Church Refugees: Morality

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 authors found, in their interviews, a decided tension between the desire of church leaders to address questions of personal morality — sexuality and alcohol — with little concern for poverty, oppression, and racism.

To our respondents, preaching a message about the evils of drinking seemed like so much small change compared to big-ticket items such as poverty, racism, and gender inequality.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1681-1682). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The Scriptures are, of course, quite clear on sexual morality — and very strict. They simply do not condemn alcohol consumption in moderation and without addiction. And most church goers know this. They may not like it, but they know it. And so when a church pushes an agenda foreign to the scriptures, it loses credibility with Christians who’ve read their Bibles.

On the other hand, the Bible is quite clear that God’s people are to help the poor and to reject racism. People disagree as to the Bible’s teachings on gender equality.

Jeff felt the church’s moral teachings were only scratching the surface of what it means to be a Christian. There can be a rule for everything, and a person can follow those rules, according to Jeff, without having a heart that’s truly reflective of Jesus. For Jeff, the problem was that God had been reduced to a series of guidelines to be followed rather than a general orientation of the soul.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1701-1704). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Now, this takes us much deeper. Rather than arguing over which rules the Bible imposes, perhaps the real problem is a failure of the church to help its members have transformed hearts. Perhaps all the rule-keeping in the world won’t save us. Perhaps it’s much more about becoming like Jesus in his service, suffering, sacrifice, and submission.

Becoming like Jesus does not mean ignoring the Scripture’s teachings on morality and concern for those in need, but it does mean that we don’t judge others based on the perfection of their moral code. Like God, perhaps we should judge the heart and figure obedience will follow the heart. If the heart isn’t transformed, the obedience doesn’t much matter.

Of course, it’s much easier to preach on this or that rule rather than on having a transformed heart. And that’s part of the problem. We insist on limiting our relationship with the preacher and other elders to lectures and bulletin articles — meaning we don’t get close enough to our leaders to follow their example or to learn their hearts. And one of the best ways to have your heart changed is to spend time with someone who is already close to Jesus. There’s no substitute for a living, breathing example.

I think there’s another very real concern here. The neo-Anabaptist influence on contemporary American evangelicalism teaches (based on the Bible) that the church is not really charged with fixing the world. Rather, it’s charged with being the Kingdom, living in submission to Jesus, loving each other, and allowing the Spirit to transform it so that God’s will is done in the Kingdom as it’s done in heaven.

Evangelism and benevolence aren’t avoided but re-prioritized. Before we worry with converting the lost or healing racism in the world, we should clean up our own mess and let God transform his church to no longer be racist, for example.

Both right-wing and left-wing churches skip the step of spiritual formation at the individual and the community (congregational) level. We don’t live the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM). We don’t live 1 Cor 13 or Rom 12, either. We sure don’t live Rom 14, not in the Churches of Christ. And yet the point of all the lessons in Romans on grace and salvation by faith and receipt of the Spirit and our confidence in God’s promises — all these things are supposed to lead us to live together, across racial and other barriers, as described in Rom 12-15.

Instead, we teach a superficial, rule-based morality, we either push evangelism or we push painting houses and digging wells for the poor, but we don’t actually work on what the Bible most discusses — our interpersonal relationships within the church, unity, mutual submission and love — and we can’t manage to be evangelistic and concerned with the poor at the same time. We’re pretty messed up, actually.

Now, when the leaders of a church begin to emphasize spiritual formation and our internal relationships, they’ll be widely criticized for being “inwardly focused” and for not caring about the lost or the poor.

You see, we’re too results oriented. We should be more process-oriented. That is, we should be terrified of actually being successful at evangelism or fixing poverty if we were to do these things without first becoming like Jesus and being in right relationship with each other. After all, if we aren’t living the SOTM and 1 Cor 13, just what are we converting the lost to become? If we aren’t living the SOTM and 1 Cor 13, when we paint a house, why would anyone be impressed enough to find Jesus? After all, there are plenty of secular organizations that paint houses. What makes us different? What makes us better than a world that gives you complete autonomy and doesn’t care about your sex life?

Do you see the problem? If we were to actually pursue the life that John Nugent urges in Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church or that James W. Thompson argues for in The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, the leadership would face criticism from every angle — since those who wish to pursue social activism (to defeat poverty, racism, etc.), those who wish to pursue evangelism, and those who wish to reduce Christianity to morality in order to earn an afterlife, all of them will disagree with Nugent and Thompson. And yet Nugent and Thompson are right (I think).

Now, “love your neighbor” and the Great Commission are still in the Bible, and need to be obeyed. It’s just that we can’t do either very well until we learn to love each other. And we have very little precedent or tradition to guide us into accomplishing these things. Indeed, we are developing a literature and praxis for individual spiritual formation, but next to nothing on how to live “love one another as I have loved you.”

What she wanted, and what nearly all of our respondents wanted, was for the church to leverage its organizational resources and infrastructure to get more things done outside of the church walls and to build community. Again, our respondents weren’t done with church because they disagreed with their churches’ theology or because they disliked the people. These are the reasons people switch churches. People opt out of organized religion altogether because they think the structure is fundamentally flawed.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 1758-1761). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

But there is hope. The Dones, for example, desperately desire Christian community. Most would understanding the arguments made by Nugent and Thompson — provided the leadership did not use them as an excuse to avoid concern for the poor and the lost. It’s not that we don’t paint houses, but that we paint houses as a unified community of believers who love each other. Just so, we seek and save the lost, but only as a unified community of believers who love each other.

That’ll work — and be profoundly scriptural.

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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20 Responses to Church Refugees: Morality

  1. Mark says:

    “We insist on limiting our relationship with the preacher and other elders to lectures and bulletin articles — meaning we don’t get close enough to our leaders to follow their example or to learn their hearts.”

    This is one side of a two-way street. The other is that some preachers and elders do not (let themselves) get too close to the masses. The reasons for such vary widely.

  2. Monty says:

    Jay,

    Trying to process all of this, I’m curious though as to how the Done’s would view church discipline? For example the man who had his father’s wife at Corinth. The congregation seemed too loving(accepting) of what was taking place. Paul was incredulous. It seems to me that the church and Christians in general are being accused more and more of being “haters and hypocrites” if we try to stand where scripture stands against wrong sexual values, and yes we need to stand with scripture on racism too. It would seem like if we do(act similarly in those type situations) what Paul instructed the church at Corinth to do we will only enforce the prevailing views the Dones and Nones have of us. How do we walk through the landmines of homosexuality, gay marriage, transgenderism, co-habiting, etc without coming off as archaic in the eyes of the Dones and Nones?

  3. David Himes says:

    Our sometimes “over the top” emphasis on “church” easily leads some to conclude that it is the “morality” of the group that is more important, or critical to salvation, than the individual.

    Social Activism for any particular cause — on the right or on the left — allows us to stand tall in our own mind, that we are “standing up for the truth.”

    I believe God calls us to kneel in submission — not “stand tall”.

    The major obstacle to human kind is our hubris that we can do what’s right, or make a difference.

    I’d be Done with church, too, if I believed any of what we teach thru our organizational behavior.

    However, I continue to fellowship because I’m seeking to follow Jesus example of loving others, the way he loves me. The implications of that are much broader and deeper than anything organized communities will ever accomplish thru themselves.

  4. David Himes says:

    By the way …. Monty

    In my Sunday morning class, I’ve recently discussed “homosexuality, gay marriage, transgenderism, co-habiting” and have young people coming to class and staying, because it’s the only place they ever get to discuss these topics.

  5. laymond says:

    The church of Christ seems bewildered as to why they are dwindling away, and why the congregation is getting older. If we intend to be looked upon as Christ’s church we have to teach what Jesus taught, not from old letters written to specific congregations by an old man that had many things to be forgiven for, but did not have a lot of forgiveness in his heart.

    Jesus taught “love thy neighbor, as thyself” . Not love thy neighbor as thyself, if they meet certain requirements .

    The church called “the church of Christ” has been the church of Paul for as long as I can remember.

  6. Dwight says:

    Laymond, I would counter that Paul taught love and unity and unity based on love… a lot. His letters to the Corinthians wasn’t largely about rules, but about love for one another. So what Paul taught wasn’t any different than what Jesus taught.
    Now what happens when we get to the scriptures is we pick and choose our narratives. The more conservative you are the more rules you employ over love and grace and mercy.

    Now in regards to “We insist on limiting our relationship with the preacher and other elders to lectures and bulletin articles — meaning we don’t get close enough to our leaders to follow their example or to learn their hearts.”
    What I find is that the elders and preachers don’t often act on what they preach, meaning that they often live a double life of sorts. They show up and do things in the congregation, but once you get outside of the congregation they don’t do a whole lot, after all their life as a Christian is bound to the congregation and not to the examples of Christ. This is at least largely true in the conservative coC. While I have seen our elders help church members, helping out in soup kitchens, habitat for humanity, etc. is lacking. So the example set by many elders and preachers are work internally for those who deserve it…the saints. The saints as a priority become the only one helped and reached. We as saints know how to internalize our Christianity amongst ourselves, but not to externalize it to the world.

  7. Mark says:

    St. Paul’s individual sentences were made into rules. I’m not sure who instructed cofC preachers to make rules out of the letters, seminaries or church elders. I have always wondered what was really taught in preaching classes or if those classes were ever updated.

  8. John F. says:

    Laymond wrote, “teach what Jesus taught, not from old letters written to specific congregations by an old man that had many things to be forgiven for, but did not have a lot of forgiveness in his heart.”

    The Jesus that Paul preached was the very one who appeared to Paul and gave Paul his commission. The letters Paul wrote are infused with calls to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to bring us into the image of Christ. To diminish Paul’s letters is to miss the message of Christ — they both proclaim the same call to transformation.

    They have the same call and authority today as when they were written, and just as culturally relevant. The NT was written to transcend any individual culture (although written in a specific culture) for all the ages. To take a different view is to view God’s revelation as deficient in some way and no longer relevant to a “more enlightened” time. The message to the 7 churches of Asia may be easily summarized by saying the the church does not compromise truth based on the culture in which it exists.

    2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,
    ESV

    Jesus YES, Paul NO has no basis for Christian living (see the RED LETTER CHRISTIAN movement).

  9. Alabama John says:

    Jesus appointed his apostles and there was no question who they were.
    Paul telling what happened with Jesus dead no one to back it up has caused many to question as it seems Jesus was correcting a mistake He made by appointing the wrong men or Paul was simply an afterthought.
    I like many others like John and his teaching and writing better.
    Paul was trained in presenting either side of an argument better than any of the others Jesus appointed, remember he was a lawyer by profession. That alone and understandably so, has caused many to doubt his apostleship.

  10. Mark says:

    Paul’s letters read aloud make more sense than Paul’s letters broken into verses and taken out of. context.

  11. Monty says:

    Paul understood law keeping better than any of the disciples, he was a Pharisee of Pharisees. And yet it is Paul who is adamant and gives us the greatest understanding about salvation by grace through faith and not of works. I think God knows what he’s doing guys. What better person than a dyed-in-the wool Pharisee to teach the message of the Gospel? I really don’t see the boogey man some see in Paul.

  12. Speaking as one of the Dones, many of us are “done” with having our spiritual leaders painting Christian behavior on us while not knowing -and not really caring- if we are changed within. We do the right things and eschew the wrong things and write the checks, and if we do this for more than five years, we become “core members”. It’s meaningless to us. We are done with acting like the people in the next pew and having that called virtue, or worse, “Christlike-ness”. We are done with sitting together for two hours a week and having this described as “family”. We want to love one another, rather than being told to show up, shut up, pay up and sign up. We actually like shepherds; we want them, need them– and we know them when we see them. But we no longer respond to sheep counters and wool inspectors and ranch managers who call themselves shepherds without developing personal relationships with us.

    We want to become different in real ways, but the traditional church wants anything but that. “Different” rocks the boat, challenges the status quo, and demands change. We are ready for change in ourselves. And we are done with organizations that need us to hold still and keep feeding them.

  13. Monty, regarding your question about how Dones see church discipline. We see it as a fiction, for the most part. For as long as we can remember, the church has dealt with actual sin by lecturing generally followed by gossiping specifically, followed by having people go down the road to another congregation that isn’t doing that. (Sometimes we write nasty letters after the fact, but Collinsville taught us to leave people alone once they stop attending our services. Since the development of “congregational autonomy”, no one has any authority to “discipline” anyone else against his will.

    Church discipline is much more likely to occur -and accomplish its intended ends– among a group of tightly knit friends. Consider which is more likely to create change: having Larry called on the carpet in front of the board of elders, or having Jim, Bob, and Dennis show up at Larry’s house and tell him, “Look, bro, you just can’t treat Cindy this way. We love you both too much to put up with it. Something has to change. And we are not going away.”

  14. Larry Cheek says:

    One thing I know for sure is that church discipline would be on top of most all of us if we were to speak within the church assembly (I mean even in a small group) with some of the topics that we can discuss on this site. That alone is how the church is controlled in its knowledge of the scriptures by leadership. Very few of the members of a congregation have any ability to communicate with those outside the church regarding some of the beliefs they have heard that we Christians believe.

  15. laymond says:

    Dwight said; “Laymond, I would counter that Paul taught love and unity and unity based on love… a lot. His letters to the Corinthians wasn’t largely about rules, but about love for one another. So what Paul taught wasn’t any different than what Jesus taught.”

    And Dwight is right, about what Paul taught , but did Paul always practice what he taught. I don’t think so.
    Did Paul forgive those who disagreed with him, not according to scripture.

  16. Larry Cheek says:

    Laymond,
    Do you have some kind of evidence to support that claim? This is what I found.
    2Co 2:7-11 ESV so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. (8) So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (9) For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. (10) Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, (11) so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

    Would we really believe that Paul would be concerned whether they were obedient, without being obedient himself? Paul says that to not forgive is also a design of Satan.

    (2Co 12:13 ESV) For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!

    (Col 3:13 ESV) bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

  17. laymond says:

    1Ti 1:18 This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare;
    1Ti 1:19 Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck:
    1Ti 1:20 Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.
    2Ti 2:17 And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus;
    2Ti 2:18 Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.

    I am not talking about who is right or wrong about the ressurection, but it seems Paul reguarded anyone who had a difference to his belief would go to hell to meet satan. or at least should.

    I believe the scriptures state if you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you, and my opinion is that Paul/Saul had much to be forgiven for.

  18. Larry Cheek says:

    Laymond,
    Would you really hold Paul to a higher standard than Jesus? Just a few verses from Jesus. Would you believe that Jesus forgave these without them converting to his teachings?
    Mat 23:15 ESV Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
    Mat 23:33 ESV You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

  19. Dwight says:

    Laymond, “And Dwight is right, about what Paul taught , but did Paul always practice what he taught. I don’t think so. Did Paul forgive those who disagreed with him, not according to scripture.”
    If these people “Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” did blaspheme, Paul’s forgiveness had nothing to do with it.
    Paul taught the doctrine as given to him by Jesus, thus when they blasphemed they blasphemed against Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit. Paul had every right to deliver them to Satan, which basically meant that he parted ways from their deeds.
    All in all, in regards to Paul if anyone had a “difference to his belief”, they had a difference to Jesus belief. This is way beyond forgiveness. Paul could have forgiven these people, we don’t know, but they still rejected Jesus and Jesus teaching and thus rejected God, so then they are now in the territory of needing God’s forgiveness.
    As noted by Larry, Jesus rejected those who rejected Him or God or the Holy Spirit.
    When Jesus asked of God “forgive them for they know now that they do”, this was a pleading to God and an example of Jesus heart, but this didn’t impact whether the people came to God and whether God forgave them when they didn’t. God might have forgiven them of this one crime in killing Jesus, but not in the rejecting the Son of God. In Acts 2 Peter laid the death of Jesus at the feet of the Jews…who had guilt and were convicted in this.

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