By Wayne JacobsenFourth in a series on the The Phenomenon of the Dones
(Read: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3)
If you read one book about the church this year, you’ll want to read Church Refugees. Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope are sociologists and while researching the current trends of people’s church attendance made a surprising and unexpected discovery. They identified a significant number of Christians who no longer attend church services and yet are thriving in their spiritual life. They call them “the Dones” because they are done with the traditional congregation having felt it was stifling to their own spiritual journey.
To their surprise they discovered that most of them had not lost interest in their faith, faded out the back door, or preferred to watch football on Sundays. Instead they discovered them to be high-capacity Christians who were committed givers and deeply involved in leadership. They didn’t leave quickly or easily, having spent years trying to encourage change or simply find a way to get along. They eventually left because in all conscience they conclude that the way things are being done in their congregation threatens to compromise their faith. They sought community over judgment, mission over machinery, rich conversation over pat answers, and meaningful engagement with the world beyond moral prescriptions. While leaving is not easy as they suffered the judgments of former friends and colleagues they soon discover that there are plenty of resources for growth, meaningful connections with others on a faith journey, and ways to touch the world beyond the congregational system.
This book is a game-changer for how we perceive the church and understand those who no longer find our institutions helpful to their journey. It has the potential to obliterate the myth that our local institutions are the only or even the best way to engage the life of Jesus and his mission in the world. That’s not what the authors have in mind since they are both avid attenders themselves. They simply wanted to explore the phenomenon and seek to help congregations understand why these people are leaving and perhaps reconsider how to revitalize their institutions so they wouldn’t have to leave.
This is a compelling read that is hard to put down. The researchers mix their findings with first-hand stories from their respondents that will challenge whatever view you hold of the church. No doubt many will find it difficult to admit that passionate followers of Jesus are thriving outside our institutions, preferring the narrative that you can’t be a true Christian if you are not connected to a local congregation. The hungers, however, are real and if they won’t be served by our existing congregations people will go looking elsewhere. Obligation alone will not save these institutions.
For those who have already left you’ll find encouragement that you’re not alone in your desire for a more vibrant experience with God and his church and that it is possible to fulfill it in other ways. However, the terminology the authors use will make you cringe at times. Even the title, Church Refugees, is more than a little condescending to those who are no longer part of a traditional church. Calling them “The Dones” or the “Dechurched” doesn’t help either and you’ll find that language on almost every page. Just keep in mind this is a book by insiders, for insiders, about outsiders. It only uses “church” for institutional gatherings and posits those outside of such institutions as the “dechruched”. But it doesn’t dismiss them or the sincerity of their faith. I’ve not been an active participant in an institutional church for over 20 years, but I don’t consider myself a church refugee or that I am dechurched. I have never been more alive and engaged with the church Jesus is building in the world in so many expressions outside our traditional congregations. The church in Scripture was never a religious institution with weekend services and top-heavy bureaucracies. The church is the family Jesus is building in the earth and it cannot be contained or managed in any human organization. While it can take expression there, it can also take shape in many ways beyond it.
This may be the most important church book written in this decade. Whether you like what their research shows or not, Packard and Hope have done us all a service by giving us an accurate picture of the religious landscape rather than relying on our biases or experiences. What we do with them will have great impact on our engagement with the church.
If you share the hunger of the Dones but still hold hope for our Christian institutions, it will help you be a voice for change so those hungers can be served instead of frustrated. If you’ve found it necessary to leave you’ll find great encouragement in knowing there are others finding opportunities for growth, deep fellowship and mission beyond the programs of our congregations.
Hopefully it will help us all see the church as a bigger reality than our human conventions can contain, and affirm that what’s most important is whether or not people are following Jesus, not which building they go to on Sunday morning, or even if they go to one at all.
Church Refugees • 143 pages in hardback, paper back or ebook. Order from Amazon.com
Wayne Jacobsen is the author of Finding Church and host of The God Journey podcast, where he you’ll find his conversation with Dr. Packard about the Dones on May 1st and May 8th episodes.