Exit Stage Left: Why the Spiritually Mature are Leaving the Church

Last month we looked at George Barna's new book, Revolution, which reveals that a growing number of people are seeking spiritual growth outside the institutional church. In this post Dave Terpstra, pastor at The Next Level Church in Denver and a regular contributor to Ur, explores why Barna may be correct. Although many will say preaching, music, or programs are why they left a church, Terpstra wonders if more people are simply outgrowing the church's ability to spiritually nourish their faith.

I'm sure there are just as many reasons that people leave churches as there are people who leave them. Perhaps more. In this consumer culture I'm sure that many people who leave churches are going to search for a better or newer "product." But recently I've wondered if some followers of Christ simply outgrow churches.

If you haven 't read the book The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich (Second Edition, Sheffield Publishing 2005) you need to pick up a copy. Although the book's subject is spiritual formation and not church dynamics, it gives great insights into why people leave the church - reasons many pastors have likely never considered.

Hagberg and Guelich propose that most spiritual journeys tend to move in six distinct stages. The first three are easy to see and hard to argue with: (1) Recognition of God, (2)The Life of Discipleship, and (3) The Productive Life. Certainly after most people become followers of Christ (stage 1) they begin to absorb as much content (stage 2) as possible. Then sometime later they begin to serve (stage 3). And since the authors propose that the stages are cumulative, people of faith continue to be good at these stages over the long haul. I believe these are the three stages of faith where our churches excel and where most church leadership energy is expended.

But Hagberg and Guelich suggest there are still three stages to go, and it is the fourth I want to focus on. The fourth stage is called "The Journey Inward." The authors suggest that at some point our faith shifts focus from the externals of discipleship and service and begins to become internalized. We begin to redefine our impressions of the faith and to some degree even our theology as we mature.

This fourth stage is where my experience (and the authors') reveals the church's weakness. Speaking in generalities, churches do not specialize in people who have been following Christ for years and who are deeply questioning and reexamining their beliefs. It's especially difficult when people who reach stage four are in positions of influence and leadership. Churches, from the mega to the mini, are designed to help people mature in the external areas of service and discipleship, not the internal struggles of identity and meaning.

February 01, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 48 comments


March 15, 2006  12:30pm

Thank you for a thought provoking article and rich discussion. I suspect many of us who are Boomer Pastors even in our own journey will reflect a deisre to be more contempletive, heathfully introspective and integrative as we get older. Check just about any of the theories of personal, spiritual or vocational development and I think you will see a similar pattern. Even as a pastor I am asking questions that I never asked before. I have a greater appreciation for quietness,a stronger disire to listen rather than inform and fix and a deeper understanding, at least for me, of grace that makes me love my flock in a way a never did when I was trying to make ministry happen as a young preacher. I hope that I will be able to mentor the next generation of pastors from the wisdom and insights this stage of my life is producing and still bring new and younger believers through earlier and necessary stages of faith. This biggest mistake we could make, IMO, is to blame the church and abandone her, institutional or otherwise.

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February 24, 2006  7:33pm

All very interesting - it's not what you say sometimes but how you say it - there is a LOT of frustration and anger out there. But if I can add my little bit... Why we leave is often because - forget the stages of faith - the church is utterly off the mark in relation to the Word of God. The methods of church governance, criteria for leadership (serving!!) mandatory giving called tithes, literal Sabbaths, Israel focus and other politically correct distractions, peer-grouped services, rock music, ("yeah but it's CHRISTIAN" is like saying, looking at a CHRISTIAN woman's cleavage is ok) marriage and family dysfunctionalism, last days confusion (where the latest ficticious novel is the path to understanding) ... the list goes on. There is just total confusion from the basics up as far as what the Word really says. The only way I found to continue in my pursuit of Biblical Christianity and to raise and teach my kids this way was to leave the church I had so loved and gather with others who would support and agree with these basic tenets of church community. I grieved when I left and wondered what and how God would use me to serve, but I am so glad I am not subsidizing any "pastor"s up-market building, car, or home anymore. I just encourage anyone to pursue Jesus, chuck out preconceived notions and look again at what the Word REALLY says and believe it. STEVE

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February 22, 2006  11:49am

What a mind boggling concept: "Churchless Christianity", if believers are the church, how can you have churchless Christianity? sounds rather too American consumeristic individualism.

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Patricia Stark

February 15, 2006  10:36am

Wow! This past Sunday a small group was started in my home to further the ardent desire of a small group of people who wanted deeper spiritual growth and did not feel that they would do that in their church. We all are very active in our churches. I for one find it impossible to settle down enough on Sunday's to receive as my duties and adrenaline keep me on the go. I determined rather that continue being exhausted by the fact that I couldn't do that or even being a little ticked about it that I would choose to silently pray for our minister and congregation during this time and find another time to worship and grow. The result is the "house group". We have been nurturing small groups in our church for several years but being agrophobic I never actively participated in one. I have in the past held small groups in my home but this is very different. We are a focused, spiritually mature group who have a history (since childhood) of seeking together. It was one exciting and fulfilling night. We continue on and I'll share this article as it certainly will heighten everyone's awareness that this is a rathr common need. Thank you for the article and the further stimulation of the comments section. Praising God for His grace, mercy and wisdom. Amen

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Jan Bros

February 10, 2006  8:50am

I heard Richard Rohr say that the evangelical church is really good at doing stages 1-3 whereas the Catholic church is better equipped for stages 4-6. I would agree. He also said we need to learn from each other. Stage theory helps us understand people DO grow and change and DO need different forms to support them as they grow. It saddens me that people leave the church. As a pastor, I desire to create space for ALL people at ALL stages. If pastors are not willing to consider the possibility that people may need different ways of gathering and worship as they grow, we will continue to say good bye to those in the latter growth stages of their faith.

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February 09, 2006  9:02pm

"Churches, from the mega to the mini, are designed to help people mature in the external areas of service and discipleship, not the internal struggles of identity and meaning." But a LOT of churches focus their sermons, their small groups, etc., on helping people find meaning in their lives and meeting other "felt needs." That doesn't seem to be the issue here. If discipleship is viewed as being only external, there's something seriously wrong. Discipleship is internal as much or more than it is external. Here's where church history and the Christian classics can be such a strong source of spiritual growth. We're also dealing here with a seriously weak ecclesiology. Christianity isn't just about our personal relationship with Christ. Nor is the church just a voluntary local gathering of believers. There are elements of Christian growth that can only be undertaken in the parish. The Eucharist, taken rightly, is as much a means of spiritual growth as reading the Bible or praying.

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February 06, 2006  2:18pm

Maybe the editors should have titled the post "Exit Stage Left: Why the Spiritually Immature are Leaving the Church"

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February 06, 2006  8:48am

Obviously, we, like all believers, are each at a different place in our spiritual pilgrimage. As a minister on staff at a local church, I, too, get frustrated that I am "not getting fed" enough here. But whose fault is that, really? Who is responsible for my spiritual growth? Me. The Holy Spirit deals with me about me. Me and my sin. Me and my relationship with others. Me and my tithing. Me and my personal study. Me and my view of God. While it is no one else's responsibility to "make sure" I grow, the people in my local church do play a large role in my growth. My Systematic Theology professor once said (quoting someone else, I believe), "The beauty of the Church is that our own understanding is enriched by others' experiences." Great quote. Is it possible for "the church" to effectively feed everyone at every level to the satisfaction of each individual? No. Some are hungry for the word, while others are there because it's Sunday morning. It's what they do on Sunday. There is only so much a church can offer pilgrims. If the church leadership is obedient to what the Spirit of God is leading them to do in that local fellowship, He is free to move unfettered by the "system." If, however, the Spirit says, "Do this. Go here." and, for financial reasons or complaints from members, we go elsewhere, we are setting ourselves up for failure and are sidestepping blessings. It is obedience, both individually and corporately that will mature believers and win the lost. Our problem is that we have compromised. On a final note, we have also become guarded, and understandably so. One of the greatest things those who are more mature can do, is share their struggles and failures and how God has restored them or corrected them. This may give hope to the child, as well as warnings. There will be some who will give blank stares or eye rolls, but how many times did Jesus say, "Those who have ears, let them hear."?

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February 05, 2006  6:04pm

Just a couple of comments: Just like Jesus, we are to "serve rather than be served." I think maybe that's what we do after steps 1-3. I've stayed in churches long past the time that I was being fed because they needed me. I recall telling my daughter and son-in-law a few months ago that I wasn't sure why I needed to go to church any more because I have heard it all and I didn't need to hear it again with a new (and probably false) spin on it. So I'm in a totally different church whose pastors are, in my opinion, dedicated to getting us through step 4 and beyond. I am in the right place. Another thing I learned is that sometimes you stay with a church not because you need them, but because they need you, even if it's just your presence. Staying in a church that you've outgrown may be the ministry God has called you to. I have nothing against the concept of approaching church in a different form if you have "outgrown" the place that you are, but it needs to meet the requirements of meeting regularly, probably weekly, with other believers for the purpose of praising God, studying His Word, fellowship, accountability, sharing communion, and all those other great things. There is an underlying spirit of selfishness and arrogance if you think you are too spiritually mature for the church – I should know. I do feel for people who live in isolated parts of the country where there are no other options but the one church in town, but that too had it advantages. If that is all there is, then you learn one very important spiritual tool – getting along with people. At any rate, there are plenty of other options that can supplement church – like learning the spiritual disciplines and reading the works of the church fathers. No one ever gets too spiritually mature for that.

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Richard Miller

February 05, 2006  5:33pm

Level I I Cor 11:28 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. Level II...See Level I

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