There is much concern among ministry professionals that people are leaving the Church and, if the stats are to be trusted, fewer than ever later return to the Church. For those who link the Ekklesia to the Church the membership and attendance of churches is linked. Here a link is maintained between ones relationship to God and the Church. And where there is a break between ones relationship with the Church there is an assumed break in ones relationship to God. This same logic carries over to dissatisfaction, frustration, hurt, disappointment, boredom, considerations of irrelevance, etc. If you feel any of those about the Church then you must be feeling those about God. And the remedy as provided by the Church is find another church for it is only in the receipt of the Word of God as Message and Eucharist in and through the Church that you are considered to be meeting with and receiving God.
There is, however, a rich heritage of church leavers going back to the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) back in the 3rd Century who withdrew from society and church to draw near to God. Over the centuries it is clear that church leavers have contributed enormously to others through seeking and finding God. And many, whether consider St Patrick (4th or 5th Century; think Celtic spirituality and its impact) or St Ignatius (1491-1556; think Contemplative Spirituality and its impact), went about searching for God as the very One who set them on their journey to begin with. Their spirituality is linked to that of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). For them the relational presence of God was the key and their society and the Church both in desperate need of reform. Later individuals such as John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) may not have left the Church and the link between the Church and society enabled them to make the Church their primary mission field but neither Methodism nor Presbyterianism are known for what they are known for. These later individuals also sought God as one who had already found them and set them upon their journey. What we must take from them is that, having first been found by God and later having found God, they looked to see others come to know God. Where did they find people most in need of God? Well within their churches.
And though people in earlier centuries may never really have left the Church they may never have really sought God within it. There’s no difference between not knowing God in the Church and not knowing God as a church leaver and evidently knowing God sets one at odds with the Church. And it is perhaps here that our situation may be seen to differ. In the past, you weren’t able to leave the Church while today there’s no good reason to remain in it. What remains the same is that many who seek to find God recognize that God is not present to them even when they’re in the Church.
We must perhaps distinguish between:
- Those who leave the Church considering God and it irrelevant. For leaving to be done with the Church and god as the idol of faith makes room for discover God as relational Person and many do awaken to an inner desire for God, recognize God at the periphery of perception in and through daily experiences and relationships, and recover the notion of God. The God they are leaving is the god of faith, an idol constructed and given life solely within their own hearts and minds and the Church. When consulted and sought this god, like all idols, is found to be deaf, dumb, blind and ineffective. It takes a brave person to abandon such a false god.
- Those who leave the Church to preserve their faith as church refugees. Those who leave to preserve their relationship with God continue deeper into living and loving as embodying and authentically expressing the faith and its values. They are brave church leavers living as church refugees driven out from the Church most usually by God. For having experienced a conflict between the Church and God they choose the latter at immense,cost to themselves.
- Those who leave the Church as open to finding and pursuing a relationship with God. And then those who leave to pursue a relationship with God do so as open to God whoever, whatever and wherever God may be. There is no faith better or greater than expressed as than an open invitation to and welcoming of the unknown God. And though there is much allergic reaction to God as approximating the idol of the Church, there is so much life, wonder and adventure in discovering this God as a relational Person that even the strongest allergies are healed.
Within the Church a relationship with God must be given up for a blind and obedient faith and submission to the Church — this is the takeaway from the Renewals over the last 500 years. Pursuing God is seen within the Church as an individual affair not directly related to the Church with its services and leaders. And with Contemplative Spirituality encouraged as a sideline to the Church it becomes the adoption of contemplation in support of the faith of the church. The solution is then not more churches as renewal churches nor contemplative spirituality as an extra-curricular activity of the Church for the high achievers. For when the silence and absence of God defines the meaning of God these recursively support the Church wherein the god of faith is found to be as deaf, dumb, blind and ineffective as any other idol.
We appear to be lacking enough attention being given to the relational presence of God and to enabling people to find and make such their highest priority. It takes a brave person to abandon their false god. Let’s support them. We must salute, applaud and encourage such people who stand alongside our greatest heroes and exemplars of our faith. They are not even looking to trade up to a better god. And yet I can’t but consider their loss of an idol as making space within their hearts and minds for the gaining of life. And our faith is filled with examples of such brave people with many serving as Monastics in relation to Christendom leading into the Reformation and others in Awakenings following the Reformation.