The Inevitable Train Wreck

When I think of the train wreck that people go through when they leave the hardline Churches of Christ, or almost any sect for that matter, I think of all the analyzing the person does afterward. “I should have said this,” “I should have done that.” “If only…” But really nothing could have stopped the train wreck.

James Fowler explains it in his book The Stages of Faith. People in Stage 3 Faith trust in their faith community to hold their faith. They do not feel strong enough yet to hold their faith inside themselves. Therefore they remain fiercely loyal to the church and its beliefs and doctrines. They will tell you to ask so-and-so and they will quote Big Name Preacher. The majority of the population has Stage 3 Faith, regardless of what they believe in.

The person who gets kicked out of the church, or who leaves, is almost always in Stage 4 Faith. Stage 4 is a questioning stage, an individuating stage. It is like a teenager or young adult constantly picking at his/her parents or society for inconsistencies. The Stage 4 person wants things to make sense for him- or herself. They want to hold their faith inside themselves and be convinced of each doctrine, without relying on others. But the person in Stage 4 cannot hold their faith without convincing someone else or checking with other people. This creates arguments, and sometimes the person in Stage 4 welcomes the arguments because this tests and strengthens the individuating process inside the Stage 4’s heart. Just as teenagers like to argue with their parents about values and ethics to test their own ability to make moral decisions.

The Stage 3s who see someone entering Stage 4 find the attitude of the Stage 4 person to be irritating, and they label it: rebellious, prideful, backsliding or bitter, or they just shake their heads.

The Stage 4 person has great difficulty wrestling with their newly internal faith, and they make everyone around them uncomfortable as they wrestle. But the train wreck is inevitable. There is no room in a Stage 3 church for someone in Stage 4. They have to leave.

So there really is no point in going back and reliving in one’s head all the painful arguments that led to the breakup. No matter what you could have said, no matter how tactful or confrontational you could have been, the end result would still be the same: the Stage 4 person leaves, and the Stage 3 people stay, and nobody can understand what happened.

Fowler says that in healthy development, Stage 4 is begun in the young adult years. Stage 5 is entered into into by middle aged adults: No longer does the person want to argue, because they have more questions than answers. What they want to do is listen, and hear about others’ faith. They want to share the wonder they have for the deep meaning behind the rituals they practice. They want to wonder at the mystery of faith. And they want everyone to be loved equally.

When a church is run by Stage 5 people instead of Stage 3 people, then there is room for the other stages in the church. The Stage 5 people calm the Stage 3 people down and reassure them that their faith is safe in the church, even when the Stage 4 people question and stir things up.

But that is something that is rare in the hardline Churches of Christ, the Stage 4s all having been kicked out, so there are no Stage 5s left to lead the church, only Stage 3s.

So don’t spend time thinking about how it could have been avoided. It could not. Just as Jesus was banned from the synagogues in Judea, it was unavoidable, it was necessary.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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2 Responses to The Inevitable Train Wreck

  1. Dillon says:

    Hi just wanted to say that I appreciate your blog. While not CoC or Ex-Coc I have friends that are as I attended ACU( even being CoC, it’s an excellent school imop) a few years ago and have attended quite a few CoC church services. I have a good friend who is no longer a christian and from what he says the harsh CoC upbringing may have has some influence in it, as well as his struggles with existential nihilistic thoughts, which as a Christian I also deal with. I agree with you and feel that church should be a place where questions and honesty about doubts are allowed, without the expected unquestioning acceptance of dogma that is a function of religious culture rather than God and Christ. I know I don’t have it all figured out, and have more questions than answers, and I think the same applies to other christians, including those who are in leadership positions. So are you no longer a minister/pastor at all? While I’ve completely dropped out of “church” due to my fear of influence from groupthink and religious peer pressure I would very much be willing to attend a church where there are there are ministers/pastors that are ok with those who don’t “toe the line” and have honest questions.

    • Hi Dillon,
      I do belong to a church that welcomes questioners. It is good to hear from someone on the periphery who has seen the damage. We have had several readers who don’t believe that any church with “Church of Christ” on the sign could ever be abusive.
      ACU is in the forefront of moving the Churches of Christ forward.
      Thanks for your encouragment.

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