In their 2015 book Church Refugees, Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope discuss a demographic of people they call the “dechurched” or the “dones.” This group of Christians consists of people of faith who want to maintain their spiritual lives but believe the institution of the church is holding them back from doing just that, causing them to leave organized religion and pursue spiritual life on their own.
The book consists of sociological research presented alongside personal narratives from study participants. Packard and Hope offer readers the real stories of the dones and interpretations of their experiences using sociological data collected from their studies.
The narratives tend to follow this trend: A church member is heavily involved in a church community. They serve on the elder board. volunteer often, have deep friendships there or some other strong connection that motivates them to stay. However, they are in some way dissatisfied.
They disagree with some of the church teachings or would like to see their church getting involved in the community and doing more service projects. Yet, because they are so connected with the church community already, they find it tough to leave.
In fact, Packard and Hope found that church members were willing to remain members even when their pastor asserted views they disagreed with. For example, some study participants said they disliked but dealt with church teachings that were hateful toward the LGBTQ community, even though they had close friends who identified as such. Their reasons for staying often included seeing the church as an outlet for community involvement and service.
Eventually, though, the dones reach a breaking point. They begin to feel the church’s structure has “actively prevented them from doing the work” they feel called to do. This is when their grievances with the church begin to outweigh the things the institution offers.
In chapter three, Packard and Hope discuss briefly how many of the dones viewed the church’s “devotion to the Sunday morning gathering as a resource hog.” Churches that claimed to focus on community outreach or small group Bible studies were spending most of their resources on their Sunday service.
Reflecting on this, the dones felt this focus left little time, energy and resources to support the kinds of activities they were interested in. Churches were viewing the Sunday service as the most important event taking place and did not prioritize other areas of spiritual growth.
The book also points out that business-like attitudes among church leaders keep church members from carrying out projects and events they feel called to take on. One participant named Katie noted that her church would not support her efforts to start an art therapy group at the church because, due to a high population of Muslim families in the area, the children attending the group may not be church members and may not be Christians at all. For Katie, art therapy was a way she could help kids in her community, but she did not feel comfortable evangelizing them. She just wanted to provide a safe space to share her passion for art with the community and looked toward her church to help facilitate that.
“The value of an event was measured by the number of potential new church members.”
When the church rejected her, she “decided to start the organization as a nonprofit, and ultimately left her congregation.” She believes the church’s response revealed the transactional nature of its outreach. The value of an event was measured by the number of potential new church members, and no other factors of spiritual formation informed their decision. The institution of the church was operating like a business, not like a house of faith.
So, the dones are leaving behind the church. But they do not necessarily leave their faith.
In fact, it seems they have a strong desire to maintain their spiritual lives. The reason the dones have dechurched themselves is not that they no longer believe in God. Rather, it is because they feel the church is no longer fostering an environment in which they can spiritually grow.
Packard and Hope said this is why their book is titled “Church Refugees.” The dones “feel they’ve been forced to leave a place they consider home” because it is “spiritually dangerous for them to remain.” These people have dedicated a great portion of their lives to the institution of the church and do not want to go. Yet, they know the church’s inability to serve them in the ways their spirits require is holding them back. It is perhaps even causing them to be estranged from God in unhealthy ways.
They are leaving to save their spiritual lives.
Outside the church, the dones often seek ways to foster spiritual growth. Small groups, Bible studies and other non-institutional activities that prioritize relationships and conversation over doctrine and business-like decisions provide spaces in which they can explore their personal relationships with God free of judgment and structure that is holding them back.
Mallory Challis currently serves as a Clemons Fellow with BNG and is a senior at Wingate University.
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