When people leave the church but not Jesus


The "dechurched" is the subject of a thought-provoking book

By Kathryn Glanzer

They are called the “dones” and the “dechurched.” They are the people who, after years of being actively committed, walk away from the church but not their Christianity. As I continue to encounter friends and family who have left their churches, I struggle with how to approach the topic with them. 

My whole life, I have sought to bring people to church, believing that the church provides loving support amongst community. Yet, some of my wise and spiritually astute friends have given up on the church. Because of this choice, they have been made to feel like prodigals or prayer projects, furthering their desire to keep their distance. Yet, these people have not strayed from Jesus. They still serve Jesus and give to their communities. They continue to work toward loving and seeing people the way Jesus would.

It was one of my dechurched friends who told me about Church Refugees, a book that sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope published this past summer. It uses social theory to “explain why people are increasingly done with organized religion, what it means for churches across the country and what can be done about it.” 

It is based on the results of an 18-month study with over 100 participants, ages 18 to 84, who have left the church. The study, while limited to mainstream American churches, revealed consistent data. The participants are people who were heavily involved with the church before they made an explicit or intentional decision to leave the church, but have not abandoned their faith.

The authors point out common desires among the participants and common reasons for leaving.  The dechurched want community, to affect the life of the church, conversation and meaningful engagement with the world. Instead, they have experienced judgment, bureaucracy, doctrine and moral prescriptions. Several of the participants give testimonies of repeated attempts to work within a church only to be met with roadblocks along the way. In short, they have given up on the church but not on God.  They would rather be refugees: displaced from their homes and taking their beliefs and culture with them. 

How should the church community respond to these refugees? Hope and Packard note that the methods that were useful in previous decades in drawing people into a community and helping them to stay connected may no longer be relevant. Hope and Packard recommend four strategies for reengaging people in local church life: invite congregants to participate and share ideas, undermine bureaucracy through continually changing committees and church leadership, be truly relational by focusing on doing things with congregants rather than for them and allow the celebrations and struggles of the local community to shape the congregation, thereby impacting that community.

In the end, this book helped me recognize the unspoken desire of church refugees to be connected with community. For my dechurched family and friends, I know that the Holy Spirit can build that desire and match them with a congregation to the benefit of both parties.  As a congregant, I know that we can be more inviting by encouraging conversation while speaking truth.  In any case, at the core of every one of us is the desire to be genuinely heard by the people we do life with.

Kathyrn Glanzer is the youth minister at Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan.  




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