Done With Church – Listening & Understanding Why

Many of you reading this either work for the Church or attend regularly and enthusiastically. But you know, deep down, that the number of people attending church in the US continues to drop.

A recent report on Knoxville’s WBIR announced that 80% of Knoxvillians either identify as having “no religion” or are “done” with religion – and this is in the Bible Belt!  Forty percent of those surveyed in a study commissioned by a local mega church showed that of this 80%, 40% are “dones” – those who once faithfully attended church but are, literally, done with it all. Often, these “dones” were among the most active members of their church right before they walked out the door.

In my mind, the rise of the Dones – especially those of whom were very active church members – is a puzzling and potentially disastrous situation church leaders really need to pay attention to. Losing the “nones” is one thing; losing people who once devoted their time, talents and money and then completely walk away is a whole different kind of culture shock that ought to get the church’s attention. Denial about the situation won’t do any good (and I think that’s the pervasive response at the moment.)

Instead, the church might well listen to those who have left the church – and perhaps look in the mirror at their own behaviors that are killing the institution they love. Yes, we all know some of the reasons for the “dones” – the lack of time for church, increasing competition for children’s afterschool and weekend hours, and the disillusionment of churchgoers after a small minority of clergy commit crimes or totally drop the ball when it comes to basic morality.  But I think there’s more behind the “done” movement.

People Are Exasperated with Church Tribalism: In the book Church Refugees: Why People are Done with Their Church But Not Their Faith, sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope found that the main reason active church members became “dones” was a lack of opportunity for growth within the church. Church bureaucracy gets in the way of getting meaningful work done. Churchgoers are tired of the church power structure, which often is primarily concerned with keeping the church hierarchy in place.

I would add to this what I’ve experienced as exasperation with the tribalism and clique-ishness of churches, at local, regional and national levels. Getting work done in the church is almost always dependent on whether you’re part of one clique or another. A lot of potentially great ministry has been nipped in the bud by leaders who feel threatened by others (particularly newcomers) or don’t want to acknowledge the gifts of people in competing tribes.  For an institution that prides itself on “inclusion,” a lot of us sure have felt excluded time and time again.

I suspect people have always felt hostility and resentment against this kind of tribalism in past years. But now, it is socially acceptable to say “no” and to simply walk away. People are fed up, and finally, they are taking on meaningful activities outside the church.

Ministry Really is Out in the World: Churches preach Jesus’ commandment to “go ye into all the world,” but the church definition of “ministry” almost always involves ministering to others solely within the context and framework of the institutional church. The reality is that people do ministry each and every day in their jobs, in their personal lives, and as part of other organizations – medical professionals, social workers, caretakers of the elderly, full time moms, Scout leaders, people simply sharing acts of kindness to strangers and neighbors alike. Yet the church rarely acknowledges these contributions or “counts” them as ministry connected to Christianity.

I wish The Church would acknowledge the “ministry” many church goers and non-church goers alike do outside the walls of the church. I wish The Church would acknowledge the many financial contributions people give to worthy charitable organizations or even to family or friends in need.

The Church is not one-stop shopping for giving, doing, and believing. And the Dones and Nones have already figured that out.

Recommended Books on the Dones and Nones:

Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Why People are Done with Their Church But Not Their Faith (This is by far the most insightful book I’ve read on the subject of Dones and why they’ve left the church. Highly recommended).

Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones.

Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration:How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking A Better Way to Be Christian.

Linda A Mercadante, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.

Cynthia Coe is the author of Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us and two novels. For more information, please see her Author Page on Amazon.