“Reflective exiles.” I recently came across this striking term in an article by Philip Harrold called “Deconversion in the Emerging Church.” These are people who have left the established church (and sometimes their faith altogether) because of dissatisfaction with the church’s answers (or non-answers) to difficult questions. Hard questions like, “Why did God seem to command genocide in the Old Testament?” and “What happens to theology and biblical interpretation if evolution is true?” and “How could a good, loving God send people to Hell?” and “Why does God allow mosquitoes to evolve such that they aren’t squashed by rainstorms?”
Perhaps more churches should pay attention to “Faith Development Theory,” the psychological study of the stages of religious development, which holds that “critical appraisal of one’s inherited beliefs is necessary to achieve a sense of personal integrity” (Harrold). In the church, these “reflective exiles” often find themselves bumping up against a developmental wall. Robert Guelich and Janet Hagberg, in their book Critical Journey, made use of Fowler’s categories, arguing that churches need to help people move past that wall and into a more authentic and intellectually integrated faith.
But asking hard questions can generate tremendous anxiety in institutions, like established churches, which too often slip (probably without consciously realizing it) into self-preservation mode. This leads to greater frustration among those reflective exiles; so they–in increasing numbers– find their way to the exit.
If you are one of these reflective exiles (or feel yourself becoming one), I’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments. Perhaps we can start a revolution that will find its way back into the local church.