Church refugees — those active former church folks — are sometimes called the Dones. They are done with church but not with their faith, not with Christianity, not with God, and not with Jesus. They are Done with church (as they have experienced it).
Why? The number one reason traced and mapped by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope (Church Refugees) is that the place where they found and wanted and needed community became a place of judgment rather than affirmation and love. The Dones left because they want community without judgmentalism. (Read on.)
What are the two most important practices for a church that does not create judgmentalism as its culture?
Church and community, church and fellowship, church as a family are terms that go together for church refugees:
The Dones place value on relationships and communities for a variety of spiritual and religious reasons. Community, for them, is synonymous with church when church operates the way they think it should. But much of the way they feel institutional church tries to construct community, by focusing on uniformity over unity, is counterproductive to what they feel is true and authentic community (32).
This means community as family and fellowship over time.
My wife made this point clear to me one day as we were talking about the children of our friends in our own community. She said, “These are the kids that I’m so excited to watch grow up. I can’t imagine ever leaving here; I can’t think of a better way to describe the power of being embedded a community. Birthday parties, graduations, struggles, and joys become a fundamental part of the way you choose to invest your emotional capital. These are the lens through which you imagine your future.
People who leave church feel the same way. The sights and smells and sounds are important, but it’s the people and relationships that our participants kept telling us could never be replaced. They’ve invested too much of their time, efforts, and identity to walk away without sadness (35).
Here is one of the sharper points for this chapter by Packard and Hope: community is not peripheral. If it was just attending and listening to a sermon or joining in (what many today call) worship, then they’d be fine. But, No, the Dones think church is about community. In fact, they perceive the faith and God through community life:
The sense of community that our respondents found in church wasn’t only among the highlights of their churchgoing experiences, it was also often at the core of why they began going to church in the first place. Theological conversion didn’t spark church attendance; rather, relationships and community revealed God to them, and conversion followed (36).
A strong sense of community kept many of our respondents in church even through hard times of transition in their congregations. It kept them working on behalf of the church, often for little or no pay, year after year. Being a part of a community was enough reward on its own (37).
Instead, they emphasized community from a distinctly religious perspective, explaining that they understand Christianity through interactions with others and a commitment to share life fully and honestly with a group of people. Community was fundamental to their understanding of God. They understood community as a manifestation and extension of their understanding of the divine. 38
For the Dones, what they miss most is the community — not the sermon, not the songs, not the organization, not the performance. They miss people.
Jacob’s story begins to hint at something that will become clear throughout this book. Namely, community is so important that it’s often the only thing our respondents miss when they leave, and it’s the first thing they seek to re-create outside of the church (38).
Moving as they are toward some resolutions, they make this point: that community isn’t accidental. It must be a priority:
Jaden’s comments echo those of many of our respondents: Community could be found in big churches and small churches, but it never happened accidentally. Community must be worked at, nurtured, and nourished. Its a misconception to think that community naturally occurs when people get together often enough or that community occurs when people who agree with each other come together. Community happens when people share life together, when they see each other repeatedly and share experiences. These commonalities lead to a feeling that people can be counted on and to a shared sense of reality and values (40).
So, this is important: the Dones believe in community and have experienced community and they have sensed it collapse because of judgmentalisms.
People who feel judged generally become defensive and withdraw from a group, but usually only after a period of gradual disengagement and resistance (41).
Judgment inherently lacks many of the religious elements our respondents hold as a core part of their belief system. Forgiveness, grace, humility, and love are absent in the moment of judgment, and those are the theological tenets held most closely by our respondents (43).
Judgment can be both implicit and explicit:
By far the most pervasive type of judgment our respondents described was felt or perceived rather than overtly expressed (44).
Our respondents also encountered expressed judgment when people in the church encouraged them to change their behaviors or beliefs. These expressed judgments were often couched in biblical terms. This kind of judgment was often the domain of religious professionals who, no doubt, thought they were acting in the best interests of their congregants (45).
They are not looking for unconditional affirmations for each and everything and everyone.
What they really wanted was a shared understanding that we’re all broken and in need of forgiveness and grace (46).
The authors head off a problem quickly:
This distaste for judgment raises important sociological and religious questions. Have we become so narcissistic as a society that we only want to be around people who affirm everything we do? What are our religious leaders there for if not to hold us accountable to a belief system we’ve already professed faith in? (47)
After church, what about community for the Dones? Read this:
When I pressed her to explain, she said she was looking for people who were loving, accepting, and forgiving, and that she was able to find those qualities in people who weren’t churchgoers more easily than she found them in church (48).
They do this as Christians, however:
This sentiment sums up the community life of most of our respondents after leaving the church. Very few of them disavowed Christianity. At the same time, very few of them held on to any explicitly Christian communities. When the Dones pursue community, they often do so with their Christian identify firmly intact, but not with the people who attend their old churches. They are done with church, but not with God (49).
What can we do? What can be done to head this problem before it turns into The Dones?
In order to keep people from leaving the church and to reengage those who have left, churches must do a much better job of affirming people while also going out of their way to explain, in word and action, that they aren’t judging them (51).