Part 8 in a series about the Phenomenon of the Dones.
According to sociologist, Josh Packard, thirty million people are no longer attend a local congregation but remain passionately engaged with their faith in Christ. That’s the same number of people who attend each weekend. Seven million of those are present in services “in body only” and will likely add to the number of those leaving soon.
What are we to make of all of this? Some pastors have suggested that those leaving are just being selfish at a time when the family needs them most. That’s not true of the ones I’ve met over the last twenty years. They didn’t leave out of selfishness, but in exasperation that their best attempts to inspire change in their congregation fell on deaf ears. They haven’t given up on the church, but are looking for more authentic expressions of her.
So why are so many people leaving now? I see five cultural factors that have converged in our time to contribute to this exodus:
The trend away from community. Fifty years ago most local churches were gathering places of a community that had been built over generations and acted as a large, extended family. The church growth movement of the 70s and 80s put a premium on size and with the advent of mega-churches real community was lost in the drive for bigger-is-better and most people found themselves sitting in a room full of strangers. Programming became more important than community and the relationships they did have were superficial at best.
The appeal to the casual attendee. In the drive for increased size, much of this program was designed to appeal not to the passionate Jesus follower, whom leaders assumed would come anyway, but to those less-engaged who needed more entertainment than substance during their once-a-week attendance. When the professional sports realized its economic growth lie in attracting the casual fan, they substantively changed the nature of their sport to make sure they were entertained. It worked. Viewership skyrocketed, but for many hard-core fans that ruined the game they’d fallen in love with. While that might work for football, it has not worked with the Gospel. The passionate followers of Jesus are leaving and many pastors are concerned that they are being left with those who only have a casual interest in spirituality.
The decline of cultural pressure. It used to be true that to have credibility as a Christian in the local community, or to at least be available to that market you needed a presence in a local fellowship. Those who didn’t were looked down upon. That isn’t true anymore and people have lots of options to fill their weekend. People no longer feel obligated by outward pressure and the stigma of not attending no longer exists outside the walls of a local fellowship.
The systematizing of spirituality that bypasses the heart in favor of the intellect. Seminaries prepared academics to instruct the faithful, but left out the heart connection that enlivens spirituality. God is knowable in the inner life of a person, not just through a sermon, a text or a Bible class. By not helping people connect more relationally with God they created a spiritual hunger in people that intellectual understanding alone couldn’t satisfy. Instead of engaging their passion, they settled for obligation and guilt as motivations of faith and have left people worn out, frustrated, and empty.
The availability of alternative views. It used to be that those who struggled with the program thought they were alone. That was easy to maintain as long as there were gatekeepers controlling the ideas people could engage. When distribution of material used to be expensive, it was impossible to literature challenging the status quo since most publishers thought pastor’s recommendations were critical to sales. Now anyone can publish a book, post articles on the Internet, or share a podcast with the world. People are finding out that they were not alone in their concerns about the impotence of the institutional program and their desire for a more vital spiritual life personally and a more engaging experience of community with others.
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That these factors would converge at this time in religious history may point to something far larger than selfish people leaving to pursue their own interests. This exodus may in fact be a move of the Spirit to revitalize Jesus’ church for the days to come. People are not abandoning the church, only those structures that no longer make room for her to thrive in their midst.
So while some look at thirty-one million people walking away as cause for alarm, I find it encouraging. People are taking their faith seriously and if the congregation they they attend isn’t expressing that journey, they are willing at great personal risk to look elsewhere, not just to another institution but to more relational ways to engage God and others. They are finding a more authentic spirituality that is allowing them to love more freely in the world.
This is an exciting time in church history. We are finding out what expressions the church can take when people deeply engaged with God find ways to connect and collaborate in the world without the rigors of institutionalism. I am hopeful that they will better express the nature of God in the world than our tired institutions are currently doing. This is a great time to be alive.
This is part 8 in a series on The Phenomenon of the Dones by Wayne Jacobsen who is the author of Finding Church and host of a podcast at TheGodJourney.com. You can read the previous seven parts here. If you’d like to subscribe to this blog to receive future posts by email you can sign up at the top of the right-hand column.