By Jeff Brumley
A team of sociologists in Colorado say they were stunned recently by data showing a growing wave of once-dedicated church goers leaving their congregations.
Their findings inspired the now-popular term “dones,” denoting Christians deciding to go it alone on faith because they are sick and tired of church life.
“We had heard of the de-churched, but we didn’t realize they weren’t just drifting away,” said Josh Packard, a sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado. He and Ashleigh Hope at Vanderbilt University are at the forefront of research into this group of Christians.
“We learned that they had made active decisions [to leave],” Packard told Baptist News Global. “They want to do the work of God and most believe in God, but the church keeps getting in the way of their ability to do that work — that was really surprising and stunning to us.”
Stunning and surprising, Packard said, because a common assumption has been that the de-churched — or exiles and prodigals, as others call them — tended to leave due to faith drained of energy and vitality.
“We expected to find people who were burned out, but it was that they couldn’t stand the politics of church,” Packard said.
Some seek community
They could also have learned all of that at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, where Pastor Susan Sparks said “dones” often come to rediscover church.
Sparks said the demographic is easy to spot. They are eager to be involved in service, but allergic to any activity that has even a hint of administration attached to it.
“What I’m finding is, especially in the younger demographic, they are looking for a way to put their faith to work in a very clear, manifest way,” Sparks said.
People in that group, whether their exit from church has yet to occur or whether it already has and they are timidly re-engaging, have no interest in the institutional side of faith.
“Instead of a church or a mosque, they would rather go to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter,” she said. “Some shun the baggage of the hierarchy that organized religion represents.”
And there are even some who may want to leave, but don’t because they want the fellowship that church offers.
“Some have stayed for that sense of experiencing faith through community,” she said.
Nomads, exiles and prodigals
That nuance among the “dones” points to observations other authors have been making about that demographic, said Rob Nash, professor of missions and religion at Mercer University.
Nash noted that David Kinnaman’s 2013 book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church suggests three main categories of those abandoning organized religions.
One group is called “nomads,” who see church as optional but still consider themselves Christians.
“They really do not feel like being in church is important to their faith, but they are still very much Christian and followers of Jesus,” Nash said.
“Exiles” have quit church altogether while seeking ways outside of it to exercise their faith.
“Prodigals” have gone even further by rejecting Christianity along with church.
Nash said there are exceptions to all such categories, but they help scholars, pastors and others understand that ongoing movements cannot always be described in simple terms.
“I found this helpful because it enables me to [avoid] lumping them together,” Nash said.
Church ‘too cliquish’
But Packard and Hope did find some commonalities about the “dones” that some observers say could help churches prevent others from leaving.
One is that the “dones” cannot be described as solely young, Packard said.
“We really expected it was going to be an age story,” he said — that it is mainly Millennials who are abandoning church or faith outside organized religion.
But it turned out to be largely the opposite.
“We found these people had a multitude of bad experiences — and that takes time,” he said. “I’m guessing the average age is somewhere in the 40s.”
What’s also true about them is they aren’t giving up on ministry.
“These people are not leaving church to do less, they are leaving to do more,” Packard said.
The also share a desire for fellowship, but feel it cannot be had in church.
“They never felt community in church, that it was too cliquish, that they can’t be themselves, that there are unrealistic moral standards,” he said.
Another finding is that while “dones” want to do more instead of less, they are turned off in church settings by any kind of mundane work.
This population consistently complained that “the church is too focused on itself,” Packard said. They said they “don’t want to sit in more subcommittee meetings to fund a new parking lot.”
‘That’s the church’
Sparks said she gets that. “We worry about burning people out to the extent where church starts representing work for them.”
Balance is the key, she said.
But so is having realistic expectations. Many of the “dones’” complaints can be traced to idealistic notions that church participation is about having spiritual experiences uninterrupted by arguments over the color of carpeting.
But that isn’t realistic, Sparks said.
Instead, the church is an inherently imperfect place where mundane issues and political distractions typically take on too much importance.
“I think people come in and expect it to be something different, but it’s a collection of broken, flawed human beings — that’s the church,” she said.