Have you left the church behind? Are you a “post-Christian,” whatever that may mean? According to a 2016 Pew Research poll of 35,000 American adults, statistics indicate that the population of self-identified “Christians” has dropped significantly. The last time Pew engaged in a similar survey in 2007, 78.4% of those surveyed identified themselves as Christian; in 2016, that percentage had dropped to 70.6%.
Pew came to the conclusion that not only is America’s Christian share of the population declining, conversely those who do not identify with any organized religion is also on the rise. What’s been highly publicized, too, is the major shift among millennials, who are walking away from churches, with more of a feeling that the church lost them than the other way around.
But surely there is more to the story; while it’s difficult to find actual statistics (in terms of real percentages) of people who have left church, there are at least two aspects to the decision to walk away from the church and the Christian faith: the first involves the “why” they decided to walk away; the second involves the question of “what happens next?”
Where do they go from here?
In this post, I’ll explore at least 8 possibilities related to these questions: why do people leave church, and what happens after that? It turns out that people leave churches for a wide variety of reasons (and this list is by no means exhaustive). It’s also worth nothing that this list is more of a spectrum than a boxed-off final list.
You may, for example, begin in one category, but then as time goes on progress to a different category; or be in the process of moving off the spectrum entirely. See if you can locate yourself, in terms of your spiritual journey, along the following spectrum!
Leaving Church: The Spectrum
I have identified at least 8 groups on the spectrum of “leaving church” that I’ve encountered, and probably there are more that I have yet to be made aware of at the time of this writing.
Note: I’ve edited this post to add another group, taking the list up to 8 so far (as of the 18th of January 2018 at least). More may be coming as I get feedback from people.
Here, then, are the 8, with possibly more to come:
1. People who have left the church (for a wide variety of reasons), but who still identify as Christians, believe in God and Jesus, and accept the Scriptures; and they want to keep doing church, just in different ways (more organic, less hierarchical?). Often you will hear from this group a form of argument that proceeds as follows: they believe that current forms of “institutional churches” are, in many ways, “doing church wrong” as far as they understand what church should be, based on their particular reading of Scripture.
2. People who’ve left the church, still follow Jesus and believe in God, but don’t desire to participate in any form of intentional church gathering.
Note: Obviously, the reasons behind the decision to walk away in these first two are myriad, highly complex, and need to be seriously nuanced. For the purposes of this spectrum, though, if you identify with either 1-2, you will be able to supply your own reasons as to why you walked away from the church.
3. People who have emotionally and perhaps intellectually left the organized church, but who continue to attend because their spouse or other family members still want to attend church. They are, in other words, physically present, but mentally checked out or “switched off.” Still attending church and going through the motions, they are only doing it to please someone else. Perhaps they are keeping quiet so as not to rock the boat by “outing” the fact that they no longer buy into what the church is doing. It could be also that they are secretly deconstructing various aspects of their Christian faith, or have become an atheist; but feel that (for a variety of reasons) they can’t tell any of their friends or family members about it.
4. People who have been forced to leave, or quit church, by those in leadership (spiritual or other types of abuse, for example, or other reasons). They have not abandoned their Christian faith, and still want to participate in fellowship of any kind; but obviously would have major trust issues with those individuals involved in various forms of church leadership, and for good reason.
5.”Exvangelicals” (ex-evangelicals) who have left the church, are deconstructing their former faith, and currently no longer know what to believe anymore. I’ve found in this group that most exvangelicals have little or no desire to be a part of an organized, mainstream evangelical church; but there are some who still attend church; admittedly, perhaps a more progressive or liberal church, but church nonetheless.
6. People who have left the church; but significantly, these folks have given up on God as well, and have become atheist/agnostic. They no longer identify as Christians, and have no desire to return back to the faith, or participate in any form of church.
7. People who have left the church, have rejected specifically the Judeo-Christian God (“Abrahamic God” someone called it), but who are open, and exploring, forms of spirituality or other religions as a life philosophy.
8. People who have left the church, but have not given up on their beliefs in God per se. I call this a “modified deist” position: you believe in the God who created the cosmos (or kicked off the evolutionary process, whichever), and then he left it to its own devices. This is the “cosmic clock-maker God” of classic deist thought. There is a God, then, but he’s either no longer around, or he’s merely “watching us from a distance,” as the song has it. This position would go a long way toward explaining the problem of evil–God has left humanity to work out its own problems, issues and solutions without his help. It’s also up to us to face evil in the form of the forces of nature (fire, floods, hurricanes, etc.), as well as evil people who harm others.
Did you find yourself on the spectrum at all? Or do you believe there are more categories that should be added in addition to the 8 I’ve identified so far?
I find especially with numbers 6-7 that a lot of those folk who have left the church and have become atheist/agnostic, or specifically rejecting the version of God proclaimed in Judaism and Christianity, that there is much more to the story. Oftentimes these 2 types report feeling just like brainwashed members of a religious cult who, once they leave that group, are quite angry and bitter about having been lied to by those in leadership.
In my interaction with people from this end of the spectrum, it becomes abundantly clear that within much of evangelical Christianity, for example, children are raised within a system that can present a very warped and distorted view of God or Jesus. This is typically based upon a particular reading of the Bible, certain theological or hermeneutical committments, or doctrinal/denominational distinctives.
These subjective biases can severely distort the picture of God that children, teens and adults alike form as they grow up and stay within that particular system. Once they walk away from it, however, their rejection of that God can be based on a”God who failed” type of thing. Small wonder, then, that they would want to reject that God.
I’m also intrigued by number 8. Perhaps this is a moderating position of a person who still wants to believe in God, but perhaps can’t reconcile God with the problem of evil. This view, however, has a major issue to surmount: what do you do with the Bible? It seems to present a very active God who does get personally involved in the affairs of humanity over time. Thus you’d have to call into question the biblical record.
Where do you fall on the spectrum? Please leave a comment below if you feel that more should be added to the list, and let me know what you think of the list so far.