The fact is that, for the most part, more people are leaving the mainline Christian denominations in the UK than are joining. Our membership is in decline. It goes without saying that we should encourage people to join us – but should we be helping those who want (perhaps even, dare I say it, need) to leave to do so.
I have recently read Church Leavers by Alan Jamieson, Jenny McIntosh and Adrienne Thompson. It’s a sequel to Jamieson’s A Churchless Faith, in which he explored why people leave the church and where it leaves them. This slim collaborative volume is sub-titled Faith journeys five years on – and it follows up on the faith journeys of those whom Jamieson had interviewed as part of his original research – at least, as many of them as could be located.
Jamieson (and his research) are based in New Zealand and the theological perspective is exclusively evangelical – but I believe that the thinking has a much broader application.
For the most part, it is clear that leaving church does not mean leaving faith – and the thinking raised some interesting and relevant questions for me. For example, why do we not engage more helpfully with those who are drifting away from church? Is it sensible to let someone go with our ‘blessing’ as being part of the faith is surely more important than being part of a particular church – and a good going may help a later reconnection in some cases? What are we (should we be) doing to help church to ‘work’ for those for whom it is not ‘working’?
As the ‘Postscript’ to the book says: “Perhaps we can dream that a growing number of churches will become less concerned about who is in and who is out and more affirming of mature seekers who are ‘working out their own salvation’.”