Today, sociologist and author, Dr. Josh Packard, released stunning research that could easily shake the church to its foundation. His data, compiled through the Social Research Lab at the University of Northern Colorado, reveal that that there are now 30 million de-churched people in our country. Another seven million are about to walk out the door. They are done or almost done with the church.
I have long been passionate about this group. His numbers and insights both confirm my hunches even as they surprise me in their scope.
Who are the Dones?
Well, it might first be helpful to note what they are not. For the most part, they are not angry or bitter. They are not protesting the color of the sanctuary carpet or the congregation's stand on same-sex relationships. If this were the case, they might simply join another congregation.
The Dones were not marginal in their commitment to their churches. In addition to regular worship, over half (55%) participated in the life of their congregation through a variety of ministries. Many were strong leaders, faithful givers, and reliable teachers.
The Dones did not hate their congregation. In fact, they loved them, and the decision to leave was very painful and brought them profound grief.
The Dones are not limited to any one particular age group. There are as many Dones among those over 55 as between the ages of 18 and 34.
Fewer than 10% are ever likely to return to organized religion.
The Almost Dones continue to worship and participate in the life of their congregations, but they are weary, and research suggests they will soon leave.
The Importance of Community
As Packard explores in his earlier book, Church Refugees, the Dones are not giving up on God. They are giving up on an institution that they experience as irrelevant if not an impediment to their spiritual growth. While space does not allow a full examination of his work, two facets are particularly critical.
The Dones value community. Indeed, they deeply experience God in and through relationships with their brother and sisters. But sitting in rows and looking at the back of other people's heads, as my wife has long argued, cannot nurture relationships!
This yearning for community first led the Dones to join the church, and to a significant degree that is exactly what they discovered: people like themselves in search of meaning and purpose whose faith connected them to one another. They did not and do not seek conformity. They enjoy a variety of opinions and perspectives and desire opportunities to discuss these openly. They want to be held accountable even as they want to know the embrace of love in times of struggle and suffering.
Again, community is not simply a part of their faith. It is through this network of relationships that they experience God.
Unfortunately, instead of community, the Dones often encountered judgment. Judgment about hair style or dress. Judgment about gay and lesbian friendships. Judgment about "moral failings." Judgment about this. Judgment about that.
Particularly disconcerting were the subtle forms through which judgment was expressed: a raised eyebrow, whispering, gossip, jealousy, ostracism.
I have a habit of striking up conversations with people where I go. I especially enjoy doing this at my favorite hangout, Starbucks. I make it a point not to disclose that I am a preacher. That tends to stifle conversation!
One afternoon, I noticed a woman sitting at a table beside me studiously pecking at the keys on her laptop. "What are you up to?" I asked.
"My resume. I'm trying to get it updated."
"I lost my job. I've spent the past eighteen months looking for another one."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Sounds tough."
She sighed, "It has been, and in the midst of all this, I got a divorce."
I was struck by the heaviness of her situation, and I asked, "What's kept you going through all of these challenges? That's a lot to deal with."
She thought for a moment and then replied, "My church. The people there have loved me and supported me every step of the way."
That woman articulates extraordinarily well what the Dones are seeking: A community, people who will support them every step of the way, and because they have not found that in church, they have left.
The Dones also seek to make on impact on their neighborhood. They are compelled by their faith to reach out to others, to help them, and to learn from them.
Yet, instead of opportunities to serve, they have encountered one bureaucratic obstacle after another. They want to make a difference in the lives of other people but they are asked to invest their time and talent in keeping the institution up and running. While this is an unavoidable feature of communal life, the Dones grew frustrated with making institutional maintenance a top priority.
Many years ago, I knew a church outreach committee that did a wonderful job of providing a monthly meal for a local homeless shelter. The committee, however, was comprised of the chair and only the chair! He took his position seriously and thought it his responsibility to make sure the meal was served.
One day I asked him, "Do you think that by doing it all yourself you might be depriving others of an opportunity to enjoy this ministry?"
He had never considered that a possibility. He immediately began inviting others to join him, and they happily did.
It took a lot of hard work from many different leaders, but several years later, that congregation had thirty people going to a homeless shelter three times each month.
How many people might have walked out the door of the church had that leader not taken the first step to share ministry with others?
A Personal Word
When I read about the Dones and soak up the insights of Dr. Packard's work, a voice within me cries out, "I get it!" I really do. In nearly thirty years of ordained ministry I have been blessed by relationships that continue to sustain me and opportunities to give back that have deeply shaped my life. The church I am serving now, thankfully, offers me both.
But far too often I have been on the receiving end of painful, judgmental attitudes, and I have fractured my skull while banging my head against ossified bureaucratic structures. My own experience of the church has given me a passion for the Dones.
If you are in a church currently, or have left one,
• What form of judgment particularly offends you?
• How have you found bureaucratic structures frustrating?
• How have you experienced community outside the regular rhythms of congregational life?
If you would like to join me in this conversation, please CLICK HERE. Each week I send out a blog that addresses these kinds of issues and invites lively discussion. Next week, for example, we will feature an interview with Dr. Packard. Feel free to offer a question for Dr. Packard, or share your own experiences of church engagement. Are you done with church? Looking for more? Or searching for a way to keep your fellow parishioners engaged?