What Happens After People Leave the Church?

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Have you left the church behind? Would you describe yourself as a “post-evangelical” or “exvangelical,” whatever those terms may mean?

According to a 2016 Pew Research poll of 35,000 American adults, statistics indicate that the population of self-identified “Christians” has dropped significantly from previous polls.

The last time Pew engaged in a similar survey in 2007, 78.4% of those surveyed identified themselves as Christian; by 2016, that percentage had dropped to 70.6%.

Based upon the statistics gathered, Pew came to the conclusion that not only is America’s Christian share of the population declining, at the same time there’s another opposite trend occurring: those who do not identify with any organized religion is also on the rise. What’s been highly publicized, too, is the major shift among millennials, who are walking away from churches, with more of a feeling that the church lost them, rather than the other way around. Moreover, many have reported that the white 81% evangelical Trump vote (and continued full-throated support throughout his presidency) was the final straw. Disgusted and disillusioned by the apparent moral bankruptcy of the evangelical church, they’ve walked away for good.

Additionally, the rise of the recent #EmptyThePews, #Exvangelical, and #HowToEvangelical campaigns are surging among millennials who walked away from the church. They are increasingly expressing their disdain for much of what passes for church these days, which they view as deeply hypocritical, spiritually abusive, ingrained in a patriarchal system, misogynistic and seriously flawed. Moreover, with the rise of #metoo calling attention to prominent public figures and sexual abuse, likewise in evangelicalism, #churchtoo has brought to light many people’s stories who were sexually abused within churches. This development has shone a light on a very serious and deeply disturbing problem that has long afflicted evangelical (and Catholic) churches.

Due to such issues, both the public image and moral credibility of many evangelical churches are taking a beating; as a result, many people are leaving, with no plans to return.

But surely there is more to the story; while it’s difficult to find actual statistics (in terms of real percentages) of people who have left church, there are at least two aspects to the decision to walk away from the church and the Christian faith: the first involves the “why” they decided to walk away; the second involves the question of “what happens next?”

Where do they go from here?

Turns out: there’s more than one possible path that ex-evangelicals explore.

In this post, I’ll explore at least 16 possibilities related to these questions: why do people leave church, and what happens after that? It turns out that people leave churches for a wide variety of reasons (and this list is by no means exhaustive).

Moreover, note that the following 16 points represents more of a spectrum than a boxed-off final list. It’s also worth noting that there is no right or wrong associated with any one point along the spectrum, either. Deconstruction looks different for every person, as does one’s spiritual journey.

You may, for example, begin in one category, but then as time goes on progress to a different category; or be in the process of moving off the spectrum entirely. See if you can locate yourself, in terms of your spiritual journey, along the following spectrum!

Leaving Church: The Spectrum

So far, I have identified at least 16 groups on the spectrum of “leaving church” that I’ve encountered, and probably there are more that I have yet to be made aware of at the time of this writing.

Note: I’ve edited this post to add additional groups, taking the list up to 16 so far (as of the 30th of October 2018 at least). More may be coming as I get feedback from people.

Here, then, are the 16, with possibly more to come:

1. People who have left the church (for a wide variety of reasons), but who still identify as Christians, believe in God and Jesus, and accept the Scriptures; and they want to keep doing church, just in different ways (more organic, less hierarchical?). Often you will hear from this group a form of argument that proceeds as follows: they believe that current forms of “institutional churches” are, in many ways, “doing church wrong” as far as they understand what church should be, based on their particular reading of Scripture. Richard Jacobson, author of the book Unchurching: Christianity without Churchianity would be a great example of someone from this group; perhaps also Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church fits in here too.

2. Those who have left the mainstream evangelical church, have deconstructed their former evangelical/fundamentalist dogmas, but now consider themselves more “progressive Christians.” They would see themselves as “constructing a bigger table” at which more people can sit, rather than being exclusionary. Admittedly, this is an ever-changing and expanding group, but many within this group might view themselves as having a “prophetic role” to re-form mainstream, traditional churches along more progressive lines. This category would be, for example, far more inclusive of LGBTQ+, tend not to believe in a literal Hell, be far more open on the gender of God issue, and might be more universalist in their views of salvation and the afterlife. Obviously, many within this category have taken much heat from conservative evangelical leaders, who view them as “selling out” traditional, orthodox theology and views of Scripture.

3. People who’ve left the church, still follow Jesus and believe in God, but do not desire to participate in any form of intentional church gathering. In other words: still Christian, just don’t want to have anything to do with church any more; sort of “lone wolf” Christians going it pretty much alone.

Note: Obviously, the reasons behind the decision to walk away in these first three are myriad, highly complex, and need to be seriously nuanced. For the purposes of this spectrum, though, if you identify with either 1–3, you will be able to supply your own reasons as to why you walked away from the church, examine perhaps more clearly what your relationship with the church is currently — and also assess where you see yourself headed in terms of your spiritual journey in the future.

4. People who have emotionally and perhaps intellectually left the organized church, but who continue to attend because their spouse or other family members still want to attend church. They are, in other words, physically present within the church building on a Sunday, but have mentally checked out or “switched off.” Still attending church and going through the motions, they are likely only doing so to please someone else, or keep the peace. Perhaps they are keeping quiet so as not to rock the boat by “outing” the fact that they no longer buy into what the church is doing. It could be also that they are secretly deconstructing various aspects of their Christian faith, or have even become an agnostic or atheist; but this group feels that (for a variety of reasons) they can’t tell any of their friends or family members about it, so…Sunday after Sunday, you’ll find them quietly sitting in the pews. But they’re not engaged at all, and may not really believe any of it any longer!

5. People who have been forced to leave, or quit their church, by the actions of those in leadership. Perhaps they’ve experienced spiritual, sexual, or some other types of abuse, for example, or left for other similar reasons. It could also be that they’ve been treated hideously by other Christians (a very unfortunate and all-too common experience), and walked away because they just couldn’t handle the ill-treatment any more. They have not abandoned their Christian faith, and still want to participate in fellowship of any kind; but obviously would have major trust issues with those individuals involved in various forms of church leadership, and for good reason. It’s just that they’ve essentially been driven out and thus for them, church is no longer a safe place or space.

6. People who have been asked (or perhaps forced) to leave church because they were labelled as “troublemakers” by those in leadership. Why were they driven out? Oftentimes it is for publicly airing doubts, criticizing current leadership, or simply just asking too many inconvenient questions that leaders struggle to answer. Whether or not they believe any longer might be beside the point here; oftentimes, doubts get thrown back on the doubter by those in church leadership. Those who for whatever reason don’t “fit” may struggle to find a new church home, so they’re just…out there somewhere.

7.”Exvangelicals” (ex-evangelicals) who have left the church, are deconstructing their former faith, and currently no longer know what to believe anymore. I’ve found in this group that most exvangelicals have little or no desire to be a part of an organized, mainstream evangelical church. But in this group, there are some who still attend church; admittedly, perhaps a more progressive or liberal church, but church nonetheless.

8. Another category would be those exvangelicals who have progressed a bit more than just “not knowing what to believe anymore.” This group might define themselves as “a mixture of exvangelical and exploring other religions.” One could, for example, identify as “a Christo-pagan and yet follow another religious path, but also meld that with some of their former Christian beliefs.” This might be described as somewhat of a syncretistic approach, holding on to some aspects of their former faith, yet at the same time displaying an openness to spirituality and/or other religions.

9. People who have left the church; but significantly, these folks have given up on God as well, and have become atheist/agnostic. They no longer identify as Christians, and have no desire to return back to the faith, or participate in any form of church. At this point along the spectrum, we finally have a clear and conscious break not just with the church, but also there has been a decision made (for a wide variety of reasons) not to label oneself a “Christian” any longer.

10. Those who have left the church, have rejected specifically the Judeo-Christian God (“Abrahamic God” someone called it), but who are open, and exploring, forms of spirituality or other religions as a life philosophy. This group has moved beyond the somewhat syncretistic approach of #8. Also, this group has recognized the need to integrate spirituality into their lives, but not that form represented by Christianity any longer.

11. People who have left the church, but have not necessarily given up on their beliefs in God per se. I call this a “modified deist” position, and it might look something like this: one still believes in the God who created the cosmos (or kicked off the evolutionary process, whichever), but then left it to its own devices. This is the “cosmic clock-maker God” of classic deist thought. This view would admit that there is a God, then, but he’s either no longer around, or he’s merely “watching us from a distance,” as the song has it. Food for thought: this position would go a long way toward explaining the problem of evil, incidentally. It argues that “God has left humanity alone to work out its own problems, issues and solutions without his help. It’s also up to us to face evil in the form of the forces of nature (fire, floods, hurricanes, etc.), as well as doing something about the effects of evil people who harm others.”

12. Those who have left the church but have not completely dispensed with their beliefs in God; but unlike #11, this group might be considered something like “struggling theists.” In other words, they still want to believe in a good, loving, merciful, all-powerful God, but struggle to reconcile the views of God they were taught in the church (and about whom the read in the Bible) with issues like the problem of evil.

13. Those who’ve left the church and who describe themselves as “being Woke!” Angry about the way they were treated within the system, this group has become more militant or outspoken against their former churches. This describes people who “are on a mission to completely dismantle, and do away with, patriarchy. They are actively working to disrupt the system of domination, ownership and exploitation of both people and nature. Having left the church behind, they now seek to restore people’s connection to our own human feelings that have been desensitized by patriarchal conditioning,” much of which is embodied in not just Christianity but in all 3 Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

14. This group of people have left the church and are even more militant about their anger at the system than those in #13. Rather than simply speaking out against the church, some in this category are actively seeking to dissuade people from becoming Christians in the first place. They may even try to talk Christians out of their faith, to the point of engaging in arguments with them. This group might be described as those who have become “angry atheists” after walking away from church. Why are they so angry? It turns out there are numerous reasons, but here’s a few: a) they’re upset and angry about the damage that religion has done in the world, both historically and currently; b) they’re disillusioned when they come to believe that their former faith may have been built on mythology, or a corrupted or untrustworthy Bible; c) their God (in whom they used to believe) has somehow failed them, or disappointed them, or their understanding of him has been shaken to the point that they totally abandoned all beliefs in him. They may be angry that they ever believed in such a God in the first place, and wonder how they could have been duped into believing in him at all. They may see Christians as “gullible but well-meaning fools” who live in a world of cognitive dissonance, but are able to keep their faith by neatly compartmentalizing potential problems. The angry atheist, for example, might view such types as comfortably living in a state of denial in order to continue clinging to a particular view of God that is comforting to them.

15. This group of people has left evangelicalism behind, and have severely deconstructed their faith–but significantly, rather than becoming an agnostic, atheist (or even an angry atheist), they’ve had what amounts to a sort of an epiphany. Rather than dumping their faith entirely, what’s happened instead is that they have experienced a major paradigm shift in their perception of God and the Bible. No longer do they see him as they did before within traditional evangelical conceptions of God: perhaps as a cruel, sadistic and hateful God, or as a disappointed father, or a judgmental or angry God. They’ve had a breakthrough, and rather than jettison their faith entirely, it’s been completely reconceived. Somehow–however it happened–they’ve come to a new understanding of God, and therefore their faith and belief in this new conception of God has only deepened. Also, they may come to read and appreciate the Bible in new and different ways–perhaps viewing it through a new hermeneutical lens, so to speak. So would they consider themselves to be “Christians”? Perhaps not wanting to identify with classic evangelicalism, they’ve instead deconstructed and then, significantly, reconstructed their views of God and Scripture to that which is something totally unique (and perhaps more inclusive). While not every one in this category is exactly alike, examples of the new shift might include some embracing such doctrines as, for example universalism; a more “gender fluid” understanding of the he/she nature of God; or they may begin to view LGTBQ+ people as being accepted by God just as they are, without needing to be converted. Whatever it looks like, something significant has happened to their views of God and Scripture–and their entire lives also.

16. I call this group the “angry theists.” This group is characterized by those who have walked away from the church, but are left with a large amount of resentment, anger and other mental and/or emotional issues around the person of God himself. They can’t comprehend how the God of the Old Testament, for example, commanding genocide of entire people groups, along with other horrific laws within the Israelite community (women being forced to marry their rapist, for example). Perhaps they feel they’ve been burned by this God, who (in their understanding of him) is viewed as toxic, manipulative, controlling, abusive, cruel, capricious, and so on. They absolutely still believe in God, so they aren’t atheists; they’re just very, very, very angry at God.

Conclusion

Did you find yourself on the spectrum at all? Or do you believe there are more categories that should be added in addition to the 16 I’ve identified so far?

I have a few concluding thoughts on some of the above groups or categories.

I find especially as one progresses further along the spectrum, say with numbers 9–10 for example, that a lot of those folk who have left the church and have become atheist/agnostic, or specifically rejecting the version of God proclaimed in Judaism and Christianity, that there is much more to the story. Oftentimes these 2 types report feeling just like brainwashed members of a religious cult who, once they leave that group, are quite angry and bitter about having been lied to or misled by those in leadership.

Quite often, there’s a fairly simplistic “biblical worldview” presented in much of evangelicalism that doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny; and besides, many evangelical churches don’t exactly encourage tough questions. Thus when things do fall apart, it often comes as a severe shock to many to discover that their faith wasn’t in fact very robust at all. The whole thing proved to be little more than a house of cards in the end.

Moreover, in my continued interaction with people from this end of the spectrum, it becomes abundantly clear that within much of evangelical Christianity, for example, children are raised within a system that can present a very warped and distorted view of God or Jesus. This is typically based upon a particular reading of the Bible, certain theological or hermeneutical committments, or doctrinal/denominational distinctives.

These subjective biases can severely distort the picture of God that children, teens and adults alike form as they grow up and stay within that particular system. Once they walk away from it, however, their rejection of that God can be based on a “God who failed” type of thing. Small wonder, then, that they would want to reject such a characterization of God.

Another possibility, too, is that they come to question aspects of God that are presented in Scripture that seem irreconcilable. How could, for example, the God who ordered the genocide of entire people groups in the Old Testament be the same loving, merciful and forgiving God portrayed elsewhere in Scripture? Perhaps they feel they can’t reconcile this God, and so give up on him entirely rather than live with the cognitive dissonance any longer.

I’m also intrigued by the “modified deist” and “struggling theist” of numbers 11–12. Perhaps these both represent a somewhat moderating position of a person who still wants to believe in God, but perhaps can’t reconcile God with the problem of evil. Both views, however, have a major issue to surmount: what do you do with the Bible? It seems to present a very active God who does get personally involved in the affairs of humanity over time. Thus you’d have to call into question the biblical record (that is, if you still believe in the Bible, of course). If you don’t accept the Bible as your basic frame of reference, then this is somewhat of a moot point.

And remarking on #13 and #14, it seems that a lot of post-evangelicals who do go on to become atheists go through what is described as an “angry atheist phase.” It’s hard to stay angry, though, at both God and at Christians; someone told me recently, “You can’t live angry.” It is difficult to stay in this phase for extended periods of time; some do, however, and see it as their personal mission to tell the world about the abuses of patriarchy, and the major flaws, problems, contradictions and hypocrisies they see within the church–and potentially with God too.

I also wonder about #15: I’m finding more and more ex-evangelical people who identify with this category. I wonder what they do with their deconstructed/reconstructed views of God and the classic problem of evil, but there are simply too many people in this category to deny that it isn’t a real thing that’s happened to a lot of people.

On #16, the “angry theists,” from the feedback I’ve gotten from various people, this category may indeed be a phase that people go through. Some, however, are still in this process of being mad at God for a wide variety of reasons. Oftentimes, it stems perhaps from some very bad or toxic teaching they received within church that painted a very distorted or flawed view of God, and that’s the God they’re angry with; or perhaps they feel like “God is against them” in some ways and that is the root of their anger towards him; or finally, they can’t reconcile the Bible’s views of God with the all-too-real problem of evil. Thus: they’re angry with a God who could allow terrible things to happen in our world.

So: where do you fall on the spectrum of 1–16?

Please leave a comment below if you feel that more should be added to the list.

Written by

I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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