They’re done. Done with the institutional church. They are millions strong. And millions more are about to join them.

The Dones, as I refer to them, include some of the established church’s previously most active members, best givers, and most mature believers. Their exodus presents one of the most perplexing challenges for the church as we know it.

In their new book, sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope compare the Dones to refugees. They write, “Refugees are people who’ve been forced from their homes–for fear of persecution. That describes the dechurched. If they stayed, they would risk further estrangement from their spiritual selves, from God, and from a religion they still believe in.”

That’s what’s interesting about the Dones. They’re not running away from God. Many of them say they’re now running better toward God. So, why is that? What is driving them away from the institutional church? The sociologists discovered several recurring themes after interviewing the Dones.

The fouling of community

The research reveals that the Dones craved the sense of community that a congregation could provide. But instead of community they found judgment. The authors describe Elizabeth who longed for community. But she said, “Today things are so divided and judgmental, especially around superficial issues, that I can’t go into a church and pretend anymore to be someone I’m not.”

Packard and Hope said the Dones were looking for the kind of community that demonstrates “a shared understanding that we’re all broken and in need of  forgiveness and grace.” Instead they found church leaders and members “making lifestyle declarations and judgments without owning up to their own shortcomings.”

It’s not a shirking of conviction. They’re comfortable seeing God as judge. But they resist church people who attempt to act in that capacity.

Some church people have judged the Dones as guilty of “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,” as mentioned in Hebrews 10:25. But many Dones say they’re not forsaking assembling. They’re just not assembling in that place with the steeple on top. They’re getting together organically with others to share their faith journey. One described a weekly mealtime with fellow believers: “A bunch of people coming together around a common meal to talk about life. It’s nothing like church. We all talk, and we all listen.”

I’ve found that Dones often bristle when someone says they left the church. “We didn’t leave the church. We are the church,” they say. “The church is not some branded religious bureaucracy in some building. It’s us, all of us. We are the Body of Christ–the church.”

This community/judgment tension is just one of the factors that the sociologists learned about the Dones. In future articles I’ll describe some of their other findings. In the meantime, check out their book, Church Refugees.

There’s a lot more to learn. The organized church, if it wants to retain some of its prime people, would do well to listen to them.