by Josh Packard
Last month I had the wonderful opportunity to conduct a webinar about my book Church Refugees. The best part was that, both during the webinar and in the days afterward, I got to talk with some of the most amazing, thoughtful, and dedicated people I’ve ever come to know.
Across the board, the people who are mobilizing around the issue of the Dones, from both inside and outside of the institutional church, combine a passion for their faith with a sensitivity and willingness to understand others through conversation. This combination is so rare in the rest of the world; it thrills me to be a part of this conversation.
So many people attended the webinar (nearly 500!) that we weren’t able to get to everyone’s questions, so I’d like to address some of the more common ones now. I hope my responses here will foster ongoing conversation.
Q: Do the Dones think that God called them to leave church?
A: Not exactly. I don’t think the Dones would say that God called them out of the institutional church. Instead, the people we interviewed would be much more likely to say that in the course of following God, they were led to do things outside of the institutional church. They were quick to point out that for years they felt called to work inside its walls. The point they would make is that it’s the work that matters, not the place. They want to do the work and live the life they feel God has called them to do and live. If that can happen inside of the institutional church, great. If not, that’s OK, too. They’re sad to leave, but they feel compelled to live out their calling.
Q: What do the Dones want from the institutional church now that they’ve left?
A: Free pizza. Everyone wants free pizza. No, just kidding. The best way to answer this would be to let the Dones themselves answer it. What they want most is an open an honest conversation about how God is working in the world. Counterproductive to that conversation are attempts to “trick” them back into church or castigating them for leaving in the first place. If you’re a church worker and you’re wondering why someone left, I would suggest simply asking that person, with no agenda other than to understand. Honest, nonjudgmental conversation is a powerful tool for kingdom work.
Q: What do the Dones want to do that they feel they can’t do because of the stifling impact of the institutional church?
A: I would say that this question has as many answers as there are Dones. Each person’s story is unique. That being said, as sociologists we look for general trends and themes. As Ashleigh and I were collecting and analyzing the data, the biggest trend we identified was a longing for community. The Dones want to create it. They want to experience it. They want to live, wholly and completely, inside of a true community. The institutional church seems to frequently forget that its biggest asset is its ability to bring people together in ways that lead to meaningful action, engagement, and deep relationships. For the Dones, these communities take a variety of different forms, but they’re after those deep, transformative experiences. I should also point out that they’re after those communities not because they seem fun or nice, but because it’s in those communities that they truly experience and find God.
Q: My wife and I have seen this problem for over 20 years. We’re glad it’s finally being acknowledged, but why do you think it took so long for that to happen?
A: I think in order to understand this, we need to look at the larger social context over the last couple of decades. Of course, the Dones have always been with us, but this issue seems to be reaching a tipping point now for two primary reasons. First, we know from national polls over the last couple of decades that people are increasingly distrustful of institutions and institutional leaders, and that includes pastors. Second, much has been made recently about the rise of the Nones, people who claim no religious affiliation. The growing number of Nones places more importance on retaining the people who do claim an affiliation, like the vast majority of the Dones.