Survey Articles

Lost and Found

an article by Olaf Fogwill, Ministry Director with Connect4Life

If you do an internet search on ‘lost and found’, you will discover many songs containing these three words, by artists like Katie Herzig,  Lianne La Havas, and these lyrics from Leona Lewis:

‘Lost then found...Love in the ending, we could be lost then found’[1]

Over two thousand years ago, Jesus used the same three words in His love song to the world.  There was no tune to the song perhaps, but He declared His love for those who become lost and set out the mission for the church, to reach out for lost people.  [2]

Two things are still true: people become lost and people want to be found.

Much has been written about the Church’s lost generation, but the ebbing tide has not been stemmed.  Kallmier and Peck’s book in 2009, ‘Closing the Back Door of the Church’ sought to suggest ways in which loss could be prevented and gives a useful resume of reasons why people leave church.[3] Research from William K Kay and Leslie J Francis investigated faith development during adolescence and the link with church drift – many hypotheses came forward about personality, education, church schools and parental example but it concluded with a call for more research.[4]

And still the tide ebbs away.

In 2007, Tearfund released telling findings from research on church attendance, containing both shocking and surprising insights.  ‘Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion).  These people are evenly divided between those who have been (to church) in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million)’[5] One of their findings bore out an earlier finding by Richter and Francis who gave evidence to suggest that 45% of ‘disconnected’ people are open to reconnection.[6] Tearfund concluded that nearly 3 million of the 32.2 million people are likely to go to church in the future.

Initiatives such as ‘Back to Church Sunday’, ‘Big Welcome’, ‘Bringing Home the Prodigals’[7]and Fresh Expressions[8] are some of many attempts by the wider church to reclaim ‘the lost’ .  All of these are welcome but still churches are closing and attendances are thinning. 

‘Despite the almost mantra-like status of the statement "people are leaving the church",  there still appears to be little understanding about who is leaving, when they leave, why they leave, and what happens to them and their faith after they leave’ (Alan Jaimieson).[9] Jaimieson’s research in New Zealand makes interesting  reading  as he ‘explodes’ what he calls ‘ten myths’ about church leavers; for example, he found that the people who leave are not necessarily young adults, neither people on the fringe of our churches, nor those who have not been in the church for very long.  He discovered that there are some in each of these categories, but he also found that the church leavers from Pentecostal and charismatic churches were predominantly middle aged (70% were aged between 35 and 45 years) and had been involved in their respective churches as adults (ie beyond their 18th birthday) for an average of 15.8 years.

What can be said then of the UK?  This small piece of research, ‘Journeys from Disconnection to Reconnection’, was carried out with 17 church leaders and 13 people who were reconnecting with church after a period away.  Although statistically of limited significance, the research has stimulated fresh thinking and shows many similarities with the findings from New Zealand:

The views of reconnecting people often were at variance with those of the church leaders in matters of pastoral care, cause and solution.  Those reconnecting were unwilling to take up where they had left off (75%).

Leaders recognised that their congregations are made up of people who are at different stages of connection: the majority felt that over 50% of their church was connected, but three quarters of the leaders felt that up to 10% of their church was currently disconnecting. [10]

Connection means different things within different denominations, whether it be to God or to a church denomination.  It is telling that 70% of  people who reconnect did so to a different church, 75% to a church with a different leader, and it seems that reconnectors often change denomination to fit a changed theology.  Leaders recognise inherent weaknesses in preventing disconnection and the considerable challenge of helping people reconnect – one leader even encourages some to explore other denominations!

Disconnectors find substitute communities, whether on-line church groups, Christian radio and TV, parachurch activities, business or social communities to meet their needs.  The sense of Identity, Value and Purpose (IVP) for many of them still comes from being rooted in God, although not in the church.  Those who are thoroughly disaffected seek IVP in careers, family, adventure and sometimes ‘wild living’.

Reconnectors’ common advice is for Christian friends to stay in touch, not to judge, to pray for them and to accept that they will have lower expectations of leaders and church.  They won’t slot back in to where they were, but will often have a lower level of commitment and want to be on the fringe.  Those returning describe reconnection as a process, with 92% saying that they feel their reconnection will become stronger.

Churches need to go after the lost – they still want to be found.  Every resource and initiative can make a contribution, but they need to be sustained rather than just one-off events.  Connect4Life seeks to work with every agency and church to provide resources for church-going friends to reach out to non-church going friends.  Perhaps we in the wider church should function more like Team GB rather than a Premier Football Club!

 

 

[1]Lyrics from Leona Lewis  http://www.metrolyrics.com/lost-and-found-lyrics-leona-lewis.html

[2] Luke 15:32

[3] Closing the Back Door of the Church from CWR 2009

[4] ‘Drift from the Church’, William K Kay and Leslie J Francis 1996, page 157

[5] Research from Tearfund 2007 on Church Attendance http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/03_04_07_tearfundchurch.pdf

[6] ‘Gone but not forgotten’, Philip Richter and Leslie J Francis 1998, page 138

[7] Rob Parsons : http://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/resources/product.asp?productid=1082

[8]Fresh Expressions :  http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/resources/missionofthechurch

[9] Ten Myths About Church Leavers, Alan Jaimieson

[10] Headline results from UK research, ‘Journeys from Disconnection to Reconnection’ – www.connect4life.org.uk/survey

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