Are the millions who no longer attend church just a bunch of faith imposters? That’s the assertion of some denominational officials who seek to minimize the exodus of the religious Dones.
Research shows that American congregations have lost over 30 million adults who are the Dones–those who have left the organized church, but not their faith.
But some denominational spokespeople say these deserters were never really believers at all. One official wrote: “Americans whose Christianity was nominal—in name only—are casting aside the name. They are now aligning publicly with what they’ve actually not believed all along.”
Really? How does he know that? What data is he looking at? I asked sociologist Josh Packard, author of Church Refugees, about this assertion. He said no evidence exists to support the allegation that our churches were populated with non-believers who finally stopped attending. “If it was a huge trend,” Packard said, “sociologists and other social scientists would have been out there making waves about this for a long time.”
Hear my complete interview with Josh Packard here on the new Holy Soup podcast:
The actual research shows that 83 percent of the Dones consider their Christian faith to be an important part of their everyday lives. They pray regularly and seek outlets for spiritual growth. They aren’t done because they lack faith in God. They aren’t done because they lack faith in the concept of Church–the community of believers. They’re done because they lack faith in the current church model that some leaders desperately try to defend.
The Dones are insulted when they’re called “nominal” or “Christian in name only.” Such name-calling only alienates them further from the organized church. And it diverts congregations from examining the real causes for their losses out the back door.
Packard said his research shows an additional seven million churchgoing Americans are planning to disconnect from the institutional church. We would do well to actually talk with them, rather than dismiss them as “faith fakers.”
I plan to listen to the cast but just the description of what the spokes people are saying is applying pier pressure to anyone who will listen. What they are saying is to make the dones feel rejected and to question their faith. It is also a ploy to keep those who are in church… IN church. I know these tactics having lived them. This sort of thing is part of why I reject the church and even political organizations who use such tactics. When someone has to use any sort of fear, shame or intimidation tactics, you have to ask, Why? What is their problem? What are they afraid of? What do they have to loose if I don’t agree or join? It shows me their organization is not on the up-and-up in some way. When a church or political party practice these sort of tactics, I certainly don’t want to be a part of that.
Wow. What a timely post. Just this morning an insight came to me, as I have struggled to articulate what is going on (regarding shrinking numbers) to my own parish. (I am an Episcopal priest) Could it be this? That the challenge we face today as Church leaders is to figure out what structure is needed to support people in learning and practicing the Way of Jesus?
In my own experience, it is often those who are nominal in their faith that are unwilling to become a Church that is a part of the Jesus movement, and then offer that to the world. Maybe our problem isn’t that those who are nominal are leaving, maybe it is that those who are staying are hanging on for dear life to an institution rather than to God.
Lynn, LOVE YOUR PEOPLE. I understand shrinkage all too well, and I have to tell you that it may not be structure, but more a sign of the times, or of internal conflict in your congregation. If God has appointed you (I’m sure that He has), you will be well. As far as structures, don’t be afraid to change, but don’t think that these problems are merely structural. I don’t know your age (I’m 71), but I’d recommend Francis Schaeffer’s “The Church at the End of the 20th Century.” It’s not only a fine book, it gives the rationale for church growth (love among the people), rather than growth in numbers) as the key to building your ministry. This is apparently one of the unrecognized sources of evangelism (“By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, that you love one another”), We certainly are to preach the Gospel, but that goes hand in hand with the “philadelphia” that it’s so hard to come by these days.
Not programs. Love. Not entertainment. Love. Not conferences. Love. Not great sermons. Love.
The key to the church’s life is love, not “church growth.”
I’m convinced that the answers to all our “church problems” are found in the pages of the New Testament, and in particular the 4 Gospels, and in what Jesus Himself modeled and taught.
The organizations known as ‘churches’ in N. America are trying to survive. They are dying because they’ve departed from their first love. They make (or try to make) converts, having long since lost the concept of making disciples. They want to make faithful (to the organization) members who will keep them going. Few, if any, are willing to ‘fall into the ground and die’ as Jesus indicated. Those who want to save their lives must be willing to die instead. They must be willing to lose their buildings, their property, their prestige, their jobs. When they are willing to take steps that seem like death to the organization, while following the Master, they will suddenly discover true Life.
The Dones just don’t want to continue sleep-walking. I sit uneasily in the Almost Done camp. The more it becomes about the organization, the more I slip further away. Their vision is far too small, their god is themselves despite claiming otherwise. Many are self-decieved and are unwilling to live what they teach.
I say I sit uneasily there because I have compassion for the deaf, the blind and the lame who call themselves bellievers but whose lives deny the power of God as they follow blindly after their religion of 3 songs and a talk….
Quite possibly, there are more ‘unbelievers’ in the pews than in the contingent of the Dones.
Some very apt insightful analyses and good advice here. Appreciated both the corporate and people-oriented cues near the end: 1) that congregations should examine “the real causes for their losses out the back door,” and 2) that individual conversations with the so-called “faith fakers” can help both “them” and “us.”
I understand that the bible says we are not to forsake the gathering of ourselves. I understand that where 2 or 3 are gathered in HIS name, there HE is in our midst. I’ve always longed to be part of a church family. I have sought for 20 years and have been to several churches.
I know that I am partly (perhaps mostly) to blame because I have had a hard time learning to accept views (non essentials) that are different than mine. But I also know what it feels like to be a ‘Black Sheep’ Because of my different views.
The churches I have attended were either dry, and there was no real fellowship, or spiritually dead, and there was no concern for bible study or making Disciples, or gave what I call ‘Cotton Candy’ sermons rather than any real ‘meat,’ or, a combination of these.
One time a ‘Deacon’ came to my house to thank me for visiting and tell me about the new, larger sanctuary. I asked him if they had a bible study available and his answer was that there had never been much interest in a bible study. I asked him then what was the purpose of the church if not to ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ?’ He did not have an answer for me.
The standard reply to what I have said is “Well you know there’s no perfect church.” and “Why don’t you seek to give to instead of seeking to get from a church?” Yep, I know! And I do feel convicted and I do want to be part of a body. I am praying that the Lord would lead me somewhere. But for right now, I feel like I’m one of the ‘Dones.’
Perhaps instead of being nominal, the Dones are phenomenal — courageous enough to leave a system that leaves them empty!
I know of dones who left the church because the church could not cope with people who literally prayed for hours a day. When people pray for a minimum of 3 hours a day something happens to them that is not happening to the 10 minute a day crowd. If you study the bible to that level and chase God that hard you will struggle to find a church that can cope with you. If such people are lacking faith then what does that say about the churches they left behind.
Status-quo church traditions have been failing for many decades. Church workers and leaders, as much as anyone, have joined the ranks of church-goers who have become church-goners.
I see two great ills in the church today contributing to this sad situation.
(1) Churches have drifted from Jesus’ model for local church leadership — namely, a plurality of home-grown, godly elders (versus ‘the pastor’) who have spent enough time in the church and community to be known as trustworthy and faithful workers, husbands and fathers, and edifying church members. Like deacons, they serve voluntarily, not for pay. (Please see the following on this last point: http://www.batteredsheep.com/pastors_salaried.html.)
(2) Churches have drifted from Jesus’ model for the church. “Ekklesia” is the Greek word usually translated as “church” in the NT (e.g., Matt. 16:18; “I will build My church”). This word referred to a “summoned assembly” of co-equal participants that functioned similar to a town hall. The church in the NT gathered as God’s household to eat a special meal (the Lord’s supper). In this setting of hospitality, teaching, discussion, edification, fellowship, prayer and praise took place (Acts 2:42-46; 20:7ff; 1 Cor. 11:33). This provided a very down-to-earth but Christ-centered focus that turned the first-century world upside down.
Most church meetings today are like going to the theatre, where a program (bulletin) is handed out for a presentation (worship service) planned around a keynote speaker (the preacher) and his message (the sermon). Congregational participation is minimal at best. However, a church cannot mature in Christ without “the proper working of every part” (Eph. 4:16). Following the way of Christ will cure a host of problems and help churches bear more fruit to God (Rom. 7:4).
Groups like NTRF.org and blogs such as AlanKnox.net offer a lot of help. Here is a short piece I wrote entitled “Four Essentials For NT Churches” that lays a general foundation for the specifics that the previous two resources explore in greater detail: https://www.dropbox.com/s/8yfdu68wgsdiaxq/Four%20Essentials%20for%20NT%20Churches.pdf?dl=0.
Jared commented on Facebook: “We didn’t leave the Church. The “church” left us. We wanted authentic community. They wanted small groups. We wanted every member to function in our unique God-given gifts. They wanted another sermon. We wanted a plurality of elders and a fierce dedication to avoiding a clergy/laity divide. They wanted to perpetuate their hierarchy. We wanted a Missional focus and learn how to speak the language of the people in our local communities. They wanted to keep their weird Christian subculture/clubby feel intact. So we let them go on their religious crusade, and we stayed right where we needed to be: quietly listening to the Spirit and abiding in the Vine. Jesus is the Head of our Church. Not men or denominations. We don’t need a building or a service in order to worship our maker. The earth itself is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”
Many of the insights shared earlier I believe are “spot on”. I travel the nation singing my songs and sharing my testimony in fellowships of all sizes and streams. In some cases what I have seen is that the larger ministries “have become too big for there britches” in that they equate success in the Kingdom based upon attendance and the finances that they can create. They seem to forget that Jesus told us that “many” go through the broad gate. I was recently “off” on a Sunday morning and attended a very large church (my first mega church actually) and though the “performance” was sparkly and perfect the absence of the Spirit was obvious… to me. It was the concert and the message was all fluff. It was the kind of fluff that rots your teeth. And after a while your teeth get so degraded that it hurts to eat… and in time you decide not eat there anymore and will move on to other things. It seemed a demonstration of what Isaiah was warning us about … the tables are covered with vomit. Regurgitated food. There was nothing that provided for spiritual health in the message at all. Frankly it was borderline foolish. Now in all fairness…I have seen the same in many “small churches”. But at least in smaller churches you may have the opportunity to discuss the message with the Pastor…if he/she is open to it. And that may be where the problem herein lies. Paul told us in Corinthians that when we gather…everybody is to bring something. A word, a hymn, a spiritual song. But everyone is to be allowed to participate. It was to be a spiritual “potluck”, not a catered feeding of “whatever” the main speaker felt was to be the meal of the day. Growth in Christ is meant to be a two-way conversation. Us individually to God and then whatever He shares with us, we are to share one with another. But when we align with a system that the only one who shares is the “man” up front… We don’t ever really grow…and in time… we will go. Done.
Geoff shared on Facebook: “Love this article! To even suggest that dones are ‘faith-fakers’ is not only insulting, (and coming from Church officials is unconscionable) but the comments seem to be shifting blame from the local Church and it’s failures; to the very people it has been charged to care for and bring closer to Christ. All those comments will do is succeed in pushing people further from the Church. Maybe, just maybe the Churches pride is hurt a bit… Hmm…”
It is always easier to leave and be “done” than to try and fix a problem. Then you can say “not my fault.”
In my case, and for many others I know, it was only after decades of trying that walking away seemed like the best solution. This is not an easy option, either, when you really care. But walking away, as Thom’s post suggests, does not mean giving up. It means leaving what is not working (or “edifying”) in search of better solutions.
I completely agree with you, Thom, and with Josh Packard. I think there are MANY believers who have stopped going to church, and the “leaders” can say all they want about them being “nominal,” or “faking faith,” but this is a sign, not only of the times, but of the complaining churches’ unwillingness to adopt the new reality. For many of these folks, church isn’t working, in part because of structure, in part because of the way services are run, and in part because the “dones” have been deeply offended by one thing (or person) or another. I can’t tell you how many times, in my own pastoral career, I had to try to tell people that “The pastor who was cruel to you isn’t representative of me. I’m different.” Or, to tell people that “I don’t see you as a ‘giving unit.'” Or to tell people that they would be accepted and appreciated if they weren’t “perfect.”
The churches that offer the comments you mentioned live in a different world than they think they do, and would do well to remember that attendance is voluntary. At least for most Protestant churches, salvation is not in the hands of the leadership, but of God, which makes them accountable to a different standard than the church leaders really want.
Goes back to the New Testament, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Jesus and his Disciples all over again.
The change is good. Jesus’ church will always live, always be His, and the “gates of Hell” will still not prevail against it. Jesus told us He knows His sheep. He does. And they know Him. If they don’t know someone who says they represent Him, whose fault is that?
Stephanie writes on Facebook: “I find it very interesting that new converts who aren’t attending a church yet are pursued/solicited for a church commitment but don’t ever have their newfound faith called into question. But Christians who have left church after once being part of it, have the sincerity of their faith doubted.”
There’s a rea$on for that.
Wow. What a powerful observation. Stephanie should be a sociologist!
Given what Paul says about the body of Christ I believe it unwise to think we can walk out the door and do Christianity without community.
Having said that, to sit and judgment on those who have gone out the door smacks of rank hypocrisy. Particularly when what some of the dones are leaving has very little resemblance to Christian community. We look around and see relational wreckage often caused by the leaders that would castigate those who leave. When the visible behavior looks little different from any other social group, it’s not hard to conclude that what’s being left is mere organization, program, and buildings, and not community at all.
So, Steve, you would say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer couldn’t “do Christianity?” I think the problem and its resolution is both more and less complicated.
More because we’d have to change an entire institutional model, and less because we have to adopt Jesus’ own style, which HE modeled to the disciples.
Jay shared on Facebook: “Some church leaders were never believers to begin with…THAT’S the problem!”
Jay, unfortunately, that’s not the only problem. It is ONE problem, but many leaders misunderstand their mission (Mark 10:42-45), and many others understand it but won’t do it.
They believe, but won’t fully enter into the Servant/Shepherd model of leadership.
Wishful thinking and belief perseverance. Not a surprise to people who are choosing other expressions.
Very profound and so true about this DONE Syndrome! It definitely exists and not just in the States! Over here in the UK it’s happening more and more and not just because of institutionalism BUT because of False Teaching and Spiritual Abuse! I know from personal experience, have been out now for the past 6 Years and it took me a long time to understand what had happened to me and others!! I can only thank you for adding to my understanding of what the heck has been going on with SO many leaving the Church as we know it but there’s also the many who have suffered Abuse and are probably still in a very traumatic way with little or no help! Many Thanks Marlene Bartlett UK ??. DONE !!!
Blessings to you, Marlene. It both hurts (I spent 25 years as a pastor), and encourages me that there are many like you. I can’t say that I’m fully “done,” but my love for God has not diminished one bit since I’ve stopped regular attendance at church. I miss a lot of things about it, but many things I don’t.
We’ll see. Right now, I post videos and blog posts to minister to people who want to hear from God. Hope I’m helping them…
Yes, I’m very much Christian, in some ways conservatively so, as are the people I gather with. Discipleship, scripture, prayer, spiritual gifts, testimony. Just not an unbiblical structure controling it all.
People usually leave churches because they are not being edified. (Sometimes additional ‘drama’ goes with this.) Many are still searching for something better. Others are in a holding pattern until something better comes along. And, then, some say they have given up or doubt anything better will appear.
Fortunately, mass media and social media exist today so people are not as isolated and vulnerable as in other eras.
My advice to people looking for something better is to create it by extending hospitality. This is the starting point and should be the ongoing foundation of a local church. This is why one of the qualifications for local church leaders (or elders) is that they consistently relish and practice hospitality.
Tim Chester’s book “A Meal With Jesus” is a good place to stimulate some thinking about this. Resources like NTRF.org and AlanKnox.net add much more.
I am licensed and ordained as a pastor. It is useful for me to use the title of pastor when I am looking for help or wanting to access resources for our gatherings at Parkland House and I allow myself to use that as a tool.
Part of our mission is to gather “dones” and help them discover and realize their own ministry goals–their calling. They are leery of pastors and what we represent, an organized, top down, man led church. My contribution is that of someone who is spiritually gifted as a pastor/teacher, but I am nothing more than one of the parts of the body who answers to the same boss–Jesus.
With that said, some of my brothers and sisters often forget why we are together. I admit, some of these people followed me into Parkland House so we could get away from the institutional rules and to be able to engage in Spirit led discussions and discovery rather than programmed series of sermons. They followed me, but they forget that I am not that pastor any longer. The topics of today’s discussion often are as much of a surprise and delight to me as it is for them! But they still often look to me to supply that topic and the content rather than be willing to supply their own testimony and share what they’ve been learning over the past days we’ve been apart.
I bet it is much better when a group of mature believers gather together in a house. I bet you guys are able to share your experiences much easier and without expectations placed upon a central leader. I bet a mature group does all these things more naturally. That’s what I would hope at least. But when you have groups of new or fairly immature believers who are not quite on that road to feeding themselves in independent Bible reading or by daily devotions, many gatherings begin with a staring contest to see who will contribute first. That often means many sets of eyes pointed in my direction and often I will go ahead and sit looking right back at them! Luckily there’s usually still a few scraps of salad left on the plate to play with or I can fiddle with the last remnant of ice cream, but eventually I begin by saying, “Ok, guys. What have you got!”
This makes my group uncomfortable, but our visiting “done” is all over it! Its tough bringing up a new family and allow the Spirit to work His thing when we are still looking for that connection–that “ah ha” between new believer and trusting God to speak through them. On one hand, I refuse to provide topics unless I have to, but on the other hand, I will teach to fill in on what they are leading us to discover. I do best when I can “fill in the blanks” rather than lecture as I once did in the traditional church.
Nice to hear of your efforts to engage others. NTRF.org offers some helpful resources for this. Here is one example.
We have to relate as brothers and sisters. In the UK, church is often seen as the preserve of the middle class, henceforth many working class people, the ordinary folk, feel that faith and therefore God is not for them. It’s never said directly, but that feeling is strongly implicit. God created all people. Why doesn’t the established church see that ??
Strength and blessings to you, Bill! In the early days of organic house church I struggled with the same issues, today things are close to NT fellowship (Acts 2ff). God is faithful. [PS. I was an institutional pastor for 38 years]
I have seen those reports. Just plain baloney. Whether in or out of local church none of us have faith detectors. “Only God knows the heart” – I read that somewhere!
All I can comment on is my own perspective as a “done” for six months.
Born and raised an evangelical with a heart for worship, I have been actively involved in music at our church since I was 10 years old. Now in my late thirties with a wife and two young boys I’m doing the best I can to model Jesus and the love of the Father to them. My faith is the most precious thing I have and the totality of my identity is rooted in my Abba.
It tears me up to leave the Sunday gathering but I can no longer claim to be a follower of Jesus and participate in the dead religion he seemed to overthrow. I can’t be a part of any more concerts or pastor-as-ceo vision casting meetings. I can’t passively sit and listen to denominational rhetoric that stops all discussion and disagreement. I’m tired of the clergy/laity separation. I’m tired of dogma and indoctrination. I’m tired of church politics. I’m tired of halfhearted living.
I want to be in a community known for embracing brokeness. I want to meet with people that value showing love over being right. I want to be around people that cherish everyone not just those on the stage. I want to be around people that live and love wholeheartedly.
Maybe I’m mistaken but it seems to me the church that Jesus is building is shaking off the chains of religion and becoming what He also wanted – a living bride, pure and spotless.
The church has become an organization, in the same way a political party or corporation does. Hierarchy, status, top down strategies etc etc, just do not appeal to most people who are fed up with such structures in the wider world. The language of the church is not normal, aimed at the educated, affluent and those who see their faith as the icing on the cake of their already nice and cosy life, when faith in God and our relationship with Jesus should be first, last and always. Basically, the organized church has become part of the world, at its worst.
Dear Done-Withs… (interesting, no?)
By Robert Winkler Burke
Book #12 of In That Day Teachings
(Hat tip to Pastor John White’s YouTube video “Why I broke down in tears at “The Future of the Church Summit.” Google this selfie-video! – rwb)
You’re done with Emergents,
Lazy King Throne Regents,
Impresarios of fey delusion,
Masters of the con illusion,
You’re done with 10% tithing,
Pastors saying God isn’t lying,
If you pay for their endless, nagging, nugatory, big needs,
You’ll get in return glorious rainbows without any weeds?
You’re done with brazen-scandalous lying,
And you keep hearing of prophts a’ dying?
Prophets who went along with wildcat clericalism’s anything,
And you’re done with doubting… God is an allseeing King?
Hold on, hold on, hold on to your hats,
There are prophets unafraid to rebuke!
Like you, they are Done-With all that’s,
Wrong with church. Search now and look!
Look and see what’s happening In That Day,
See who the gatekeepers blindly de-platformed,
Search Google, YouTube: “Robert Burke, Reno,” okay?
And you’ll see how church and state are once and for all reformed!
(Simply defund Prog Ed K-12, university, law and Journalism: so deformed,
Replacing pedagogy with Western Enlightenment informed!)
& Stop ribald church subtext selling of bad emotions formed,
And honor Christ-in-You (Yes!) in each soul: so warmed!
Whenever, wherever and in whomever: you find it,
Who, for you, have eruditely, cogently: mined it,
In That Day Teachings: Christ-in-You lined it.
Amen! The most dangerous Christians are those who can tell if someone else is not!
[…] Some people might leave local church fellowships because they were hurt, but that is only some, and definitely isn’t all, and a large portion stick with their faith according to recent studies by multiple polling sources. According to the Social Research Lab at the University of Northern Colorado – 34.5 million have left in recent years, and have no affiliation, but 30.5 million left and kept their faith. Other studies have shown that 83% of those who leave church still consider faith to be an important part of their life, see this link. […]
[…] https://holysoup.com/are-the-dones-really-christian/ […]
I can’t help but be struck by the parallels between the Dones and MGTOW (men going their own way).
Both are a reaction to the fact that traditional institutions have been hollowed out to the points that they are parodies of their past.
Rather than try to understand either group, the institutional church seems intent on shaming them back into line.
Dr. Helen Smith’s book “Men on Strike” or her blog at PJ Media would be a good place to start.
The Dones and MGTOW are the “canaries in a coal mine” of a much larger problem: the institutions that keep our society together (church, marriage, family) are disintegrating.
Men on Strike: https://www.amazon.com/Men-Strike-Boycotting-Marriage-Fatherhood/dp/1594037620
Dr. Helen’s blog: https://pjmedia.com/drhelen/