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.