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Comments on “A Churchless Faith”

By Jon Zens

I found an interesting article in CRUX magazine (41:3, Fall, 2005), which comes out of Regent in Vancouver BC Canada. It is by an M.Div. student, Jonathan Ryan (he goes by Jono), from Wellington, NZ — “A Churchless Faith?  Alan Jamieson & Palliative Care for the Church in New Zealand,” pp.29-35. It’s a pretty good article, but I think Jono, in asserting that “the church” is important in the Christian life, makes a fatal error of assuming that what exists as “church” is what believers must “be in” in order to avoid spiritual catastrophe.

He starts off by observing, “The church’s ‘centre of gravity’ has shifted. While the church in the Two-Thirds World currently enjoys unprecedented renewal in a diverse range of ecclesial settings, the church in the West instead battles an existential crisis, reckoning with steadily diminishing membership.” He then points out than in response to this crisis, some call for reform and others call for exiting from the institutions. He notes that one common opinion is that “in the same sense that Western society has become postmodern — our society has become post-church.”

Alan Jamieson has written on the rapid church decline in New Zealand, “Churchless Faith” (2002). He focuses on “church leavers.” Jono suggests that Jamieson’s “prognosis is at best a palliative one, trying to keep it alive by maintaining its satiating diet of individualism, consumerism and care.” Jamieson interviewed 108 church leavers, and noted five characteristics of these people: Disenchantment, Disillusionment, Disengagement, Disidentification and Disorientation.

After they leave, he identifes four post-church experiences: “Disillusioned Followers,” “Reflective Exiles,” “Transitional Explorers,” and “Integrated Wayfinders.” Jono goes on to note, “Alluding to the popular ‘seeker-sensitive churches’ of the nineties, [Jamieson] suggests the need for ‘leaver-sensitive church’ — ‘one that is aware of and seeks to address the concerns of leavers and potential leavers…. The ‘leaver-sensitive church’ provides: places for people to explore, question and doubt; a theology of the journey; resources for people experiencing ‘dark places’; models of other theological understandings…”

Most of the leavers Jamieson spoke with wanted to be in groups with other post-church people, groups that “are not connected to any institutional form of the church or church structures.” Jamieson sees the “individual wayfarers” as roosting in “waystations,” and it is in such groups that he finds hope for the church’s future. Such “waystations,” he observes, “are very strong communities of care, friendship, accountability, humour and depth….But an equally common theme was ‘safety.’ Variations on the theme — ‘the group provides a safe place where I can be myself’ turn up.”

Jono is afraid that those exiting the ranks of the institutional church are in some way jeopardizing their souls, but the flip-side must be firmly stated also, namely, that many are finding their spiritual life in danger by remaining in the status quo church. Jono wrongly assumes that the numerous buildings calling themselves “churches” are the context in which spiritual growth will take place. That is simply not the case. “Ekklesia” is a dynamic concept that is defined by certain action words (for example, 58 “one-anothers”), and cannot be confined to institutional sanctuaries.

Those leaving institutional churches confess their need for the body of Christ, and are seeking to find ekklesia “reality” with others in informal settings. The truth is, you cannot put these spiritual dynamics into a box. The following observations can all be true:

  1.  people in institutional churches can sometimes find enough reality to keep them going;
  2. people can dry up in churchy institutions, and find reality in committed groups outside the gates of formal religion;
  3. people can leave traditional churches and dry up by not finding reality anywhere;
  4. people can leave formal church, become part of an informal group, and run into the same problems, or worse, that they encountered in the institutional setting.

All that having been said, myriads of believers are tired of traditional church. They are asking some serious questions about what church is, and they are seeking alternative answers outside of religious buildings and institutions.

Multiple sources have documented that people are leaving traditional churches by the droves in America and in Europe. Focus on the Family several years ago did a comprehensive study and found that 1800 persons a month were “leaving the ministry.” Leaving aside all the sociological observations that can be made, the fact remains that Jesus is building a living ekklesia which can come to expression in any number of physical settings, and these base-line attributes will be present to some degree — a caring, welcoming, informal atmosphere where people are accepted in the bonds of Christ and his gospel; a context where Christ is the raison d’etre, where relationships are being deepened, where the truth can be spoken in love, where healing can be experienced, where gifts can be encouraged, where various ministries are developed, where people can share their questions and concerns, where problems and disputes can be worked out, and where there is a growing commitment to one another to carry out a wide range of kingdom responsibilities. It is essentially a group of believers fleshing out a life of love together underneath the banner of Christ, the Head of the ekklesia.

If the places called “church” block the reality of ekklesia with their traditions and structures, people are going to leave, and finding greener pastures is not easy, but it will be done by hungry people. Ekklesia is not automatically realized by leaving a churchy building and meeting in a living room. It will be a reality wherever people are seeking Christ and his will together in increasingly committed relationships. Jesus said that if a disciple was still in sin after encounters privately and with several present, “tell it to the ekklesia” was the final step (Matt.18:15-20). This kind of kingdom work only makes sense with the backdrop of the kind of caring community briefly sketched above. If you fell into sin, what ekklesia exists in your life where your problem could be lovingly handled?

Putting the issue like this force us to realize that (1) true ekklesia is hard to find and (2) we desperately need to establish ekklesia in our lives.

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