We’re all used to seeing statistics of church decline. The recent Scottish Church Census is likely to show fewer people attending than when the last survey took place in 2002. People will have joined churches since then, but that will be outweighed by the numbers who have died or left. This might sound all ‘gloom and doom’, but a new book by Steve Aisthorpe tells a more hopeful story. It’s called The Invisible Church: Learning from the experiences of churchless Christians.
Steve returned to his church in the Scottish Highlands after working in Nepal for 15 years. He soon became aware that a few people had left the church over the years. And as he began meeting some of them he realised that, although they had left church, most of them claimed to have kept their faith. This prompted Steve to begin researching the experiences of church-leavers in Scotland. Previous research in England and Wales had asked churchgoers why other people had left. Steve’s research was done among church-leavers themselves. It confirmed that most people who stop going to church do not stop believing – in fact, many of them find a new lease of spiritual life and growth! They continue to pursue their faith, either alone or in small groups of like-minded friends. Many of them even find that they can be more missionally effective this way.
Although the book is based on academic research it is extremely readable and practical. It helps us understand the reasons why people leave churches, what their experiences are once they’ve left, and how churches might respond to this. It shows that decline in church attendance does not necessarily mean there’s a decline in Christianity. That’s where the title of the book comes from. If the visible church is in decline, it seems there is a big invisible church out there that we need to understand and to learn from.
Steve’s research offers a number of interesting and helpful insights. He outlines a number of phases that people typically go through in the process of leaving a church and describes how churches create a culture that might be ‘helpful and comfortable for some people, but challenging for others.’ He says that 3 out of 10 ‘churchless Christians’ would return if their church changed the way it did things, but that the majority would not return and are ‘contentedly non-congregational’. He also suggests where the Church may be heading and how it might be reshaped as institutional churches decline and informal or organic expressions of Church grow. Each chapter concludes with a page of questions and activities for further reflection.
This book is for anyone who is concerned about decline (aren’t we all!) and who wants to see signs of hope and glimpses of the possible future shape of the Church. It's a helpful and hopeful read – but also a challenging one. I highly recommend it.
Incidentally, the early Salvation Army gets a mention, but you’ll need to buy the book to see what it says. (It is positive!)
The book is available from
Lieut-Colonel Jonathan Roberts
PS If you searching for it elsewhere online don't confuse it with The Invisible Church: Finding Spirituality Where You Are by McGehee and Thomas