling can be at times. As Jamieson says: “Encouraging people to talk about the difficulties and struggles of their Christian journey, even when there is no happy ending, lets people see the wall experience in other’s lives and what they gain from it.” (p. 147).
Of course, we want people to be part of the church, but if we help them to leave well, when they need to do that, I wonder if it is more likely that one day they will find their way back?