Brian Sanders offers an insightful and surprisingly candid discussion about the disillusionment many Christians feel about churches.
Sanders is not directing his remarks to those experiencing abuse, but rather to a set of Christians who need to move on from their current church to be faithful to God. Consider reasons he cites for people leaving churches in such a way (p. 34-48)
Growing out of the message Needing to ask questions Irrelevance Nothing meaningful to do Using money
He refers to such Christians as "leavers," those who need to leave as an outgrowth of their spiritual maturity and a result of a divinely-orchestrated invitation to the next stage of their faithful Christian lives. Sanders briefly mentions Barna's "revolutionaries" (see review of George Barna's "Revolution" for more) in his discussion. While Barna focuses on the legitimacy of such "revolutionaries" to others, Sanders helps the would-be revolutionary wrestle with this calling.
Echoing and expanding on the concepts of stages of spiritual life (as discussed in The Critical Journey, among others), he affirms what many "leavers" already know: Many institutional churches can only take people so far. "Everybody loves a convert" but beyond that, churches seem to lose their way or at least lose the ability to effectively minister to more mature Christians. This is not about these mature Christians being self-centered and "needing to have their needs met" as though they were consumers-- it is about having avenues for service commensurate with their gifts, heart and abilities.
I think there are profound reasons for this-- the needs of young Christians are easily met in a group setting that need not deal with them in a particularly individual way. There has also been extensive research and attention paid to reaching the "unchurched" and getting them involved in church at this level.
But for older Christians-- God has something fairly complex and individual in store for them, given their unique experiences, gifts, convictions and the like. Outlets of such passions and calling are extremely individual and just don't fit what most modern churches do. Of course, it's also nearly impossible for church leaders to orchestrate and manage such things. (But church leaders ought to pay attention to these things; just about everybody in their churches will eventually go through this phase.)
Sanders struck a particular chord with me in his observation that we all need to feel like our life matters, that our service counts. This is discussed as a part of point 4 above, having nothing "meaningful" to do. There is plenty to do, but if something has no meaning for the doer, how does it fit with what God is leading them towards?
Churches that are being left often make an assumption about the development of believers: that once someone has been a Christian for some years, she need only apply herself to the work of the church; she ceases to have specific and acute spiritual needs of her own. This might suffice if the work of the church is participation in reaching the lost or serving the poor. But too often stage two for a would-be maturing Christian is to serve in the parking lot or to work in the nursery on Sunday morning. Both of these jobs are honorable and valuable, but are they the place of growth, purpose and mission for which believers were created? (p. 35).
Radical leavers dream of a church that isn't just about them. Many of us are tired of being coaxed into the maze of meeting our own needs; we never find our way to the end. The whole world seems to be saying, "Look out for yourself; take care of yourself, satisfy your every desire." And the church is no different. The pressure we feel is to find a church that meets our needs, feeds us, gives us what we want ...
... The best thing about being missional is the liberation from the tyranny of constant self-interest...
I don't want a church to cater to me as the consumer. I want the church to fulfill its mission and help me find a way to be a part of it. The irony is that, of all our needs, the one most profound is our need to fulfill our God-given identity and calling. Being engaged in the mission of God, fulfilling the commission God has given to you and me, is our destiny. It's the thing that will most satisfy us. (p. 106-107)
Sanders doesn't focus on the weaknesses of institutional churches other than to illustrate the void that many leavers experience. Like many of us "leavers" he realizes such churches have their place, but there also comes a time to follow God's call beyond them. His objective is to help the reader hear the voice of God in the midst of the bewildering, "I don't fit here anymore, this is so empty" feelings that mature Christians experience as they grow.
Sanders raises an interesting discussion on the question of staying or leaving.
The point of leaving is to find somewhere to stay. (p. 120)
I'm not so sure about that; the Bible is loaded with stories of godly people who never really did find a place to stay (e.g. Hebrews 11:9-16). Ultimately, Christians have one home, and we may need to recapture that sense of pilgrimage without having the expectation of a "place to stay" condemning us on their way. Looking for a place to stay might be a quest guaranteed to bring continual disappointment to those who are called to be pilgrims.
Sanders offers some great tips on evaluating whether to stay or leave (p. 123-126).
Be open Pray Listen to the Word Ask the kingdom question Seek counsel from kingdom-minded friends Act
For his part, Sanders advocates "micro-churches" that fulfill what he considers to be the critical elements that constitute a church: worship, community and mission. Stripping away the overhead many institutional churches have, a micro-church allows people to worship, experience community together and supports these individualized missions. He doesn't go on a lengthy discussion about this; the main focus of the book is on helping leavers understand that their hurt and emptiness in leaving is pointing to something new that God is likely wanting to do with them.
Sander's analysis is colored with some emerging church type thought, which has its pros and cons. For example, I agree with his concerns about the church being a building-centered Christian separatist enclave, telling a hurting world "just come here and we'll help you." There are a host of problems with that sort of thinking, not the least of which is that it's not found in the Bible. The church needs to be more organic than that.
But on the other side, he also writes of desires to see a perfect society (not just the church) that reflects the "kingdom of God." This would be characterized by "justice" and other idealistic things.
But if we can't build perfect churches, how in the world can we work to build the perfect world he suggests? Not to mention that I'm not even sure we can define "justice." And, why is justice the overriding concern? Why not righteousness? Why not love? Why not peace? Why not freedom! Alas, this whole discussion is beyond the scope of this review but it illustrates my concerns with such assertions. (You may want to check out D.A. Carson's excellent "Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church" for more discussion of these matters.)
In any case, Sander's effort is helpful to those wrestling with leaving a church. Often, the problems people have in the church experience don't have to do with the specifics of the people or programs but with the very nature of modern churches. Stepping back and looking at such situations in a more general way may be tremendously helpful for many people.
Trying to change a church to be what we think it should be, or need it to be, is usually an exercise in "kicking against the goads" (Acts 26:14). Sanders' advice is helpful here.
My advice to those of us who long for church that is the kingdom is not to reform the existing church; leave that alone. Instead try to be the church. (p. 177)
Go get 'em, leavers. Find a new identity in what we are called to build. Bind yourselves together, pick your battles and care about the kingdom first. (p. 181)
Life After Church will be helpful to those wrestling with leaving a church and pondering the next stage of their spiritual lives when they are not subject to severe mistreatment or abuse.