“This gay rights thing is going to destroy the American church,” the pastor said.

Is that true? Many church leaders–on both sides of the gay debate–believe this issue will be the watershed moment for the church.

That could be. But not how they think it will.

Sociologist Josh Packard’s research for the book Church Refugees uncovered some intriguing findings about the effect of churches’ moral teachings on those who now say they’re done with church. It turns out that a church’s position on homosexuality–or other things such as living together, or drugs and drinking–isn’t what is causing most Dones to leave organized religion.

Packard writes: “What drove the vast majority away was their perception that the church focuses on issues of personal morality exclusively or predominately while ignoring what our respondents felt were much bigger issues.”

He quotes one of his interviewees: “Can we as a church, just get everything else right–love your neighbor, feed the poor, all that stuff–and then talk about homosexuality?” For the Dones, it’s a matter of focus and priorities and preoccupation.

It’s true, some churches, denominations and para-church organizations have largely staked their identity on these moral positions. As they’ve waged these culture wars, some have seen their constituencies shrink. This exodus has affected both the conservative and liberal sides of these battles. Their reaction has often been to double-down on their signature issues, entrenching themselves further. Some publicly condemn their deserters as backsliders, blasphemers or heretics.

But, again, the Dones aren’t being repelled by the church’s positions. They’re being repelled by how the treatment of these particular issues becomes an obsession that overshadows and excludes what they believe are more important things, such as the pursuit of Jesus’ two Great Commandments.