ALTHOUGH sections of the media write unceasingly of emptying pews, and church leaders have pressed the alarm bell about impending extinction, Christians who no longer go to church are enjoying new forms of fellowship, a new piece of research suggests.
Interviews with “dechurched” people living in Scotland have highlighted the factors that push them to leave, the relief that many feel on doing so, and the ways in which they feel their faith has been “positively impacted” in the process.
The research, carried out by Dr Steve Aisthorpe, a mission development worker, on behalf of the Church of Scotland, is presented in a new book, The Invisible Church, to be published at the end of April.
“I discovered that the number of people who attend church services are the tip of the iceberg of the total Christian community,” he said this week. “I found that changes in wider society, and in the practices of Christian people, mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed.”
Dr Aisthorpe suggested that Britain might be witnessing “a seismic shift in how Christians express their worship, nurture their faith, participate in fellowship, and engage in God’s mission . . . a movement from an affiliation to institutional forms of church towards new, less formalised expressions”.
He began his research in 2012 and 2013, exploring the experiences of people living in the Scottish Highlands and Islands — predominantly rural areas — who were no engaged with a local church congregation. Most were “deeply committed Christians who had been involved in some kind of Christian leadership”.
Thirty interviews were carried out, with participants recruited through church leaders, articles in local newspapers, and social media. A 2013 paper on the findings cautions that “any more general conclusions are only informed assertions”, and refers to a later more expansive study involving around 400 people also living in these regions.
The paper — “Faith journeys beyond the congregations” — refers to a “large and growing sector of the Christian community that is almost entirely neglected by the institutional Church”. This sector “remains largely invisible in the media’s comment on, and the public’s perception of, the Christian community.”
It is also under researched, Dr Aisthorpe argues. Research to date has focused on church leavers, data on church attendance, and studies of the spirituality of people who do not attend church. No study has focused exclusively, he says, on people who are committed Christians, but who do not regularly attend church.
Earlier studies suggest that most people who have stopped going to church have not lost their faith. (A 1998 study by Richter and Francis found that only about one in three church-leavers pointed to loss of faith as their key reason for leaving.) Research also suggests that the proportion of “dechurched” people — 39 per cent in Scotland — is highest in rural areas.
The themes that emerged in the 30 interviews included the resilience of interviewees’ faith. Most described a sense of relief, and found that “their faith journey has been positively impacted by disengagement from the congregation they were previously a part of”. Most had developed “friendships or informal groups that have Christian fellowship as part of their purpose”. Several mentioned how the internet had aided this.
“It was a wonderful relief when I realised I was free to walk away from the churches in which I had tried so hard to conform, but wasn’t flourishing,” said one participant.
When speaking to churchgoers about why people left church, Dr Aisthorpe found assumptions that were “at best, generalisations, and at worst prejudices”. The suggestion that people leave church for trivial reasons “did not appear to be true” for any of his dechurched interviewees, most of whom described leaving after “a lengthy period of frustration, disappointment and difficulties”.
Catalysts for re-evaluating attendance included bereavements, health challenges, and home relocations. Sometimes this had been taken as an opportunity to “disengage with congregational church with as little stress as possible”.
While most interviewees cited some negative experiences as “push factors”, most implied that it was “a concern for missional challenges” that were decisive: “More and more time seemed to be demanded for internal matters, leaving less time to nurture relationships with friends outside the Christian community.”
One participant remarked: “This commission that we have to be active in the world as ambassadors for Christ was something that was much more theoretical than practical it seemed.”
Another recurring theme was that congregations were “very resistant to change. . . People spoke in the strongest terms of the way congregational culture and denominational structures make it extremely difficult for congregations to adapt.” Most were not talking about theology, but “the way congregations function”.
Several spoke about the “superficiality of the discipleship and worship”, and more than a third spoke of feeling “that they could not be themselves”. One had been told off for wearing a hooded top rather than shirt and tie. One of the main themes in conversations about leadership was “perceived poor handling of conflict”.
Dr Aisthorpe notes at the end of the paper that he is considering broader sociological trends, including the psychological profile of churchgoers (in which some personality types are over-represented) and greater individualism.
His research was welcomed by church leaders. “When a serious researcher writes about churchless Christians instead of just writing them off, leaders need to be giving him their full attention,” said the Bishop of Walker, Dr David Walker.
The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Dr Angus Morrison, said that the Church was taking heed of the findings by “investing money and resources in our pioneer ministry programme, which is bringing our Church into the wider community”.
In 2001, the author of the World Christian Encyclopaedia, David Barrett, estimated that there were 112 million “churchless Christians” worldwide, a number he predicted to double by 2025.