Some time ago I came across a book from 2016 that piqued my interest – The Invisible Church by Dr. Steve Aisthorpe.
After twelve years out in the Far East, he returned to the village in the Highlands of Scotland where his Christian faith had first developed – and found to his surprise that a lot of people that he knew had stopped attending church. Had they lost their faith? No; when he met them in person, he found that “their Christian faith continued to be the mainspring of their lives.” This was a puzzling situation, and set him on a path that led to conducting three studies on “churchless” or “non-congregational” Christians in Scotland.
The results of these studies form the basis for The Invisible Church. It’s an interesting book because, as the author explains towards the start, few previous studies have actually reached out to people who stopped joining in with the activities of their local churches and asked them why they made this choice, or what their beliefs and practices look like afterwards.
How Were the Studies Carried Out?
If you’re interested in the details, fairly short summaries of Dr. Aisthorpe’s studies are available for free on this Church of Scotland webpage: Resourcing Mission – Mission Research. Here is the briefest of outlines:
- “Faith Beyond the Congregations”, 2013 – Contact was made with churchless Christians using methods like newspaper articles and social media. Of those who responded, 30 were selected for interview, with this 30 comprising an even male-female split and a variety of experiences of church. The aim of this study was preliminary, with the objective being to identify the right questions to ask in subsequent studies.
- “Investigating the Invisible Church”, 2014 – Using a random survey technique to identify churchless Christians in an unbiased way, a 76-question survey was carried out in the Highlands and Islands (including the Orkneys and Hebrides), which generated 423 usable completed surveys. The goal was to see if the findings from the first study could be generalised.
- “Faith in Scotland”, 2015 – The aim of this study was to look at differences between rural and urban areas. 815 telephone interviews with churchless Christians were carried out in total.
The term Christian means different things to different people: at one end of the spectrum are people for whom their faith is central to everything they do, and who try and live it out; at the other end are those for whom Christian has less practical impact and is closer to being a cultural label. In order to try and make some kind of distinction between different groups in the Investigating the Invisible Church survey, a number of questions were included to locate respondents on the “Hoge Intrinsic Religiosity Scale”. The summary report on this study linked to above explains that “It would be inappropriate and incorrect to apply labels such as “nominal”, “committed” or “devout” to groups within the sample according to their scores on this scale. However, it is noticeable that what might be called “high scorers” … show significant differences in their responses … compared with “low scorers”.” At a minimum I take this to mean that there are statistically significant differences in opinion between those who broadly-speaking come across as more religious and those who come across as less religious.
Some of The Interesting Results
I suppose I should give a spoiler alert here in case you’ve got this book in your “To Be Read” pile! Here are six things that stood out to me, or that I think might be of interest to others, with some quotations from the book:
- Consumerism was only rarely the cause of leaving. Leavers had often been members of local churches for a long time: half of those who responded to the 2014 survey had attended regularly for more than ten years, and about half of this half (i.e. a quarter overall) had attended for more than twenty years. This survey also found that most people disengaged gradually (57%) rather than suddenly (22%), though there might have been an incident at church that acted as a ‘final straw’. For a fifth of people a life crisis unrelated to church (e.g. marriage breakdown or ill health) had proved to be the tipping point, with this being particularly the case for those who had been regular attenders for over twenty years. And for one sixth they had trouble finding a new church where they belonged after moving house.
“The data indicates that choices to switch, leave or not engage with a church congregation are more of a ‘wrench’ than a ‘flit’. Those who are motivated primarily by simple, rational, consumerist preferences are the exception rather than the norm.” (p36)
- Disengagement did not actually imply a desire to avoid meeting up with other Christians – just not in the settings currently offered by local churches. Leavers were often active in starting to meet with others in informal groups.
“Ironically, some of the most common reasons given for their reluctant departure from congregational life relate to the frustration and disappointment of not finding there the very qualities extolled in the New Testament as the touchstones of Christian fellowship. Interviewees spoke of a lack of love, a coldness and superficiality… Most interviewees described how, having ceased church-going, they had formed friendships or linked into informal groups which had Christian fellowship as an important part of their purpose.” (p43)
- A quarter of Churchless Christians had felt that they didn’t fit in when they had been part of a church. However, a large fraction of Churchless Christians felt connected to the church considered in a wider sense (the world-wide church), with this being particularly the case for those who were older or scored higher on the Hoge scale (i.e. those appearing more religious).
“… Regardless of age, previous experience of church, score on the Hoge scale, and gender, about a quarter agreed with the statement ‘I used to go to church but felt that I didn’t fit in.
However, this lack of ‘belongingness’ in local congregations does not translate into a sense of alienation from the wider Church. Half of respondents indicated that they felt part of the worldwide Christian community. … Unsurprisingly, of those with higher than average scores on the Hoge scale a significantly higher proportion agreed with this statement [‘I feel part of the worldwide Christian community’] (66 per cent) compared with those who scored less than average … 34 per cent …” (p84)
- Some Churchless Christians were open to the possibility of becoming part of a recognised church congregation again. For Scotland as a whole, 1 in 7 Churchless Christians for whom faith was very important would have liked to attend, but were prevented from attending due to health issues. Others would be willing to try other expressions of church, were they available in their area. For those in this latter category,
“On the whole, these people would appreciate more informal expressions of church and, crucially, opportunities to ask questions and explore doubts. In the Highlands and Islands, for example, 8 per cent of all those who identified themselves as Christians but not church-goers said that they would welcome the opportunity ‘to join a small group of Christians who meet in homes and discuss faith and life together.'” (p34)
- However, a majority of Churchless Christians are “contentedly non-congregational”. Some pointed to specific benefits. The second quotation below might be particularly surprising.
“One married couple described how their disengagement from church had led to a deepening of their relationship with one another and a deepening of their devotional life…” (p46)
“… research in Northern Scotland found that just under a third of non-congregational Christians agreed with the statement, ‘Not being involved in a traditional church congregation frees me to pursue what I believe is my Christian calling.'” (p34)
- This next one might also be a surprise. Some of the Churchless Christians Dr. Aisthorpe interviewed had never been part of a church congregation – and of these, some had used their initiative to set up their own groups to explore faith.
“These were often men and women who had discovered the Christian faith either through an evangelistic course (e.g. Christianity Explored or Alpha) or through a visit to a Christian community (e.g. Iona, Taize), but had not engaged with a church congregation since. They spoke of the contrast they found between the lively, interactive and hospitable setting in which they had discovered the Christian faith and their experience of local congregations. In each case, these people have initiated or become part of a small informal group …” (p32)
Although one of the studies was designed to examine the differences between urban and rural areas, there was relatively little about this in the book and I think this is one of its biggest limitations. I would have really liked to see a chapter specifically on this subject. The options available church-wise in a small village and a major city can be very different, and even after reading through the book twice, I’m still not sure how much is more reflective of a rural/low-population density context.
A Few Personal Reflections
One of the challenges I’ve found in writing a blog this year has been taking my personal experiences and setting them into a wider context. It isn’t always easy to generalise, and where a subject is one I care a lot about, it is highly tempting to generalise too readily.
“Fitting in at church” is a subject I care about. As I’ve said elsewhere, I became a Christian at university some fifteen or so years ago. While I haven’t looked back since, I’ve often found it difficult to fit in at church; for a while in my late twenties I largely stopped attending on a Sunday, and even now (pandemic aside) I rarely attend every week – though I rarely miss a midweek homegroup. In short, from my own experience I know that you can indeed be a “churchless” Christian for a time. This isn’t to say this situation is ideal; only that, depending on personal circumstances, it can be a practical reality.
The book itself is largely positive about the faith of churchless Christians in Scotland, and I hope that in the previous section I’ve fairly reflected both this positive tone and some of the conclusions of the author. Bringing in the ideas in the previous two paragraphs now: reading Dr. Aisthorpe’s research, and finding it in sympathy with my own experiences, the temptation for me is to get a bit carried away and be over-excited about what the state of the “churchless Christian” population in Scotland, or by extrapolation the UK as a whole, might be like. This is a temptation the author recognises themselves, and at the end of a chapter critiquing stereotypes of Churchless Christians (e.g. that they are “backsliders” or “Christian in name only”), addresses as follows:
“One person who commented on a draft of this chapter taught me a new word in the process. He suggested that I might be in danger of ‘enantiodromia’…. the tendency to replace one thing with its opposite. In this case, his concern was that I might replace one set of stereotypes and prejudices with a romanticised or rose-tinted picture of those who leave church. He has a point. In attempting to simplify complex data, I am guilty of ‘generalising.’ However, the observations I have shared reflect the dominant themes and patterns.” (p54)
The overall impression I get is that, while the picture of Churchless Christians in Scotland is far from uniform, there really is more authentic Christian faith than might be anticipated.
Looking at the positive traits mentioned in the previous section which some Churchless Christians display – from willingness to meet together to learn, to using initiative in setting up informal groups, to concern for living out one’s calling in the world (including with a “mission” focus in some cases) – makes the separation from other Christians in local congregations all the more regrettable. The later chapters of the book go into the reasons that people disengage from church in detail. I thought about discussing some of them here, but I think this post is long enough. It’s a thought-provoking book that I enjoyed reading, and would particularly recommend to those interested in thinking about the current state of the church in the UK and “why it is as it is”.
Having read this book, I’m interested in whether it resonates with the situation in England, particularly in the South where I live – or for that matter elsewhere. I would be interested to hear any thoughts you have on the Churchless Christian “Scene”. I would also welcome any recommendations of books / research you might know of – can anyone point me in a helpful direction?
Until the next post!
Summary of Books and Links
The Invisible Church, Steve Aisthorpe, Saint Andrew Press, 2016.
Resourcing Mission – Mission Research Joint research by the Church of Scotland and partner organisations.