Jim Currin is Secretary for Evangelisation at CTE.
Olaf Fogwill and his colleagues are to be commended for approaching a difficult subject with some enthusiasm – namely how to learn from people who have been disconnected from church and then reconnected again.
When I was first asked to comment on the Connect4Life series of booklets for The Good Bookstall website, the booklet which stood out as quite significant was the one that can be offered to people who have left church but invited to ‘Give it 7 Days’. I thought this was quite a unique contribution to the body of Christian evangelistic literature, and worthy of a lot of churches having it handy to give to those who would be prepared to ‘give it another go.’
I was pleased to meet Olaf and to suggest that this booklet might even become his ‘usp’ of Connect4Life. That is marketing speak for ‘Unique Selling Point’. Further, I suggested that research in to the stories of people who had reconnected would be a valuable resource for the wider church as many denominations are thinking of faith journeys. While we rightly welcome people at the front door, we sometimes don’t seem to notice those slipping out of the back.
The reasons why people leave – often slipping away unnoticed - are well researched by people like Richter and Francis in Gone but not Forgotten? and Gone for Good? Christians often do become disconnected from the church fellowship to which they belonged and the faith they have believed. Connect4Life, and especially the booklet inviting people to ‘Give it 7 days’ is non-judgemental, understanding of circumstances in life, respectful of the individual, yet clear and concise with relevant Bible passages and comments to ask people to reconsider and look at Christ again. There should be more evangelistic material like this to offer Christians at this crucial stage of their faith journey.
It is great that Olaf has not only sought to hear stories but, even in these early days, sought to analyse the samples and see what trends might already be emerging. It would have been easy to ask ‘Why did you leave church?’ but the questions are more helpful that and point to the reasons for reconnecting. Finding those people prepared to share their story is no mean task, and I hope many more will assist the project and allow further analysis to take place.
But what of the findings we have so far? Local church ministers can comment from their perspective, so I’d like to add mine from ‘Churches Together’ as I have the CT brief for evangelisation. The observations are chiefly to do with those reconnectors who have said they reconnected in a different church. They left one and joined another for all sorts of reasons, but the step change was the same – they continued faith by moving from one church to another.
So, some of those who reconnected did so with a different church. For all sorts of reasons they moved away from the church fellowship they had belonged to, but not apparently from faith in Christ. There may have been a disagreement with the leader or a step change in theology, but both have been rectified by finding another part of the body of Christ to relate to, and have fellowship with.
At the moment a lot of thinking is going in to a phrase called ‘receptive ecumenism’, which is about the gift one church brings to another. ‘What does my church receive from your gift? Is the question. When we acknowledge and celebrate that all church traditions have something to offer the other, then Christians can move more freely from one church to another and continue their faith journey in another tradition.
Distinguish between ‘sheep stealing’ churches and ‘reconnectors’. I often heard it said that successful churches are ‘sheep stealing’ as they draw Christians away from other churches to build their own. Whilst this may be the case in a some instances, the Connect4Life research shows that Christians are often going to a new church rather than losing faith altogether. This is to e commended. What is important here is that we see the faith journey of the individual Christian rather than the size and activity of the so called, ‘successful’ church. Interestingly, some of the reconnectors are actually not going to the ‘successful’ church in my experience, but the small congregation that accepts them, feeds their faith journey and uses their gifts which a larger church may not be able to accommodate. One thing this research shows – even with just a few replies so far – is that reconnectors do not fit the stereotypical mould we might have predicted. If for no other reason we need to continue hearing their stories.
Church leaders do well to celebrate difference and keep in touch with each other. Although some of the stories are about people moving home or locality, most seem to indicate that they remain local. There is great movement between churches today which would not have been the case even 20 years ago when denominational allegiance was important. Now, many churches have the majority of their congregation made up of members who started their Christian journey in other churches. I know of national church staff who serve a different church to their own tradition, including one who is a General Secretary! The point here is to suggest church leaders celebrate difference, keep in touch with each other, pray and help each other integrate the reconnectors – even if they have come from their denomination and chose another. This should be about the individual faith development, the wider fellowship and not competition.
As Olaf knows, my particular enthusiasm for Connect4Life is the specific contribution made to those ‘reconnecting’ by ‘Giving it 7 days’, so my hope is that churches will keep an eye on those who have disconnected and offer them this resource – surrounded of course by love and prayer - as we, like the person we are praying for, keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We do this on behalf of the whole body and not just our particular church.
I also hope that more stories of reconnection will emerge and Connect4Life will continue to feed us with relevant material to do what it says on the tin.