Andy Peck is a tutor at CWR and co-author of Closing the Back Door of the Church.
The issue of disconnecting and reconnecting is one that continues to challenge the church scene in the UK and it is good that attempts have been made to find some hard data for the UK. The charity I serve, CWR, made a small attempt to address the issue by running a series of workshops entitled, Closing the Back Door of the Church in 2006-2008. The presenter Ron Kallmier was staggered to see some 200 attend the workshops, which were in the end limited to 40 a time to facilitate interaction. We co-authored a book of the same name published book by CWR in 2009. My reflections come from research and writing on the topic, and chats with friends who would be in the ‘disconnected’ category.
This piece focuses in particular on how church and denominations can combat pressures and causes for disconnection.
To state the obvious – to be ‘disconnected’ you need to be ‘connected’ in the first place. So it was interesting to notice that the church leaders surveyed clearly have many attending that they do not regard as ‘connected’ yet (most had at least a fifth who were in the not connected category). Without wishing to argue over semantics one wonders whether this lack of connection concerns a connectness to God in Christ, or merely a sense that they had not yet made the church their home (the definition used by the survey)? Clues to this answer are perhaps found in the responses to what the church leaders believe would happen to those who have left their church
The church leaders surveyed believe that those who left would no longer allow the Bible to shape their worldview (59%), will be sustained by family and close relationships (the majority response to how they derive their sense of identity, value and purpose); and will change their theology (82%) view of God (65% said yes or unsure) and view of church (70%). In other words the assumption seems to be that those who have left their local church will put people before God and church very quickly and slide from what the leaders would regard as normative Christianity.
They may be right, though this leaves little room for the kind of responses that Alan Jamieson found in his book Churchless Faith. His research in New Zealand suggested that although many left for negative reasons, some left to ‘go on with God’, perceiving that their local church was so myopic and lacking in kingdom focus that it was a hindrance to spiritual growth.
Bu what these church leaders seem to be saying is that there are many in their midst not properly connected now, and that those who have left do not have sufficient Spiritual resources to maintain a walk with God away from the church.
In view of this, the prime thing that church and denominations need to is to ensure that making disciples of Jesus is a top priority. If such a statement sounds obvious maybe I can underline what I believe this means and why this must enhance connectedness.
Jesus gives us a clear mandate on where we should be heading. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is often seen as a cross cultural mission text, but it also gives clear instructions to the apostles of the kind of followers that Jesus expected. They were to teach new followers everything that he had taught them. The curriculum for such teaching is provided in the Gospels themselves. Many believe Matthew was so arranged so once you read the Great Commission at the end you could return to the teaching sections, notably the Sermon on the Mount, for your teaching.
This was not a message of ‘trust in Jesus and you will go to heaven’ but a belief that God’s rule and reign can be known now, so abandon everything for the joy of following Him. Whatever church may have become in the 21st century, if we take the New Testament seriously, local churches should be places which help make disciples (apprentices/students) of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit to live out their Faith where he has placed them. Once connected to Christ, and once taught His ways, we can be confident that He will keep those who are in Him (Phil.1:4-6).
So the challenge is not to somehow convince disconnected people that our church is the best thing since sliced bread, but to connect them to Christ and so teach and nurture them that they become mature in Christ able to stand for Him wherever they are and wherever they go.
I suggest that if we are serious about this a 20-30 minute message once or twice on a Sunday and a Bible study mid week (where teaching may or may not take place) is not going to do it. We must stop kidding ourselves that a Sunday Service can provide the teaching required. It does many things very well, but education for discipleship is not one of them. Our teaching needs to include, knowledge and skills, monologue, interactive and real life exercises – rather as Jesus does with the Twelve and it needs to be geared to the levels of knowledge of the listeners, using appropriate approaches depending on their capacity. Will this focus ensure that no one leaves? The New Testament is clear that some will drift away. There’s a war on. Paul wouldn’t have written his epistles if he wasn’t aware of the dangers.
A discipleship focused church may mean giving up some things. It may mean that the supported church leaders have to become more focused and it may mean that some who attend will leave because they can’t stand the pace. The church may have to become smaller to become stronger. Remember that on one occasion when speaking to the crowds, Jesus gets serious about following Him and was left with just 12 people (John 6:66-69)!
But this kind of church will certainly be one that Jesus recognises as one of His. And when all is said and done – whatever the name on the outside, isn’t that the kind of recognition we really want?