Friends and friends of friends gathering in Europe during the week.
On On July 1, 2015: A special day of conversation about living loved and relational community in English and French
Friends and friends of friends gathering in Europe during the week.
On On July 1, 2015: A special day of conversation about living loved and relational community in English and French
Gatherings with a relational community near Nimes
1560-1 Newbury Rd #313
Newbury Park, CA 91320
Phone: (805) 498-7774
Fax: (805) 499-5975
Summer is here, our grandkids are out of school, and in celebration of our fortieth wedding anniversary that happened last month, Sara and I are off to Europe with our children and grandchildren for the next couple of weeks. We are looking forward to some of the things we’ll get to see there, but more importantly we are looking forward to celebrating the family that God has given us. We’ve never done anything like this and are looking forward to spending so much time together. This is one fun family to hang out with!
However, since this is a two-horse operation, the offices at Lifestream will be closed until June 29 when Sara returns. We’ve got people to still fulfill book orders for those who want them, but other than that, things will be quiet here. I’m going to spend as little time as possible with email and websites during my time in Europe. There will be no new podcasts unless something amazing happens. I may post a few pictures on my Facebook Author Page if I find the time and Internet connection.
I will be staying on in Europe to connect with some brothers and sisters in Barcelona, attend a gathering of Friends and Friends of Friends in the south of France, and finish off sharing with a group of believers near Nimes, France. If you want more information on those you can get it on my Travel Page.
If you have anything important for me, please wait until early in July to write. You’ll get a more reasoned response and my inbox will not get so full. We are blessed to be able to take this time and celebrate God’s goodness and take a break from all the writing and interacting to just enjoy the Father’s work in us. This is a very special time for us and we're excited.
One more note: The Shack Movie went into production this week. You can read more about that here. Just be warned this is one of those websites I detest with annoying and intrusive ads and a really lame preview trailer.
I meant to tag on some sample quotes from Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope's new book, Church Refugees yesterday and in my haste forgot to tag them on to my review. So I will include them here. I know many of you will enjoy this book and the insights it offers...
How can the church possibly hope to survive and thrive as a relevant and meaningful social institution if it keeps spitting out Ethan and people like him? If people who are so dedicated to the church feel the need, ultimateily, to leave for their own survival, what does that say aobut the church and it's future? ... He and his wife didn't give up on God; they gave up on the institutional expression of church. They didn't stop doing things to advance what they believed to be the work of God; they stopped doing things to advance the work of the church. Their suubstantial energies and skills are now poured daily into activities and structures that happen completely outside the purview of organized religion. They've opted for relationship over structure, doing over dogma, and creating with rather than creating for.
From one of the people they interviewed: I had a chat with a pastor at a church that I was interested in attending, and I said, “I don’t want to hear about what you believe; there will be plenty of time to talk about that later. I’m not interested in seeing if we agree, because I’m sure three will be disagreement. The only question I have for you is, How do you deal with people who disagree with you? How does the church handle that?” Because really, for me, that’s the most important thing.
Again in these stories we see a return to the concept of the reluctant leaver, which echoes back to the refugee. People are trying, sometimes for years, to make church work for them before eventually, reluctantly moving on. And when they move on, they move to things that look nothing like the activities that consume the traditional church. They move on to community gardens, art therapy, meals in living rooms around a communal table, Internet chat rooms, and quilting groups. Nobody, not one single respondent mentioned replacing church with a worship service or with a sermon series or with committee work. They are replacing church with meaningful activity that engages their communities and build relationships, things they find missing in the church.
As we say throughout the book, they’re leaving to do more, not less, and they’re doing it with a broader and more diverse community. They aren’t exhausted or burned out. They aren’t retreating to small like-minded groups.
The Dones might lament the loss of the church and grieve the abandonment of an institution they once loved and were so hopeful for, but that won’t stop them from actively expressing their faith. As one respondent, Ava, tod us, “There’s pain in leaving. There’s loss. But there’s hope, too. We’re able to do things now.”
By Wayne JacobsenFourth in a series on the The Phenomenon of the Dones
If you read one book about the church this year, you’ll want to read Church Refugees. Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope are sociologists and while researching the current trends of people’s church attendance made a surprising and unexpected discovery. They identified a significant number of Christians who no longer attend church services and yet are thriving in their spiritual life. They call them "the Dones" because they are done with the traditional congregation having felt it was stifling to their own spiritual journey.
To their surprise they discovered that most of them had not lost interest in their faith, faded out the back door, or preferred to watch football on Sundays. Instead they discovered them to be high-capacity Christians who were committed givers and deeply involved in leadership. They didn’t leave quickly or easily, having spent years trying to encourage change or simply find a way to get along. They eventually left because in all conscience they conclude that the way things are being done in their congregation threatens to compromise their faith. They sought community over judgment, mission over machinery, rich conversation over pat answers, and meaningful engagement with the world beyond moral prescriptions. While leaving is not easy as they suffered the judgments of former friends and colleagues they soon discover that there are plenty of resources for growth, meaningful connections with others on a faith journey, and ways to touch the world beyond the congregational system.
This book is a game-changer for how we perceive the church and understand those who no longer find our institutions helpful to their journey. It has the potential to obliterate the myth that our local institutions are the only or even the best way to engage the life of Jesus and his mission in the world. That’s not what the authors have in mind since they are both avid attenders themselves. They simply wanted to explore the phenomenon and seek to help congregations understand why these people are leaving and perhaps reconsider how to revitalize their institutions so they wouldn't have to leave.
This is a compelling read that is hard to put down. The researchers mix their findings with first-hand stories from their respondents that will challenge whatever view you hold of the church. No doubt many will find it difficult to admit that passionate followers of Jesus are thriving outside our institutions, preferring the narrative that you can’t be a true Christian if you are not connected to a local congregation. The hungers, however, are real and if they won't be served by our existing congregations people will go looking elsewhere. Obligation alone will not save these institutions.
For those who have already left you'll find encouragement that you're not alone in your desire for a more vibrant experience with God and his church and that it is possible to fulfill it in other ways. However, the terminology the authors use will make you cringe at times. Even the title, Church Refugees, is more than a little condescending to those who are no longer part of a traditional church. Calling them “The Dones” or the “Dechurched” doesn’t help either and you’ll find that language on almost every page. Just keep in mind this is a book by insiders, for insiders, about outsiders. It only uses “church” for institutional gatherings and posits those outside of such institutions as the "dechruched". But it doesn’t dismiss them or the sincerity of their faith. I’ve not been an active participant in an institutional church for over 20 years, but I don’t consider myself a church refugee or that I am dechurched. I have never been more alive and engaged with the church Jesus is building in the world in so many expressions outside our traditional congregations. The church in Scripture was never a religious institution with weekend services and top-heavy bureaucracies. The church is the family Jesus is building in the earth and it cannot be contained or managed in any human organization. While it can take expression there, it can also take shape in many ways beyond it.
This may be the most important church book written in this decade. Whether you like what their research shows or not, Packard and Hope have done us all a service by giving us an accurate picture of the religious landscape rather than relying on our biases or experiences. What we do with them will have great impact on our engagement with the church.
If you share the hunger of the Dones but still hold hope for our Christian institutions, it will help you be a voice for change so those hungers can be served instead of frustrated. If you've found it necessary to leave you'll find great encouragement in knowing there are others finding opportunities for growth, deep fellowship and mission beyond the programs of our congregations.
Hopefully it will help us all see the church as a bigger reality than our human conventions can contain, and affirm that what’s most important is whether or not people are following Jesus, not which building they go to on Sunday morning, or even if they go to one at all.
Church Refugees • 143 pages in hardback, paper back or ebook. Order from Amazon.com
By Wayne Jacobsen
I’m growing convinced that much of Christianity has become a human religion loosely based on the teachings of Jesus, while missing the point of them all.
Every week now I get links to blogs and articles of various pastors giving the 5, 8, or 12 reasons everyone needs to attend a local church each week. To prove their point, however, they have to make some of the most ridiculous statements that have absolutely no grounding in the life or character of Jesus. These conclusions are not just misguided, but actually destructive to people who want to grow in his life and joy.
This is not a personal judgment against them. I’m sure many of them are fine people, only trying to do what they feel called to. I also appreciate that this is a scary time for them as so-called church attendance is on the decline. The idea that someone can actually grow in their relationship with God, experience the life of the church, and share his mission in the world without being part of their congregation has to be a scary reality. Many don’t even want to acknowledge it is even possible, so they double down on the language of obligation and accountability. In doing so, however, they twist the Gospel so that it is no longer recognizable and all that’s left is for people to obey what they are told by leadership whose success and livelihood depend on that obedience.
There are many good reasons to gather regularly with other believers and share the journey of faith. It’s just that all those gatherings are not going on in Sunday morning services shackled by the bureaucracy of a religious system that often does more stifle spiritual growth rather than stimulate it. Many have found more engaging ways to share the life of the church beyond the walls of traditional congregations and telling them they must attend a normal service, falls on deaf ears once they’ve discovered that it isn’t true.
So if they hope guilt and obligation will win these people back or scare the ones they have into remaining, they are not only fighting a losing battle but disfiguring God and distorting the Gospel to do it. The life of the church is not found in obligation but in the joy of affection and transformation. Trying to discount the salvation of those who leave in hopes of reigning back in the faithful will continue backfire.
In the latest article I read Nathan Rose, a Missouri pastor in the Southern Baptist denomination says that skipping “church” meetings is dangerous to your health. He gives five reasons why in a recent article he wrote, Five Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church:
“You will miss out on God’s primary design for your spiritual growth and well-being.” What in the ministry of Jesus leads him to the conclusion that God’s primary means to grow to spiritual maturity is to attend a church service weekly, when he never conducted one himself, never taught his disciples how to do so, and assigned the task for our growth to the Holy Spirit who would dwell in us and guide us to all truth? When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where she should worship, he made it clear that location is not the issue. What matters is that we do so in spirit and in truth. Living in the Father’s affection and responding to his Spirit within us is God’s primary design for our growth and well-being, not sitting in a pew on Sunday morning.
“You disobey God.” As many do, Rose pulls out Hebrews 10:24-25 saying that the counsel “not to neglect to meet together,” is a command that can only be fulfilled in a weekly church service. It’s dishonest on the face of it. This is the only Scripture pastors have to seek to compel “church attendance” and it is misused at that. This passage wasn’t written to believers skipping out on church services, but to people under persecution who were wondering if avoiding association with each other would make it more difficult for the authorities to find them. The writer is telling them they have more to gain by the encouragement they have from each other than going it alone. Most Sunday services don’t even allow people to encourage each other, since the focus is on the platform. Hebrews 20 is not talking about attending a meeting; it is about staying connected to others and not trying to make it alone. Honestly many of our institutions today do more to inhibit that connection than encourage it.
“You make a statement to the world that God is not worthy of worship…, which is the attitude and conduct of unbelievers, not God’s people.” So if you don’t come to “worship” you are no longer one of God’s people. The judgment here is frightful. Worship is not a song service or a sermon, but a live lived in God’s reality and his affection. How we see him and how we love and respect others either brings glory to him or disfigures him. Sitting in a pew on Sunday morning is not a statement of how important worship is to you unless that’s the only way you understand worship and then you are spiritually impoverished the rest of the week. Our lives worship him whether we’re on the job, enjoying his creation, or serving someone in need.
“You can’t minister to anyone.” Really? All the ministry that God wants to do in the world can only happen under a steeple on Sunday morning? That would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Jesus never ministered in a “service,” but on the street where he encountered people. Real service is not sitting in a pew so others can hear you sing and you can show support for the pastor. Ministry is about loving and helping people you know or come across as you go through life. They can be in your neighborhood, at work, in school, or across the world.
“You skip out on a foretaste of heaven.” If Sunday morning services were really a foretaste of heaven, no one would want to miss them and you wouldn’t have to obligate them to be there. In many cases it’s just a repeated formula often laced with guilt and condemnation, as was the entire piece written by Rose.
What bothers me most is not that they want people to come to “their church”, but that they see obligation as the reason. They make the same mistake the Galatians made. By turning the promise of God into an obligation they distort the gospel, twisting the joy of an invitation into God’s life into demands and threats. It has the underlying psychology of “misery loves company.” We are not here because we enjoy it and God works in us, but because God says we have to. Please! The kingdom is the pearl of great price, not the castor oil of spiritual maturity.
Paul, the apostle, encourage us to live in freedom and let “no one” defraud us by telling us where we should go, what we should eat, or what we should wear. People who try to tell you what you should do, rather than equipping you to live fully and freely in Jesus, have lost connection with the Head.
I honestly feel sorry for those who can’t see the reality of Christ’s church beyond their own congregation or the congregational model itself. They would perhaps do better to take an honest look why people who were committed members of their congregation found it necessary to leave. Badgering them with accusations and demands will never fulfill the work of the kingdom. Maybe it is time for them to ask just how much their gatherings reflect God's nature and reality. Those congregations who honestly seek to help people live in the reality of Jesus’ freedom and transformation need not be threatened that Jesus is also working outside their borders.
In fact if they put his kingdom first, they will rejoice that he does.
I just finished Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope's book, Church Refugees. I've been aware of this book for five months now and have become acquainted with one of the authors. I'm working on a longer review of it. It's a great read that you'll enjoy if you care about the state of Jesus' church today and what he is doing beyond the walls of our conventional congregations. One thing it does so well is dispells the myth that you have to belong to a "local church" to have a vibrant and fruitful relationship with Jesus and engagement with his people and the world. For now, I just want to share this quote with you about those who are leaving:
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 instituaionl church and see no reason, theologically or practially, to continue in that relationship
Get yourself a copy. You won't regret it!
What does it take for someone to leave a congregation of people they have loved and served alongside, often for decades? Why would they suddenly break away from close friends and lifetime traditions to wander into a lonely and uncertain future only to be accused of being selfish, bitter, or rebellious?
Except that it generally isn’t sudden at all, and not at all what they had hoped for. Yes, there came a time when they stopped attending, but none of “The Dones” I’ve met over the past twenty years left easily or suddenly. In fact most have wrestled with the decision for years in the face of some concern or unmet hunger. Initially they thought others around them would resonate with their passion, or be grateful if they identifie a problem that needed attention. To their shock, they found their repeated attempts to discuss their concerns or hopes fell on unsympathetic ears.
Try as they might to bring positive changes, they only meet resistance and eventually disrespect and frustration. “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Many give up trying to convince others, but their hunger continues to until sitting in the congregation becomes painful. After years of struggle they finally feel they have no other choice but to follow their hunger instead of quietly going along. As much as they want to stay with people they care so much about they find they can no longer participate in meetings that have become a detriment to their spiritual passions.
While the process is similar for most that I know, the reasons can be quite different. Recently I asked people on my Facebook page what it was that finally made it clear that they needed to leave their congregation. I got over a hundred responses from people that were consistent with the thousands of stories I have heard over the last two decades.
Forty-two percent said they were worn out by the machinery and the need to serve it. Some of that is burn-out from having to do more than they had time or energy for, but for most it means that the cost it exacted wasn’t worth the fruit it produced. Rarely does anyone say the congregation was all bad except in the most abusive cases. Mostly they say the demands of the congregation began to displace their passion for Jesus and that scared them.
Twenty-three percent said they no longer respected the leadership, either because they were dishonest, demanding or manipulative. This didn’t result from a bad confrontation or two, but a series of experiences that consistently eroded their trust and respect.
Twenty percent they simply hungered for more authentic relationships, feeling the ones they had were too superficial or governed by pat answers instead of people really getting to know them and wanting to walk alongside them in their joys and struggles.
Twelve percent wanted more of Jesus and his life than their congregation offered. The focus seemed to be on things other than helping people learn to experience the fullness of life in him.
Three percent reported no dissatisfaction at all, but simply felt led by the Spirit to move onto a different stage of their journey.
Of course my pool of respondents did not include those gave up on God when they gave up on their church. Many do, seeing the failures of their institutions or its leaders as proof that God doesn’t exist, or if he does, at least isn’t engaged with them. It’s a tragic legacy of systems that often do more to perpetuate programs than demonstrate Father’s affection.
But for every person that has left, be they pastor or parishioner, there are dozens more who are thinking about it and second-guess that decision every time they sit through another meeting that doesn’t address their deepest hungers. Many stay because of the relationships , others out of obligation no matter how painful it becomes. Actually they are “done” too, attending in body only and with decreasing frequency and it is only a matter of time before they stop as well.
Simply put, most of “The Dones” left because their spiritual passion could no longer be fulfilled where they were. So what may look like someone just walked out one day isn’t true. It is almost always a long, protracted process that even they resisted until they could do so no longer and still be true to the Spirit’s call inside them.
The process is hard on everyone. In the first few months many of those who leave are racked with guilt and second-guess their decision frequently especially if it is difficult to find others on the outside who share their hungers. And it’s hard on those they leave behind, who often feel rejected by those who leave. Harsh words and judgments are exchanged as each side seeks to convince themselves they are doing what’s right and want to convince the others for their own validation. Nothing will destroy friendships faster and lead to animosity and hurt that will spread throughout the community.
Those who have left are not your enemy. If they were your friends before, wouldn’t they still be your friend now even if you think are concerned for them? Wouldn’t loving each other be vastly more important than how we gather or don’t gather on a Sunday morning? Maybe if we were less threatened by their hunger we could celebrate their to find an environment more meaningful to their faith.
Certainly some who leave find their way back when they can’t find the community they are looking for. Most, however, after a year or two begin to find themselves connecting to others who share their hunger for more authentic and generous community in small groups or growing friendships without the need or expense of sustaining the machinery. They spend more time in conversations that nurture their faith and less time planning meetings and maintaining structures.
People who lose hope that the institutional model can provide a lifetime environment for community and growth may not be the death knell for the vitality of the church; maybe they are the hope that there’s more than one way the church takes expression in the world.
For more information on “The Dones”, read Dr. Josh Packard’s research into this phenomenon in his new book Church Refugees.
It’s a scary moment when someone realizes knowing about God is not enough to fill the longing of a heart that wants to know him. But if years of religious involvement has not made that connection, where do they look now? The search to know God beyond the concepts and rituals of religion can be disorienting and unnerving. They question everything they’ve been taught and wonder if any of it was real.
I’ve watched many people go through this transition, which is why I recorded the Engage videos years ago. A lot of Christians who attend church haven’t really developed an ever-deepening relationship with the Father, even though Jesus came for that purpose. They believe in him as some distant presence, but haven’t yet engaged his presence beyond the principles and concepts they believe to be true of him. He is not a presence in their day real enough to give guidance and strength as circumstances unfold. Instead he’s a distant thought, a hopeful idea, even a place to invest their prayers in hope of a desired answer, but not someone who knows, them loves them, and wants to walk through life with them.
It’s one of the saddest realities of institutional church life. Even those who’ve been through extensive discipleship training can end up better at religious practice and miss what it is to engage him. That’s because a real relationship with God is not something we can build with him. It’s what he builds with us. Instead of trying to achieve it, we need to learn to recognize how he is doing this in us.
Here’s a recent exchange with someone who is in the middle of this process herself:
I just listened to Engage 1 & 2 and the tears are flowing as I realize after all these years (52 years of church life and living for God). I now struggle with the doubt of His existence. How could that be? After all the study I've done, the years of believing what I was taught, after all the "following hard after Him," which included years of writing devotional stories and teaching others about God and His love, how could I be in this place.? What has happened to me? All these years I believed He was real and now after years of hard situations I am left wondering if what I was told was true. Is He real? What have I believed all these years? I want Him to be real so badly yet I am questioning it all now. I feel so horrible that I am in this place.
All I can do is ask Him, as you suggested. "God if you are real, would you reveal yourself to me?" I honestly struggle to believe that He will answer that cry. Many years of His silence after years of begging prayers has brought that to me.
Thank you for these videos. I truly hope and pray that God will reveal Himself to me in a way that I will know in the depths of my being His existence so that I never doubt again.
My response: You might be thinking about this a bit backwards. He has not been silent. It’s not in his nature. Every day he whispers his love and desires for you. Religious performance just tuned you to the wrong frequency. Now he is re-tuning you and this disorientation is part of it. You’ve pushed away from that which you’re familiar with, but it didn’t bring you life. Now you’re learning to live differently inside the reality of who he is.
He’ll show you, just don’t put any expectations around it. Just look for him and listen for him. In the past you were trying to make it happen, now you’re going to let him make himself known to you as he desires and you’ll find yourself relaxing into that reality. It takes time, that’s why human performance is easier to sell. We want to be in control, but that only makes it more difficult for us to see him.
This is a great journey, one I wish we’d all taken when we were younger. But if we didn’t then, it’s a good time now. I know it seem so risky, but since he is in it the risk is just a perception of our own uncertainty. He can work with that!
These words are powerful for me. You have given me eyes to see something I cannot see. I was talking to God today about my doubt of His existence and how I "feel" like this is going to come down to something I have to do in order to believe, and I remembered your words and was grateful.
I have listened to several of the Engage series and am also listening to The Jesus Lens series:
Here are two things that have struck me.
1. My view of God. I see God as distant, a far off, over in the corner with His hands folded watching what's going on. He's watching over things, making things work together for good, etc. I realize I do not see him close to me, like I do Jesus. I see Jesus with His arms around me, giving me a hug on BEHALF of the Father.
2. I heard the words today about making God in our own image and it struck me. Unbeknownst to me I have done that. With the religious teachings and my limited understanding I've made God into the image in my head....
I love what her heart and mind are sorting through here. She’s seeing things from a very different perspective and that will bear fruit over time. This process is not quick or easy, but once we learn to engage God as he wants to engage us a whole new life in him opens up that is filled with adventure and hope.
If you’re wrestling with some of these same realities, why don’t you join her working through Engage? It’s a series of short videos about recognizing this amazing process. You listen to one every couple of weeks or so and process it in your own work with him.
In a study called Nones on the Rise, Pew Research put out their discovery a few years ago of a growing segment of the U.S. population that checks “none” as their religious preference instead of one of the historic faiths that people have identified with for centuries.
It was perhaps inevitable then that the rise of the “Nones” would give rise to the “Dones”, when it was discovered that there is a an increasing number of people living outside traditional “church” institutions who continue to grow in a relationship with Jesus and connect in meaningful ways with others. The Dones is the most recent label attached to them. They have been called revolutionaries, outside the box, free-range Christians, or the dechurched. Such labels serve the media’s need to talk about trends among specific groups and to market products inside those trends, but they really aren’t helpful to the work Jesus is doing in the world.
Our fallen nature constantly seeks to find identity and safety inside a tribe and labels are important to keep “my group” separate from “their group”. It works for sports teams, gangs, and even religious groups. Labels so easily polarize humanity into adversarial groups and especially with religious ones where we conclude that our group is not just different, but better.
So it’s not surprising that labels either flatter or denigrate depending on which tribe is talking. Sadly, most of this conversation about the Dones is either insiders talking to insiders about outsiders or outsiders talking to outsiders about insiders. For insiders terms like “dechurched”, or “church refugees” may seem fair but actually perpetuate the myth that religious institutions are the only reflection of Jesus’ church in the world. That is as unfortunate as it is untrue. Using “church” only for religious institutions is no minor slip. Most religious leaders want people to believe it so they won’t consider leaving too. Even many of the so-called Dones talk about having “left the church.”
Likewise those outside want to claim the titles that make them seem freer, more grace-based, or more powerful than their counterparts in more traditional settings. After George Barna published Revolution in 2006, those outside of traditional structures quickly latched on to it as evidence that they were more spiritually committed, and instead of opening a dialog for the whole family it only expanded the divide. I’m afraid “The Dones” will do the same thing if people wear it as a merit badge of deeper spirituality while others us it to question the sincerity of their faith.
Any title you wear be it pastor, best-selling author, or Done will do more to separate you from others, than it will help you recognize the incredible family that Jesus is building. Claiming a label works against his prayer that his Father would make us one. The community of the new creation levels our humanity—from hierarchy and from our narcissistic notions of being in a better group than others. We are all sons and daughters of a gracious Father and that’s all the identity we need. (Matt. 23)
But once again, we risk being divided into innies and outies as people and falling into the false dichotomy our flesh so craves. Whether you go to “a church” or whether you don’t is a distinction without a difference. What matters is whether people are following Jesus and being transformed by his love. What I hope comes out of this study of the Dones is those inside and those out recognize that the church is bigger than most of us would dare to believe and that his church takes expression wherever people engage each other with his love and purpose.
For those who claim that attendance at a local congregation is mandatory to be part of his church I hope they reconsider that false idea. Being part of his family is about following him not belonging to an institution. Over the last twenty years I’ve found incredible followers of Jesus both inside them and outside. I hope this research draws all those into a conversation where in and out becomes less important than loving and affirming his kingdom however it takes shape in the world. But it will take a significant number of voices across the Christian landscape to fight for a better conversation that include those.
Imagine my joy last week when I met with 25 pastors in Riverside County who wanted to discuss my book, Finding Church, and Dr. Packard’s research about “The Dones,” which will be profiled in his book, Church Refugees. Not only was I surprised that many were wiling to have the conversation, but also grateful everyone there approached it with graciousness and a desire to understand the trends we’re confronting today. There was no hostility for those differences, but a generosity to understand those who have left and appreciate their journeys as well.
I am convinced that people who truly know Jesus will want to reach across this divide, not exacerbate it. We don’t need identifying labels, especially ones that make us feels superior to others in the family. When Jesus becomes more important to us than finding identity in any particular tribe of it, then the conversations that most express his kingdom will grow in the world. Instead of demanding that others conform to our view of the church we will recognize her in the most surprising places as we find connection and fellowship with those who know the Jesus we know, even if they don’t follow the rituals we follow.
Then we won’t need labels to divide us. Brother, sister, and fellow saint will be more than enough and loving each other in a mutual celebration of Jesus himself will allow his church to flourish where we live.
What happened between these two photos?
Life! Forty years of it, that transformed two naïve lovers into a couple that really gets each other and who are still celebrating an ever-deepening love and appreciation of each other.
It’s amazing what forty years and tons of grace will do. Through those years we’ve celebrated together with overwhelming joys and cried together though mind-numbing sorrow; we’ve known the drudgery of mundane days and the simple pleasures of long walks, deep conversation and hilarious laughter that would have made sense to no one but us; we’ve fought with each other and our own frailties enduring seasons of frustration that seemed so dark; and at every turn and we’ve discovered things about each other that only made them more endearing.
The one constant has been that we’ve always found our way to each other as our affection has grown. The idealism of our youth has been forged by time, circumstance, and no small measure of grace into an ever more precious treasure that we savor today with the contentedness only long-term love can know. We are far different people than we were when we started out, but what we have become wouldn’t be possible with out the other—their patience, their perseverance, and their love.
I have great memories of that college sweetheart I married 40 years ago, but I wouldn’t trade her for the woman she has become. She is so much more a complete human being and an absolute delight to share life with.
Sara, on our 40th anniversary, I want you to know how much I adore you for all the beauty and joy you’ve added to my world; how much I admire you for your wisdom and all that you have faced and overcome, and I appreciate you being faithful to every promise we made so long ago. I could not imagine having lived my life without you. You are the most important ingredient in everything I’ve done. None of it would have happened without your support, friendship, and love.
You are the greatest gift God has put in my life and I will love you more each day we have together.
It won’t be a secret much longer: You don’t have to participate in a local congregation to live out a transforming relationship with Jesus, experience the wonder of Christian community, or to find meaningful ways to extend his kingdom in the world.
We’ve known for some time that people are leaving traditional congregations in droves. The statistics are irrefutable. Popular wisdom, and no small number of sermons told us that people who were not part of a congregation are not part of the church. Their salvation is suspect and they will whither away spiritually either because their spiritual passion would wane or they would get lost in the weeds of false teaching. And while that is true of some, researchers have now identified a large group of people who are thriving in their faith beyond the walls of any local congregation.
Dr. Josh Packard, calls them “The Dones,” in his book Church Refugees, which will be released on June 1. The book is subtitled, “Sociologists reveal why people are done with church but not their faith” and helps us understand this heretofore unidentified group of believers. He describes the Dones as high-capacity people, who were deeply involved in their local fellowships until they become stifling to their own journey. For years they sought to help reform it, only to find their efforts and their passion stifled by a bureaucracy that resisted change. Finally, seeing no other way for their faith to survive, they made a conscious decision to leave the congregational model and find growth, fellowship and mission beyond it.
While many will celebrate the discovery that the church of Jesus Christ is broader and more robust than our local institutions can contain, others find the news disturbing and prefer to reject or ignore the study. In a recent webinar with the Dr. Packard much of the chat messages to the moderator expressed displeasure that they were giving voice to this research. Already one denominational bookstore chain has said they won’t carry the book, fearful of its influence on its congregations.
They either don’t believe its conclusions or want to ignore them as a threat to their own future. Because they define the church institutionally they can cast aspersions the faith of anyone who does not belong. That’s why many have responded to declining attendance by doubling-down on obligation to keep attending. Some religious leaders have a lot invested in marginalizing those who no longer participate in a local fellowship lest others follow them out the door.
Interestingly, Dr. Packard is not encouraging people to leave their local congregations. In fact, he attends one and hopes that this study will help pastors to innovate ways to engage their most capable members so they won’t feel the need to look elsewhere. Traditional congregations serve a valuable purpose where they teach people to live out their faith and where they incubate authentic community.
Twenty-five years ago I would have been shocked at this research myself. As a pastor, I thought our program essential to faith and saw people outside of it as bitter, lone rangers who were just miffed that they couldn’t get their way. One day through the betrayal of a close friend, I found myself for the first time outside the congregation. Of course I could have gone elsewhere, but found my heart hungering for a more authentic journey than any fellowship I’d been a part of was able to foster. And I discovered I was not alone and the others were not
That’s why Dr. Packard’s research does not come as a surprise to me. For the past two decades I’ve been living among those who have found a vibrant life in Jesus as well as community outside of any religious institution. They are passionate, caring, committed disciples who want to see the kingdom of God grow in the world. They have been scorned, condemned, and maligned by those who reject their faith simply because they stopped attending Sunday services.
If you care about the future of the church in the Western world, you’ll want to avail yourself of this book. Whether you are one of the Dones, or concerned about people leaving your congregation you’ll at least want to be understand why. My hope is that we will come to celebrate all the ways that Jesus is inviting people to himself and recognize the life of the church in its more informal settings as well as more formal ones.
Whether you find this research validating or threatening, we need a larger conversation about the future of the church, not a smaller one. Resist the temptation to frame this as another “our side is right” debate and instead of exalting your group and vilifying those who disagree with you let’s look for ways to engage others with love and respect. We’ll find that there are people everywhere who deeply love God—those who still find great value in local congregations and those who are exploring beyond it.
We can think beyond the us-versus-them conversations about the Dones that marketers and media will exploit for financial gain and find ourselves in conversations that celebrate our common unity of being God’s children and recognize his work in others even if it is beyond the environments we hold dear.