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Monday, June 24, 2019
CHURCH REFUGEES: SOCIOLOGISTS REVEAL WHY PEOPLE ARE DONE with CHURCH but NOT THEIR FAITH by Josh Packard, PhD and Ashleigh Hope
Published in 2015.
Packard and Hope set out to investigate why formerly active members of Christian churches (all denominations) leave and don't come back to any church at all. These are not members that leave and go to a new church - these are members that completely walk away from any church. He calls them "dechurched" or "dones", as in they are completely done with church.
Every year, churches across the country lose active members. In this case, Packard and Hope are not talking about merely regularly attending members - they are talking about members who lead committees, music directors and even former clergy. These are part of the leadership of the church - the people that are committed enough to get things done.
Packard and Hope assumed that these folks were simply "burnout" cases - people that just were tired and dropped out alltogether. "Instead, the dechurched are walking away from church work, but not the work of the church. They're walking away because they're convinced that the structures and bureaucracy of the church are inhibiting their ability to serve God. They see church as oriented only to its own survival. Instead on empowering, they find the church to be stifling. Over time, they've become convinced that their efforts and energies could be better spent serving God outside of the church." (p 55)
Once again, this is not a certain style or denomination of church. He talks about churches with big bureaucracies, churches essentially led by a CEO-type pastor who makes all of the decisions and everything in between. In the end, churches tend to turn inwards (focused on things like presenting a great worship service and maintaining a building) while these "dechurched" people wanted to keep a much more outward focus. They propose any number of outreach activities that emphasize a sense of personal community and the idea of making their church a more integrated part of its surrounding community (Think comments like: "That's a great idea, Bob. But, we need that money you would use to start a food pantry to re-pave the parking lot.")
Many of the dechurched (he also calls them "church refugees" - they are like real-life refugees who reluctantly flee their homelands because they feel forced out) feel like they have to leave the church to do the things they need to do. They see the opportunities to do the things that Christians are commanded to do and paving the parking lot is not one of them (there are several pages that use just this example that is lifted from an interview). The surprising point here is that so many of these people - the overwhelming majority, do not just walk away and just quit doing anything like church. This is not because of doctrine - it is because they feel like the formal church structure is getting in the way.
Many of them join informal groups that act like house churches or in-depth Bible studies that emphasize discussion. Others work on those projects that they were denied as part of a formal church. Some move to groups like Habitat for Humanity. Almost all of them retain Christian beliefs and act on them. But, they are done with anything that is "organized" about organized religion. The formal rituals turn them off. Formal dogma does as well. Rather, they prefer a sense of community and the idea that the community is exploring what is meant to be a Christian - they are exploring it together and they are learning together, and they don't necessarily have to draw the same conclusions.
These people are not burned out. They throw themselves into new roles, unhampered by a bureaucracy that tells them no (or says "Yes, but only if you do this and this and this and fill out this form and make a presentation and...)
This was an interesting book. I know that in my own church, I have seen my share of fairly pointless disputes over turf issues as I have served as the head of a major board, so I get it.
But, Packard and Hope do note that a real strength of a traditional church is that it has real staying power. The energy of a small group of believers that meets from time to time fades. Church committees keep going and going and going - their structure can carry a church during times of low energy. They make several suggestions, but do not offer a prescription along the lines of "Do these three things to lure back the dechurched" because everyone's situation is different. Instead, they point out a few general guidelines that might keep the "almost" dechurched from leaving and becoming the next set of church refugees and might take advantage of the energy and training that these people desperately want to share.
I rate this book 5 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: CHURCH REFUGEES: SOCIOLOGISTS REVEAL WHY PEOPLE ARE DONE with CHURCH but NOT THEIR FAITH.