Church Refugees: Community

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.”


The first problem focused on by the authors, and evidently the most common problem voiced by the Dones, is a failure of the local church to form meaningful community. Ponder the following quotation for a while:

The people who are leaving church are saying that the only thing they miss and have difficulty re-creating when they leave is a sense of community. In a time in which spiritual fulfillment is available in a variety of forms at any time of the day, what the church truly has to offer, according to the people who have left, is the ability to form and foster spiritual communities. From an organizational perspective, that would indicate that time and resources spent on nurturing and sustaining communities would be well spent.

But I don’t think many, if any, of the churches I’ve observed in my years of doing research with congregations actually devoted a significant portion of their ministry resources to community formation. Furthermore, I don’t think pastors and religious professionals have near the training in this area that they do for other parts of their jobs, such as budget management or sermon preparation.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh (2015-06-01). Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 612-618). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis added.)

The authors, who study churches for a living, find that churches in general make virtually no effort toward community formation. And yet those leaving most miss the community that the church provides and would likely have stayed had the church provided a better community.

As covered in the recent series on John Nugent’s book Endangered Gospel, the scriptures in fact teach that the local church is a community — koinonia in the Greek — built on such central teachings as the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM), 1 Cor 13, and Rom 12. The scriptures compare the church to a family or household. The Kingdom parables are often about interpersonal relationships. The descriptions of the early church in Acts are largely about how they formed community. There are FAR more passages about life together in a community than there are passages on how to conduct the assembly, how to organize the leadership, or what name to hang on the church. And yet we actually have debates over whether it’s scriptural to build a fellowship hall.

Neither did [the Dones] express a desire to form a new set of people they could call on in times of need or even to hang out with socially. Instead, they emphasized community from a distinctly religious perspective, explaining that they understand Christianity through interactions with others and a commitment to share life fully and honestly with a group of people. Community was fundamental to their understanding of God. 

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh (2015-06-01). Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 625-628). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The Dones see community-formation as at the core of Christianity. They didn’t leave to escape community but because they couldn’t find community in the church. The church had decided to emphasize other things.

The authors interviewed ministers and asked them how much of their week was spent planning the assembly. The typical answer was 60 to 70%. That plainly demonstrates the church’s first priority: the worship hour.

Where is the rest of their time spent? The typical answer was small groups. But small groups were often designed as evangelistic tools and not as community formation tools. That is, the groups are evaluated based on conversion and transfer growth, and they are re-formed as necessary to achieve growth even at the cost of community. You join a group to be an evangelist, not to have friends and mentors and spiritual family members.

Worse yet, many churches encourage members to form “friendships” in order to convert the lost — which the Dones often found to be dishonest. As a result, it’s possible to be among the most involved, most active church members and yet be nearly friendless as your relationships are all instrumentalized, that is, designed to manipulate the other person into a conversion or doing a job.

Community could be found in big churches and small churches, but it never happened accidentally. Community must be worked at, nurtured, and nourished. It’s a misconception to think that community naturally occurs when people get together often enough or that community occurs when people who agree with each other come together. 

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh (2015-06-01). Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 649-653). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis added.)

While the church has spent little effort to find out how to create community — assuming either that it just happens because we assemble or else that it happens because it’s commanded — sociologists have actually studied the question.

Community happens when people share life together, when they see each other repeatedly and share experiences. These commonalities lead to a feeling that people can be counted on and to a shared sense of reality and values.

Sociologists have long understood these to be the fundamental traits of community formation, but for some reason churches seem to often get this equation backwards. Instead of understanding that shared life leads to shared beliefs, churches frequently want to make sure that everyone signs on to a common belief system before they can begin to do life with each other. This is not only a dubious way to practice Christianity according to [the Dones], but also a profoundly ineffective way to build community.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh (2015-06-01). Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 652-657). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis added.)

Now, in conventional church (and Church of Christ) thinking, we convert people and then they become part of our community. The shared beliefs are the secret handshake to join the club. But sociologists find that people adopt beliefs as a result of joining community.


Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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38 Responses to Church Refugees: Community

  1. Ed Dodds says:

    Excerpt from my email this a.m. to an e-vangelist from Memphis:

    1) I find helpful Paul’s Athens insight in Acts 17:27 that the purpose of “the bounds of their habitation” (what we call “nations” and missiologists refine down to “ethnes” cultures) is to make people sensitive to God’s existence.

    Satan has nation warring against nation because he wants the entire species killed off; but God use the disorientation and dislocation which refugees and immigrants experience by changes in geography/culture to make them more open to questioning their world view.

    The typical congregation / denomination is vaguely aware of this but that’s not where the budget is focused.

    25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

    26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

    27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

    2) The church growth folks note that the church universal is: a) growing most in the Southern hemisphere, b) “employing” bi-vocation ministers (I don’t know how clear a distinction they make about “double honored” [compensated] teaching elders/shepherds and evangelists), and growing Charismatic/Pentecostal (Holy Spirit empowered).

    The U.S. ecclesiastical situation is increasingly an anomaly and I think the denominations and seminaries are slowly figuring it out as “lay folks” move to online resources vs investing in an MDiv or ThD, but most are still conditioned to do the Cathedral-thing vs. the intentional neighboring thing.

  2. I’ve just returned from a visit to friends and relatives flooded out of their homes in Louisiana. Those persons who are “making due” belong to local congregations. The extended family or church community is able to gather shared resources and then share these with members.

    The church helps persons to survive disasters. And this occurs even when the local church’s facilities suffer great damage.

  3. Neal says:

    Once again the timeliness of your posts is a God send. Really. This is happening it is real and we are not sure where we will end up except closer to God.

  4. Dwight says:

    One of the problems is that we define community by what we see or admit, while the scriptures include all in the community by who is a saint, thus our community is defined by faith. Our community is those in our assembly, but if a person leaves our assembly, they are not of our community anymore and worse if they leave the coC and start worshipping with other non-coC groups or even true non-denominational groups. And heaven forbid if you are a Baptist, etc.
    An interesting thing is that we in our congregation sent money to another church in Louisiana to help them and now they are sending back money as they have reached their needed amount. But there are still others in Louisiana who have not been helped. Their need didn’t extend beyond their assembly to others of other assemblies or others in general. I kind of figured that once the saints were helped in the assembly they would give to those who were not of the assembly who were in dire need, but this seems to be not the case. If this was practiced by Jesus he wouldn’t have helped any others other than those in his local presence…the twelve apostles.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    One of the problems is that we define community by what we see or admit, while the scriptures include all in the community by who is a saint, thus our community is defined by faith. Our community is those in our assembly, but if a person leaves our assembly, they are not of our community anymore and worse if they leave the coC and start worshipping with other non-coC groups or even true non-denominational groups. And heaven forbid if you are a Baptist, etc.

    Very, very true. Our definition of “community” is often far too narrow.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Glad to be of some help in what must be a difficult time.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    What you say is doubtlessly true. The Churches of Christ were very generous after Katrina and after the Tuscaloosa tornado. And they are due to be credited for that. We saw huge outpourings of charity and volunteer labor in both cases here in Tuscaloosa.

    The problem is that we often see non-casualty poverty as a moral failing, and so we have no problem with disaster relief: it’s no one’s fault. And so we happily honor God’s instructions. The same is true when someone loses a house to a fire. The church can be very generous.

    But when a family needs $300 to cover the power bill because of a lay off or an unexpected car repair, we struggle to be as generous. The church itself won’t have any room in its budget and no process for deciding how to handle the need. Often individual families are very generous, but they don’t know the needs of their fellow members.

    It’s an odd inconsistency.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I would agree that God is at work through the refugee and immigration problems to open minds to Christianity — and to give us opportunity for evangelism. Or maybe the gospel is just powerful enough to allow a wonderful thing to arise from some awful problems. Either way you look at it, this is a momentous opportunity — and some denominations are gearing up to take advantage of it. The Baptists are heading to Europe now to preach Jesus to the Syrians — and that’s a real Christian response to the refugee situation.

  9. “The church itself won’t have any room in its budget and no process for deciding how to handle the need.”

    To me, that points to a problem in how the church makes its budget. Some churches foresee such situations and have a benevolence or something fund for these instances.

    And again, I have seen Christians huff and mumble, “Oh that’s just so-and-so. They always want a handout. If they would just…”

  10. Dwight,
    “An interesting thing is that we in our congregation sent money to another church in Louisiana to help them and now they are sending back money as they have reached their needed amount…I kind of figured that once the saints were helped in the assembly they would give to those who were not of the assembly who were in dire need, but this seems to be not the case.”

    I don’t know the details of this situation. The church in Louisiana could have felt: (1) your gift was to us, we don’t need all this, we don’t have authority to spend your money in other ways, so we are returning it, (2) your gift and the gifts of others have exceeded our needs, so we are returning it so you can share with others you know, (3) and so on.

    When I have given to churches in disaster areas, I tell them in writing, “Use this as you see fit. Give to anyone you know who may need it. If your needs for this disaster are met, use this gift for anything else you wish.”

  11. dwight says:

    Yes, Dwayne, I think that you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is that in the conservative coC, the money given from one church to another must go to the saints, but for some reason once this is met, no others are even considered within the context of need. In this case many were giving individually to those in this church. Many in the conservative branch would feel wrong to give to others in need not of the church of Christ. This kind of reflects what we think of in how we think of Christian community and in giving in general. We are overly concerned about the conditions of the giving rather than the help that comes from it.

  12. Bob Bliss says:

    Over the years in the congregations I have served helping members in need often drives a wedge between the ones in need and the congregation. The ones in need often act resentful and not appreciative. Admittedly I didn’t always know the history between the ones in need and the congregation but that has been my observation. I have been in meetings with the elders who struggle with helping members for this reason. I haven’t noticed any resentment on the elders’ part for helping so I’m not sure why the help hasn’t drawn the ones in need closer to the congregation.

  13. Bob Bliss says:

    Dwight & Dwayne,
    Yes it is true we have a segment in the CofC that believes only saints can be helped. Of course even though I am in a CofC I would be excluded from their view of the saints. The congregations I have served (4) and most of those that I know would not restrict their financial help to just saints. My current congregation has helped people in the community. We try to help our members first of course but do not believe we are forbidden to help those outside the household of God.

  14. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Bob Bliss wrote,

    Over the years in the congregations I have served helping members in need often drives a wedge between the ones in need and the congregation.

    I don’t doubt it. It’s a peculiarity of human nature. We resent being in need. Rather than being angry at myself, I transfer my anger to the person who helps me — imputing to the church or elders the attitude I have toward myself. I assume that the church is disappointed in me, criticizing me, because that’s how I feel about myself. And this happens even when the charity is handled very confidentially.

    I don’t know that I have a solution. I do think it helps when the charity is handled by someone other than the elders, such as a deacon. That way, the family helped doesn’t imagine the elders being disappointed with them or looking down on them — which helps avoid the wedge you mention. The deacon’s use of the money should be accountable to the elders, but the elders would do well not to vote on such things but trust the deacon to do his job, so he can quickly respond to requests and not have to ask permission of the elders before paying someone’s power bill or rent.

    I would make this a one-person decision-making thing. That is, I also wouldn’t have a committee consider requests, for the same reason. It should be just the one deacon so confidentiality is better protected.

    This is for occasional, often urgent, requests.

    We have a Mon-Fri preschool with a scholarship program for families in need. They have to apply, submit tax returns, etc. The decision is made by a three-person committee of people with training/experience in such things, and even the chair of the preschool board doesn’t know who is and isn’t on scholarship. I think this works because (a) there’s scrupulous confidentiality and (b) a scholarship to the preschool can involve quite a lot of money, and so the person being helped understands the need for a more elaborate review process.

    But for the occasional car repair, missed rent, etc., I greatly prefer one person — who can make a quick decision (delay leads to fear and stress — all of which gets imputed back on the church) and then make a point to be friendly and welcoming to the family afterwards (to make clear they’ve not been stigmatized).

    It’s a hard job (I couldn’t do it), but I’ve seen it done well.

  15. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    It’s sad. After Katrina, many Churches of Christ limited their charity to other Churches of Christ. They could be very generous to sister congregations, but they weren’t about to help another denomination. For those on the extreme right, this was based on a misreading of Gal 6:10. But for most churches, it seems to have based on the attitude that these people are lost in their sins, pursuing a false religion, and therefore unworthy of our help as churches. In fact, churches that wouldn’t give a penny to help a Baptist Church would often gladly help non-Church of Christ families, figuring this was a means of evangelism. So it’s less about Gal 6:10 than about the belief that we’re the only ones going to heaven.

  16. Dwight says:

    Yes, Jay when we refuse “churches” we are actually refusing people, who we are supposed to aid, due a legalistic approach of “worthy church to worthy church” concept. Ironically many would individually give money to the same people who go to these churches, without a feeling of contradiction, based on this “worthy church to worthy church” view.
    For some reason money and even worship changes form when in the corporate church context so that it becomes different from the money or worship done outside of the assembly. It is a strange thing that the RP has done to how we think of the assembly vs. the saints in general. I know people that are against IM, but will turn to KSBJ and listen and even sing along with instrumental Christian music. I believe it comes from the concept that what one could do in the Temple was different from what was done outside the Temple, even though they were both considered worship and service.

  17. Monty says:


    I have members who will go to the Baptist church for Christmas plays that of course have Christmas music and of course the CofC can’t have either of these(according to these same members). Funny huh? They are funny as they try to justify their going by saying they “didn’t sing along” in other words they didn’t worship with them supposedly, however according to scripture even if they themselves weren’t participating in the sin, they are there giving consent by their presence. Oh, the tangled webs we weave with RP !

  18. Mark says:

    It isn’t just the Baptist church, it’s the Methodist and Episcopal churches on Christmas Eve as well because the cofC would not have a service. Funny how a few cofC decided to start having one.

  19. Dwight says:

    Yes, Mark and Monty, the irony is thick and disgustingly gooey. Many graduations, etc. are held at the buildings of Baptist, Methodist, etc. and many coC go to them because they are “secular”, except when they offer prayer, offer a blessing, sometimes they sing songs, etc.
    What is really weird is how many coC will offer to the Baptist, etc. to have them come to their church for worship, but will not go into theirs as if the place of worship changes the validity of worship. I guess it is a control issue where if done in the coC building it will assuredly be correct, as opposed to those other people who might and probably are teaching something wrong.
    I mean even their Baptist name on the building condemns them while they are in the building.
    I have heard our preacher condemn other churches due to their level of fun/exuberance in their worship, especially for the teenagers, and then we turn around and once a year we have VBS for the younger children put on and performed by the teenagers and preacher that is driven by fun and then they will all go to camp, where the kids will have fun and learn about God. It is strange how we divide the good from the bad even when we are doing relatively the same.

  20. Mark says:

    Of course the place of worship changed/removed its validity. I remember visiting my grandmother and not being allowed to go a different cofC in the town because they had a youth group and dared have a kitchen, down right heretics. The “fun/exuberance” level was frequently exaggerated as was the “itching ears” accusation to keep the youth from wanting a more age-appropriate sermon and music that wasn’t better suited to a dirge. Why age-appropriate sermons were condemned was probably a mixture of the preacher not knowing how to write one and fearing for his job if the elders asked him to write better sermons that gave the youth something they could use in their daily lives.

  21. Alabama John says:

    Helping other COC was very limited to which COC.
    Only those approved as believing and teaching like our COC were helped. How many we saw needing help as we drove by on country roads to get to the right one.
    This foolishness is why the COC we knew in the past will be only a remembrance of history in 50 more years.
    Like it says in Psalms 150, we’ll be praising Him very differently from the old COC.

  22. Dwight says:

    AJ, You are more optimistic than I am. It hasn’t happened in the last 50 years, so I don’t think 50 more years will change the divide. What has happened in the past is that while some may progress, others will dig in. When you are the guardians of the perfect doctrine why change from your perfection? Within the last few years books like Muscle and Shovel have inspired many to stay where they are and be pleased with that.
    It would probably take something paramount to a Muslim takeover or environmental cataclysm that brings us close to death to bring Christians together despite their many petty differences and self-righteous pride.

  23. JohnF says:

    I guess by being raised in the Pacific NW I was spared some of the experiences so common in comments over the last years. After Katrina we delivered teaching materials to churches in
    Carrollton and Chaumette. There was not a single thought to “Is this the right one?” So I struggle at times to understand the sometimes vitrolic comments. I am led to prayer for a spirit of compassion and an end to callousness between brothers. Let there be peace.

  24. Monty says:

    John F

    “So I struggle at times to understand the sometimes vitrolic comments.”

    John, to be sure there is criticism of legalistic practices on here but IMO I don’t think they rise to the level of “vitriolic.’ Vitirolic is defined as “spiteful, malicious, filled with bitter criticism and malice.” No one is trying to run down an individual or the church but when the legalist behave badly(and they have) is it not fair to criticize them for it? John the Baptist called the Pharisees “a brood of vipers.” Was he wrong to do so? I don’t think anyone on here has even approached vitriolic comments. Sounds more to me like the “harsher” criticism is coming from you rather than the criticism given from commenters on the CofC’s bad behavior.

    John F, we want to see change in how the conservative CofC behaves towards others, to become a more generally loving and inclusive group that looks for common ground among other believers. I hope you desire that also.Sometimes we have to confess our sins of hypocrisy as a group in order to move to a spiritually healthier place. I’m glad that your experiences have been different than many of the commenters. When one witnesses injustices or actions unbecoming of the ones claiming to be the only true church are they not worthy of rebuke? The greater the sin the greater the rebuke of that sin.The conservative side certainly has no qualms about rebuking what they perceive as the error of those who see things differently than they and fill it’s their God given duty to so.

  25. Alabama John says:

    Dwight, what gives me that optimism is the changes I have seen in the last 50 years.
    Decency and in order has a very different meaning today than it did back then. Women are allowed to speak, not wear coverings, etc. Lords Supper at Sunday night services and many other used to be hell bound changes you are familiar with.
    Interesting that away from the church building, (see how I phrased that) in a dangerous situation, the people in danger forget all that BS and gather to pray and help one another get out of or bear the danger not asking or caring what denomination you are in.
    Its the ones not in danger but hear of it that stick to the “denominational” rules and criticize those helping.
    Want to see what I am saying in action, visit a critical childrens hospital, prison, or death ward at a old folks home.

  26. Mark says:

    “Sometimes we have to confess our sins of hypocrisy as a group…”

    The first thing is just general confession said by everyone including the high and mighty. I heard a cofC minister say in multiple sermons that one Sunday would be “confession day.” It was nixed and never occurred. Someone put a stop to it.

  27. Dwight says:

    AJ, I have seen very little “vitriolic” dialogue here or aimed towards the church and/or the coC. Criticism to be sure, but it is not mean spirited and it usually comes a loving attitude.

    I live in the South/Bible Belt and while there have been some changes, they haven’t been groundbreaking or church changing. While the conservative coC doesn’t refer to itself as the “only church” anymore 9we actually preach against it), the spirit still lives on. We still keep to ourselves and don’t mingle with other denominations or even other non-denominations (who you would think we would want to mingle with).
    While we say that order doesn’t mean a particular order, the order hasn’t changed.
    Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  28. Monty says:


    Just thinking out loud about what you wrote, they can’t confess sin because to sin is to be lost according to many in the CofC. You’re saved when you don’t sin and lost when you do sin(until you ask forgiveness). Therefore to confess sin is for those who believe what I just said, to be lost, until they confess their sin. It’s sad because what keeps them from moving to a more healthier spiritual place is (in their minds) they would be confessing they have been lost, they don’t believe that but that’s what they practice(confession is for lost sinners-apostate) and so to be consistent with their theology they will have no part of confession. I suppose it’s why we don’t confess our sins one to another, so we can be healed. It’s like admitting we’re not saved until we confess something that made us unsaved. Many just end up in a state of denial.

  29. Dwight says:

    Monty, you are correct. But even more than that a confession of being wrong would seemingly crash the whole of the system or structure and send violent ripples across the waves. It is like fine china on a pedestal to where if it falls and if it breaks than it cannot be repaired without much work. So you deny wrong or the possibility of being wrong and thus there is nothing to fix.
    When your theology is built around the fact you are right and every one else is wrong, you cannot be wrong without disrupting that theology and getting closer to the other groups.

  30. Monty says:


    Good point.

  31. Monty says:


    Good point.

  32. Mark says:

    Monty, Your first and last sentences sum things up.

    Dwight, The reason for the non-mingling with non-denominations is a fear the sheep will switch sheepfolds.

  33. Dwight says:

    Mark, Possibly, but I think it probably has more to do with Pharisaical sectarian thinking. We are the right sheep and you are the wrong goats and the sheep cannot approach the goats on an equal level of faith. But once people see that differences aren’t really that great and that one side is less holy than it appears, then the switching might occur on a greater level.

  34. Mark says:

    Dwight, I think it is a fear of the masses realizing the massive similarities between, say, some community churches and the cofC.

  35. Ed Dodds says:

    To Mark’s point:

    This is a very tough question, because it depends on how a denomination is defined. There were 217 denominations listed in the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. But there may well be other groups that function as a denomination but do not regard themselves as such. The single largest religious group in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church, which had 67 million members in 2005. The Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members, was the largest of the Protestant denominations. The United Methodist Church was the second-largest Protestant denomination with 8 million members. In third and fourth spots were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon church, with 6 million member, and the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, with 5.5 million members.

    However, since the RCMS 2010 study we now know that the grouping of nondenominational churches, if taken together, would be the second largest Protestant group in the country with over 35,000 independent or nondenominational churches representing more than 12,200,000 adherents.

    These nondenominational churches are present in every state and in 2,663 out of the total of 3,033 counties in the country, or 88% of the total.

  36. Alabama John says:

    In all but a very few, if any at all, those coC would each mark nondenominational on a survey.

    Each being independent of ALL others even those with the name ——- Church of Christ on the sign out front is very important.

  37. dwight says:

    When you take on a name, any name, you are by definition a denomination, thus the coC is a denomination. The only way to avoid being a denomination is to not have a name that you use to define who you are that is linked with others of the same name.
    But this is only problematic to those who believe that denominationalism is bad, which is impossible to prove through the scriptures. The only thing that becomes sinful is when those that have a name use it to separate from others. This is called sectarianism.

  38. Alabama John says:

    Dwight, the problem is when the saved call themselves something others start to call themselves by the same name.
    In the end when God calls His saved home, He must be very specific.

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