by Ed Mackenzie, Evangelism, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer for the Methodist Church.
Although based on a small sample of respondents, the Connect4Life research provides a helpful stimulus for thinking about how churches can best reach the ‘disconnected’, those who once belonged to the church but who do so no longer. The ‘disconnected’ correlate to the ‘de-churched’ category, estimated in Tearfund’s 2007 research as a staggering 33% of UK adults.1 The high figures suggests that the ‘backdoor’ of church is sometimes left open, and that churchgoers can sometimes leave without being noticed.
The Connect4Life research suggests that a loss of faith in church is more likely to cause disconnection than a loss of faith in God. Church leaders surveyed estimated that the ‘local church’ is the main reason for disconnection, whereas ‘God’ (presumably a loss of belief or trust in God) comes sixth on the list. And the top two reasons for disconnection cited by the ‘disconnected’ were ‘leadership offence’ and the ‘church caused hurts’.
In this short article, I’d like to suggest ways in which churches can address the causes of disconnection prior to individuals leaving the church. While previous studies have drawn on qualitative and quantitative research, this article will identity three New Testament principles that can help churches in this area, and suggest ways in which they can be put into practice.
Before exploring the principles, it is worth noting that they are for all the church, not just for the church leaders. It is all too easy to blame the ministers, pastors, elders or priests when disconnection takes place, but it is the responsibility of the whole body of Christ to look out for its struggling members (1 Cor 12:26). It is also the case that disconnection can take place despite the best efforts of the church, but a healthy church is always willing to review the ways it helps or hinders the faith of its members.
A Welcoming Church
‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’
The first principle is that the church needs to be a community that welcomes people whatever their background. Such welcome encompasses not just the initial greeting of visitors, but includes on-going acceptance and inclusion within the community. The Connect4Life research points to the significance of this principle, with church leaders noting the importance of welcome, support and socialising in retaining those on the edges of the community.
Paul’s letter to the Romans highlights this principle in its advice to Jewish and gentile believers. Despite their cultural differences, Paul encourages each group to ‘welcome one another’ (Rom 15:7), accepting each other’s differences (Rom 14:5-6) and acting in ways that avoid offence (Rom 14:13-23). The radical nature of this welcome – ‘building up the neighbour’ – is rooted in the example of Christ, who did not please himself but sacrificed himself for all (Rom 15:2-3).
For churches seeking to deepen their quality of welcome, a helpful course over five sessions is Everybody’s Welcome, by Bob Jackson and George Fisher (Church House Publishing, 2009). The course helpfully covers a variety of aspects of welcome, including ways to include people within the on-going life of the church. A forthcoming Methodist Resource, First Impressions Count, focuses on helping churches improve their welcome to first-time visitors.
A Disciple-Making Church
‘And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Heb 10:24-25)
A second principle in preventing disconnection is that the church needs to take seriously its calling to discipleship, in helping its members follow Jesus in everyday life. In the Connect4Life research, ‘nurturing and discipleship’ was noted by one leader as key for retaining those disconnecting, while other leaders noted that those who ‘reconnect’ to church do so because their understanding of God has developed. Good discipleship is what helps the church link worship to ‘ordinary’ life.
The author of Hebrews saw meeting together for mutual encouragement as a way of growing in faith. Writing to a church facing discouragement and persecution, the author reminds Christians to follow the faithful witnesses in the past (Heb 11), and to ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds’ (Heb 10:24). The contemporary UK church faces quite different cultural pressures from that faced by the recipients of Hebrews, but mutual encouragement and prayer remains as important as ever in learning how to follow Jesus.
Many churches find that small groups are central in discipleship, as well as a great way to integrate people into the life of the church. The Disciple study course is an excellent resource for such groups and guides participants through the entire biblical story from Genesis to Revelation (see www.methodist.org.uk/disciple). The Inspire network also offers a helpful model, inspired by Wesley’s ‘bands’, for small groups of Christians to help one another live out their discipleship through ‘mission spirituality’ (http://inspire-network.org.uk).
A Loving Church
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27)
The third principle – in fact, the underlying value of all a church does – is that the church needs to nurture love for God and for others, prioritising Jesus’ double love-commandment. It is clear that many of those who leave church feel ‘unloved’ for various reasons, and this theme recurs repeatedly in the Connect4Life research. Several of the ‘disconnected’ pointed to the lack of interest in them shown by others, and the subsequent disappointment with all that church represents.
Jesus’ call to love God and neighbour is best illustrated by his own life – and death. His radical devotion to the Father nourished his compassion for all, especially outcasts and the ‘sinners’ (Luke 5:32). He taught his followers to forgive their enemies (Luke 6:37), and forgave his own on the cross (Luke 23:34). He lifted up the humble but challenged those who exploited the weak, fulfilling the Isaianic prophecy that ‘he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick’ (Matt 12:20). His death on the cross, dying to bring life to others, was the ultimate demonstration of divine love (Rom 5:6-8).
The New Testament suggests that a deepening realisation of our identity as God’s beloved leads to love of others (1 John 4:7-12). It also suggests that practical and concrete acts of service demonstrate our love to others (1 John 3:16-17). Spirituality and service are linked, and churches that pursue both are more likely to nourish love within their communities. Scot McKnight’s helpful book The Jesus Creed (Paraclete Press: 2004) can be a useful resource in helping churches explore this area.
Other ways to prevent disconnection can no doubt be identified, but the three New Testament principles highlighted in this article seek to address some of the reasons cited for disconnection by both church leaders and the disconnected. Offering welcome and focusing on discipleship – both undergirded by love – builds up the church as well as helping to retain those on its edges.