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.
29 thoughts on “To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you”
Mike you claim you want to listen, but your own words suggest you already know the answers. Unless I’ve missed something, you find them in this (hardly new) study as well as your own assumptions:
“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.”
I’d suggest there’s a need to grapple more with the questions of what is “ekklesia” … to say nothing of what is the (horrifically poorly termed “church *service*”.
Finally, who are you really writing this to? Who is your audience?
If it’s people like me, frankly it seems you don’t really get it … tho the words may superficially appear to do so.
What *do* words like “listen” mean?
Do they mean institutional churches will hear and change?
If so, why do you think we have we all left?
Maybe “the church” has ceased to be *the* church.
It’s hard to read this and not hear a tone of animosity here. I’m not sure why you’re being so accusatory. I didn’t claim the study was brand new, but I still think it has great relevance. I think that listening to the desires of the ‘dones’ is important and I had a crack at interpreting what they are saying. If you don’t agree, feel free to offer your alternative interpretation. You ask if I’m writing it to people like you, but I don’t know you, so I’m not sure what that means. I read an interesting study, I shared my thoughts on it, and I’m interested in yours. Simple.
I’m one of the “dones” and I very much felt this was for me.
Me too! Thank you for this post! I too believe God is beginning something new! It begins with me joining the movement and beibgbthe church. Appreciate your writings so very much.
This is what I wanted:
Unfortunately, it was just marketing lies from the UMC.
Having been absent from the institutional church for 7 years, I have realized some things:
1) I am free to be me. No filtering. No prep. No mask. Just me. Whatever my opinions.
2) I am free to have a bad day and be accepted as a flawed human being.
3) I have found myself in spaces with other believers where I feel at home, for the first time.
4) I don’t feel pressure to give, to get people to attend, or to convert people. I don’t feel manipulated any more.
5) Sometimes the Eucharist is the pizza crust or the breading on the chicken wings.
6) The church reduces to a table. The person sitting across from you is Imago Dei.
Beautiful, Al. What about the need within us all to journey in community in these things? Is that being met anywhere?
That place of community is a non-profit ministry I serve in with other believers. I have also become involved in political organizing. Not Christian per-se, but a community nonetheless.
Al, this is refreshing. Thanks. Thanks for a positive perspective! You’re a blessing!
Hey Al, I am interested in what the last seven years have been like between you and Jesus, you and God. What has changed there? Do you feel closer to God?Do you feel more connected with His mission in the world? What does that look like? And, if I can ask one more question, what role does the Bible play in your life today?
Hi Steve. I’m not sure I can answer your first question because one’s feeling about a relationship is subjective. I will say my view of God’s presence in the world has become much more incarnational. Increasingly, I see my fellow human beings as being created in God’s image, so my relationship with God and/or Jesus is a function of seeing His image in others. When I connect with others, I feel closer to God. I still pray. I definitely feel connected with God’s mission in the world, more than ever. That looks like involvement in non-profits that minister to people (inspired by Isaiah 1:17, Matthew 25) directly and personally. That also means becoming politically active, because that is the only way to change policies that affect people. The Bible plays a foundational role in my life, but not because I necessarily read it every day (I don’t). I discovered that over the years I have internalized it. My exegesis has changed so that I have focused more on the Gospels, the Beatitudes, and what Jesus expects of me as I follow him.
Hey Mike, tough to pull this tricky subject together in a blog post, but I think you nailed a few things. Specifically, this abstraction from the Packard quote, “… an identifiable place, embedded in a larger community where they both know and are known…” speaks loudest to me. And I am wondering more and more if the institutional church (large congos and gatherings of more than 50ish or so) just isn’t the way the ekklesia is supposed to function–it CAN function in large gatherings, but is it the “best” way for church to be church?! I bring this up, because I think “dones” are onto something that may be a way of deconstructing the church, so that, smaller groups of believers, who share a similar culture and context can do life together in “an identifiable place, embedded in a larger community [the whole body of Christ].” I say this because contextualization is the most effective way to communicate and we know this. But I wonder, for a pastor, is it possible to “speak into people’s lives in relevant ways” when a pastor doesn’t even know and engage in the congregation’s lives on a daily basis? Meaning, if a small group lives and does life together, wouldn’t the pastors, or preachers in the group be better equipped to shepherd well? I am convinced that one of the greatest human desires is to be fully known (even our ugliest bits) and fully loved, especially by those we do this thing called church with. I think the “dones” hunger to experience and engage in this deeper level of intimacy in a authentic, raw, and honest way. Where they don’t just talk about ideas, but actually get stuff done. I think the wisest thing we can do is listen to the stories, because the church isn’t diminishing, it can’t, its just is taking on a radically different form, it is morphing into something we can’t yet wrap our brains around. Maybe the faithful can look at this as church-in-chrysalis form, and what is going to come from this might just be a beautiful thing… I want to believe this, I have to believe this.
Thanks for your comment Shannon, beautiful, I really resonate with what you are saying 🙂
Thankful you share the sentiment, Jai. 🙂
Done since 2002, with a long lead time prior.
“…truth and the institution cloaking it are separate realities…” – what I refer to as the baby and the bathwater, and treat as per the adage.
Thanks for this article. It is helpfully refreshing to read. I’d add to the list of causes that some “dones” tired of pouring from a cup that is never refilled (and didn’t feel they could ask, because it is un-christian to burn out).
“Maybe the first step is for church leaders to humbly listen to the yearnings and aspirations of those who are walkin’ out the door.”
Possibly. I think they are, leaders seem to be somewhat aware of it. Perhaps yearning for it themselves and earnestly trying to fix it?
But I’m not convinced institutions can be fixed, because they are so established in legal / political frameworks. I think they need to be broken. I don’t mean in a post modern, deconstruction for the sake of it sense. I mean in the sense of how Jesus broke the establishmed legal framework.
I don’t think those outside of the established institution need the validation or concerned ear of the institutional leaders either. I think they ARE leaders. Of tradition, spirit, the mission…
As you gently pointed out above, I’m not sure we have the “journey in community” sorted out, because to “sort it out” feels like institutionalising it, but I think that’s coming / hear.
Well that’s my thoughts at least 🙂
This is not an adjustment, a wave or a new movement, this is the beginning of a Revolution. The Religious System will crash because they will refuse to listen.
Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”
We are committed to Loving His Family By Equipping, Discipling, Fathering & Sharing Life Together no matter what the cost!
Can you explain what “doctrinaire morality” is?
The church has a problem with over-promising and under-delivering.
The stories of people finding community, healing, God’s involvement seem more like Lotto winners, designed to keep everyone else showing up every week and buying metaphorical tickets.
It’s happenstance. Maybe this next small group is the one! Keep giving mental assent and showing up to our programs! Something is bound to change!
At this point, I look more to people in the business/personal development space, particularly from retired military because they present no-nonsense methods to effect change both internally as well as life circumstances whereas the church does not, or if it does, more often than not, strikes me as magical thinking disguised as faith.
I haven’t given up on God, but I’m not overly fond of the church.
Hey Charles, I really hear what you are saying. I can feel your passion in the way you express your experience with the church and I am encouraged that you haven’t given up on God. But I’d like to bounce a few things off of you, to see what you might think about a different perspective of church. I think some of the most difficult things Christ-followers experience within the church community are: unmet expectations and having other’s brokenness pouring into and “messing” with us. I think if you hang around any churchy group of folks long enough you’re going to get hurt or saddened in some way; it inevitable. But, let’s look at what Jesus said, he told us he came for the messed up folks, not the one’s who have it all together. So, it makes sense that the church is filled with a bunch of broken people, who, by the very nature of our brokenness, mess up… often! The church is and will be a distorted, wonkified expression of the Kingdom of God until King Jesus returns. Please, don’t think I have very low expectations for the church, that is very far from true; I have hope and faith that are rooted in the promises of God and I guess, that’s what gets me through the times that church seems to be utterly contrary to everything it should and is called to be. We don’t have to be overly fond of the church… we aren’t called to that. If we follow Jesus then we are a part of the church, whether we like it or not. Question for you Charles- do you think there is a way to “be” the church with folks that share a similar vision and drive as yourself?
I’m encouraged by your various comments on this, thank you!
One of the reasons I became “done” is related to Jesus coming for messed up folks, not the ones who have it all together.
My experience in churches was that people pretended to have it all together so they fit in. It was like churchians had it all together so they were fit to give Jesus to those who were messed up. This is more about power dynamics and cult-thinking than actually following the example of Jesus. (WWJD is flawed – it should be extended to “how did Jesus treat those who didn’t do what he would do”!!) I’m reminded of references to whitewashed tombs.
In 2001 I took some time to get to the bottom of what I believe about being a follower of Jesus. The more I studied theology, apologetics, new and old testament, and church history, the less I felt the modern institutionalized church fits the model described by Luke in Acts, and the more I felt liberated to relate to my Creator without the intermediation of church-appointed priesthood and dogma.
To answer your question to Charles – Yes, Absolutely. The little I’ve read about Christian Anarchism appeals to me. I’m open to the possibility of becoming “undone”!!
You are makin’ my heart sing, brother. I get you. Ya know, I just pray that you find the right fit for you. I think we can get creative with how we do church, it doesn’t have to look like traditional church. I too have struggled with the inauthentic nature of church and people acting as if they have it all together and truly, people being down-right rude and hypocritical. What I have learned to do is look past and through the flawless hair, fancy clothes, “perfect” family Xmas cards, and I know with every ounce of my being that it is a facade, or cloak, and underneath there is a vulnerable broken person, just like me. And instead of getting pissed, my heart grieves for them. I’ve learned to take this counterintuitive approach, it’s not perfect and I am saddened by what I see, but I’m not giving up, I can’t. Praying for you, Ben… grace & peace, brother!
All I can say is thanks for articulating the sentiments of so many (based on the comments alone!) It certainly is the story of the modern American church I know too well. History shows us that God reinvents the church nearly every generation because all human-defined structures fail.
But the Gospel finds a way. Let’s pray that we are all a part and not a hindrance to that new way.
For those interested in spirituality beyond the walls of the church, I am really interested in your thoughts. I am operating out of Melbourne. I have begun a podcast at dchurched.com – also linked to a facebook group. Happy to hear your comments and learn about your journey. firstname.lastname@example.org
I see a correlation between poor discipleship models in the local church and male disenchantment with Christianity. Following Jesus is supposed to be about following someone somewhere to do something.
For me, it is about Jesus being The HEAD. Scripture states there will be a great apostasy before Jesus comes back. I see that everywhere, compromise and deviation from what the Apostles taught as to how to follow Christ. I felt emasculated as a man having to sit and listen to someone who went to a seminary and has a platform that must not be interrupted every Sunday, he becomes the head not Jesus. The body of Christ was not meant to function sitting in rows listening to this one man. The structure has been off for almost 2000 years and if you want to follow God’s spirit you have to get out.
Cameron Larson, I agree with you. Some of the comments here are saying good things about relating to people within the Church, we are all broken in some way. However, the issue is what we call CHURCH, and it’s structure being led mostly by ONE MAN, who does become the ‘head’, taking Jesus’ place!!
THAT is a type of anti-christ. Antichrist has two sides to it: one is resisting and fighting against Christ and the other is taking “His place”, and that is what pastors are doing in the Institutional Church!
In the Book of Acts the WHOLE Church came together and made decisions, not one man.
Acts 15:22, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the WHOLE church…”
James was not the pastor there but ONE of the Elders, and after hours of discussion and everyone coming to an agreement James simply summarized what they had all already agreed upon.
They had no pastors in the Early Church because that word and office had not been invented yet. It only came to pass after the second and third centuries, but they were following “Diotrephes” lead “Cameron Larson, I agree with you. Some of the comments here are saying good things about relating to people within the Church, we are all broken in some way. However, the issue is what we call CHURCH, and it’s structure being led mostly by ONE MAN, who does become the ‘head’, taking Jesus’ place!!
SORRY it got duplicated. I copied and pasted into MS Word to check spelling, and accidently pasted it in here as well!
I fixed it for ya.