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Away From and Toward: Emerging Hope and the Dreaming of Dreams.
Paul Fromont

[08.05]

For all sorts of reasons, people are leaving the church. Some leave their faith behind as well, a number even find a stronger, more mature faith outside the church. [1]

I’ve chosen to explore, in practice, what New Zealand Baptist Pastor and Sociologist Alan Jamieson [2] terms “a churchless faith.” [3] I’ve chosen to move away from particular types and experiences of church, and toward new possibilities, new hope, and new dreams.

For me, the choice to leave the congregation I had belonged to for many years was definitely not an easy or straightforward one.[4] It was, in my case, neither a rejection of Christianity nor a “going back” on my belief that the Church, in all its forms and locations, is a vital and important part of God’s loving and redemptive purposes. Rather, my leaving in 2004 was the result of my needing to “survive” a particular expression of church and come out of that experience with some hope that one-day I would again want to belong to a church in a very earthed and practical way. Over the course of my journey out of church (my “drifting away” as one person baldly described it) I was propelled onwards by both growing clarity and also, paradoxically, by continuing questions, doubt, and uncertainty. So what dimensions of my church experience were significant motivators in my decision to leave?

  • I reflected long and hard on the very conditional and utilitarian nature of relationships, the absence of genuine friendships, the absence of deep community, of shared interests, and of shared experiences. I increasingly felt out of place as my life-experiences, my values, my following of Jesus, and my reading of the Jesus-story failed to connect or resonate in any meaningful way with the overwhelming majority of others in the congregation. Serving on the leadership team highlighted once-and-for-all just how out-of-step I was with regards the ethos, theology, and values of my fellow leaders and the congregation we were trying to serve.

What I’d initially hoped would be a rich, life-giving, life-sustaining, deeply relational Christian community had increasingly over time become a dry, arid, and desolate place; a place where I felt my sense of aliveness, call, and passion slowly seeping away, like water through the thirsty sands of a desert. I increasingly came to recognise that I was becoming almost imperceptibly an “outsider,” moving closer and closer to the point of not belonging in any substantial or meaningful way.

  • I reflected that I increasingly found myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually disengaging from the congregation. I increasingly found myself self-censoring, feeling unable to authentically express who I was as a human being and as a Jesus-follower. My faith journey was something I increasingly felt I couldn’t share. In fact I described myself as “leaving 90% of who I was at the church door when I entered.”

Importantly, one of my most life-giving discoveries of that time was the contrasting realisation that the more I engaged with those on the edges of church belonging, those pioneering new or so-called “emerging” expressions of church, and those exploring what it meant in a (post)modern context to be missional churches, the more I felt my experience and understanding of church and gospel being deepened, and the more I felt at home in this emerging world of creativity, faithfulness, mission, spirituality, passion, aliveness, vision, and innovation.

  • I thought about experiences and examples of church (both historical and contemporary) that were deeper and more richly woven into the realities of life and living; churches deeply and practically immersed in God’s redemptive mission; churches where the radical, whole-of-life following of Jesus was taken seriously.[5]

  • My particular church congregation was becoming increasingly artificial, small, constricted, and ill fitting. I needed room to stretch. I needed more, individually and relationally. I felt trapped in a Sunday-by-Sunday cycle of going through the motions, the same superficial things over and over again, trapped in approaches to being church that just weren’t connecting or resonating at a deep level, nor were our ways of being church moving toward implementing the kinds of changes I believed were needed in order to address the big missional disconnect between the gospel and it’s meaningful engagement with the wider culture.

There was also an unwillingness to change with regards to understanding and more intentionally and creatively resourcing people within the congregation who found themselves in differing places on that faith journey. Following Jesus, growing as a disciple was effectively “dumbed down” to an experience of church that revolved around a continual repackaging of milk, milk, and more milk (Heb. 5:12). For me faith is a journey with many roads, stages, and paths. The one-approach-fits-all significantly hindered and undermined my faith development and growth.

  • I came to recognise that my personality type, temperament, faith-development needs, and personal insecurities etc. had set me up within that particular congregational context to carry what I increasingly discovered was an unhealthy level of frustration, disappointment, discouragement, and responsibility.

  • Within what was a Pentecostal church (I should have already mentioned that), I realised that I desperately needed space and silence for listening, for surprise and mystery; space for conversation, for debate, for communal input and shared output. I discovered that I needed a belonging-place that would help me open (and keep open) my eyes and heart to God, God discovered in the midst of silence, beauty, wonder, darkness, mystery, sacrament, liturgy, friendship, and every-day living. I discovered I needed practical and communal ways of living out my faith in the world, for the sake of the world. I needed fewer words and more action, less monologue from “the front” and more emphasis on communal praxis, experimentation, learning and ministry beyond “the walls.” Our sole focus was on Sunday and our “liturgy,” singularly comprising simplistic sermons and the repetitious singing of choruses left me with no alternative ways of belonging and continuing to grow.

  • Most painfully of all I learnt that I needed to care for myself and to be a whole lot more healthily self-focussed. I’d grown up thinking self-care was selfish. What I discovered in the last few months before leaving was that I had long been running on “empty” when it came to church; the ripples of that emptiness, tiredness, disappointment and marginalisation etc. had an incredibly negative impact on me, one that was far wider than church. I suffered, my marriage suffered, and my family suffered.

Now, all to this point may sound really selfish and I may well turn out to be a child of my narcissistic times, but the truth is that I wanted to survive. I wanted to flourish. I had, and have, a richer sense of church and what church might be. I’m for life and creativity, and against institutions and forms of religion that stifle and restrict life, faithfulness, and creativity. I’m for hope and against hopelessness.

In a recent interview [6], Jonny Baker was asked, to “explain the necessity for Christians to reframe tradition?” He replied, “Tradition is often assumed to be doing the same thing again and again and again. But actually that is traditionalism – something that quickly becomes dry and dead. Language and culture are forever changing and evolving so to be truly traditional means driving to the heart of what is in a tradition and enabling it to live by reframing it in new cultural contexts. Jesus did this all the time. Tradition in this sense is something to be played with by the community. The dangerous memory of Jesus can strangely be the very thing from the [Christian] tradition itself that is used over and against the tradition to subvert and renew it.”

His reply resonated deeply with me as it named well what I had being working to do within my congregation, nourishing and breathing life into “the dangerous memory of Jesus,” encouraging the congregation discern the ways in which Jesus was inviting us to “subvert” our understanding of church and mission in order to renew both. Ultimately though, I came to see that I wasn’t actually serving them, because that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted something I wasn’t, something I couldn’t give them, and something that I couldn’t be a part of. I worked for change from within, but ultimately my only remaining option was to leave. [7]

So has leaving changed anything? Well, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I still haven’t found the kind of church I see and experience in my dreams and in my imagination. So, for me the challenge continues to be how to focus and transform my sadness and disappointment into something freeing, life giving and fruitful. I need to learn how to healthily overcome the bitterness that sometimes creeps into my recollections, whether expressed or internalised. For me, the edges of church belonging and the desert-of-the-unknown beyond those edges aren’t bad places to be because in those places I’ve been challenged to think more radically, to explore more widely, and to sink more deeply into the realities and paradox of being in Christ, even as he is in me (Col. 1:27).

Post-church I remain both unsettled and enlivened. I continue to be stretched. I’m growing. My experiences of God and who I am in Christ continue to be deepened. Post-Church I’m grateful for the encouragement, inspiration, and life that come from belonging to a national and international group of people I call fellow wayfarers, Jesus-followers, emerging prophets,[8] and above all, precious friends. It is these groups of people amongst whom I have been able to be most naturally myself, these people amongst whom I have felt deeply accepted, loved, and cared for in both virtual and embodied ways.

I often stop and wonder, with so many of us struggling to belong, with so many of us leaving the established church, with so many of us trying to find our place, I wonder where God is; where God is calling from – from within the established church with the invitation to be an influence for change? From among the de-churched and the unchurched and the invitation to be a part of something needful and new? Or is God calling from somewhere else?

For me taking time away from church is a needful and healthy thing to do. It’s healthy for me. It’ll be good to see what grows and emerges from this experience of being in one sense, “churchless.” I don’t know, but I’m sure the call, when I discern it, will be a very personal one. Each of us is unique. All of us are much too loved by ‘God-who-calls’ to give up on being all that we’re created to be and do. There are places in the “body of Christ” that only I can fill. The one yet diverse “body of Christ” is a mixed economy of people collectively called churches.

I will continue to respond to God’s call and to finding my place amongst God’s people.

I will continue to eliminate “when”[9] from my vocabulary, yet will still dream dreams. In terms of the future I don’t have any answers. For me I see from my present perspective three options with regards to church. One might be that I return to an existing congregation within the Anglo/Catholic Christian tradition. Another might be to work with an Anglican diocese and explore the possibilities of a “multi” or “parallel” congregational approach to being a mission-shaped church. Finally, there is the option of planting a new church community[10] outside of existing denomination structures.

For apparently increasing numbers, a churchless faith becomes a necessary precursor to an empty “canvas” upon which a new or emerging vision of church can be painted. It will be interesting to see what emerges (pun intended) for me, but somewhere and sometime I will find my Turangawaewae (the Maori word for “home ground”; my place to stand!). This will be my church.

Meantime I will continue to share my faith journey on ProdigalKiwi(s) Blog [11]; a blog that ironically has recently become a collaboration between myself (a layperson with “a churchless faith”) and Alan Jamieson (Baptist Pastor and author of the book, A Churchless Faith).

 

1. For more information, see Spirited Exchanges http://www.spiritedexchanges.org.nz/whoweare.aspx

2. Alan is the author of two books: A Churchless Faith: Faith Journey's Beyond the Churches (SPCK, 2002) and Journeying in Faith: In and Beyond the Tough Places (SPCK, 2004). The former is based upon his PhD research. You will find links to a number of Alan's related essays at http://prodigal.typepad.com/

3. From a missional point of view, those with a "churchless faith" are important voices that need to be listened to by the so-called emerging church movement. Theirs is a vital and important perspective; in many ways they serve as 'bridges" between the church and the unchurched.

4. Church was a significant part of my life. In total I've spent nearly 20-years of my adult life in two congregations. I left the first congregation only because we relocated to another part of the country.

5. Church of our Saviour, Washington DC is one contemporary example.

6. Alternative Worship: An Interview with British Pioneer Jonny Baker - http://www.theturning.org/folder/altworship.html

7. At this point, relating Alan Jamieson's "stages of faith" to the church (corporately) was useful for me. See his book, A Churchless Faith.

8. I often suggest that many of the de-churched actually embody and announce a genuinely prophetic critique of church(s), a perspective that is all too often ignored. Alan Jamieson, in his essay, In Search of Turangawaewae, asks, "Are the post-church groups of today forerunners of new forms of the faith in our own rapidly changing society? Is this greening beyond the edges of established and parochial churches, God @ work in spite of and over and against what church has become?

9. See my blogpost of 19th July, 2005 at: http://prodigal.typepad.com/prodigal_kiwi/2005/07/here_i_am_a_ref.html

10. It could be a house church, café church, new monastic community, base-community etc. An expression of church that has God's missio Dei embedded at its core. I'm going to be starting to write a proposal shortly. This will be a helpful way for me to focus my praying, research, and thinking. It will also be a way for me to start moving further on from de-construction to re-construction.

11. http://prodigal.typepad.com/

 

 

 

http://prodigal.typepad.com/

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