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Thursday August 1 2013

 Steve Aisthorpe, a Mission Development Worker with the Church of Scotland, provides an update on his research into Christians who don’t attend church.     


 ONE hundred and seventy eight million is a lot of people.

            If this figure represented the numbers becoming Christians, we would call it a monumental revival. If it referred to people who had lost their faith it would be a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. However, it refers to neither. One hundred and seventy-eight million is an estimate of “churchless Christians” worldwide: Christians who are not engaged with a congregation.

            Here in Scotland evidence suggests that believers who do not “go to church” comprise the fastest growing sector of the Christian community. The “church” (the people rather than institution or building) is like an iceberg, with a large part not easily observed; it can no longer be understood by counting and surveying only those who sit in pews on Sunday.

            A research project, “Listening to – and learning from – Christians in the Highlands and Islands”, is seeking to understand changes within the Christian population. By interviewing men and women of different generations and diverse experiences of church, over 167,000 words of transcripts have been gathered and analysed. It has been fascinating to hear the stories of God at work in the lives of Christians who are no longer church-goers or never were. There is much to encourage us - and some serious challenges to embrace too.

            Some widespread perceptions about people who disengage from church congregations have been called into question. There is a view that those who remove themselves from congregational life are on a slippery slope into a diminished faith or apostasy – that church leaving and “backsliding” are synonymous. However, for the majority of those we listened to, moving from congregation to something else has been positive and faith-enhancing.

            Another prevalent view is that people exit congregations for trivial reasons.

            None of the people we have listened to left congregations for trivial reasons. Most described a prolonged process of wrestling and heart-searching. No single issue or incident triggered their departure.

            Listening to the faith journeys of interviewees challenges the language we use to describe changes within the Christian community. We sometimes talk, for example, of the “dechurched”, when, from the perspective of those involved, it is often a positive change towards being part of the church in ways that are different to the traditional; we talk of “leavers”, rather than looking at what they are becoming part of.

            A prevalent theme among those listened to during the research related to difficulty in finding a “sense of belonging”.

            Rather than dwelling on reasons for not attending a congregation, most interviewees described what they are doing. In most cases they are meeting informally with other Christians.

            A missional concern was central to the accounts of most of the people we listened to. Many felt that the local church had little to offer their neighbours and friends and felt compelled to redirect their energies.

            Some interviewees felt that their integrity and witness was undermined by association with certain decisions or behaviours in a local congregation. Recurring themes included controlling styles of leadership, poor communication, Christian leaders “talking down” others and the inability of those in leadership to manage conflict positively.

            In most cases nobody had asked interviewees who were previously church-goers why they had stopped attending or how they were now finding fellowship. The accounts we heard point to what psychologists call “mutual retreat” – whereby people’s growing disaffection is paralleled with a growing disaffection on the part of leaders in the face of a person’s diminishing commitment or perceived criticism.

            Having read about the project in newspaper or magazine articles, some people wrote to explain that, while they currently remain regular church-goers, they struggle with the same issues that have led others to leave congregational life. One wrote: “… not only are there people out there who have ‘Churchless Faith’, but there are others who are seriously considering it – me for one! My faith is as strong as it’s ever been (along with all the usual doubts etc.) but I am seriously wondering whether the Kirk, or indeed any other organised religion, is an appropriate or healthy place to express it …”.

 This article cannot do justice to the insights gained from the interviews. However, a summary of findings an research is available here or as a hard copy from the Mission and Discipleship Council Tel. 0131 225 5722 (x2239).

The research has raised many questions. The sample interviewed was neither large nor random. In the autumn a large, random sample will be surveyed – to explore the themes emerging from these interviews and ascertain the scale and pattern changes within the Christian community.

If you would like to be kept informed, contact Steve Aisthorpe: or telephone 07966 286617.

This is an abridged version of a feature which appears in the August issue of Life and Work. Subscribe here