It's interesting over the past year or so, I've been meeting and talking to different people in cafe's, especially those who have either left the church, or find themselves on the margins. Most seemed to have found themselves at a crossroad, one person described it as a crisis of faith. It wasn't he was losing his faith, but, more that it had evolved into something more. Years of having faith figured out had completely changed. You might compare it to the physical phenomena of changing states of matter. His early faith was was like a frozen block everything well formulated, contained in a confined space. Later, it became fluid-like, able to flow and move around to a certain extent, but still confined by a boundary. Now, the boundary was gone, his faith was dispersed like a gas...like fog, drifting and floating everywhere. He felt his faith was stronger than ever, yet he was filled with questions and hardly any certitude. He was content with questions. He could find truth in mystery. It's like being content with faith being an unfinished symphony, or like improvisational jazz filled with unresolved chords and notes.
Quite a while back I had read James Fowler's " stages of faith ", where he posits faith , or belief “is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence.” And the stages of faith development, regardless of where one finds them, or in what religious context, are amazingly uniform. I encourage you to read Fowler's research on faith development, it just may help map out where you are on your journey.
I think most of the people I've had conversations with in coffee shops would find themselves in Fowler's stage five or six.
Stage five is characterized by its room for mystery and the unconscious, and is fascinated by it while at the same time apprehensive of its power. It sees the power behind the metaphors while simultaneously acknowledging their relativity. In stage five, the world, demythologized in stage four, is re-sacrilized, literally brimming with vision. It is also imbued with a new sense of justice that goes beyond justice defined by one’s own culture and people. Because one has begun to see “the bigger picture” the walls culture and tradition have built between ourselves and others begins to erode. It is not easy to live on the cusp of paradox, and due to its radical drive towards inclusivity.
And, stage six characterized by exhibiting qualities that shake our usual criteria of normalcy. Their heedlessness to self-preservation and the vividness of their taste and feel for transcendent moral and religious actuality give their actions and words an extraordinary and often unpredictable quality. In their devotion to universalizing compassion they may offend our parochial perceptions of justice. In their penetration through the obsession with survival, security, and significance they threaten our measured standards of righteousness and goodness and prudence. Their enlarged visions of universal community disclose the partialness of our tribes and pseudo-species.
This beckons the huge question, " Is there room for these people in your church? " I suspect not. Most people at these stages have worked there way towards the back door and are on the margins, or have exited altogether.
Many of the people I had conversation all expressed a sadness and longing. Sad, that there was no safe space with in many faith communities where questions, mystery could be explored in deeper conversations, and longing for such a space. The church will continue to hemorrhage people like a severed artery until it awakens to this reality. People are not walking away from faith...most are leaving to find a safe space where they can explore their questions in the context of everyday life filled with its complexity and diversity.
We confuse unity in the church with conformity. As strange as it might seem you could have a collage of people in a community spread all over the map in different stages...and still be unified in Jesus. The churches problem is, we want everyone in one stage, preferably stage three...
is characterized by conformity, where one finds one’s identity by aligning oneself with a certain perspective, and lives directly through this perception with little opportunity to reflect on it critically. One has an ideology at this point, but may not be aware that one has it. Those who differ in opinion are seen as “the Other,” as different “kinds” of people. Authority derives from the top down, and is invested with power by majority opinion. Dangers in this stage include the internalization of symbolic systems (power, “goodness” “badness”) to such a degree that objective evaluation is impossible.
Sadly, this stage has become the " Status Quo " of the church. This may be all that is left holding the fragile pieces of what is left of the existing church. Is it too late to change?,time will tell. But for the church to survive in a post-Christendom world it needs to wake up to the reality that these stages exist. We need to help people negotiate between them. We need to allow people to live within the stages rather than try and force everyone to live in one stage. We need to waken to the reality as faith being a journey, and not a destination to one place of certitude and belief. Churches need to be a space of generous, humble, hospitable exploration of faith. To on lookers, they may look more like sand boxes, dirty spaces, messy... as we play and wrestle with the complexities of faith...rather than the sterile environment of an isolation unit in an aging hospital.