From chapter 14 of Five Years On – continuing faith journeys of those who left the church, by Alan Jamieson, Jenny McIntosh, and Adrienne Thompson. Published by Portland Research Trust 2006.
In the research we have been looking for common threads in order to generalise about what we presumed to describe as ‘typical’ of the categories we discerned among church leavers. At the same time we are extremely aware that each person is unique, that each journey is different, and that no one fits neatly into a box. We have talked of ‘stages’ of church leavers but it might be truer to talk of ‘zones.’ A zone is a space not defined by closed borders. For example, in the terms of this study, a person may be moving toward becoming an Explorer but still exhibit many of the traits of an Exile. Thankfully, there’s no quick quiz to help you neatly classify another person – or yourself.
These categories can’t be forced onto people, but we have become very certain of their usefulness. This was demonstrated at the first training weekend held for people interested in facilitating groups like Spirited Exchanges. Many of those who came had left church, others struggled at the fringe. They were introduced to the categories of the Displaced, the Exiles, the Explorers and the Wayfinders not as a grid on which they might exactly plot their position but more as a pictorial map by which they might identify the zones through which they travelled.
Nearly all of the participants could track the pattern of their own journey on the ‘map;’ or could see how it would help them to understand another’s story. As the group discussed what it might feel like to be in each zone and what images might symbolise that particular space there was clear agreement. People were not so much learning something new as recognising what they intuitively knew already.
So people nodded when they heard others describing how it feels to be Displaced: isolated, powerless, angry, betrayed and misunderstood were the adjectives used. In the discussion about the Exile space the group- came up with some powerful images: ‘like being at a major intersection…like having a suitcase burst and scatter its contents all over the place….like looking at your own grave.’ Many of the group had experienced this state and could identify with the feelings evoked by these pictures. By contrast, the sense of new life burgeoning, the beginnings of hopefulness and a restored energy to do not merely to talk: these were the elements that characterised the experience of those who described the Explorer zone. Once again, the majority of the group could recognise common ground.
Generalisations about a group can thus become a gift to the individual. Instead of locking a person into a stereotype, they can become a way of validating a person’s story, and furthering self understanding.