Themes of Church Departure: 3) Conversation and Doctrine


This week, we’re exploring important themes from the book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE with Church But Not Their Faith. This book by Joshua Packard and Ashleigh Hope is one that I highly recommend, particularly for Christian churches.

Packard and Hope conducted in-depth interviews with Christians who left organized, institutional churches yet continued to maintain their faith identity. Packard and Hope use the term Church Refugees to describe the experiences of their interviewees — not so much a comparison to the plight of actual refugees, but as a spiritual analogy. The people they interviewed still practice Christianity, but many feel that they do not have a larger, spiritual home in the way they once did.

Packard and Hope held interviews to discover why these Christians had departed from organized churches. As they did so, four primary themes emerged quite frequently.

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. 

Earlier this week, we explored the first and second themes. Now, let’s turn to the third.

Conversation and Doctrine

The interviewees from the Church Refugees study uplifted the values of conversation and shared dialogue in relationships. In their interviews, many said that they learned, grew, and experienced God most readily in the context of community. In fact, they view conversation as a theological value itself. They expressed that they often deepened their faith and spirituality in shared conversation.

But so often in their churches, these Christians experienced tension when they wanted to think theologically in dialogue. This was particularly true if they wanted to raise challenging questions.

They didn’t expect all people in the church to agree theologically on all matters, nor were they looking for people to endorse all of their own viewpoints. They simply wanted to engage in conversation, expecting that all would grow in the process of learning from one another.

In many cases, however, dialogue was simply not tolerated in the cultures of their church communities. Most frequently, they received doctrinal lectures from clergy and church members, and ‘conversations’ moved in only one direction. In such contexts, these Christians encountered churches that could not accept any ambiguity. If they raised questions or were honest about doubts, they were treated with suspicion, judgment, or were even scapegoated.

Some of the Church Refugees interviewees were additionally disheartened to watch their communities build relationships primarily as a ‘technique’ for other goals — most frequently, to introduce or convert people to Christian faith. They viewed these forms of relationship-building as remarkably inauthentic and disingenuous, and they wondered if such processes were doing harm to others. Meanwhile, they held relationships as an intrinsic good, not as a means to some other end.

All of this makes me wonder,

How can church communities create greater opportunities for shared dialogue?

How might that impact the formats for teaching or preaching?

How can we honor the hurt and reasonable suspicion of our neighbors, who expect lectures or ulterior motives from us?

How can we come to embrace ambiguity and trust that our acceptance is rooted in something much greater than ‘certainty’?

Renee Roederer

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

Christianity: Is It Good. . . ?
Themes of Church Departure: 1) Community and Judgment
Themes of Church Departure: 2) Activity and Bureaucracy
Themes of Church Departure: 4) Meaningful Ministry and Moral Prescription

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