When we arrived in Orange County, California I was in a PhD program and knew I’d need to head back to Australia for field research. We were honest about this to our pastor, who, to his great credit, was kind and embraced us anyway. He encouraged us to make the most of time we had, quoting Proverbs 16:9. We all (particularly Tim) hoped our plans would change. At times, I felt caught betwixt and between. I started a series of blog posts called ‘The Exile Files’, because when I heard my Christian pastor friends use phrases like “backslide”, or “back door of the church”, I began to hear creepy music in my head and imagine ghost-like figures walking through the foyer of most contemporary (or for that matter, liturgical) churches.
Unlike medieval days, people aren’t often exiled from church anymore. But many people leave congregations, making a decision themselves – effectively exiling themselves from the community. I call this self-exile. Some of it is normal transitional migration for jobs or family. But if you’ve ever left a church with a feeling you’ve been mauled by a bear, hobbling out while clutching your internal organs, yelling from the parking lot “I’m fine guys, don’t worry about me, keep going as you were!“, then you understand that self-imposed exile can be more painful than being asked to leave. It’s the same phenomenon that makes the decision to break up with a clearly deranged boyfriend or girlfriend WAY more difficult than being dumped by a partner you actually liked.
I know church members can be in pain decades after self-exile, because I’ve talked to them. Hundreds of them. But I didn’t realize that pastors got so cut up by congregants moving on. So I decided to take a step back and analyze how Christianity got to a place where we chose church membership (Exile Files #1) and analyze the lived theology we actually see played out in churches against a biblical standard (Exile Files #2).
Of course, this still leaves the ideal situation unaddressed.
Which, to be truthful, was at first intentional. I guess I’m more post-modern than I thought, and very unlikely to write 5 really bad reasons to leave a church or 5 tips on leaving a church the right way. Not only are these posts already written, but I can think of a million exceptions to every rule without trying. No, I’m not interested in handing you a placebo pill to take away the pain of broken relationship and/or institutional crisis. I’ve heard the phrase “the church is like a hospital” so many times, it’s nauseating. But I think we don’t really believe church is like the ER, more like an organic food shop. So, if you can be fixed by the above blogposts, you’re clearly not in the category of people I’m talking to. Sure, I get it, we all feel happier telling people to take vitamins rather than caring for them in the ICU. And I’m sure vitamins help. But, a host of bright smiley faces at a vitamin counter doesn’t make a good hospital. Most of us know that while professional medical assistance is helpful in increasing life chances, people die in hospital. Similarly, sometimes people even lose their faith in church. Yet my problem is that none of the posts circulating address church as a community, or present a long-term picture in regards to change.
Hold that thought. You see, an ideal situation of when/how/why to leave churches is difficult to articulate because, let’s call it, most churches don’t turn to historical, or theological data but are instead busy building a short-term brand of institution. Or at least, thinking about this weekend’s services. The logic is held in one little word: “growth” – easy to quantify if you can point to ten people more than you had last week. Pastors don’t like to report a lowering headcount. So, I’ve been waiting on a blinding flash of lightning for post #3 to articulate why or how you should leave a church, because it is counter-cultural.
What I didn’t bank on, however, was that my husband Tim was waiting for this third installment. Sneakily, at various times (usually while long-distance driving so I can’t dodge the question) he’s brought me back to this blog series, letting me know he remembers I promised a third post. He’s clearly addicted. But I understand, because my first purchase from Christian bookshop Koorong was, strangely enough, a book of church exit interviews. So, this one’s for Tim.
Basically, this post asks: Is leaving a church unusual? and For what reason/s should churches (as in Christian communities) expect people will leave them? As I’m studying in the missiological department rather than theological one, I’m going to propose we ditch our “backdoor” metaphor completely, because it’s not biblical nor useful in talking about the church. When we use this language it means each time a member feels an urge to move (whether emotionally positive or negative) they grapple with our current understanding of church as a place we attend from birth to death. They grapple with the idea of being a brick in the wall of a community and, similarly, the idea of deciding that they are going to discontinue building. But instead of a brick wall, church is something far more organic, and so is this word “growth”.
Instead, I’d like to present a new metaphor. I’d like you to picture a dandelion, which illustrates a word called diaspora. This metaphor in fact assumes that church members should leave churches. And the main reason church members should leave churches is because we are a sent people. It’s in the very DNA of what a church is.
To make this visual metaphor more concrete, I’d like to show you one of these dandelions. You’ve probably seen it before:
They aren’t the most beautiful flower, but they are striking and bright yellow. I learned to eat their leaves in California (apparently they have healing properties). Their white milk can be poisonous, so that’s not the greatest help for this metaphor. BUT my point is – Dandelions turn up everywhere. They simply appear.
The reason this happens is because when the flower is fully mature, it changes from its yellow petals to look like this:
And then, one day, these little white spores disappear on the wind. The plant remains, and it produces more flowers… but the reason the dandelion turns up everywhere is because it has an intentional, and seasonal diaspora.
I’m not the first person to think of this. The reality is, Christianity is a missionary faith. It is proven in history, and it is proven biblically. We are a people on the move. And if Jesus is truly the Head of the Church, you can suspect He would be pretty invested in this message expanding virally across the earth. Maybe not as invested in whether tongues (aka glossolalia) trumps infant baptism. Just saying. But, God does have a pretty big stake in the church’s longevity. It would be intensely sad for us to think that THE CHURCH is all about our own personal experience.
Now, using a dandelion metaphor rather than a building with a front and a back door, here are some statistics, drawn from (Pockock, Rheenan and McConnell 2005):
- 175 million people live in a country other than where they were born.
- In developed nations, one in 10 person is a migrant.
- 55 million Chinese and 22 million Indian people live outside the country of their birth.
Formerly, missions was focused within the 10/40 window, but many of the people groups considered inside that window now live outside it. For example:
- 6 million muslims live in the U.S. – and 30% are American born.
- 1 million muslims live in the UK
- 3.4 million muslims live in Germany
Just perhaps, the whole world is on the move. And I believe God’s mission is much bigger than a single room with two doors, one going in, and one going out. But it seems at times we’ve settled for that!!! – so, could God Himself actually be at the heart of the discontent that takes over our minds, forcing us to repeal in frustration at our pastor’s preaching or the volume of the music? Perhaps we don’t realize this at first, but perhaps in hindsight, we will look back, and see that the wind of God is the reason for our diaspora, and it was always meant to be that way.
What do *you* think??? Are we actually supposed to leave churches?And if so, how do you think church can grapple with changing to recognize this reality, and still be family?