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An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no,  it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”

This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.

So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.

The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you.  Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).

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On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there.  Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!

And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.

 

Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.

After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.

But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.

Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.

Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…

 

file000612565099I’ve realised from the responses I got from the first blog in this series, that a lot of people who engaged with it, aren’t leavers themselves, but the parents of leavers. And so before I go on to write more about leaving, I want to write about that particular issue. Because it’s a painful one.

For a lot of church leavers, the process happens in early adulthood. There’s a natural point just around the 18 – 20 mark when young people who have remained in church through their teens (by hook or by crook) may choose to walk away.

It feels like a part of the process of growing up, of establishing one’s own identity, of coming to terms with the nature of the world, and your own relationship with it.

There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for some young people when it comes to church: ideas about the nature of God, of prayer, the Bible and so on, often seem to conflict with their knowledge or experience of the world. You either learn to live with that conflict, learn to overcome or deny it, or you choose to accept that what you were taught is actually wrong, and if its the latter, then it can feel like there’s little point in keeping on going to church.

For some, the whole thing of going to church can be an impossible burden, it can weigh you down, oppress you, to the point where you feel a sense of great relief in leaving.

Even if there is a sense of relief, for the leaver, this can be a difficult process, and they may need support in managing it, which is what this blog series is really about. But there’s another dynamic too – the evangelical parent.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who I’ve known who have shared, indicated, or tried to disguise their pain at the departure of their children from the tradition they had grown up in.  (I wasn’t counting in the first place, but if I had been, I’d have stopped by now.)

For some parents there is an ability to rationalise it, to come to terms with it in some way. Just as they tend to when a loved one dies, previously strict ideas of God’s judgement often start to become a little woolier at this point: ‘God knows they are a good person, so surely…’ And of course this is a similar process to one which the leaver may have gone through too. ‘I just don’t believe that if there is a God, they are as mean as that…’

But still there can be a sense of dread. Nobody wants to believe that their child, their beloved, will be consigned to an eternity away from God, and lets be honest, that is what the majority, or at least a large proportion of evangelical churches teach is the case for those who aren’t Christians. And to be a Christian is to fit in a rather narrow mold.

So there’s a number of ways of approaching it:

1) You can tough it out. ‘They made their choice, I just pray God has mercy…’

2) You can deny it. ‘They are still Christian at heart, this is just a phase’.

3) You can engage with it.

Option three requires a lot of resource. Principally it requires thinking, and that means a reappraisal of your core beliefs, and it may require the conscious deconstruction of parts of your own evangelical theology. This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving evangelical church, although I’ve seen it precipitate that too. But I’ve known lots and lots of evangelicals who remain in church despite, not because of, the theology they are taught. ‘Where else would we go? Our friends are here.’

But it’s that moment when the child tells the evangelical parent that they are moving in with their girl/boyfriend, or that they just don’t believe in God anymore, and perhaps they never really did – and all this reinforces to the parent that things are not how they used to be, or perhaps how they hoped they would be. And maybe it feels like a part of you has just died an aching death, and you realise you can’t ignore it any more. Or you can, but if you do, it’s going to be really hard. 

For me, the only real solution is to engage. I’m not keen on denial, and I don’t think toughing it out is a long term solution. I think you have to talk, to think, to reflect/pray/contemplate, to read, and to talk some more. I’m keen to facilitate that kind of conversation, and I’m easy to get hold of. Facebook message me, tweet me, or email me. There are answers, they just may not fit the kind of way you think at the moment.

file1951346280860.jpgRecent reports that show a growing number of young people identifying as having ‘no religion’ are evidence not of growing secularism, but actually of a society which post secular.

New research, by Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, details percentages of 16–29 year olds across 22 countries who identify as having ‘no religion’. Of the countries studied, only eight had a majority of young people who self–identify has having a religion.

In the UK, the figures are clear, and follow a common narrative: Seventy percent of British young people identify as having no religion. This is not, contrary to some press coverage, a shock statistic. The movement in societal terms has been clear for some time, Brits, particularly young ones, have increasingly identified as having no religion.

The Church of England records what it describes as the ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ at its churches, and noted by 2013 that the percentage of English residents who attend church had halved, from three to 1.5 per cent of the total population over a period of forty years. Similar trends are to be found within various contexts, including in America, where church attendance has historically been high, and where a growing proportion of the population are now reporting that they have never attended a church service.

But not attending church, or having ‘no religion’ is certainly not the same thing as having no beliefs, as other studies have shown: According to one report, approximately 30% of those who belong to no religion at all, claim to believe in life after death (something that not even all church going Christians necessarily believe).

Further to that, 7% of self-professed atheists believe in angels; and approximately one in four of the UK population believe in reincarnation, including one in seven atheists.

This social change has occurred during a period of time in which British culture has become notably more diverse, with a growth in the number of religious and cultural identities reported in surveys. Some of the ‘new’ religious identities are ‘joke’ or ‘parody’ religions, but not all. Some of the new religious identities, even the more playful ones, that have come into existence, have at their core a sense of Tillichian ‘ultimate concern’, making them genuine in a theological sense.

At the same time as this change has taken place, social attitudes have altered to become more tolerant and accepting of diversity, with an acceptance of, or preference for, spirituality over religion: other research has shown that ‘nones’ are generally ambivalent towards the church, regarding it perhaps as more inconsequential than negative. Its not so much that the church has been violently rejected, or rebelled against, just that it has been found to have little meaning. It may be useful in certain times (major tragedies etc.), but on the whole it has little of importance to offer, and certainly doesn’t endow the attendee with the kind of symbolic capital that it used to.

This social climate, which allows for or encourages a liquidity or plurality of belief, underlayed with a marked decline in the size, scope and power of the mainstream religions (particularly Christianity), rather than being purely secularist, is indicative of post secularism. Within a postsecular society, religious thought continues to play an important part, actively shaping ‘social life at different levels and in a variety of forms’ (Habermas) but no longer acts as the dominant or defining narrative.

Rather than seeing the total destruction of religious activity and belief as one might expect to be the result of the process of secularisation, what we are actually seeing is the changing shape of belief, and its movement away from the contained or institutionalised form. For Christians, this may pose a challenge, but should not necessarily be unwelcome.

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Ford’s Model T began the mass availability era in cars, which are now in the market era.

Medical services, education, churches, and a variety of other institutions are experiencing a kind of existential crisis in the UK, and despite their obvious differences, there’s a common underlying cause for all of them.

Before the inevitable objection: yes of course the picture isn’t exactly the same everywhere: some places demonstrate the crisis much more distinctly than others, churches are an easy example, some have dwindled to next to nothing, others burst at the seams.

Across the board, proposed remedies abound, most of them involve resource, usually money, some of them seem to work, others demonstrably don’t – the same is true across the sectors.

What appears to be missing in some areas, perhaps most obviously the church, though, is a recognition that all of these institutions are dealing with the same set of problems. This set of problems arise from the fundamental paradigm shift from elite, through mass, to market. An easy way to demonstrate that shift is with education, even recently, education was very much something by and for the elite. That’s not to say that ‘ordinary’ people didn’t participate in education at all, of course they did. Ordinary people often learned to read and write, and some reaped the rewards of higher education to an extent, but fundamentally it was about the elite, they were the best educated, they had access to the best schools and the best universities. They had the capital (in all its various sorts).

With the era of industrialisation however, came a new need for mass education, and a new means of delivering it too – most notably it began to be made widely available free of charge. Slowly this filtered all the way through the education system, eventually becoming fulfilled only, I would say, in the second half of the 20th century. People like me, and others roughly categorised as Generation X, certainly experienced mass education, as did some of the Baby Boomers. But arguably, and this is a moot point I suppose, elite education was still phasing out for most of the 1960s, obviously it remains in pockets, as some private schools and ‘top tier’ universities demonstrate.

Mass education was very much seen as education for the common good, in part it was ideologically driven, just as the NHS was set up according to a common good ideology, and just as Bibles (long before) had begun to be made widely available in languages which could be read by the ordinary person, and eventually distributed free of charge. There was then a very rapid transition from mass education to marketised education, which is very much where we are now. Since the late 1980s in the UK, education has become branded and competitive, some providers appearing to lose a sense of the common good as they fight for market share and league table placement. In some places this is much more pronounced than others, you may have experienced it yourself.

In the same way other institutions have also transitioned from elite, to mass, to market. The mass era had everything to do with industrialisation, and much of what we did or do reflects that, even down to buildings that look like factories (as opposed to ‘elite’ era buildings which bore a resemblance to palaces or mansions). But while the transition into mass from elite took a long time to happen, and then worked its way though over a reasonably considerable period, the movement to market has happened with astonishing rapidity, leaving many confused and unable to keep up.

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Successful megachurch ‘brands’ such as Hillsongs exemplify one form of the marketisation of church.

This movement too has been shaped by technology, in this case the birth and growth of the internet: all of a sudden choice is massively enhanced, and availability is entirely different. Our high street shops are dealing with the same issue, while they operate ‘as’ market, they are ill equipped to compete in a truly ‘marketised’ era, they struggle to compete with online competitors. Hence we see an increasing amount of ghost high streets, and empty shop fronts.

The other big factor of course has been a move towards a greater embrace, from Thatcher onwards, of neo-liberalism, and its prioritisation of the market. Education, healthcare, spirituality, all these things have become understood primarily as consumables, just as is the very act of shopping itself.

As institutions struggle to realise, accept and adapt to this, the existential crisis they experience (notwithstanding the individual differences) will certainly continue.

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