Josh Packard, Ashleigh Hope Group 2015

Packard is professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado, and Hope is earning a doctorate in sociology at Vanderbilt University. They explain that their research project started by asking why they were hearing so many “stories of people who were disengaging with church but not with God” (p. 7). They began with the hypothesis that the major factors were the conservative theology of the church, in contrast to the increasing social liberalism of the culture, and the unethical and illegal behavior of many (some prominent) church leaders. Their hypothesis was not affirmed. “Instead, it became clear to us that the story of the dechurched was a story of modern religious organizations and institutions stifling people’s ability to engage with each other and their communities” (ibid.).

The book begins with a helpful summary of the research project, its methodology, and the participants. This is especially valuable for the reader without much knowledge of sociological methodology. Then the chapters provide support for conclusions, using the collected stories.

The authors examined a particular group of former church-goers: “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 institutional religion” (p. 14). The researchers were surprised to learn that these were not marginal members or people on the fringes of church life; rather, “our interviews indicate that the dechurched are among the most dedicated people in any congregation. They often work themselves into positions of leadership in an attempt to fix the things about the church that dissatisfy them before ultimately deciding their energies could be better spent elsewhere. In other words, the dechurched were the ‘doers’ in their congregations” (p. 23). When these separate from the church, they take ministry experience, expertise, and resources with them. And they continue their active involvement in ministry, but outside of the church: “The dechurched are, as a general rule, leaving to do more, not less. The church isn’t asking too much of people; it’s asking the wrong thing” (p. 133). Yet they report, “The only thing they miss and have difficulty re-creating when they leave is a sense of community” (p. 38). Worthy of further reflection is this observation: “Community is important to our respondents, because it, more than any other single thing, is their connection to God. They not only find affirmation, support, and cheerleading in their communities; they also desire and seek diverse communities that foster accountability and include people who will challenge their fundamental beliefs. It’s through these interactions that they experience the divine and gain a better understanding of their faith” (ibid.). In other words, “their relationships are important to them—not because they replace God, but because it is in relationships that they find God” (p. 82).

The authors allow the respondents to tell their stories without judgment or evaluation. Not every story will resonate with every reader, of course, but reading these stories of formerly engaged church members will make many readers wonder how to respond. The authors give limited specific prescriptions, but they do make suggestions. For example, “There’s a growing sense that the church can’t double down on the model that made them successful in 1950 in order to succeed today. To be clear, I don’t think this is generational. Our respondents span an age range from 18 to 84. The phenomenon of people walking away from congregation-based church has much more to do with how our culture has evolved over the years for everyone, not simply for emerging adults” (p. 76).

The authors provide a healthy summary of the Dones. “They aren’t weaker Christians than those who stayed. They aren’t less faithful. They aren’t backsliders or spiritually immature. They have simply endured too much in the institutional church and see no reason, theologically or practically, to continue in that relationship” (p. 112). But there is hope: “The vast majority of our respondents were either actively looking for the right circumstances to reengage with a church, creating a new church paradigm themselves, or at least open to the idea that something could come along” (ibid.).

This book presents evidence of a troubling trend in the church in America. This research project does not quantify the demographic, nor does it predict the trajectory of the group of the Dones. Some readers will object to the over-generalization of “the church” and the apparent negativity of the respondents. But to reject the stories on that basis would be tragic. Many in ministry positions have heard similar stories, enough to lead to the concern that this phenomenon is more pervasive than might be thought. Christian leaders, professors of ministerial students, students, and anyone who is concerned about the vitality and growth of the church will find this book helpful. If leaders are concerned about formerly active church members, to find ways to provide the community and opportunities to serve that people strongly crave would be a good place to start.

About the Contributors

Glenn Kreider

Glenn R. Kreider

Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and spending time together and with their rescue dogs—a terrier/greyhound mix named Chloe and a black lab named Carlile.