Despite the almost mantra-like status of the statement "people are leaving the church" in the media and on the lips of religious statisticians, there still appears to be little understanding about who is leaving, when they leave, why they leave, and what happens to them and their Christian faith after they leave. Of course everyone has his or her own view on these issues but few, especially our church leaders, have taken the time to sit down and talk with an actual leaver or two. Before beginning to interview people who had left churches I thought I knew what happened to the Christian faith of those who no longer went to church. While I could easily understand why people choose to leave the church, and had contemplated shifting out myself on more than one occasion, deep down I believed that leaving the church was inevitably the first step to a dwindling faith and the ultimate Christian disgrace, viz. "backsliding".
I left my first interview with actual church leavers somewhat bewildered. The couple I had just met did not fit my expectations. They had left their eldership role in a growing Pentecostal church nearly five years previously, yet their faith had obviously continued to develop, their understanding of God at work in their lives was undoubtedly continuing, and they were involved in their community as an outworking of their faith.
I was intrigued and somewhat mystified. My plans to conduct a quick study of half a dozen or so church leavers in order to confirm my prejudices were in disarray. In fact, the study' grew into a four-year project involving 162 interviews with both church leavers and leaders in Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (a group which I refer to as EPC churches).
The people I tracked were predominately in their thirties and forties. They had made Christian commitments (as well as commitments to their respective churches) as adults (over the age of 18 years) and had been actively involved in their churches for an average of 15.8 years.
To try and sum up the faith journeys of 108 people spread across New Zealand and parts of Australia is not easy. Each person's journey was in fact quite distinctive, with its own twists and turns, but it was clear that church leavers fell into four groups.
1. Displaced Followers
The first category of leavers consists of those I titled the "Displaced Followers". I refer to them as followers because the faith in which they continue has not substantially changed from the faith package they followed within the EPC church. I call such people "displaced" because events and circumstances have encouraged them to leave the EPC church with which they continue to have a great affinity.
This group of leavers made up 17.5% [(n=19).sup.2] of those I interviewed. They left in two major categories either as the "Hurt", i.e. those who had expectations of particular care or support from the church body in times of need which they found were not met when they needed it; or as the "Angry", i.e. those who left the church in disagreement with the leadership of their church because of the direction, vision or leadership structure of either their church or EPC churches in general.
Both the Hurt and the Angry can be said to have left because of specific grumbles with the church. These grumbles centre on the leadership, direction and operating nature of the church.
The level of critique of the Angry and the Hurt does not extend to questioning the whole basis of evangelical/Pentecostal/charismatic faith itself. On the contrary, it is their understanding of what the church should be that such leavers use as the foundation for their claim that their churches have failed.
The Displaced Followers' post-church faith can be characterized in the following ways.
The Displaced Followers continue in a received faith. They have not disengaged from the faith they received when they entered the church. …