You’ve been an active member of a church all your adult life, giving generously of your time and money. You’ve been right in the middle of church life since you can remember, within the leadership, perhaps, or even as a staff member. You’ve listened to hundreds of sermons, attended countless committee meetings, showed up at prayer breakfasts, choir practices, and planning meetings. You’ve been a member of the worship ministry, education ministry, building and grounds ministry, finance ministry, tech ministry, involvement ministry, and more. And all along you thought you were serving the Lord and making a difference. But now you are not so sure. You’re tired, disillusioned, and ready for a change. You gave it your best, but you’re DONE.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend, a sincere believer, who falls into this category. He no longer attends a church. He’s done with the traditional way of doing church. He recommended that I read a book about people like him:
Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE With Church But Not Their Faith (Loveland, CO: Group.com, 2015).
My friend kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I read it immediately. I am not going to do a full book review in this post, but I do want to condense its basic message. Church Refugees summarizes the findings of a qualitative study of 100 interviews with people who have stopped attending traditional/institutional churches. Most of these people had been very active in their churches, and 20% had been in volunteer leadership positions or on staff. They are not part of the growing segment of the population with no religious convictions, the so-called “Nones,” that is, people who choose “none” on religious preference surveys. They are the “Dones.” They are not unchurched but dechurched. As one participant put it, “I was churched right out of church.” Most of them retain their Christian faith. Indeed many left institutional churches because they found themselves unable to practice their faith effectively. Four central themes recur across the interviews (p. 28):
- They wanted community…and got judgment.
- They wanted to affect the life of the church…and got bureaucracy.
- They wanted conversation…and got doctrine.
- They wanted meaningful engagement with the world…and got moral prescription.
The authors explore these four themes in the four central chapters of the book. (1) The “Dones” longed for community, honesty, understanding, and intimacy with people of like faith. Instead, they found that no matter where they went the dominant ethos of institutional churches was judgment, that is, an anxious, unsympathetic, and impatient attitude toward the weaknesses of others. (2) They wanted to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, to try new things and serve in new ways. But their efforts were stymied by layers and layers of bureaucracy. In institutional churches there are many stakeholders and limited resources. Small changes in one area may affect the whole organization in unpredictable ways. The Dones finally concluded that no matter what its stated ideals the main purpose of bureaucratic churches ends up being self-preservation. (3) The Dones wanted their churches to be safe places to express opinions, questions and doubts and to explore their faith both intellectually and practically. But what they experienced were demands for doctrinal conformity. Questions and expressions of dissenting opinions were met with coolness and sometimes hostility. They were not expecting doctrinal anarchy; they understood the necessity of a church having a confessional identity. But they wanted church teachings to be presented with humility and openness to change. (4) Many of the Dones wanted the church to be engaged constructively in the social issues and needs of their communities, in alleviating poverty and homelessness, in addressing racism and other forms of injustice. But what they experienced was moral pronouncements from the leadership. In their experience, institutional churches were almost completely inwardly focused.
Sympathetic But Not Done
As regular readers of this blog know I have many concerns with traditional/institutional churches. (See my post of August 14, 2017, “Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?”) I am very supportive and empathetic with my dechurched friend, and I expected to resonate with the experience of the “Dones” and to be in agreement with the basic message of Church Refugees. So, I read it within a day of receiving it. But my overall feeling was disappointment. I agree with many (not all) of the Dones’ criticisms of institutional churches: they are too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. But I was disappointed with what the Dones are putting in place of the institutional church. As a whole they are no longer participating in the communal life of the people of God. They don’t seem to understand what the church is. For sure, they have a nose for what it is not: it should not be the bureaucratic, inwardly-focused, clergy-dominated, self-perpetuating organization they left. But they don’t have a sound theological understanding of nature and mission of the Spirit-filled and Christ-shaped community that was created by the Resurrection of Jesus, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, and the apostolic mission. Nor seemingly do the authors; at least they don’t venture into those waters.
The last few chapters of Church Refugees offer recommendations on how institutional churches can keep people from becoming Dones or, less likely, reclaim some of those who already have. Most of these suggestions involve ameliorating some of the problems that provoked the exodus of the Dones. I don’t find these suggestions very convincing. The biggest problem I have with the authors’ proposals is that they are not radical enough, that is, they do not go to the root of the problem by rethinking the faulty, thoughtless theology of the church that lies behind the typical institutional church the Dones are leaving. I do not think churches should first ask themselves, “What can we change to keep people from leaving?” As far as I can tell from these interviews, the Dones’ theology of the church is just as superficial and defective as that of the churches they left; so, it cannot serve as a norm for reform. Indeed, it seems to me that many of the problems the Dones raise exist because the church has tried to serve too many constituencies and defined its mission too broadly. They won’t be solved by adding another group to please. I believe the first question we should address is, “How can we make sure that the institution we call “the church” really is the church as measured by the New Testament vision of its nature and mission?” What radical changes we would have to make if we took this vision seriously!
There is a church in my neighborhood that displays in view of a busy street a sign that says, “Saint Evagrius Lutheran Church [Not its real name]: Everyone is Welcome.” Every time I drive by this sign I groan. In my view, the idea that the church’s inmost life, its most intimate and solemn moments are matters open to the public at large arises from the superficial theology of the church that is shared by most institutional churches and the people who are leaving them. Radical problems need radical solutions.
To be continued.
An interesting take I might be able to bring to the table now: I recently was embroiled in a bitter controversy in our university’s College of Fine Arts. The debates and protest were vitriolic and passionate, and I feared that the very community itself would ruptre. The worst sides of everyone seemed to come out, and this was my life for the past 7-8 months as I saw friends and colleagues in our community demonizing one another.
In the wake of all this turmoil, I had to ask myself: why do I still want to remain in a university setting? Why do I still want to teach in one and be part of its mission, despite all the ugly aspects its controversies can bring out? The answer: as much as I hate the dark side of it all, I love the good it stands for and the benefits it can bring. I believe in the mission of the university and want to be part of it. And that hope and desire outweighs the ugliest feuds.
As with the university, so too with the church.
As I indicated in my last few paragraphs I am not DONE. Nothing involving human beings will be perfect. Many of the Dones said that the problem is not the people but the system. There is some truth to this; but there is no way to escape the human condition. No matter how we organze the Christian community, we will face challenges. I think, however, we should become more aware of the contincency of our systems of organization. And the church should always be open to reform in light of its essential message and mission.
On the matter of the University, I can truly say that I have never in 29 years experienced a huge fight like the one you describe. My academic career has been 95% positive. I have wonderful colleagues. I hope you find a similar situation.
Yes, I did not think I would experience that either. Sometimes I do miss and long for the relative Eden that is Pepperdine’s community. But we must each find ways to love the soil in which we are sown.
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Ron: Thank you for your thoughtful review of this book and situation. I know of many who have become ‘Done’ with church. Some left thoughtfully, others hastily. Some continue on a much less committed basis with sporadic attendance and no other real participation. I ache for them, and for the church. Over 20 years ago I did the DMin at ACU and wrote my project thesis on reaching out to those who were ‘inactive’ members. As a US Army Chaplain many of my soldiers fit that description, so I wanted to do something with my project thesis that I could use in my military ministry. After research and setting the context at the beginning of the project, however, as I look back I now realize at the end that I resorted to some of the same surface level changes and approaches to what it sounds like you read in the more current book (which I have not read yet). Not very successful in terms of actually bringing inactive members back to activity, although I do think I was successful in training people to love those who are absent and hurting. I agree that what is needed is deeper levels of change and I look forward to your next post.
By the way, although you did not mention your friend by name, I spent quite a bit of time with a mutual friend at the Pepperdine lectures a couple of weeks ago that is ‘done.’ My heart breaks not only for him, but also for the church in his city. I preached at a congregation for 11 years after I retired from military ministry and struggled with the exact issues you identify as the reasons so many are ‘done.’ Local ministry faces some very difficult times today! But, on the other hand, I have seen God at work in many wonderful ways, new and exciting and far reaching ways, so I am confident (in him) and encouraged!
Thank you again for your writing in this blog and in your books as well! I have read The Faithful Creator; God, Freedom, and Human Dignity; and I am now reading Great Is the Lord.
God bless, Mark Henry
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I subscribed to this blog a few years ago. I do not know the religious background, but he gets right to the point on the issues. Thought you might be interested. I have had that “Done” feeling a few times and right now wondering what is missing about the traditional way of doing things.
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Thanks for reading this essay and others. My background is the Church of Christ from the Stone-Campbell Tradition. Pepperdine is a church related university founded by George Pepperdine in 1937. Mr. Pepperdine was a member of the Church of Christ and wanted to endow a college under the influence of that tradition. I was in the ministry for 10 years before completing my PhD in theology and philosophy of religion and coming to Pepperdine to teach. That was 29 years ago. My aim in this blog is to stimulate greater thoughtfulness about theological matters. Of course, I have opinions and I express them. But I believe I have much to learn. Thank you for being a participant in the discussion! I welcome your ideas.
🙂 And So IT Go’s!
Not to be cynical just agreeing.
is the church about numbers and corresponding $ signs to pay expenses. How much is in the budget to help those that have no disposable income at the end of each month, or others less fortunate. this is a collective Hart issue. Does the congregation have a problem with cognitive dissonance (A conspiracy of ignorance) based on the application of functional theological ontology?
Which finds the Root of reasoning limitations (of Our Fathers Loving Grace) stemming from the regulatory principle based in baconism ( the scientific method inductive /deductive method od of learning how to be much more right than my neighbor) flowing ontologically into the American Restoration movent of the 1850s into 1900s.
I was 21 years old in1970 3ed gen CoC(Ya capitols) and I was all in! studied rightly dividing the word of truth, going to all the debates on divorce and remarriage, the debates on the Holy Spirit!
at about 50 years old my wife asks me a simple question that changed my whole perception of my theological Ontology, even though I was ignorant of the concept of the “how, the where I came from” worked, except in the striving of being right and giving glory to my Father!
oh ya hose words, “richard would you rather be right or be loved”
To put this nicely my reality, 21years later I am thankful and grateful o be able to say this,in this retrospective way. yes, theological ontology is very damaging in multiple avenues of how we express our actualization of the loving living WORD of the Father IN US. and it is US collectively with all the with all the gifts that the Spirit has enabled Each of us to realize and then actualize! i will stop there RON. lv ya…RICH
Interesting that I got all 4 of those things in our church, what I don’t get there is Christ, The Cross, or the Gospel. I still attend but every Sunday is an exercise of frustration. I’m suddenly a ‘fundamentalist’ for not having been ‘liberated’ from Doctrines of God.
If you have the time, you might read “Part Two” on this subject. Also, I hope to write a “Part Three” soon. May the Lord show you (and me) the way forward to effective witness to the simple gospel during these times.