You identify several types of leavers: – “disillusioned followers, reflective exiles, transitional explorers, and integrated wayfinders.” What trends are you seeing in New Zealand, and do you have any observations of church leavers in North America?
The trends in New Zealand are pretty alarming. An increasing trend is for the active retired to leave as they holiday more, go mountain biking, sailing or spend time at the batch (holiday home).
The other demographic increase is among the 25 to 35 year olds. A group that would previously have been settling into church as leaders and creative innovators now has many leaving with a sense of dissatisfaction.
And then there are those coming each week who are leaving internally. They are present but inside the lights are out. Other things keep them coming – their children, friendships, playing in the band etc. Yet they are not engaging in the way they would have previously. I did my initial study on church leavers 20 years ago; since then the trends have only increased.
But there is another side – people are coming to faith as well. Young people, immigrants and more vibrant church models are drawing people in.
However, studies of immigrant families show that the second and third generation of immigrants don’t stay in church any more than the general population. Many of our vibrant churches have both a big front door (attracting new people in) and a big back door (people leaving).
I am aware of the volume of writing coming from America abut church leavers and notice the increasing concern and volume of research and pastoral work in this area. 20 years ago when I was researching church leavers the dominant work was coming out of Europe. Today this is being significantly – I should say hugely – added to from an American context.
What can the North American church learn from the New Zealand experience of church as it interacts with a culture that has increasingly seen the role of the church as an irrelevant agent of transformation?
New Zealand is arguably the most secular country in the world. One of the Scandinavian countries may beat New Zealand for that dubious title, yet the data says we are among the most secular cultures in the world. In this sense we are decades ahead of many American denominations in our engagement with a highly secular people, a godless popular culture, and our engagement with church leavers.
I know many will say I don’t understand America. I get the same reaction when I make comments like this in Australia. My response is that I’m not sure Australians and Americans see the degree of ignorance, hostility, cynicism and deep dismissiveness in the New Zealand culture towards the Christian faith.
On the flip side there are groups of Christians and churches that are creating more local community focused forms of church that are showing new ways of engagement as followers of Jesus and with the people and places they live.
Such groups, despite difficulties, are pointing to new forms of church. I find this very exciting. They are relationally far more demanding than institutionally focused forms of church and, dare I say it, closer to the New Testament descriptions.