Themes of Church Departure: 1) Community and Judgment

Open doors
Opening Doors

A couple summers ago, I read a book that continues to shape a great deal of my thinking. It’s entitled, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE with Church but Not Their Faith. It is authored by Joshua Packard and Ashleigh Hope, two sociologists who conducted a research study from January 2013-July 2014. Through in-depth, personal interviews, they sought to discover why some Christians have maintained their faith identity but left organized, institutional churches behind. In most cases, these Christians have left for good.

As you may intuit from the title, this is the book that gave us the term “the Dones.” A bit of a buzzword now, this term has begun to float around quite a bit, particularly in church circles. In response, some Christians have chosen to take on this precise title to describe themselves and their experiences. Others, however, use different frameworks entirely or reject this one.

For that reason, beyond a mere word or a label, it’s important to open ourselves to fuller stories – that is, self-reported, self-described narratives of experience. That is also what Packard and Hope lift up in their book.

From their interviews, Packard and Hope uncovered four themes that participants named quite frequently as they discussed their departure from Christian congregations. I know many of us have probably seen a plethora of internet article titles like, “[Number] Reasons People are Leaving Church!” ad nauseum (insert rolled eyes). But that being said, I think this list is an important one.

Interviewees revealed that,

They wanted community. . . and got judgment.

They wanted to affect the life of the church. . . and got bureaucracy.

They wanted conversation. . . and got doctrine.

They wanted meaningful engagement with the world. . . and got moral prescription. 

For the rest of the week, I’d like to look at these themes one by one.

Community and Judgment

I’m going to venture to guess that this theme is not much of a shocker to anyone.

Whether one identifies as a Christian or not, it’s not much of a surprise to hear that many people perceive Christian churches to be remarkably judgmental. . . Deeply painful, this perception is rooted in a great deal of experience.

The participants in Packard and Hope’s interviews articulated community as a high value. In fact, for many, it may be their highest value. Inside their congregations, they appreciated support, friendship, and belonging. And as leaders, they sought to cultivate these experiences for others too. Alongside the connections of support, interviewees also named community as an important theological value in their lives. They shared that they experience God and a sense of the sacred most readily through relationships.

These interviewees wanted church community ties to be strong, and from that foundation, they wanted to experience spiritual connection and meaning in relationships with others. But inside their congregations, they were especially pained to see judgment, shame, stigmatization, and scapegoating taking hold in their communities. In some instances, they were targeted for such judgment themselves, and they bore that trauma personally. At other times, they watched in deep pain as church members and leaders tore into others with labeling and shaming. They could not stand for it.

They also struggled to reconcile their view of God and the ministry of Jesus with these patterns of harsh judgment. After trying to shift the direction of the church, many of these Christians concluded that they needed to leave the community. First and foremost, they could not support these dynamics. But also, they concluded that they needed to leave in order to preserve their spiritual lives.

And so, they did. They practiced their Christian faith by leaving. It came with a lot of pain and grief. Yet remarkably, many have chosen to continue in their faith, even if they now do so outside of traditional, church buildings.

It makes me wonder,

How many people have had such experiences?

How do we identify the patterns that make such dynamics possible?

How do we listen and express our remorse?

How do we practice, model, and embody a different way?

Renee Roederer

This post is part of a series. Feel free to read the other posts from this week as well:
Christianity: Is It Good. . .?
Themes of Church Departure: 2) Activity and Bureaucracy
Themes of Church Departure: 3) Conversation and Doctrine
Themes of Church Departure: 4) Meaningful Ministry and Moral Prescription

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