Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, addresses the needs of a class of Christians sometimes called the “Dones” — as in “done with church but not Jesus” — or the “dechurched.”
Church Refugees is based on thousands of interviews with older, mature Christians who’ve left the visible, institutional church to serve God though other means. The authors were unable to calculate how many or what percentage of the church is affected by this movement. After all, there’s no one taking roll of those who’ve left. But they quickly discovered that this is a major movement among all denominations: mature, motivated members who leave because they find they can better serve Jesus outside the visible, institutional church.
They’re done with church. They’re tired and fed up with church. They’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, and politics of the institutional church, and they’ve decided they and their spiritual lives are better off lived outside of organized religion. As one of our respondents put it, “I guess the church just sort of churched the church out of me.”
Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh (2015-06-01). Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 183-186). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
These are not people affected by the Post-modern spirit, moral relativism, or consumerism. Rather, these are members who for many years oversaw major church programs, served on boards as elders and deacons, or even served as full-time ministers. These are people who once were part of the 20% of every church that give generously, serve faithfully, and make things happen.
Neither are these “burned out” people needing a break, who will one day return after they rest up a bit. Nor are the people going through a faith crisis or angry over some perceived slight. Rather, these are former members who’ve concluded that Jesus is better served by means other than the conventional church.
So if you’re questioning the value of the institutional church and thinking of leaving church to form a nonprofit or to take on service projects in your own neighborhood, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. It’ll probably tip you over the edge, because it focuses on the concerns and motivations of those who’ve left. It doesn’t make the case for the traditional church. But it does suggest ways a traditional church might change to keep its mature members. So if you’re open to making changes in how churches do church, this just might be the most valuable church leadership book on the market. But if you’re not in a position to make change in your home church, well, it’ll be a very frustrating read.
You’ll notice that many of the suggestions made by the authors repeat advice I’ve offered in the recent series Advice to a New Elder. I think that’s because (a) I hear from a lot of readers who are among the “Dones” — or are considering joining their ranks — and (b) I’m a retired elder and so find myself asking myself many of the same questions: what should the church do that actually matters?
If you’ve read any of my recent series, you’ll know that I place a very high value on the local congregation. I believe in church, not just as the set of all saved persons. Rather, “church” is supposed to be saved persons formed into a cross-shaped community — a community visible to the world that demonstrates the light found in Jesus.
Ironically, as a result, I find myself very sympathetic with the Dones — not that I wish to leave the visible, institutional church but because their complaints against the institutional church are often entirely valid. I mean, you can’t defend the behavior of the churches that drove these people out of the church — and it was rarely just one church. Rather, the Dones left because they couldn’t find a church that behaves the way a church ought to behave.
As a result, some Dones form what are, essentially, house churches, gathering weekly with like-minded friends to worship and serve but in often very unconventional ways. Others give up on a weekly assembly and the sacraments and instead pour themselves into service for others. Some replace church with Internet forums, finding a safe place to ask hard questions and to discover God’s will without fear of ostracism just for asking.
Of course, it’s not surprising that some mature members discover that their own congregation is shallow, judgmental, closed minded, etc. What is more surprising is that, having realized the problems at their own church, the Dones were unable to bring about reform and unable to find another church in town that came closer to being true to God’s purposes for the church.
Now, in the interviews quoted in the book, you won’t find profound theology. In fact, the Dones often struggle to articulate their concerns. It would be easy to nitpick their language and dismiss their complaints — just because they don’t express themselves the right way. But if you listen to the concerns behind the words to hear what’s really being said, you’ll find there’s a lot of legitimate criticism of church as we practice church in the United States today.
The authors rarely mention the denomination or location of the church being criticized, which is fine. This is really an “if the shoe fits” kind of book. If your church doesn’t have these problems, praise God and buy a book that suits your needs better. But if your church does have these problems, it doesn’t really matter whether the person doing the criticizing is Anglican or Church of Christ. If the shoe fits …
One former minister said,
But here’s the thing: I don’t think the institutional church is filled with bad people. I think the church in America is an inherently flawed structure that compels people to make poor decisions. You’re basically judged on how well you can preach and the numbers you bring in. I realize the church isn’t perfect, and it’s made up of people who aren’t perfect, and I’m not perfect either, but the church needs to see that there are things that are broken about the structure, not the people.
Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh (2015-06-01). Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 384-388). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis added.)
Perhaps that’s too cynical to be fair. Consider, rather, how your own minister, ministry, or church is evaluated by those who control it — the elders, the contributors, the members, other churches in the denomination.
Is your church judged by its growth or by baptisms?
By doctrinal purity or transformed lives?
By the quality of the assembly or by the lives lived by the members?
I think most churches are judged — externally and internally — by superficialities. That is, we are far more concerned about the assembly — its conformity to doctrine or how exciting the worship is — than the lives lived by the assembled. We are thrilled when we have crowds attending to hear the preacher and care little that these crowds were drawn from other churches in town — with no net gain to the Kingdom.
So who is able to rise above the consumeristic or legalistic expectations that invisibly dupe up into chasing the wrong goals? Well, the mature members with some experience in leadership. And those are the people who are leaving.