My friends know what’s in store.
I won’t be here anymore.
I’ve packed my bags
I’ve cleaned the floor.
Watch me walkin’
Walkin’ out the door.
We’ve become used to the term, “nones” to describe those who have no religious affiliation or faith, but Josh Packard, the author of a University of Northern Colorado study, recently coined the term “dones” to describe former churchgoers who nevertheless maintain their faith in God and their Christian identity.
And according to his research, this describes an estimated 30 million Americans. Not only that, Packard says there are another 7 million “almost dones” coming up behind them.
In 2007 the Pew Research Center conducted its Religious Landscape Study with a massive survey of 35,000 individuals and found that about 16 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that same study reported the number had climbed to 23 percent.
Way back in 1980 only eight percent of those under age 30 were “nones.” The Pew Center says that number has risen to 32 percent.
People are leaving the church in droves, especially so-called millennials. But the picture that seems to be emerging isn’t a simple one of wholesale church decline. Part of what is happening is that many committed Christians are continuing to pursue their faith outside institutional church membership. Indeed, Packard’s research suggests many of the “dones” felt they needed to leave in order to continue to follow Christ.
When Josh Packard asked his subjects why they had left church, he found the top four reasons were:
- 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.
Clergy who dismiss church leavers as faithless or lazy clearly don’t understand the complexities of the situation. There are important lessons for church leaders to learn from the “dones”, if only they had the grace to listen.
I can’t tell you how many “dones” and “almost dones” contact me to express their heartbreak at the incomplete and unsatisfying rhythm of religion their church experience offered them. They want to follow God, but instead feel burdened with the stultifying effects of judgment, bureaucracy and busyness, and doctrinaire morality. They feel like we shouldn’t have to wade through so much chaff in order to find the wheat.
Many of them are not happy to wander the religious landscape, forgotten and unaccounted for by the church as many “dones” do. They want community, conversation and meaningful engagement and the closest they get is engaging with a blogger like me.
But aren’t these things in fact the very stuff of a true church?
Indeed, Josh Packard’s research into the “dones” revealed that the kind of church they desired wasn’t different to what Christ intended in the first place. Packard wrote,
“…more than anything what the dechurched want is a home in the truest sense of the word. A place that’s safe and supportive and refreshing and challenging. An identifiable place, embedded in a larger community where they both know and are known by those around them and where they feel they can have a meaningful impact on the world. They long for the same kind of church that we all long for. They desire a church that’s active and engaged with the world, where people can bring their full and authentic selves and receive love and community in return.”
I think a lot of the “dones” and “almost dones” are tired of simply confining the practice of their faith to a weekly worship gathering and a midweek meeting. They want to find the meaningful life Jesus promised in the places they live, work and play. That is, outside the church walls. They need someone to tell them you don’t need to leave church to find it. You can be the church in the world, just as Jesus promised.
If you’re done with church and just want a privatized faith of sorts, a warm sense of God’s vague presence deep down in your heart somewhere, I haven’t really got anything for you.
But if part of your frustration with institutional religion involves a nagging feeling that there’s got to be more to following Jesus than just attending meetings, then take hope. I’m old enough to know that truth and the institution cloaking it are separate realities. Sometimes they have little to do with one another. But I have great confidence in the Spirit of God to catalyze something out of this great exodus from institutional Christianity.
GK Chesterton once wrote, “On five occasions in history the Church has gone to the dogs, but on each occasion, it was the dogs that died.”
It’s probably happened a few more occasions since he wrote that, but the church of Christ has proved remarkably resilient and adaptable. In the last one hundred years we’ve seen renewing movements like Pentecostalism, the church growth movement, and the missional paradigm. And there’ll more more renewal in the 21st century.
I’m not a futurist so I can’t predict exactly what it will look like, but change is coming. I’m sure of it.
Maybe the first step is for church leaders to humbly listen to the yearnings and aspirations of those who are walkin’ out the door.