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.