Church Refugees: Conversation, Part 1

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.”

Many of the Dones leaves because of the lack of opportunity for conversation about doctrinal matters. That is,

In the course of the conversations that you value most, does the other person drone on and on about your failings and tell you what to do, or does he or she empathize and ask questions? Do you ever talk in those conversations, or does your friend do all the talking? Do you both debate, defending your unchanging positions? Or do you collaborate and allow the information and opinions of your friend to give new shape, perspective, and life to your old ideas and problems?

I think the answers to these questions are pretty clear, at least for me. While I enjoy a good debate every now and then, the conversations I look forward to most, with old friends and new, are the ones in which we meet on an equal footing, exchange ideas, and help each other see something new about the world.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1286-1292). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Of course, any church has to have doctrinal boundaries. You can’t be a member of a Christian church and deny that Jesus is the Messiah. You can’t advocate rebellion against the known will of God. You can’t deny that God will keep his promises.

But many churches — not just Churches of Christ — won’t even allow questions that threaten the denominational identity of the church or other pet doctrines of the leadership. For example, a Baptist Church well adopt as church doctrine the perseverance of the saints — the belief that saved people will never fall away to lose their salvation — but many would allow the question to be discussed in Bible class. After all, how do you convince someone of your point of view if you don’t allow discussion of that topic?

And in any church, there will be members who struggle with doubts. May they express these doubts in small group or class? Not to destroy the faith of others but to seek answers to legitimate questions?

I was struggling with how to deal with a person in my life who wasn’t being very kind or loving. I could see only two options: I could suffer quietly, tacitly condoning the person’s harmful actions, or I could confront the person, deal with the pain and trauma that would likely ensue, and perhaps lose the relationship in the process.

My friend, who had recently been through a similar experience, helped me brainstorm alternative approaches, some of which were rooted in her experience, but many of which reflected the simple idea of trying to act as Jesus would act.

This is one of the reasons I love my church. These kinds of things happen routinely in my congregation, both with other congregants and with church leaders.

Unfortunately, our respondents reported that this sort of exchange is not what typically occurred at their churches.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1292-1299). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

This is not a complicated concept. Members want a church where they are free to share there doubts, worries, problems, and such without being ruled out of bounds. It’s about authenticity: can I be my real self at church or must I pretend to be someone else?

There are a number of ways people can talk to each other. Jill was expressing a desire for authentic conversation, wherein both parties are open to being influenced by the other.

However, according to our respondents, the traditional mode of religious interaction involves one of two other models: the argumentative style, in which person A states his or her position, then person B shares his or her position, and so on, but neither party has any intention of being influenced by the other. Or the dictatorial style, in which person A speaks with the intention of influencing person B, who takes in the information without responding.

Our respondents not only articulated a strong desire for authentic conversation, but were also summarily turned off by the other two styles.

Jill’s comments summarize what most of us know intuitively. The friends we find hard to keep, the relationships that are most difficult to sustain, are the ones in which an equal exchange of ideas is absent.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1308-1316). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Again, these are not people arguing for a Postmodern philosophy, moral relativism, or secular humanism. They aren’t rebelling against God’s will. They just want to sort through God’s word through a conversation among equals rather than being dictated to. It’s about process.

Our respondents consistently told a story different from much of what other academics have been uncovering. Our respondents didn’t desire a God who serves them or a religious system that allows them more freedom and affirmation. Instead, they were seeking and defending an understanding of God that comes through interactions with others in a sustained and intentional way, and they didn’t object when this understanding constrained and restricted their own behavior or made them uncomfortable.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1510-1513). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I think there are several ways of looking at this. Most people are better persuaded by dialog and conversation. Therefore, classes and small groups are often better places to handle difficult doctrine than the pulpit.

Just so, people are far more attracted to humility than arrogance. If you can’t imagine being wrong on any biblical topic, only the deeply insecure will find your teaching comforting. And as soon as you demand that people believe it because you said so, you’ve made yourself into an idol. The source of authority is no local God or his Scriptures but the preacher. And puts the preacher in the wrong relationship with his flock.

And it’s just a fact that truth can withstand questioning. The Bible will survive whatever questions come up in Bible class. And if we don’t believe that, then our confidence in the Scriptures is not very strong.

One of the great errors of contemporary Protestantism is the tacit, unstated assumption that the intellect is perfectible and so intellectual error has no need for grace. If we get the age of the earth or the timing of the Exodus wrong, well, there’s no grace for such error and those who are wrong must be rebuked or even excluded from the church. We see the emotions as fallen, and so we tolerate moral sin, but the mind ought to be able get every single doctrinal question exactly right.

We are particularly inclined to be graceless on subjects that establish the boundaries of our denomination. A Church of Christ may well damn someone who worships with an instrument and will routinely refuse to allow a teacher to express doubt on the a cappella question. But the same church may have no problem with disagreements over the nature of the Trinity — even contrary to the Nicene Creed.

So this is going to be a problem in the Churches of Christ until we sort through the difference between what saves and what doesn’t.


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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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3 Responses to Church Refugees: Conversation, Part 1

  1. Mark says:

    I guess this is one of the results of preaching from Paul’s letters for decades. Paul addresses problems by providing answers, but the questions/issues aren’t always in his letters. Sometimes they can be deduced/concluded but not always. Jesus answered questions (though sometimes with a question then a discussion) and the gospel writers made sure to write down the question and the answer/discussion.

  2. Monty says:

    We’ve created an environment where we have to be right on every point of doctrine or our balloon pops. And we all know balloons can’t withstand even the tiniest of pin pricks. Therefore no sharp objects allowed.

  3. Profile photo of Bob Brandon Bob Brandon says:

    A congregation I am familiar with both avoids and suppresses such discussions, yet they aspire to grow by increased planning, centralized management, and, frankly, motivational sermons and classes. It’s awful. The congregation is in danger of accelerated decline, piling onto already established demographic challenges.

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