LIFE AFTER CHURCH: God's Call to Disillusioned Christians
In some religious circles, there is no greater heresy than walking away from church. For that and many other reasons, some Christians go through the motions week after week, attending church services that leave them feeling spiritually numb, hollow, or worse. But others have chosen to make the exodus, because to stay would be to live a lie. Brian Sanders calls these people "leavers" --- Christians who love God but who cannot in good conscience continue to be a part of a traditional church.
Sanders knows these leavers well, because he is one of them.
A member of an intentional faith community in inner-city Tampa, Florida, Sanders walked away from church 10 years ago. Early on in the book, he offers this commentary on church as we in America know it: "I still can't fathom what it is about traditional church services that people like. All of it seems so tedious to me --- on the best days tolerable, on the worst painful." What he knew then, and what he has discovered in the intervening years, is that many Christians share that perspective. Some have left the church, but others remain, often out of guilt --- and then they compound the guilt by feeling guilty about continuing to attend services under false pretenses. It is to both the leavers and the seriously disaffected that Sanders addresses his book.
The "leavers" Sanders writes about are not people who have simply left one church in search of another, but rather those who have left church itself --- or, as he puts it, "the experience of church as we know it." He quotes one contributor who compared church services to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character is forced to live through the same experiences day after day after day. To many Christians, that is what church life amounts to --- an endless cycle of sameness, a far cry from the fire within that burns with a longing to see the transformational power of God manifested in their lives.
Sanders addresses a host of arguments against leaving the church, all of which he has wrestled with. But after years of rationalizing his reasons for going or not going to church and berating himself for disliking it so much, he discovered there was one question that kept nagging at him: Was it possible that God might actually be leading people to leave the church? "I'm sure that we should remain committed to the church, as the body of Christ, its head and the mission that it has been given, but so much of what we call 'church' simply isn't," he writes. That said, Sanders is much less critical of the church than you might expect. He simply dreams of more.
Sanders describes the five stages most "leavers" experience: contentment with a specific church; disaffection, when, for example, the church fails to practice what it preaches; threshold, when the person leaves physically but not emotionally; closing the door, when the emotional connection to a church is finally severed; and new beginning, discovering a vision for a new expression of faith. He follows up with a comprehensive look at the reasons people leave church, a section I consider to be must-reading for anyone in church leadership, especially pastors. Sanders is writing about people whose reasons for leaving church are profound and complex, so you can forget the notion that these individuals left because they were expecting to find the perfect church. What you will find are thoughtful and insightful reasons that have grown out of a deep desire for a more meaningful way of living the life of faith.
Sanders offers helpful guidance to those who are considering leaving church as well as to those who have chosen to stay, providing the latter with practical suggestions on how to reform the church from within and maintain their joy in the process. For those who have chosen to leave, Sanders provides a chapter on how to leave respectfully and graciously.
--- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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