Something else on “leavers”

I’ve been meaning to write something else on “leavers” for a while.  David Finch got me thinking about the positives: Even with leavers we are building the Kingdom. Turnover is to be expected, but it should not be dismissed. It’s the opportunity to be used to build God’s Kingdom:  http://behindthewillowtrees.org.uk/what-ive-read-recently/cultivating-the-kingdom/

I have a rather simplistic model of local church growth.  It is to gain and hold onto more people than are being lost.  That means stemming the flow of people going out the backdoor, whilst engaging in some effective mission.  People leave for many reasons, but not always for those that one might expect. And the problem doesn’t always lie with the leavers. Dr Alan Jamieson in A Churchless Faith argues from his research that leavers: 

  • Struggle with their decision over a prolonged period of time, often years.
  • Speak of no longer ‘fitting in’ at church
  • Have major faith, theology or church-based questions which church had not satisfied
  • Recall a dysfunctional, dictator-like leadership
  • Feel marginalised or mentally abused.
  • Identify a ‘final straw’ that cemented their decision
  • Are rarely asked why they left. Most are not phoned or visited.

Jamieson says he is “dazed” by leavers’ continued passion, both for their faith – and against the Church.

But how can we respond? Jamieson argues the core skill needed by church leaders is the ability to listen. It could mean the difference between a leaver’s faith flourishing or failing.  ‘As individuals begin to pull back, church leaders need to step toward them and hear their struggles, questions, suffering and doubts, because these are the building blocks of their emerging faith journey.’

Contrary to the myth, time does not heal all wounds well. Certainly not if the original problem was never fixed. Leavers go for a reason. And if that reason still exists, if the church has never even addressed it, they’re unlikely to return.

Michael Fanstone in The Sheep that Got Away, proposed ways to woo people back. For most former churchgoers, the issue is not coming back to faith, but a return to church – a church that was unable to meet their needs, and an place where some say left them ‘dying inside’. This view is supported by a newer book, Gone for Good? where Leslie Francis and Philip Richter concur that generally people are rejecting the institution rather than faith.

Jamieson says that when people ask him, "What can I do to help my husband, wife, son, daughter, neighbour, parent to come back to church?", he replies, "Don’t talk about church and don’t invite them to church."

‘Be honest about what you are experiencing – not believing, but experiencing – in your own faith, and listen to their experiences. Don’t try and change them, correct them or make them come back to church.  Talk with those on the margins of the church and those who have left. Listen to their faith realities. Listen. Don’t hurry to give answers but hear what it would be like to walk in their shoes.’

‘What you hear might change your understanding, and your response.’

Another challenge comes from John Drane.  He says:

‘There’s been a lot of messing around with new styles of music and shifting furniture. That’s not going to solve the issues. These people are leaving because of the Church we now have. So they’re not going to come back to the Church we now have. People need to feel valued. [Otherwise] they begin to think, "Why am I spending my life doing this?

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