For regular readers of Christian media (magazines, blogs, and the like), it’s hard to escape the occasional exposure to a template article usually titled along the lines of “Why You Still Need to Go to Church” or “Why the Church is Still Worth Fighting For.” The implication is always that you may be waffling on the notion that attending a regular service held at a local church as part of an established congregation is God’s Will for Your Life, and thus you need a theological shot in the arm to keep you motivated to stick it out as a faithful church member. However, this message is increasingly falling on deaf ears, as more and more of the faithful are intentionally and deliberately leaving their institutional churches behind in what has become a major movement sociologists are calling The Dones.
Sometimes also called the “dechurched” or “unchurched,” the Dones are very aptly named: they are those people who are done with organized and institutionalized religion. In this article, our main focus will be on what is happening in America today, but it mirrors a trend that has been going on in other industrialized (sometimes labeled “post-Christian”) nations for decades.
In 2015, sociologists and researchers Josh Packard, Ph.D. and Ashleigh Hope published a book in which they uncovered a tremendous amount of data and insight into the nature of the Dones and their journey away from traditional church settings. Called Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, the book is built on top of a year and half of rigorous research and numerous interviews with the formerly churched from a wide variety of demographic backgrounds. From the raw data, the researchers were able to discover a substantial group of commonalities that shed a light on the nature of the Dones and the difficult experiences they’ve faced.
As explained in Church Refugees:
They’re done with church. They’re tired and fed up with church. They’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, and politics of the institutional church, and they’ve decided they and their spiritual lives are better off lived outside of organized religion. As one of our respondents put it, “I guess the church just sort of churched the church out of me.”
This dissatisfaction typically isn’t a sudden break from the norm, but rather a deep-seated sensation that has been building in someone’s life for years. When a person increasingly feels out of step and out of touch with the religious institution they once gladly called home, often all it takes is one single, catalytic event to push them over the edge. Sometimes that event, on the face of it, may look relatively minor, even benign, which is why remaining churchgoers often don’t understand just what happened.
“Hey, do you know what happened to Amy and her twin boys? I haven’t seen them around here lately.”
“I’m not sure…I heard she didn’t like the new worship pastor and there was some kind of dust up.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. I hope she’s doing OK.”
(end of conversation)
Unfortunately, a lack of awareness or understanding of the Dones and what has motivated them to find spiritual fulfillment and community outside of traditional church structures is common, which is why books such as Church Refugees and other in-depth research and analysis are vital to learning about this important movement and grappling with the implications of how it will affect the religious landscape going forward.
Are the Dones Done with Jesus? Or Are They Just Done with Church-As-Usual?
The thread that tends to bind the Dones together isn’t a wholesale rejection of faith or a linear transition from “believer in Jesus” to agnostic. Many of the Dones are still deeply spiritual. To underscore this even further, some Dones feel like they have had to leave behind the institutional church in order to preserve or enhance their beliefs. In other words, they didn’t leave the Church because they wanted to leave Jesus. They left because they wanted to find Jesus. As an example, Church Refugees relays this telling exchange with “Ethan”:
The dechurched display an extreme level of dedication and devotion to God and religion, and they earnestly believe that the institutional church can be fixed and reclaimed. They believe it’s worth fighting for right up to the point where they don’t.
When I asked Ethan what led to his eventually leaving the church, he simply said, “At first it was just survival, man. Spiritual survival. We had to get out.” This language of spiritual abuse and survival represents a nearly constant theme running through our data. People put up with a lot of abuse before finally feeling the need to flee in order to keep their spiritual selves alive.
Ethan became a religious person without a home when he and his family left institutional religion, forced to flee for his own spiritual survival. His response, creating and doing a house church, is both an indictment of institutional religion in America and a clue about where it might be headed. He and his wife didn’t give up on God; they gave up on the institutional expression of church. They didn’t stop doing things to advance what they believed to be the work of God; they stopped doing things to advance the work of the church.
To be clear, finding a new place of spiritual fulfillment in house church was ultimately the answer for Ethan, but that’s not always a given. Some of the Dones continue to struggle in finding suitable community that can serve as an anchor during difficult seasons of life. This makes the transition away from the institutional church all the more heart-wrenching—the Dones would rather face the fearsome risk of living life outside of any established religious community than continue to put up with a deeply frustrating or even abusive situation within the confines of their church.
Even more troubling than this concept of fleeing the church in order to survive or thrive spiritually is that many of the Dones used to be heavily involved in the life of their former congregations—in many cases, they were the driving force behind the regular activity of the church.
Volunteers. Small group leaders. Administrative assistants. Worship leaders. Mission organizers. Even pastors. Again, as the research in Church Refugees shows us:
Almost without exception, our respondents were deeply involved and devoted to their churches up until the moment they left. They were integrated into leadership structures and church life, often organizing daily life around the church and attending some kind of church function two or more times a week. They’re the kind of people who are drawn to activity.
What does this spell for the future vitality of the church when such a “brain drain” is continually occurring? When the likelihood of burnout and becoming a “Done” steadily increases as someone becomes more involved in the life of their church, what does that say about the kind of church structures being lauded or perpetuated in modern Christendom?
If Not Institutional Church, Then What?
As alluded to above, the house church movement should not be seen as a direct response to the plight of the Dones. Some Dones may never participate in a house church, and still others may find house churches objectionable in the way they replicate certain religious practices of traditional churches.
Nevertheless, the growing trend of house church attendance in America as an alternative to the institutional church model is unmistakable. In fact, what is most surprising about house churches is simply how prevalent they’ve become in such a short amount of time. Research by The Barna Group indicates that perhaps as many as 13% of adults surveyed in the U.S. have been a part of a bonafide church gathering in someone’s home!
It’s difficult to come up with concrete numbers on house church formats and attendance because the variation between groups is so large. Some home groups don’t consider themselves “churches” in any formal sense. Some groups don’t even meet in homes per se, perhaps coming together instead as part of other community activities. Other groups prefer to use terms such as simple church or organic church to describe their goal and structure. However people may define it, it’s clear that loose affiliations of people who seek community and bonding around spiritual topics outside of the institutional church setting has become a significant part of America’s spiritual landscape.
Questions Still Abound
Looking ahead to the future of the Church in America and the prospect that the Dones’ movement away from organized religious institutions is a significant and growing trend, a number of secondary questions arise about the effect this will have on local communities.
If established churches fall in decline, what about the social services they provide? Churches are often a source for community help such as counseling, food drives, family activities, and so forth—in many cases, at no cost to the public.
What about evangelism? Part of the appeal of having a real church building is that it’s easy to promote the church’s message to the surrounding community. House churches and tight-knit organic communities don’t always lend themselves to walk-ins and public visibility.
What about doctrine? There is a real fear among some churchgoers that once people leave the confines of an organized church behind, perhaps one that has been built up with hundreds or thousands of years of doctrinal history and creeds, those people will surely lose their faith and backslide into heresy or immorality. (Based on the actual research, however, this is a far less common facet of the Dones’ story than is suspected.)
What about diversity? In certain kinds of churches, particularly in inner cities, it’s expected and even encouraged to bring people together from all walks of life and from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. If groups instead form in a more ad-hoc way based on personal relationships, does that promote the sorts of groups where everyone comes from a similar background with similar interests and in a similar life stage?
What about missions? When people attend churches and tithe regularly, money is raised to fund mission trips to other countries. Some of these trips provide real, practical benefits to the communities they serve, such as building houses, installing wells, setting up schools, providing medical services, and so forth.
These are all important questions to consider. This author submits however that all of these concerns can be addressed creatively in a variety of ways without making the case that institutional church models must be preserved as-in.
Some issues already have found their solution in the many “parachurch” ministries and organizations that provide relief and support to communities outside of the structure of any one local church congregation.
Other issues are simply a matter of education: as more and more people form or join organic church communities, keeping concepts such as outreach and diversity at the forefront of people’s minds is paramount.
As for doctrine…well, the history of organized religion is hardly a role model when it comes to spiritual unity! Surely believers in Jesus are entitled to a more substantial faith than one which only derives its strength from a steady diet of Sunday sermons and denominational statements.
American Christianity is At a Crossroads
Much of the research on the Dones in America has been conducted in past years and doesn’t take into account the remarkable political events we’ve witnessed over the past few months with the election of Donald Trump for President.
What kind of effect will this highly politicized and polarized culture have on the Church? There are already signs that political rhetoric has become a major issue highlighting some people’s journey away from organized religion. They feel the cognitive dissonance between claiming Christ and supporting a leader like Trump has pushed them over the edge and they want nothing more to do with such a religious contingent.
In such a climate, organic faith communities that consider agape love and emotional care as top priorities may see a major increase in activity. Communities that promote diversity and concern for the plight of women or minorities being the target of abuse or rights infringement will gain newfound support. Communities that provide a safe space to air political grievances with regards to the current administration may become a lifeline for people who feel they haven’t had a voice in their previous church experiences. (This author personally has attended one such a group.)
Christianity in America is clearly at a crossroads—however, the typical religious rhetoric around the nature of this crossroads (“come back to God before its too late or you will face divine judgment!”) is simply not an accurate depiction of the spiritual journeys many people are on. Interest in spiritual matters is certainly not in decline, and the number of faith-based community groups is growing dramatically. What is in decline, however, is faith in the validity and usefulness of organized, institutional church structures, as well as the commercial marketplace of “Christian” goods and media and the fawning celebrity culture which often permeates this scene.
What is the future of Church in America? If the future is a group of friends meeting at somebody’s house, or at a coffehouse, or in a park…well, maybe we’ll realize that Jesus is there too. It certainly seems His style.