Themes of Church Departure: 4) Meaningful Ministry and Moral Prescription


Today, we conclude a series that has explored the central findings of the book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE with Church But Not Their Faith by Joshua Packard and Ashleigh Hope. This book gave us the term “the Dones” as a descriptor for an increasing number of Christians who left have traditional, institutional churches yet continue to practice their faith.

Packard and Hope, both sociologists, conducted interviews with Christians to learn more about their departures from organized churches.

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. 

In other posts this week (see below), we explored the first three themes. Today, let’s look at the last one.

Meaningful Ministry and Moral Prescription

As I mentioned earlier this week, Packard and Hope write that their interviewees are “doers.” They want to engage faith in an active way. They care about their neighbors, and they want the ministries of the church to have meaningful impacts in their larger contexts.

But so often, the interviewees reported that their congregations made very little impact beyond their own membership. These churches did not address crucial needs beyond their own sanctuary walls, even as they made all kinds of moral pronouncements. Interviewees believed that church leaders and members should teach about morality and ethics, but they wanted teachings to be paired with communal action. The Church Refugees interviewees perceived their congregations to be “hypocritical and unconcerned with the world” and “increasingly incongruent” with lives “outside of the church walls.”

And this cannot be overstated: Church pronouncements and debates around sexuality and gender — particularly, same-sex marriage and gender identity — added deep pain to the lives of interviewees. Christians from the Church Refugees study held a variety of theological and social perspectives in the midst of these debates, but many carried deep pain on behalf of LGBTQ+ loved ones. Church pronouncements often functioned to shame, judge, and scapegoat LGBTQ+ people. Interviewees believed such teachings were emphasized frequently and harshly.

Finally, Christians from the Church Refugees study voiced a correlation: The more their congregations discussed morality without action, the more likely it became that church offerings would stay within the confines of their own membership. Interviewees were frustrated by this.

For all of these reasons and for the reasons mentioned earlier in the week, these Christians stepped away from institutional church communities.

It makes me wonder,

How do we confess and apologize for the ways we’ve harmed transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer people, including fellow Christians?

How do we broaden the ways we talk about morality, and how do we prioritize that with action?

How do we listen to the witness of those who have left our congregations?

How might we hear their convictions and follow their lead?

Renee Roederer

This post is a 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: 3) Conversation and Doctrine

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