Themes of Church Departure: 2) Activity and Bureaucracy


Yesterday, I initiated a blog series to discuss some of the primary themes from the book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE with Church But Not Their Faith by Joshua Packard and Ashleigh Hope. I highly recommend reading this book.

Packard and Hope are sociologists who conducted a qualitative research study from January 2013 – July 2014. They held in-depth interviews with Christians who left traditional, institutional churches yet maintained their faith identity. After spending time with interviewees and hearing their personal stories and perspectives, Packard and Hope lifted up four themes they encountered most frequently in narratives.

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. 

Yesterday, we explored the first theme of community and judgment. Today, let’s talk about the second.

Activity and Bureaucracy

As Packard and Hope interviewed Christians who left congregational communities, they discovered that these interviewees are “doers.” Perhaps surprising to some, most of the interviewees never existed on the fringe of church involvement. Instead, many were leaders who participated right at center of the church’s community life for years. As leaders, they longed for their congregations to be active in their wider communities. They desired to build friendships with their neighbors and work together to address social needs in their local neighborhoods.

Holding mission and justice as high theological values, these Christians prioritized the necessity of action in partnership and service. In fact, they viewed such priorities to be central to the ministry of Jesus.

But these interviewees became deeply discouraged and frustrated as they watched their congregations grow increasingly insular. At the very moment they wanted connect in vital partnerships, their churches were most interested in securing their own institutional survival. Their churches constantly discussed how to increase the numbers of people in the pews, in large part, to ensure higher offering numbers for building expenses and staff salaries. The interviewees from the Church Refugees study felt that these concerns were disproportionally prioritized, often at the expense of faithful action. Some expressed that they “felt they were basically working as entry-level employees for a large organization.” [page 59]

Additionally, interviewees expressed frustration that their ideas were consistently impeded from coming to fruition. When they expressed a new opportunity for vision or collective action, their ideas often entered processes that required approval from multiple layers of committee structures. Interviewees were realistic that institutions need processes for discernment and accountability, but they felt that these processes were too slow and worked ultimately to protect the church from necessary change.

Most of the interviewees from the Church Refugees study worked for a long time to try to affect the vision of their churches, but eventually, they became frustrated. In addition, some became convicted: They came to a personal conclusion that they could follow the vision and ministry of Jesus more actively beyond the congregational life their churches.

And there is deep loss in that conclusion.

Interviewees left churches where they would have preferred to stay. And of course, there are deep losses to Christian congregations as well. In such situations, Packard and Hope write that congregations lose leaders who have institutional knowledge and training, energy and talents, and many community and social connections that extend beyond the walls of the church. Congregations lose vital bridge-builders to their wider communities.

All of this makes me wonder,

How can we build cultures that are willing to take more risks toward life-giving action?

How do we empower the gifts and visions of ‘doers’?

How might we grieve the people and possibilities lost in these church departures?

How do we become reconciling churches – with neighbors and our fellow Christians?

Renee Roederer 

This post is part of a larger series. Feel free to read the other posts from this week as well:

Christianity: Is It Good. . . ?
Themes of Church Departure: 1) Community and Judgment
Themes of Church Departure: 3) Conversation and Doctrine
Themes of Church Departure: 4) Meaningful Ministry and Moral Prescription


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