Jeff Cook Asks Josh Packard 10 Questions

Jeff Cook Asks Josh Packard 10 Questions June 22, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 8.24.21 PMDr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope unveil in their book Church Refugees what many have suspected for years: the most committed church attenders have begun leaving. After a year of qualitative research, Packard and Hope have produced a detailed study of “the Dones”, those who have self-selected out of church life. Below are some follow up questions for Dr. Packard on his work.

  1. Why “Church Refugees” and not “Church Burnouts”?

I love this question.  We were surprised to find that people are not burned out on God.  If anything, they want to do MORE, not LESS.  What they’re tired of is working to serve the kingdom of their church rather than serving the kingdom of God.  Sometimes, serving one also serves the other, but when there is a disconnect or a wide gulf between those two, people get really frustrated.  I was just talking to someone the other day who said “My church might need a new parking lot, but I’m not sure that God does.”

  1. Your book argues that many of the most committed churchgoers are leaving and not coming back.  How big is this phenomenon?

We’re actually releasing the results of a quantitative study in the coming weeks through Group Publishing, which commissioned the survey and report, that will address this in detail.  But I think the better question is, Do you know people who fit this profile?  When pastors ask me about the national size of this trend, I ask, Why do you need to know?  My position is that, as sizeable as the number is, the only number that really matters is the number of people who have left or are leaving YOUR church and you can support them in their journey.

  1. What are the new religious homes and faith experiences Dones embrace after they leave their church? Can these be encouraged and financially supported by church leaders?

Of course!  I think there’s a real fallacy in thinking that the current model of institutional church is the way it must always be.  Churches have adapted both form and function numerous time throughout history and look differently all over the world.  The only thing it takes is people responding to a need and the felt desires of their community.  There is no law that says we have to pay pastors to lecture for forty minutes on Sunday.

  1. Does the Church gathering still have sociological importance in creating healthy societies and healthy people that Dones will lack?

I think this is exactly the question that sociologists are and should be trying to figure out right now.  Let me get back to you when we have it figured out…

  1. What are some of the practices embraced in the “1980s and 1990s to attract and retain that are driving people away in the 2000s”?

In a nutshell: Extreme political and social stances.  Passive worship.  Lack of true conversation about theological issues.

  1. Are there any structures in our culture that we can learn from who are not bogged down by bureaucratic systems, yet still accomplish much of what they target in their mission? 

Yeah, and we profile some of these practices in Church Refugees, but I think the general idea of approaching structure more as a collective than a bureaucracy is a good place to start.  I wouldn’t advocate for swinging the pendulum completely in that direction, but a general nod in that direction would do a lot to make churches more like the kind of place where Dones can reengage.  I don’t know that they’ll ever come back, and I don’t really know that that should be the goal, but they will re-engage if churches have space and structure to support them and the work they’re doing.

  1. Where many church leaders may feel disheartened by your findings, are there reasons to think the flight of the Dones may be a divinely inspired movement?

As a sociologist, I’d be hesitant about using language like “divinely inspired,” but I do think there is reason to see the movement of Dones as an opportunity rather than a threat.  It shows, for instance, that people continue to take their faith lives very seriously.  I would think that churches would see that as a very promising thing.  The hardest thing to do is to get groups of people committed to something, and here is evidence of large groups of people committed to God.  The church just needs to figure out how to engage that commitment.

  1. Many of the Dones report not missing the music or teaching, does this prove that such elements of church services are overvalued?

Oh, the Dones miss music.  They can find teaching in small communities and online.  But they do miss the music, because most of what is out there is not really for them.  That’s a big part of the reason we created a soundtrack to go along with this book.  This is Why I Left You: Songs for the Dones  is a 6 song EP my wife and I funded and produced along with some talented musicians just to explore what music might look like in this area.  It’s actually one of the things we’re most excited about to come out of The Dechurched Project.

  1. Given the sociological trajectory, what are some of the forms that the church in America may take in the coming decades?

It looks like the church in this country is entering a massive period of transition and upheaval.  We’re going to see a lot of churches close their doors in the next decade, and much of the religious activity in this country is likely to be a lot more fragmented than it has ever been.  But if history teaches us anything, it’s that the church in America is an innovative institution, and it will respond to these pressures.  I don’t know what final form it will take, but I know there are a lot of unique, creative and “outside-the-box” things already going on.

  1. If there was a single suggestion you could make to those overseeing churches, what would it be?

Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  I think we’re too often quick to dismiss these experiences and data.  I’ve had people tell me that these people don’t matter because they aren’t really committed.  I think that’s a travesty.  The messages put forth by the major world religions, including Christianity, are life-altering, especially in the context of our modern, consumer driven society.  If someone is willing to engage that message, and they tell you that they’re doing so honestly, then I think we should take them at their word.  I don’t lie about my faith, I know you don’t lie about yours.  I have no reason to dismiss what others tell me about their faith lives, either.

Josh Packard is a professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, co-director of the Social Research Lab, and the author of numerous academic articles, reviews, and books. You can connect with him at dechurched.net and @DechurchAmerica. Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. You can connect with him at everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook.


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  • Thanks for this. One quick note to readers, especially folks who aren’t some of the “dones”–few dones take that label for themselves, which is a label that many in church find offensive.

    Second, so much of this interview points to why so many planters have been asking what church is for years now, and have experimented with alternatives to typical evangelical ecclesiology and sacrament priority that centers church around “the” pastor and his sermon. My series on this blog about what the church can learn from AA and similar 12 step groups and all the real life work behind it was driven by the realities this post highlights.

    We need to keep talking about what’s driving our ecclesial priorities and practices in light of these concerns, in light of alternative sacramental priorities, all looking to our new testament teachings and examples

  • tsgIII

    There were 297 comments on the subject of “dones” here on Jesus Creed on June 8, 2015. It’s important. It seems to me that what many :dones” have said about their faith lives has been dismissed in various ways. I was encouraged by a post here on Jesus Creed by Jonathan Storment on May 13 about Jesus appearing to Muslims in their dreams. Such a beautiful reminder that Jesus is building His church.
    Bottom line to this poster…..this is a very important conversation. It seems many of these “dones” will be implementing new approaches to community in our churches. I especially am sensitive to what Evelyn Kreider has called multivoiced worship( from ICorinthians 11-14). I quote her….”This enculturated form of liturgy included countercultural gestures and practices that created social bonding and radical equalization”.
    And as very important conversation, Jesus Creed is an important place, because it has always fostered civil discourse. I’m very interested to what others say about the “dones”. When the late “Internet Monk” Michael Spencer posted “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”, it seemed to me more about possibility.

  • tsgill,

    Thanks for the heads up on the jesus creed posts on the Dones. I am just stepping back into this blog site after a long hiatus. I agree that this is an important post full of good ideas. I like the emphasis on envisioning the church or body of Christ as more than a affiliation with a particular church community. I think it is so important to keep supporting Christians who may have left “our” particular fold, however we define it, but who are continuing to build the kingdom. This kind of support gets us out of tribalism. I also love the line that we can redefine pastoring as something different than a 40 minute lecture every week. I no doubt state the obvious, but the internet, and forums like these, where people can add their voices, make it very difficult to participate in organizations with one-way communication channels. The days of being talked to are over.

  • Amen! As so many say, it is time to minister with instead of to….

  • Hi Abbess! I do love “with” rather than “to.”

  • QueenMab

    I am one of ‘the dones”. After 20 years as an Evangelical then 10 as a Roman Catholic *gasp*, I’m just TOAST! It became endless committees and campaigns and in fighting about music or liturgy of whatever the heck. I have made great friends…learned a lot about myself and God (too much, perhaps) and that is what I am taking away from it all. I believe in God, love Jesus, but I am a burnt out, totally fried, refugee who is well and truly done.

    Forgot to add that I am sitting here reading Faith Shift by Kathy Escobar. Definitely a book any ‘done’ should pick up.
    ~Rachel

  • QueenMab

    Many in the church may find it offensive but if the shoe fits, as in my case, it is a perfect description of what many are going through.

  • QueenMab

    It’s not just an Evangelical collapse. Catholics and Orthodox) are leaving too. They always have. However, it used to be they’d leave for Evangelicalism. However, I was an Evangelical for 20yrs and then became Catholic (following the path of many an Evangelical across the Tiber to Rome). After 10 years Catholic, though, things aren’t much different. I sometimes miss Mass and the Eucharist. (Haven’t been to church since Easter), but the Catholics are polarized too, they just don’t form a new denomination when they fight. They just stay in their ideological corners under their big Roman tent. I’m so over it all. I loved Michael Spencer’s book. It was quite prophetic.
    ~Rachel

  • Josh Packard

    Thanks, Rachel, for sharing that resource. We’ve heard a lot of people reference Escobar’s work. Godspeed as you move into this new phase.

  • Queen,

    I think the label has some drawbacks for anyone, though my point is not to dispute anyone who wants it for themselves. Rather, for purposes of this conversation and others like it, it can be needlessly divisive and unhelpful in at least two ways: One, some folks in this category don’t know what the next step is, only what it isn’t, at least for now. Meaning, they are uncomfortable with the seeming finality and resolution implied by “done.” Secondly, for folks in or leading traditional churches, it can come off as “I’m done with you,” which is generally a horrible way to begin a conversation, especially one that needs to happen.

    But again, if you or anyone else embraces the label, I accept that (and you) and would love to hear the particulars of your story in getting there. For others who are less sure but are currently not participating in a (traditional) church, I don’t want them misrepresented, nor do I want folks in (traditional) churches to get off on the wrong foot. It makes listening and gracious conversation more difficult.

  • QueenMab

    Thanks, Josh. Thank you too, for your work. I have put your book on my wishlist and have been checking out your DeChurched site.

  • QueenMab

    T.
    Yup. I totally get that. I guess, in all honesty, there is a little of that “I am done with you.” attitude floating around in my head. However, it had nothing to do with the laity. It has to do with church hierarchical structures. I have friends, who I adore, who are still quite committed to church, so that last thing I want is for them to feel like I think what they are doing is stupid. Plus, I truly don’t think it’s stupid. Sometimes I feel a pangs of wanting to go back. However, when I do (last time was during the Easter season) I just can’t handle it.

    I am a wife and mom of 3, the youngest of which is 15, and we have unschooled our kids. I guess, if I think about it, I should have seen the writing on the wall regarding church. I have a problem with institutions. They box people in. I didn’t choose to homeschool for religious reasons. I did it because I wanted to my kids to be free. I rejected compulsory institutional schooling, way back, when my 25 year old was a toddler. It looked more like prison to me, than learning. Church was starting to feel the same. I guess I should have seen that institutional church would eventually be jettisoned. I can’t handle the way God and faith become boxed in, in organized religious settings. God literally knows, I tried to tow the line for decades. I just couldn’t take the cognitive dissonance anymore.

    Interestingly, a book that helped me to work through some of my religious cognitive dissonance was Scot McKnight’s book, ‘Finding Faith, Losing Faith;. A really great read…ahead of it’s time.
    ~Rachel

  • Thanks, Rachel.

  • chris

    Thanks for the great information. I am confused about number 4: is the question about whether the church should gather or how it gathers? If the former, I’m pretty sure that you don’t have church without gathering whatever that looks like.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think #3 is quite poignant but will be very hard for most churches to address. Especially in the bigger churches, the institutional church becomes a major employer and thus not only sustaining it but growing it becomes an end to itself for pure economic reasons regardless of any spiritual needs (and I think for a lot of people this is subconscious/they are not really aware of it) The decline of the traditional model means less money flowing in the pot and people ultimately losing money. Money that sustains them and their lifestyle.

    Oh how the words of Jesus on wealth will be relevant in the next 20-30 years . . .

  • I’ve not read this book yet, so I don’t know, but I imagine we see this playing out in lots of ways, from abandonment of denoms to traditional churches to all churches. Most, I think, are ending up out of church altogether, but are still connecting with folks informally.

    I see this coinciding with the growth of house churches.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Non-denoms have been growing for years coinciding with the decline of traditional denoms (although the people joining non-demons is miniscule compared to the people leaving denoms; it’s not equal displacement); but the above is about people leaving the institutional church altogether.

  • Mark K

    Extreme political and social stances. Passive worship. Lack of true conversation about theological issues.

    Yes, this nails it for me. I find that I’m done with evangelical/politically knee-jerk churches, but not church. I’ve found a home in an Episcopalian church, where the Eucharist seems a weekly epiphany for me. But my only honest fellowship is a weekly 12-Step meeting. I believe it was Frederick Buechner who said the best thing for the church would be for all the buildings to burn down. I’m not sure I disagree.