Churchless Faith

Posted by on Jan 15, 2016 in Blog | 12 comments

I am about to embark on a short series on the church – and what it might mean to be church in the third millennium. This opening post looks at the increasing phenomena of what is being called ‘churchless faith’. I briefly touched on the topic in a post which proved popular, Churched, Unchurched and Dechurched, and I’d like to explore it a little more today, as very close to the surface it raises a multitude of questions of what it means to be church (and part of the capital C universal Church).

So what is churchless faith? It is usually understood to mean that someone has a relationship with Jesus, but is not seeking to grow that relationship within a church community. Most commonly the person has previously had a connection with a local church – often several churches – but this has now terminated. Sometimes the termination has been conscious (I will not go back there, or to any other church), at other times it has been a process of drift – indeed, the person might not even acknowledge that their faith is churchless, but their practice of non-attendance makes it an objective truth. While for some it leads to the slow (or rapid) withering of faith, for others this is not so, and they continue to hold a robust and even growing faith, though of course the criteria for what constitutes growing faith could be debated (should ‘a relevant ministry in your local church’ be one of the indicators?) .

The phenomena is increasingly noted in the literature. In 2000, Alan Jamieson published his PhD research on this topic in his seminal study: A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys beyond the Churches. Jamieson, a New Zealander, studied church leavers who had previously been part of evangelical, Pentecostal or charismatic churches, but who in spite of their current non church attendance, were still pursuing a journey of faith. He explores the reasons they left, categorizing them into different types – disillusioned followers, reflective exiles, transitional explorers and integrated wayfinders. He interacts with James Fowler’s theory of faith development, which radically summarized suggests that the deeper the journey of faith, the more questioning it becomes, and the more comfortable it becomes with unanswerable questions. Indeed, it becomes suspicious of answers too quickly given.  Noting that leavers need to be given, amongst other things, space, support and room for questions and emotions, Jamieson provocatively (in a helpful sense) suggests that church leaders should not see those who have left as fallen, but as pioneers. Culture is changing, and current church culture remains wedded to a modernist mindset. Those who leave might help pioneer new ways of being church in a postmodern era.

Not that all leavers are trying to pioneer new expressions of faith. Some have left disillusioned, and have settled for a privatised faith. St Augustine, who famously said ‘He cannot have God for his Father who will not have the Church for his mother’, would not be happy. Is there really such a thing as a private faith? Isn’t it a construct of Western individualism? Can you think Christian faith outside of community? After all, even God’s oneness is defined in Trinitarian terms. God’s first ‘not good'(it is not good for the man to be alone – Gen 2:18) is not necessarily only to be understood in terms of marriage. People are meant to be together, and this is especially true for their most significant journeys. And is any journey more significant than the journey of faith?

While these are very significant objections to pose to those who want to journey alone, those who have left disillusioned are likely to simply shrug and say, ‘yes, I used to feel like that as well. That was before…’ and the story that follows should be listened to carefully.

Others who have left are simply weary. It can take a lot of work to make Sunday happen – and those who have been caught up in that cycle, especially if they have been volunteers adding these responsibilities to an already full work and family schedule – might be exhausted, perhaps even burnt out. The famous Bebbington Quadrilateral lists the four key characteristics of evangelical faith as being Biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. It is that last one that proves a stumbling block to some. Add a busy church to a busy life and it can quickly become too much. And truth to tell, being busy is more likely to block our awareness of God than it is to enhance it.

Let me say that again: truth to tell, being busy is more likely to block our awareness of God than it is to enhance it. Ironically, with all its flurry and scurry, the church can land up feeling a very unspiritual place. It is this idea which is picked up in our next book. While George Barna’s 2014 Churchless: Understanding today’s Unchurched and how to Connect with them does not have as its focus those who have left the church, it challenges in a similar way in that it discovers that many who are unchurched have a genuine spiritual hunger, but believe it will not be met through involvement in a church community. This is a disturbing theme that often comes through. If church leaders had to summarise in one word what they are on about, a high percentage would say ‘God’- yet Barna’s work suggests that those who are hungry for God often do not think that the church is the place they will encounter God. There seems to be a disconnect between the prime purpose of being church, and what people claim they experience. This needs a great deal of thought, and perhaps courage, as we might need to re-conceptualise church. Is it a re-conceptualization, or would it be a return to what we have always been called to be?

While talking books, another worthwhile read is David Kinnaman’s 2011 You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith. The books claim that almost 60% of young adults who went to church as teenagers stop attending church between the ages of 16-29, is controversial, and has sparked many conversations, with more nuanced studies finding the figure to be significantly lower amongst young adults who come from genuinely evangelical churches (the genuinely is really difficult to define)… regardless, it is just a debate about how big the problem is, not about whether there is a problem.

If you want to hear some of the sense of frustration around the idea of church from those in this target group, Connie Zhou’s post Capital C Church, not ‘church’ expresses it well. In short, the gap between the ideals of what it means to be a Christ follower, and what most people experience in the local church, seems to be enormous. Or as I say in the preface to my book The Big Picture ‘As I read the Gospels I do not get the feeling that the Jesus portrayed in its pages would sit calmly through the average church service and give a beaming affirmation at the end, ‘This is exactly what I had in mind.’

It is easy to talk about problems and to moralise about what should and shouldn’t be. Most Christians I know are deeply genuine about their faith, and long to find ways to enrich and share it. We live at a time when anything that can be classified as an ‘institution’ is likely to meet with resistance. The trouble is, when communities start to gather with any regularity, they quickly institutionalise. They don’t mean to – but they almost invariably do. We neither like institutions, nor religion – and want our faith to be free from the controlling structures that both terms cause us to envision. But even as we proclaim that our special community is not an institution nor a religious group, those who watch scratch their heads and say – ‘could have fooled me. Still seems like church to me.’

So what’s the way forward? No easy answers on this, but our next post will look a little more deeply at what is meant by the word church. Until then, spend some time thinking about those whose faith is now churchless. You probably know a few – and might even classify yourself as one. Ask yourself, ‘so how can we genuinely grow faith together, without becoming another institution pedalling religion?’

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Interesting articles – makes me question and think carefully about different
    subjects and issued. Many thanks

  2. Perhaps young adults (a term that should be banned) don’t want to grow their faith as much as express their faith. Their education and own choices in education mean they have no artistic skill to express their faith (and If you want some skill put together a ten year practice plan). So church becomes a series of lectures and ministries on how to fix the problems of sin. And people leave. We need to rediscover an eschatological view of the arts in our clergy and perhaps plant a tree to shade the next generation.

    • “We need to rediscover an eschatological view of the arts in our clergy and perhaps plant a tree to shade the next generation.” Yes and Amen Skye! The Arts and Artists are the prophets of our day!

      • Im interested in your thoughts as to how artists are prophets. Could you expand?

  3. Yes!yes!yes! Having read most of the books quoted and living in a society where only 5% attend church this is a topic we need to be discussing. Recently I attended the Future of the Church Summit in Colorado where fresh expressions were shared as America grapples with a rapid decline in churches from 80% free falling to 65%- for us those numbers would be heaven! We attended as we too are grappling with what the church should look like today and in years ahead. We have seen a rapid change in society, snapchat, Facebook, Twitter etc give people a voice and enable people the honour of an opinion. Church, in the traditional, does not. Go to church, pay, sing and pray then leave simply doesn’t cut it for a lot of people and significantly those who have been heavily involved in church, intelligent, well educated are the ones removing themselves seeking more community involvement rather than oiling the churches cogs! Recently we have started dinner church which is a discussion based service around a free meal. 25 people show up, mostly unchurched with a smattering of those who have ‘done’ with church. No singing, no collection ( cans and envelops on tables) and a very mixed bunch of ages, cultures and gender. Should be a fun unwrapping of the gospel. Looking forward to reading this series- you’ve hit a passion button in my soul!

    • Thanks Glenda. Will be interested to hear how the dinner service goes over the longer term. Sounds a good initiative.

  4. A very thoughtful article Brian, and one worth thinking into. I’m wondering if the terms De-chruched or Un-churched or “leaving the church” address what is going on though?

    I wonder if there are many who “Deconstruct” the church as a structural identity in search for a genuine relational identity given the ‘church’ finds itself in its current state post christendom. Perhaps people who become disillusioned for whatever reason decide there is no place for organised religion as they have previously experienced it?

    I say that because as you know it is the people, not the structure that is the church.

    If we say we follow Jesus, we are people of the way…the ecclesia – the called out ones…we cannot deny who we are….but to distance ourselves from “Kuriakin Oikos” can be for some, the working out of their salvation with fear and trembling?

    I look forward to the series unfolding! And I agree, as followers of Jesus we have to rediscover a Christ centred ecclesiology for the 21st century

  5. a very apt read. Thank you.

  6. Hmm, should a relevant ministry in your local church be one of the indicators of a growing faith? I don’t think so. There are many people who are unable to participate in church ministry for many reasons. Some because of a disability and lack of inclusion, others because of outside church responsibilities which can vary across a lifetime eg parenting, caring etc. The flip side is that there are many ministry opportunities outside church eg mission with Scripture Union.
    The term ministry is very loaded. As a parent of a child with a disability who is not included in church, I find myself on the fringe and sometimes consider my “ministry ” is to remind others live is not all easy, it has a difficult dark side and that God is fully present there too.

  7. We recently moved to a new area, our last Church had been closed due to security, being on a military base.
    I contacted the local Church here, one of the first statements was not welcome – but we need people on the door, to do this and that…… They don’t even know me yet!
    So I haven’t gone there yet. They seemed more interested in how many free hours I could give than knowing me.
    It completely put my husband on the wrong foot, and I depend on him to take me. Thus we are still looking. There must be others like me?

    • Thanks for this Elizabeth. The pressure to make sure that ‘Sunday happens’ can quickly become everything, and make us forget what really matters – like friendship and welcome… And that church is about helping people connect with God, not just getting every programme fully staffed.

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