by Josh Packard
Why would someone devote his whole life to church and then one day decide to walk out the door and not come back?
This is the central question that drove the research for Church Refugees, a study of the dones. For years I have been hearing stories of committed, talented, and well-trained churchgoers and church leaders deciding that they were “done” with church. As a sociologist who studies religion, I felt compelled to find an answer to this question.
During the course of our first interviews for this project, we asked people a simple question after hearing about their whole history with the church: “Why did you leave?” The answers were revealing, heartbreaking, inspiring, and full of thought and integrity.
The one response that still sticks with me, though, is when I interviewed Lisa. When I asked her that question, she looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you’ve heard my story. Wouldn’t you leave?”
I had no answer for her then—and to this day, I’m still not sure how to answer her. More importantly, though, her question underpins why this research is so important.
Unless we’ve had the experiences these people have had and lived their lives, then I think all we can do is respect their decisions and try to understand them. It doesn’t really do us any good to judge whether someone should leave the church. But there is a lot of power in listening, asking questions, and trying to understand.
In fact, I learned three core lessons about listening from this project that forever changed the way I understand this group of people.
- Listening simply to understand is a powerful way to build trust and open conversation. If people sense that you are genuinely interested in their lives and experiences, they will open up to you and invite you into their world.
- Listening is powerful for both parties. As an academic, my goal is to obtain as much data as possible using the most rigorous and sound methods available. But there were times during the interviews that people said things I personally disagreed with. I never once felt my own values or faith were compromised by listening to other people’s thoughts, struggles, and feelings. On the contrary, I felt my own faith grow simply by being present with people as they told me about their experiences with God and church.
- People have strikingly few occasions to tell their stories, and they are deeply grateful when they have an opportunity to do so. People frequently thanked me after our interviews were over, explaining that they had never told their whole story from beginning to end.
Remember Lisa, the woman I mentioned earlier? Days after we concluded our interview, she emailed me a note of thanks, saying that she had been thinking about our talk. She wrote, “You know, it’s all the story of my life, but I’ve never told it to anyone before, not even to myself. Not even to God. I don’t know why; I guess just because nobody ever asked.”
Nobody had ever asked. It was as simple as that. All I had to do was take some time to ask, listen, and care.