Church Refugees 1: Ethan’s Story

Church Refugees 1: Ethan’s Story July 22, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 6.59.49 PMThe essence of “church refugees,” or the “dechurching of the former intensely involved church leaders,” is “they’re finding ways to be the church outside of the institution” (27).

I quote from Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope’s Church Refugees as I set off on a series on this book, one that has solid and rigorous sociological data at the core. I teach at Northern Seminary, and we prepare people for ministries in churches, so I am doubly curious about church refugees — most importantly, why they are leaving and what can be done about it. (Not that I think there’s a fix.) Here are some important introductory observations and citations from the opening chapter in this book.

We are not dealing here with the perennially cynical or with the marginalized or the lazy but with leader-types:

The story that emerged from the data is that people with access to alternative ways of reaching their goals of community and social engagement are opting out of church. In our society, this is typically white people for issues of social class, not because of heritage, tradition, or ethnicity. White people in the U.S. have much greater access to social institutions and systems of power, so when they leave the church, they can find other ways of getting things done. Also, white people generally have much more social and cultural capital than other groups, making it more possible for them to realize their goals without a supporting institution (10-11).

Here are the four major themes of the church refugees, the dechurched, the Dones:

They wanted community.. .and got judgment.

They wanted to affect the life of the church.. .and got bureaucracy.

They wanted conversation.. .and got doctrine.

They wanted meaningful engagement with the world… and got moral prescription.

And what happens to them when they leave (nothing):

If Ashleigh and I could communicate one thing about the demographics of the Dones, it would be that this is an issue of talents and energy, not of numbers. While we have strong suspicions about the rising numbers of Dones, this is, ultimately, not a story of numbers. It’s a story of what happens when an organization invests in training and discipling scores of people and yet does very little to retain them or reengage them when they leave (11).

Nor are these refugees occasional church goers and little more than disaffected pew sitters. These are engaged folks who have consciously chosen to do it another way:

This book is about a wholly different kind of churchgoer. It’s about people who make explicit and intentional decisions to leave the church and organized religion. We call these people the dechurched or the Dones: They’re done with church. They’re tired and fed up with church. They’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, and politics of the institutional church, and they’ve decided they and their spiritual lives are better off lived outside of organized religion. As one of our respondents put it, “I guess the church just sort of churched the church out of me” (14).

They become church refugees in order to survive spiritually:

They feel they’ve been forced to leave a place they consider home because they feel a kind of spiritual persecution and it would be dangerous, spiritually, for them to remain. They tell stories of frustration, humiliation, judgment, embarrassment, and fear that caused them to leave the church. They remark time and again that they worked diligently for reform within the church but felt the church was exclusively focused on its own survival and resistant to change. If they stayed, they would risk further estrangement from their spiritual selves, from God, and from a religion they still believe in (15).

The church, they feel, is keeping them from God. According to them, the church, not God, is the problem, and they’ve stayed in the church long past the point that it ceased to be fulfilling or even sustaining (16).

Furthermore, they flee the church not because they hate the church. They have, in fact, worked tirelessly on behalf of the church. They flee for their own spiritual safety, to reconnect with a God they feel has been made distant to them by the structure of religion as practiced in organizations (16).

Two broader trends are at least at work: a loss of trust in religious leaders and institutions, and alongside this is an increasing sense that the local church’s message is irrelevant to daily life. Community is a desire as much as ever, but not one that is institutional. The numbers of Dones do not threaten the vastness of churchgoers but the Dones may well indicate the condition of the church in the USA.

The Dones are not so much angry as they are uninterested in what churches are doing. Churches is not where their kind of spiritual life can flourish. But what is most notable about the Dones is their activistic approach to life: they are, in fact, perfect candidates for the church life but find the church life not relevant to their kind of spiritual activism.

But they are telling an important story:

They’re the ones who, prior to leaving, showed up at worship every week and tithed. They organized and participated in small-group activities, Bible studies, worship planning, church councils, elder teams, and a plethora of other activities and services that are the lifeblood of churches big and small. They were the keepers of organizational history and played a significant role in defining institutional identity (21-22).

And here is Ethan’s story that illustrates Packard and Hope’s Refugee (23-24):

So I did campus ministry for years. I learned how to preach, I learned youth ministry, learned biblical counseling, and when I got out I went back to my old church, and they hired me as their youth pastor. Then I did assistant pastoring for three and a half years there, and I ran a youth drop-in center that was sponsored by United Way, where we tutored kids and had organized basketball, volleyball, field trips, and that type of thing. I did youth group for the church, and I led worship, and I led weddings, burials, and that sort of thing. For years did all of that.

When I left after a scandal with the head pastor cheating on his wife, we attended another church a few towns over, and was helping with the youth group there, and then they offered me a position. For the next six years, I was an associate pastor, and we did all the adult Christian education, children’s ministry, led worship, pretty much a little of everything. From there it was on to Florida following my wife’s job and on to another church which dissolved because the elders were stealing church money, and then out to Colorado, where we got involved again. We just can’t help getting involved when we have talents to offer and we see a need, I guess.

Since 2010, though, when we finally left the church, we’ve just done house church where we create and do things with, others rather than for them. I’m done with the top-down, institutional church. I thought we could fix it from within, but we got beat up pretty bad. I know we didn’t always handle things the best way, but at the same time, we kept showing up and volunteering because we felt the church was God’s home.

I don’t think that’s the case anymore. The church is wherever God’s work is being done, and too often the way we were treated and the things I saw happen in the institutional church to other people just weren’t in alliance with what we thought God wanted.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think the institutional church is filled with bad people. I think the church in America is an inherently flawed structure that compels people to make poor decisions. You’re basically judged on how well you can preach and the numbers you bring in. / realize the church isn’t perfect and it’s made up of people who aren’t perfect and I’m not perfect either, but the church needs to see that there are things that are broken about the structure, not the people.

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  • tsgIII

    Way back in 2008 Jesus Creed did a series of posts on “Chrysalis” by Alan Jamieson. It was about the hidden transformations in the journey of faith. I don’t believe anyone mentioned at that time that Jamieson’s book prior to that was “A Churchless Faith- Faith Journeys beyond the Churches”. In many ways Chrysalis was an attempt to offer a template to creative approaches( not a fix) for “Dones” coming back into community. If you don’t mind being compared to an insect it’s at least an early glimpse into this. Those two books were chronologically about why some were leaving and what could be done about it. The research of Packard and Hope is compelling about the why. And I personally liked Jamieson’s feeding stations and butterfly houses for examples of what could be done about it. But I do believe there are many creative new approaches to be had about church structure not yet talked about. It is interesting from a church structure perspective, the rise of mega-church since the 1950’s. I mean why? You don’t go there if you want the four major themes of the church refugees.

  • This looks like a hugely challenging read for church leaders to engage with. I, too, was reminded of Alan Jamieson’s work (fellow Kiwi Baptist), but today’s post made me think afresh of there being a problem when we’re talking about key, core contributing people not wanting to stay.

    Thanks for taking on this series, Scot.

  • nate shoemaker

    I can’t help but think all this talk about the ‘Dones’ is a bit misdirected. It’s always surrounded by conversation about how to ‘get them back’…

    I don’t think ‘Dones’ are leaving. I think ‘Dones’ are leading. The institutional church, while perhaps ‘fixable’, doesn’t need fixing… it needs leaders who aren’t afraid to walk away from the institution itself while keeping “Church” at the core. This is exactly what the ‘Dones’ are.

    Perhaps instead of trying to win them back, we should follow them.

  • Josh Packard

    Thanks for this reminder, TS. I really appreciate Jamieson’s work.

  • Josh Packard

    Nate, I know that’s how some people have used the research, but if you give Church Refugees a fair read, I think you’ll find that we’re not really trying to put forth ways to “win them back” but rather trying to help imagine some ways that the church can re-engage with those who have left-many of whom, as you point out, are leaders.

  • jwhawthorne

    In my own reading of this excellent book, I was struck that we need to figure out who the “Near Dones” are and listen to them before they depart.

  • Phil Miller

    I’m not trying to be overly critical here, but I do wonder what the end result of this is. Ethan mentions he’s involved in a home church now. Not to be overly pessimistic, but I have know more than a few people who have gone down that road only to have it blow up in their face as well. I just wonder if the problems that we’re talking about aren’t just always going to exist in some way or another no matter where we’re at or how we “do church”. I had one pastor tell me jokingly once, “being a pastor would be great if it weren’t for the people!”.

    Yes, I do think there are plenty of churches that handle problem better than others, and I think there are plenty of situations where the best thing to do is leave. What I’m not sure of, though, is if we should simply leave and not try to jump back in. Because the Apostle Paul used the metaphor or running a race to describe the Christian life, it’s something we’re used to hearing. I wonder sometimes, though, if we try to take that too far. Running a race kind of implies we have a clear path in front of us. I think that more realistic metaphor would be digging a ditch or clearing a path through the jungle. It’s really never easy.

  • nate shoemaker

    I appreciate the reply. Full disclosure, I ordered the book today (largely because of this blog post) and haven’t read it yet; but will as soon as it arrives 🙂

    Perhaps I’m stuck on definitions. How you would differentiate between “win them back” and “re-engage them”?

  • nate shoemaker

    I think there’s an assumption that just because a church is a good church that it best represents The Church. But I find myself wondering (perhaps as the ‘Dones’) if the institutional church is kind of a false race or false ditch digging. It isn’t that it isn’t actually a race or ditch digging, but rather that it’s not The Race or The Ditch Digging. It’s natural for people to have a hard time separating what is church and what is Church (exacerbated, of course, by the fact they’re the same word…). It doesn’t take long for some (not all) to begin to feel like church is a bait and switch, especially if they’re also studying their Bibles…

    I also don’t think having a house church blow up in their face from time to time is a reason to not leave and try something else. If anything, it seems to me it shows that they DO desire Church and are willing to be a part of something that fails in order to find it. In fact, isn’t that part of the beauty of it? Aren’t they, at least in part, leaving the institution because it’s too self protecting, too risk averse? (The symptoms of which would be limited community, affectivity, engagement, and conversation.)

  • Phil Miller

    Part of this comes down to ecclesiology, undoubtedly. I think in much of Evangelicalism, there really isn’t any sense of ecclesiology. Being part of a church is talked about as being necessary and good for the sake of your personal growth, but little evidence is actually given as to why that’s the case. In the Eastern tradition, Catholicism and even some of the more traditional forms of Protestantism, there is a sense that being part of the church is what gives us life. We partake of Christ by partaking in the Eucharist with our brothers and sisters. Can this happen in the context of a house church – yes, it certainly can.

    I guess without knowing the particulars of every case, it’s hard to speak meaningfully about the issue. Personally, I do think that a big part of the problem in Evangelicalism is that there is no connection to the actual historic faith of the Church that has been passed down through the generations. I think if people actually had a knowledge of where the Church came from, they would start to see that so many of the debates we have are nothing new, and that people are always people. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time with my Orthodox friends, though.

  • KentonS

    Sort of. The mega-church model is part of the frustration for the dones, imo. You walk into a mega-church and there are a lot of people there. A lot of opportunity for community, and yet, no opportunity for community. (Large numbers means no intimacy.) A lot of opportunity for sharing gifts and yet no opportunity for sharing gifts. (The “gifted” is considered a tiny subset.)

    I heard Josh on Luke Norsworthy’s podcast and I think it’s possible for a mega-church to make space for the dones/nearly dones, but I don’t know that they really want to make that space. That’s my .02 anyway.

  • Jean Bergen

    Yes! Be proactive rather than reactive.

  • nate shoemaker

    I think the mega churches may be scratching a different itch. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But many of them are just one more ‘church’ that the ‘Dones’ aren’t convinced is ‘Church’.

    Again, consider this list from the post and book:
    – They wanted community.. .and got judgment.
    – They wanted to affect the life of the church.. .and got bureaucracy.
    – They wanted conversation.. .and got doctrine.
    – They wanted meaningful engagement with the world… and got moral prescription.

    The size of the church, in this case, hasn’t changed what’s been offered.

  • I’ll be interested in your take after reading and appreciate your disclosure. I think the point is more about realizing that those of us who gradually and painfully had to walk away aren’t alone. There are lots of us across demographics and denominations.

    The opportunity for leaders like Scot, who are training leaders, as well as church leaders and pastors, is awareness. The Dones are holding up a mirror that most are not willing to look into. The opportunity being presented is one of integrity and transparency and openness to how the Spirit may be leading towards course corrections.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series and greater understanding.


  • scotmcknight

    I would say a house church is, in fact, institutional church and there’s no such thing as a non-institutional church, unless it is made up of one and only one person. (And that person will soon make it institutional.)

  • nate shoemaker

    I agree, Rick. I wasn’t trying to suggest mega churches are the issue (or even an issue). I was only suggesting how they’re likely to be viewed by the ‘Dones’, which is to say the same as regular churches.

  • I spent the first 34 years of my life as a devoted “churchian”, raised by a family with a long history of devoted churchianity; pastors, ministers, elders, etc. I had attended my last church for 20 years, serving as elder, worship leader, teacher, occasional preacher, etc. before finally beginning to see a slew of problems I’d eventually come to understand as endemic not to a specific “church”, but to the entire system.

    I was increasingly troubled by what I saw as enormous discrepancies between what was described in the Bible of the first century church and the thing that we call church today. My first instincts, as a leader, were to attempt to fix things from the inside. I poured myself into trying to get others to look with me at what I was discovering and help bring a reconciliation, either by helping to diagnose the problem or by proving me wrong.

    But there was, sadly, very little interest… at least from other leaders. I then began going to people that didn’t hold the ranks and titles, but then found myself quickly labeled as an agitator who was only bringing about confusion and discord. All I wanted was an open conversation, but i quickly learned that, for the majority, it was more important to continue with what was comfortable than it was to ask whether or not it was in harmony with the Bible.

    Eventually I would come to understand that institutions, by their very existence, negate open conversation about the validity of institutions. In order for an institution to exist, it is necessary as a minimum requirement that its members at least believe that institutions must exist. When questioning something so fundamental, one quickly discovers that some people place their security in the existence of such a thing and are unwilling, under almost any circumstance, to openly discuss such questions.

    Virtually nothing of modern day church tradition is mentioned in the Bible. This doesn’t of course, make it inherently wrong, but neither does it make it safe to assume it’s inherently right, much less God ordained. There is a burden of proof that should be carried by those making claims that our 1,700 year old church traditions are in fact the will of God. The dones/dechurched/refugees are not mistaken simply for questioning the unquestionable, and shouldn’t be seen as a disease to be cured or a leak to be plugged; we have something important to share with anyone willing to listen.

    The church isn’t dying, but it’s certainly shifting…

  • You are correct, at least with regards to most people’s idea of what a house church is. If it has a primary leader/speaker/teacher, a predictable order of “service”, a reliable ending time, titles, etc., then it’s the exact same thing in a smaller building. There are, of course, non-institutional ways of sharing our faith together as believers. Think family reunion, not small group.

  • To say “listen to them before they depart” carries the inherent presumption that any thinking which would lead them to depart is wrong and must be avoided. So long as this presumption exists, no real “listening” can occur.

  • nate shoemaker

    I understand what you mean (and agree). I don’t think house churches are the non-instituional savior of the ‘Dones’, I was simply referring to them in response to Phil.

    However, what language can be used to easily represent what they’re looking for versus what they’re finding (and rejecting)? ‘Institutional’ may not be THE reason they’re leaving, but the feel/appearance/attitude/etc of being institutional is certainly a contributor. If we’re not careful all we will do is leave them nowhere to go and nothing to do (part of the original problem) because they’ll have no words to describe what they’re wanting (and avoiding).

    It’s as if we asked, “so how can we help you?”
    They reply, “we’re looking for community.”
    We answer, “we HAVE community.”
    They reply, “we want Church.”
    We say, “we ARE church.”
    They say, “we want to help lead the church to be active in poverties.”
    We tell them, “we have programs for… ”
    etc etc
    It isn’t as though this type of conversation is convincing to them. They know what is being offered. If we button up all the words they’re using to try to communicate with us, then at the end of the day they are left with, “then we want all these things, but we don’t want you.”

    I’m not convinced we should try to win them back/re-engage them; but if we were to try, frustrating them doesn’t seem the way to do it.

  • Phil Miller

    Even family reunions have someone who’s responsible for planning and organizing them. Gathering any group of people together requires planning and leadership to some extent. The leadership responsibilities can be shared, sure. I mean I grew in a Pentecostal church, and I was a member of a primarily African American church for a while, so I value spontaneity as much as anyone, but if leadership roles aren’t clearly defined in a group, an individual or small group of people will usually just naturally fill those roles. I think that’s why house churches can seemingly implode so quickly sometimes.

  • Just returned from China, and though neither theologian nor expert, I agree.

  • A family certainly has different members with different strengths and weaknesses, but it’s not a hierarchy in any sense of the word. Everyone maintains autonomy. Family members mutually agree that an individual is better suited for planning, or cooking, or scheduling, and that person becomes the organizer, but they hold no authority over anyone else. Furthermore, the “position” is a temporary assignment that last only for the duration of that event; it’s not longstanding.

    If two members in the family have differing ideas about a thing, neither of them can pull the seniority card and say to the other that they are no longer to share their thoughts. There is a n enormous difference between function and rank. Institutions rely on rank, as do many “house churches”. This should not be.

  • jwhawthorne

    No, that’s the opposite read I got from the book. The Refugees were people of faith who want the church to be a place of authentic community. The church needs to hear these sincere folks and engage in serious consideration of how to do church. Here’s my full piece:

  • I can’t comment on the book as I haven’t read it, and perhaps I’m misunderstanding your comment. The way it reads to me when you say “before they depart”, or when Jean just after you agrees that we should be “proactive” (toward what?), it seems to carry the implication that departure is an assumed negative that should be diagnosed and treated earlier. If that’s true, it means that even an attempt at listening is really just a means to the end of avoiding departure. Listening with an agenda isn’t really listening.

  • Andy W.

    I’m a 46 year old “done”. Went to a Christian College, into ministry for a few years after college and served actively in my local church. Healthiest thing I’ve done for my faith is to walk away. I’d probably go if I lived in an area with more options. Here in New England the options are very limited for someone with my background & perspective. My options are a dying main line church with 20 members all over 60, Roman Catholic or your typical community church with its “A church for those who don’t like church” theme, but you quickly realize after 2 weeks it’s the same old church just with a band and a pastor with a goatee. I’m too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals. I wish there was a middle ground within my geography.

  • Robin Warchol

    Just curious and this is just an observation from the article as well as all the comments. It seems like for many that are now done, that they were so super involved in their particular Church that it may have lead to burn out, power plays with others and unfulfilled expectations of themselves and others in that Church. I wonder if less involvement is healthier for oneself overall, both mentally, physically and spiritually. I think there is so much pressure to be super involved that can result in the person loosing perspecitive of why they are really there and what is most important. There seems to be a pattern here of super involvement that ended up being very unhealthy and resulted in leaving altogether.

  • David Moore

    Another sad angle on this are the stories of those who leave churches and are never contacted by one of the leaders. In fact, Exit Interviews by William Hendricks mentions a study where it was not possible to find one person among hundreds who was personally contacted upon leaving their church.

  • Josh Packard

    I think the difference lies with who is directing the activity. In many cases the Dones are doing amazing things. They’re not going to join a church just to have more restraints on their time and energy. They’re not coming back for that. But many have expressed a willingness to work with churches (re-engage) that want to come alongside them and support they work they’re already doing.

  • nate shoemaker

    Thank you. That makes a lot of sense.

  • David Moore

    Thanks for your candor Dan.

    As a former pastor who saw most leaders (pastors and elders) unwilling to address substantial issues, I know of what you write.

    In my own situation my concerns were tagged as that of an idealist (coming from my Campus Crusade background). Ironically, I kept trying to communicate that I wasn’t looking for a perfect church, but the opposite: a place where leaders were honest about the problems and willing to try addressing them.

    My distinction between healthy and unhealthy churches is not who has issues to address and who doesn’t. It resides rather in who is humble and courageous enough to acknowledge them and start taking steps, even baby steps, in addressing them.

  • CM

    Perhaps, it is because I an so tired while reading this, but is there an implication thatpart of the issue of dones relate to white identity and power?

  • DPWH

    We’ve all seen this drama before.

    The dones (in whichever iteration) will start a “new kind” of church that, within a few years – a decade at most – will have plenty of judgement, doctrine, bureaucracy, and moral judgement. Because that’s what cracked ikons do.

    Then the next generation of dones will get done and start a “new, new kind” of church. And the cycle will turn once again.

    In some sense, it’s tiresome. The silver lining, though, is that it can bring some renewal.

  • DPWH


  • Eric

    Anyone who withdraws from a church then whines about it when someone doesn’t come chasing after them is like an adolescent girl who rejects a guy in public, then is mad at the guy for not chasing her. Grow up people. We live in a time where yes means yes, and no means no and respect for the boundaries people set is an act of respect. If someone has a beef, it is TOTALLY their responsibility to communicate it, if they want to. If they are critical because the church doesn’t live up to their expectations, and they don’t value or appreciate what is being donated and given by the members, then possibly they should ask themselves if their expectations are unrealistic or inappropriate. If a person is at a place spiritually where they no longer fit in with the church culture or the ambitions of the church then they have a right to leave and not be harrassed over it. When I’ve left churches, I sure wouldn’t have wanted the members chasing me down and demanding some explanation, even if it would be disguuised as “concern”.