By Bishop Graham Cray, Leader of the Fresh Expressions team
I look at these findings from a distinctive perspective, because, although I am deeply committed to enabling the disconnected to reconnect to church, my primary calling is to help the church connect with a larger group still (in England at least), the unconnected, those who have never had a connection to church in the first place.
Tangentially, because it addresses why people leave and reconnect, this research helps to ensure that the unconnected who are drawn into church through fresh expressions have the best chance of staying connected, rather than continue the cycle of disconnection.
My one concern is that the sample is small, and is weighted towards larger churches. The majority of churches in the UK are under 100 and only 3 reconnectors in the sample left churches that small. Larger churches often find it difficult to have the quality of relationships with their members, which make it easy to know when they are in difficulties, or are in danger of disconnection. It is harder for large churches to be effective communities.
The most concerning result of this research is the disconnection between church leaders perceptions of why people leave, and those of the leavers themselves.
Some church leaders, it seems, have little grasp of what is happening in their people’s lives. Worse still the majority reasons given for leaving were either ‘leadership offence’ or ‘Church caused hurts’. Some styles of leadership may be the problem rather than the solution. We have to face the fact that many people leave because they believe they have been dealt with badly. This may or not be fair in particular cases, but, even then, if it is the perception it must be taken seriously. Why should people reconnect if nothing has changed? 70% of those who reconnected did so to a different church. This may have been because of a later stage of life or a move of house, but it indicates little evidence of reconciliation. We cannot invite people back, or make assumptions about backsliding, if we do not understand their reasons for leaving. To what extent, when people reconnect, are some churches picking up the pieces of other churches inadequate community life and pastoral care and even abusive leadership?
The next matter for concern is the disconnect between church life and daily life. Work and life circumstances emerge as competitors to church, rather than church being essential because it equips its members for the challenges of the week and the difficulties life brings. There is an implication that the church is irrelevant for daily living; that it is experienced as one more demand, rather than as a resource. That sets it up to be the first commitment which could be dropped to ease the weekly pressure, with minimum cost. The change in people’s use of time, once they left church, is important to note. It is ordinary participation in church which is being interpreted in this way. Only one quarter of these reconnectors had been in leadership roles, which demand more time.
Life in the Spirit, and among the people of God, is an anticipation of the coming kingdom, of life in the renewed heavens and earth. So if church life is irrelevant to daily living, what are its members expected to believe about the future? Churches with no kingdom vision are likely to lose members. But so also are churches which demand so much of their people’s time that they cannot maintain a healthy balance of work, family and friends, and leisure, which can be a major challenge for small churches, which often have to ask too much of too few.
I have deliberately focused on issues that churches can address. This is not to deny that leavers can make deliberate choices to turn away from Christ, or from foundational patterns of Christian discipleship. They are perfectly capable of ignoring or refusing the pastoral help that they need. Sin is inevitably an element in some disconnection, but it would be equally sinful to ignore painful truths about churches and church leadership. The whole point of acknowledging sin is because of the possibility of repentance and a change of life, whether that be personal life or church life. Could repentance be the key to both sides of disconnection?
Evidence, recently taken about fresh expressions of church in the dioceses of Liverpool and Canterbury, shows that for every five people attending, two are re-connectors and two were previously unconnected. This research will help us to keep them, because it alerts us to the ways in which churches have been losing members. But perhaps part of any future strategy in the UK should be the planting of lots of small, welcoming Christian communities (which most of these fresh expressions are) whose life sustains every day life, and where people are safe to share their concerns and find grace not judgement.