By Jeff Brumley
Just as churches, seminaries and congregational consultants were wrapping their heads around the concept of “the nones” in religious life, yet another term emerges for yet another category of Americans abandoning the church: “the dones.”
The first group denotes the growing number of Americans with no religion affiliation. “Nones,” which may represent as much as 38 percent of the U.S. population, also are known for generally having had no or very little in the way of religious upbringing.
But sociologists, church historians and congregational coaches have realized for a while that another subset of Americans are answering “none” on surveys about religious affiliations: Those who have grown up in the church and remained active in adulthood — at least until getting tired of church life.
They’ve been included in other names created by researchers, including the “unchurched” and the “de-churched.”
They’ve been the target of evangelistic efforts now and then, but the newer term, “dones,” captures a fact about them that other monikers didn’t: they’re finished — and most likely for good.
“There’s not a whole lot of hope of them coming back,” said Thom Schultz, a Colorado-based blogger and co-author of Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.
Schultz posted a blog recently that introduced the term “dones” for those Christians turned off by their church experiences. He told Baptist News Global that it doesn’t mean they are done with God.
“They will tell you they are very faithful, they are strong Christians and are looking for ways to act out on their faith even more so than they did when they were involved” in a congregation, Schultz said.
The term “dones” was inspired by October’s “Future of the Church” conference in Loveland, Colo., where sociologist Josh Packard presented research about the growing group of Americans who are abandoning organized Christianity.
“We coined that term here,” Schultz told Baptist News Global.
‘The mental concepts stick’
While the term is new, the trend it represents is not, Baptist and church leadership consultant Mark Tidsworth said.
“I have been hearing and observing this in churches … for seven or eight years,” said Tidsworth, president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates in Chapin, S.C.
It’s why Tidsworth said he was one of many to post Schultz’s Nov. 12 blog, “The Rise of the Dones,” on Facebook late last week. He shared it because there is, finally, a term to designate a movement that is impacting the church in America.
Having new vocabulary for a shift already underway will help him and others trying to coach churches through difficult times, Tidsworth said.
“The word ‘Dones’ is language that describes something we have been observing,” he said. “When you get language for something, it makes the mental concepts stick.”
It’s an especially disturbing trend because it involves people who were previously dedicated to and active in congregational life, he said.
Tidsworth said a recent church consultation illustrated how the “dones” are creating challenges for congregations. Members of the church shared their frustration at being unable to recruit new members to a nominating committee.
“It’s like pulling teeth to get people to serve in the infrastructure of the church,” Tidworth said, adding that such positions are a turn off to many young Christians.
Often the “dones” see the red tape associated with church as an obstacle to the Christ-inspired ministry they had hoped to find at church, he said.
The church “is a modern-era institution in a postmodern time,” he said, “and people are interested in meaningful and significant engagement and service to the world.”
Preventing more ‘dones’
Statistics are scarce on that population, but they would certainly be contributing to overall declines in worship attendance noticed by polling agencies.
The Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services rose from 25 percent to 29 percent from 2003 to 2013.
And the ‘nones’ also are increasing “at a rapid pace,” according to Pew.
“In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 [percent] to just under 20 [percent]) of all U.S. adults,” the organization found.
Those figures include atheists, agnostics and nearly 33 million who have no particular religious affiliation, Pew said.
The latter category may well include those formerly church-going Christians who remain strong in faith.
But Schultz said churches would be wise to let the “dones” go and focus on fixing the issues that led them to quit in the first place.
Congregations must wrestle with what it means to be the church and to find solutions from there, he said.
“We need to look at the people we already have and how we can listen and talk to them and be sure they are not the next ‘dones.’”
Many times, churches who undergo that process realize their main focus is their Sunday morning worship services, with most resources and energy funneled into that.
“‘Dones’ are reminding us that that’s not the true focus of the church, capital C,” Schultz said.