Church-leavers’ viewpoints – a gift to the church?

A secondhand copy of Alan Jamieson “A Churchless Faith – Faith Journeys beyond the Churches” (2002) has just thudded onto our doormat, and is being read with sighs of recognition and interest. This is an extensive survey of people in New Zealand who were once deeply engaged in Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches – often in leadership – but who chose to leave church.  At the same time, they did not lose their faith, but continued a vital relationship with God.  What’s going on with this?

Interestingly, in a blogpost   he writes:

“leavers are your friends. They will tell you things about the church that the satisfied church members never will. They will point out the sort of things that stop outsiders engaging with your church but never tell you. What these disgruntled potential leavers tell you won’t come easily and it will be painful to hear. But reflect on it. Sift what is said. What do you and the church need to hear? What is more about the person’s own journey and needs to stay with them? What can you consider as you plan and build for the future of the church?”

(it should be noted, that he immediately goes on to say that it’s not wise to put church leavers into places of authority to lead new initiatives back within the church: leavers are on a faith journey/transition which they need personal time for.)

If you are a church leader: is there an exit interview with folks leaving churches, people who were in leadership?  If not, you are missing vital insights.

Many years ago, I heard an excellent talk, by a church leader, Paul Kyle, who said that when someone said something critical about his leadership, no matter how obviously fuelled by personal dislike or selfish immature attitudes – he would take that criticism to God in prayer, and ask “Is there any truth in this?”.  A model response.

Further Reading

Alan Jamieson’s book was written for a PhD; as such, it is based on in-depth face-to-face interviews with more than 100 leavers and 50 church leaders.

He followed it up with another book, 5 years later, following the same leavers on their onward journey, in

(2006) Alan Jamieson, Jenny McIntosh & Adrienne Thompson “Church leavers: Faith journeys 5 years on”

Also mentioned and referred to in the first book, published 2002:

(1993) William Hendricks “Exit interviews: revealing stories of Why People are leaving the Church” (‘couple of dozen’ people interviewed, USA)

(1993) Michael Fanstone “The sheep that Got Away: Why People Leave the Church” (509 random people in public places, England)

(1998) P Richter and L J Francis “Gone but not forgotten: Church Leaving and Returning” (400 questionnaires and 27 in-depth interviews face to face; England and Wales)

(1995) David Tomlinson “The Post-Evangelical”.  (Not research data but from personal experience).

 

More recent UK experience:

(2016) Steve Aisthorpe “The Invisible Church – Learning from the Experiences of Churchless Christians” (sets out to interview leavers and answer how they left.  There are 4 chapters on the ‘why’ of leavers or those who came to faith through church projects but did not become regular church attenders)

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A Squibble of Thread

Last week I came across an article in the business news that the New York Stock exchange were developing systems to time stamp trades at a nano scale – that is accurate to the billionth of a second. They have found that day trading – traders who only trade while the stock market is open, and cease trading at the bell – is generating so many trades at the close of the market that the only way to make sure that the trades are handled in a fair way is to time stamp the trades to an unprecedented accuracy, and actually process the ‘valid’ trades in the seconds after the market closes.

This article reminded me of an illustration that Admiral Grace Hopper (one of the pioneers of computer programming) used to explain the limits of computer systems…

I have here some lengths of string … each length has two knots… roughly 30cm apart…

Squibble if you would take the string out of its bag and hold it in front of you… that space between one knot and another… that is roughly the distance that light travels in one billionth of a second…

So the NYSE time stamp system would be sufficiently accurate to indicate that a trade had occurred in the time light would travel from your left had to your right hand… it’s a truly mind boggling scale of accuracy.

The morning I read this article my devotional readings also included Psalm 19, and I was struck by the exponential relationship we have with timescales.

Geologists looking into the deep past of our planet talk about the Precambrian SuperEon, and the periods of the current eon – including the Carboniferous, Jurassic, Cretaceous… these geological time scales are immense covering millions and billions of years…

In Human history timescales were marked out by the rising and setting of the sun – giving us days; the phases of the moon – our months; and the changing of the seasons – years. A common measurement in the old testament was that of a ‘generation’…

Over the past two thousand years the christian church has marked out the year – with seasons of Advent, Christmas, Easter, harvest, and depending on your tradition the feast days of saints…

Just under 300 years ago James Harrison’s sea going clocks were used to measure time with unprecedented accuracy (and reliability) so that navigators could calculate longitude and thus traverse the ocean for trade… The one o’clock cannon here in Edinburgh was used to synchronise these navigation clocks on ships that traded across the world.

A hundred years later – the industrial revolution and steam power saw the introduction of national train travel… and time became standardised across the United Kingdom.

And since then each advance in technology provides new developments in measuring time scales. The radio time pips, the speaking clock, international atomic clocks, Global positioning satellites – the list could go on.

We can soon find that daily we are fighting against the clock. Dare I ask how many people here take work home to meet deadlines and timescales that maybe a few short years ago would have been achievable in our ‘working’ hours.

The Psalmist gives us a different perspective –

He sees beyond even a geological time into a theological time scale.

Before humans were created, the earth has been declaring the glory of God… creation speaking without words… but the message, the word, has been going throughout the earth… in all of this time.

Over periods, Eras, Eons and SuperEons the whole earth has been telling of the glory of God.

And God has placed eternity in the hearts of mankind – his timescale is that of eternity.

The challenge for us is to keep our focus, our hope on God’s timescale while we attend to timescales of the business of the day…

So today if you feel pressure to rush, or growing anxiety over time…

Take a moment…

Be still…

Be counter cultural…

Seek Gods timescale, enter into his grace – let his peace come to you.

Take a look at this squibble of thread again, measuring off the billionths of seconds, and know that you have the whole depth of eternity available to you in God, through Jesus Christ.

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The Final Question: “Did you learn to love?”

What if, when you die, God asks you one question about your life and it is this: “Did you learn to love?”

This was a throwaway line by prophet Bob Jones, in a video interview with Mahesh Chavda – but for me, it is THE line for today.  Bob was recounting how at one point he physically died .  “When I went to the Lord in death, He asked the saints that went in before me one question – that’s all He’ll ask you, when you go home, is:

“Did you learn to love?”

“If you’ve learned to love, then you’ve fulfilled everything He wanted you to do.”

I’m thinking that possibly the best way to answer that huge question, looking back over all our life, is to be asking it of ourselves, daily.  Letting it become part of life.  The motivation in every situation.  “How can I learn to love in this?”  “What would love do?”  “What is the loving thing to do, today?”

It goes to the heart of it all.  Because it’s not just what you’re doing right on the outside – it’s your motivation, your thinking, your ‘angle’.  In the 1980s there was a pop song “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”…

So there we have it: a question (if not THE question) for today and for life.

What’s our answer?

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Where is the chew in church?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to go to a church meeting where, after an opening song, the pastor announced that the congregation would be writing the sermon?

I think that would get most people’s attention.  The idea is that the congregation would be invited to take 10 minutes to recall snippets from any sermon they have heard over the years – something said which has stuck with them and been useful – and write it down, anonymously.  (Pens and paper passed around, after 10 minutes collected. Perhaps taken outside the room, for piecing together in similar themes – or perhaps not, if the pastor is brave, as an open show of transparency).

After that, perhaps another song or something to let people settle down and think that this temporary madness has passed.

Then the pastor/worship leader announces that there will now be a chance to write down anything you are finding so interesting that you are thinking about or reading about it this week – and it can be ‘secular’.  (Pens and paper passed around, again, then safely gathered in.)

At the usual time for the sermon, the papers can be read out, slowly, with some seconds of silence between each, to allow for the fact that they will be disjointed thoughts, not a connected sermon.  This also gives space to laugh.  Because some folks will write that they are absorbed by the gorgeousness of the pastor’s tie, or why their football team lost this week – or some other such fun comments.  When people discover it’s fine to laugh at this, it gives a great common shared experience, a cameraderie.  Life is, indeed, full of seriousness and sadness and joys and pratfalls – none of this is new to God.

Then allow 5 minutes of ‘chew time’ afterwards – silence.

Then a prayer or song and out the door, to coffee and chat.  (There will be plenty to chat about).

It could be interesting to do after a major celebration, such as Christmas or Easter – on the subject of what have people realised afresh about this season, this year?  (If there is nothing, perhaps the pastor might like to take that on board as a challenge for next year).

And at some point later in the year, when/if people are beginning to seem a bit passive in church, why not rouse the sleepers with an announcement at the beginning “We’re going to write the closing hymn together”. Out with the sheets, for people to write down what they’re thankful for, today, at the start of the service.

Then, at the end, a joyful reading of what is written, as a psalm of thankfulness.  (Expecting, again, that there will be thanks for things serious, funny and thought-provoking).

All of this isn’t something new or bizarre: the word “liturgy” means “the work of the people”.  Such a service gives everyone in the congregation a say in what is done and said.

Would you like to go to such a church service?

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BILL VIOLA – “I’m going to say what it really means, what it is to me”

In this 28 minute interview, Bill Viola, the well-known video artist, talks about his practice and life.

It’s wholly appropriate to have a artist in this medium explain himself through the same medium, video.  In fact, he found out the reason for one of his key motifs, water, through another interview, some time ago, when he told of an almost-forgotten near-drowning incident when he was 6, where he saw a wonderful world and light at the bottom of the water, felt drawn towards it – and only lived because of his uncle rescuing his body.  At which the interviewer commented that that was probably why water occurred so often in his work – which startled Bill, but made sense to him, “Of course!”

In this interview, he explains that, for him, video is like “an electronic water”, as it flows – the electrons flow in circuits.

“And of course, then the brain and your body becomes also connected with electricity.  We’re speaking now and I’m gesturing with my hands, because the electric waves that are in my body, coming from the pumping of my heart and stuff are allowing me to move them.  ‘Cos it’s all flowing…. and the synapses in our brains are firing.”

When he first saw an early video camera – brought into school just before he left for college – the light in it seemed like the light in the water which he’d seen and felt drawn towards, when he nearly drowned – “the light had come back to me”  It was profoundly moving, when the camera was switched off, he was nearly shaking.  When he got to college, he immediately searched for and signed up for a videomaking workshop.

Through observation, he noticed how droplets of rain on his glasses each were like a lens, reflecting what was going on around him – and from this, created the piece “He weeps for you” in which ‘tears’ or droplets of water are slowly released, in deep close-up.

Throughout college, he privately read writings by mystics, particularly finding himself absorbed and moved by the poetry of St John of the Cross – making a piece on this later, he hesitated to name it with religious terms (expecting this would be ridiculed by art critics), but finally decided to call it what it was: “Room for St John of the Cross”.  That marked a “turning point” in his naming his pieces exactly what they meant to him.  The response?  “Man, some of the critics just went crazy – you know, here I was, like, a contemporary artist, you know, and I’m making a piece about a Catholic saint – in the Middle Ages!”  “That was the moment I took my stand; I said I’m going to say what it really is, what it means for me.”

The dying of his mother – unexpectedly, after 3 months in a coma – was profound as he was present and he describes it as beautiful, deeply sad and mysterious.  When she had taken her last breath, he looked at the body on the bed and felt it was not his mother, but like a pile of laundry.  After that, he broke the habit of a lifetime and brought his family videos into his workspace, realising that the everyday things of being with family have to be as much part of life as making famous art.  In fact, right after his mother’s death, he took 3 months off work, despite a pressing deadline from funders – and every morning, sat replaying the footage of his mother, “like a prayer”.  She was not going to take a breath again, but in the video, he could see her and almost be with her.

Later, after his father’s death, he made a series of works on the theme of “Passions” – grieving, crying themes.

This is a good video interview, it feels leisurely, not rushed, and very personal.  We hear about his early works and which works were particularly important to him (although of course all were absorbing) – which pieces carried an importance for more than one work, but for years.

A really good starting point for finding out about Bill Viola’s life and work, from the start.

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Found in Translation

Randomly, in my bookshelves, I re-encountered “Subversive Spirituality” a book by Eugene Peterson – best known for his translation of the Bible into modern-day (American) speech: The Message translation.

While being a pastor, Eugene had spent a year on translating the Bible book of Romans into this everyday language.  Then, he felt it was time for his pastoral ministry to end – and within a month of this happening, he was contacted by a publisher and asked to translate the whole Bible similarly.  At first, he wasn’t sure that he could accomplish such a massive task – but as he began, he found something interesting – it came easily to him, he had a sense of harvest.

For a long time, as a pastor, he had been reading the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, then translating it into words and ideas which modern day Americans in his congregation could understand.

I love that description of a sense of harvest.  That, later in life, what we have been doing naturally in life, as part of who we are, and how we think, becomes a flowing out to others.

Question to ask ourselves: what am I translating?  What is the work of my life?

“If I were going to set up a seminary curriculum, I would spend one whole year on a couple of poets.  I would insist that students learn how to read poetry, learn how words work.  We don’t pay enough attention to words – we use words all the time, but we use them in a commercialized, consumer way.  That consumer-oriented use of words has little place in the church, in the pulpit, in counselling.  We’re trying to find how words work, their own work.” – Eugene Peterson, “Subversive Spirituality”

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5 Reasons people don’t go to church

There’s a great deal of interest and research about why people don’t go to church – this presenter at Greenbelt asked her friends to give their personal reasons, anonymously.  Here, she reads out the results.  Here are the honest thoughts of real people, worth listening to.

Offputting things included: flags, overstrong orange juice, never getting to be Mary in nativity play, church locked the doors at the back of the building during the service, they don’t believe in God or Jesus, they felt they had to believe before they went, they enjoyed the peace but felt it would be hypocritical to go as they didn’t attend Sunday service, they didn’t want to go on their own (one vicar arranges for people to meet newcomers from local train station and walk with them to church), can’t find somewhere they feel at home (she suggest shop around), they feel rejected by the church because they’re gay, when they asked questions in church growing up they got fobbed off……

 

 

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