What Happens After People Leave the Church?

Introduction

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 from previous polls. 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%.

Based upon the statistics gathered, 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 leaving evangelical churches in droves. They are reporting having more of a feeling that the church lost them, more so than the other way around.

Additionally, the rise of the recent #EmptyThePews, #Exvangelical, and #HowToEvangelical campaigns are surging among millennials who've walked away from the church, and are expressing their disdain for what they see as a hypocritical and deeply flawed institution in which they are no longer invested.

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 11 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 11 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 11 so far (as of the 28th of April 2018 at least). More may be coming as I get additional feedback from people.

Here, then, are the 11, 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. Richard Jacobson, author of the book Unchurching: Christianity without Churchianity would be a great example of someone from this group; perhaps also Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church fits in here too.

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. In other words: still Christian, just don’t want to have anything to do with church any more; sort of “lone wolf” Christians going it pretty much alone.

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 even become an atheist; but this group feels that (for a variety of reasons) they can’t tell any of their friends or family members about it, so…Sunday after Sunday, you’ll find them quietly sitting in the pews. But they’re not engaged at all!

4. People who have been forced to leave, or quit church, by those in leadership. Perhaps they’ve experienced spiritual, sexual, or some other types of abuse, for example, or left for other similar reasons. Perhaps they’ve been treated hideously by other Christians and walked away because they just couldn’t handle the ill-treatment any more. 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. It’s just that they’ve essentially been driven out and thus for them, church is no longer a safe place or space.

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 among this group, there are some who still attend church; admittedly, perhaps a more progressive or liberal church, but church nonetheless.

6. Another category would be those exvangelicals who have progressed a bit more than just “not knowing what to believe anymore.” This group might define themselves as “a mixture of exvangelical and exploring other religions.” One could, for example, identify as “a Christo-pagan and yet follow another religious path, but also meld that with some of their former Christian beliefs.” This might be described as somewhat of a syncretistic approach, holding on to some aspects of their former faith, yet at the same time displaying an openness to spirituality and/or other religions.

7. 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.

8. Those 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. This group has moved beyond the somewhat syncretistic approach of #6.

9. People who have left the church, but have not necessarily given up on their beliefs in God per se. I call this a “modified deist” position and might look like this: one still believes in the God who created the cosmos (or kicked off the evolutionary process, whichever), but then left it to its own devices. This is the “cosmic clock-maker God” of classic deist thought. This view would admit that 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. Food for thought: this position would go a long way toward explaining the problem of evil, incidentally: God has left humanity alone 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 doing something about the effects of evil people who harm others.

10. Those who've left the church and who describe themselves as "being Woke!" This group has become perhaps a tad more militant or outspoken against their former church home. This describes people who "are on a mission to completely dismantle, and do away with patriarchy. They are about working to disrupt the system of domination, ownership and exploitation of nature. Having left the church behind, they now seek to restore people's connection to our own human feelings that have been desensitized by patriarchal conditioning," much of which is embodied in not just Christianity but in all 3 Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

11. This group of people have left the church and are much more militant about it than #10. Some in this category are actively seeking to dissuade people from becoming Christians, or may even try to talk Christians out of their faith, to the point of engaging in arguments with them. This group might be described as those who have become "angry atheists" after walking away from church. Why are they so angry? It turns out there are numerous reasons, but here's a few: a) they're upset and angry about the damage that religion has done in the world, both historically and currently; b) they're disillusioned when they come to believe that their former faith may have been built on mythology, or a corrupted or untrustworthy Bible; c) their God (in whom they used to believe) has somehow failed them, or disappointed them, or their understanding of him has been shaken to the point that they totally abandoned all beliefs in him. They are angry that they ever believed in such a God in the first place, and may be upset with themselves for being duped into believing in him at all. They may see Christians as "gullible but well-meaning fools" who live in a world of cognitive dissonance, but are able to keep their faith by neatly compartmentalizing potential problems. The angry atheist, for example, might view such types as comfortably living in a state of denial in order to continue clinging to a particular view of God that is comforting to them.

Conclusion

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 11 I’ve identified so far?

I find especially as we progress further along the spectrum, say with numbers 7-10 for example, 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 and misled by those in leadership.

Quite often, there’s a fairly simplistic “biblical worldview” presented in much of evangelicalism that doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny; and besides, many evangelical churches don’t exactly encourage tough questions. Thus when things do fall apart, it often comes as a severe shock to many to discover that their faith wasn’t in fact very robust at all.

Moreover, in my continued 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 such a characterization of God.

Another possibility, too, is that they come to question aspects of God that are presented in Scripture that seem irreconcilable. How could, for example, the God who ordered the genocide of entire people groups in the Old Testament be the same loving, merciful and forgiving God portrayed elsewhere in Scripture? Perhaps they feel they can’t reconcile this God, and so give up on him entirely rather than live with the cognitive dissonance any longer.

I’m also intrigued by the modified deist view of number 9. Perhaps this is a moderating position of a person who still wants to believe in God, but perhaps can’t reconcile their former views of 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 (that is, if you still believe in the Bible, of course).  If you don't accept the Bible as your basic frame of reference, then this is somewhat of a moot point.

And remarking on #10 and #11, it seems that a lot of post-evangelicals who become atheists go through what is described as an "angry atheist phase." It's hard to stay angry, though, at both God and at Christians; someone told me recently, "You can't live angry." It is difficult to stay in this phase for extended periods of time; some do, however, and see it as their personal mission to tell the world about the abuses of patriarchy, and the major flaws, problems, contradictions and hypocrisies they see within the church--and potentially with God too.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of 1-11? Please leave a comment below if you feel that more should be added to the list.

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