Most every pastor and church has heard of the nones — that rapidly growing group of Americans claiming no religious affiliation.
But it’s the dones that have gotten the attention of Presbyterian minister and author J. Patrick Vaughn.
In the U.S. there are an estimated 65 million dones – Christians who have quit church due to infighting, politics and committee structures. The researcher who uncovered the trend even created a website called dechurched.net.
Yet few clergy and congregations seem to be aware of the dones, who they are and why they leave, Vaughn said.
“This is an issue that hasn’t gotten much traction in congregations and the press – or anywhere,” he said. “It’s kind of baffling to me that there has been so little interest in it.”
So Vaughn, the interim minister at Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New York, authored Meeting Jesus at Starbucks: Good News From Those Done with Church.
The text is named for the setting where many of Vaughn’s encounters of dones have occurred, and covers how the focus on institutional maintenance is a turnoff and source of burnout for many of them. It also explains how judgmental attitudes emanating from pulpits and pews can send many out the door rarely, if ever, to return.
“My heart is really with the dones, the people who feel excluded, the people who have been hurt, who have been disappointed,” he said.
Vaughn also shows that many dones remain Christians dedicated to serving others.
“I wrote the book trying to help the church understand who the dones, and to let any dones who read it know they are not alone.”
Vaughn spoke with Baptist News Global about the dones and the key factors that lead them to abandon institutional Christianity. His comments are presented here, edited for clarity.
What factors lead some folks to abandon the church?
There are several. They go to church looking for community and they want to experience God through a community. Instead, they have found judgment. Some of it is very overt and direct. Sometimes it is a raised eyebrow. And they left. They were looking for ways to give back to the community. Instead, they are asked to give their time and talent to institutional maintenance.
Aren’t there some who enjoy performing that maintenance?
Yes and thank God for people who do that. We have a furnace here and there is a guy in the church who pays attention to that. But not everybody wants to do that.
Are there ways to get those needs met without driving some people away?
There is a trend in some churches who are moving away from committees to ministry teams. Ministry teams give people the opportunity to get involved without having to attend meetings.
How do ministry teams work?
A ministry team is a group in a congregation that is formed for a specific ministry. In my former church in Charleston there was an outreach to a homeless shelter. But they didn’t have meetings. They just prepared a meal and went. It was very action oriented. Every member was focused on ministry. Not everybody wants to do the same thing. Not everybody wants to do everything. These teams give people the freedom to do what they feel called to do. At the center of the ministry team model is taking seriously people’s gifts and letting them run with it. It’s up to church to provide the structure and core values.
Are there positives in this trend of church departures?
I think so. One of the big things is a wakeup call for the church, for us to consider again what we are really about as church and what does church really mean. Interview them. Talk with them. Listen to them. This is a really good time to listen. Sometimes people are going to be angry just to be angry. I’m talking about the people who want to be in community, who want to make a difference, who want to serve Jesus and out of deep grief they pulled out of the church because they thought that was the best thing for their own spiritual growth.
Is there anything churches can do to get some of these people back?
Thirty years ago, in my first church, I led an effort to train elders to visit everyone on the rolls who was not coming to church. They went out and visited everybody. Most of them appreciated it, but not a single one came back. I read later that trying to bring people back to church is one of the most time consuming and least impactful ministry efforts. If people have left, they have left. That’s another reason we don’t follow up with the dones: it’s exhausting.
Have you seen any come back?
Often a significant life event will get some people to return to church. But we have to remember that when people first come to church, they are not always eager to jump in and get involved. Some do, and I have seen that. But often they are not ready to do anything. They just need some healing and some loving.
Do dones stay involved in ministry or service of some kind?
They’re finding ways. They are finding ways to get together in community to make a difference. Community service is very, very important to them. Some of the my friends who have left the church are still very much concerned about the hungry and the homeless and they find ways to reach out.
How did you come to be so passionate about the dones?
I have been an almost-done for 10 years. I have been around long enough to see some nasty conflict and have gone through some painful experiences. A lot have left because they were hurt. Many of my seminary colleagues are no longer in ministry. They have left and they don’t want to go back. So, it comes out of my own experience and my own stubborn refusal to give up on the church and give up on faith.