South Lake Tahoe School of Missions
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1560-1 Newbury Rd #313
Newbury Park, CA 91320
Phone: (805) 498-7774
Fax: (805) 499-5975
Second in a series on the The Phenomenon of the Dones
(Read Part 1, The Secret is Out)
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.
On the recommendation of a friend, I purchased Hope for the Flowers and read it Saturday night with my ten-year-old granddaughter. No, it isn't a children's book, though it is easy enough for them to understand. It is a book about life and freedom and our failed attempts to find it by human effort. A friend recommended it to me a few weeks ago, surprised I'd never read it or heard of it. It was originally published in 1972 after all.
It's the story of two catepillars trying to find the meaning of life and being sucked into a pillar of catepillars who are climbing all over each other to try to get to the top of the heap, because of an insatiable drive for to be high up in the sky. They don't know realize the desire can only be fulfilled by flying, so they climb all over each other trying to get as high as the can. The form a catepillar pillar. Even though those at the top feel superior to those below, they are not really flying after all. Catepillar effort can't fulfill its own destiny. Only those who give up their life as a captepillar to find its way into a cocoon can the transformation take place.
Hope for the Flowers is an amazing story of the failure of human effort and how all our attempts only manipulate others to try to find what we seek so desperately. It's about learning to die to ourselves to embrace the insatiable desire Go dhas placed deep within us. It's a story of transformation that comes only as we come to the end of ourselves and embrace a reality far bigger than any of us. It's a simple but powerful look into the world of butterflies to once again realize that God has put before us every day the most amazing image of how he wants to work in us.
Read it with or without a ten-year-old at your side and you will be invited again into a world of transformation, where our deepest desires invite us to a greater reality than human effort can ever achieve. Instead of disappointed hopes, you'll find the path where flight is possible and where freedom and joy become a part of every day life.
No one thought it was even possible. For years popular wisdom assured Christians that they couldn't leave their traditional congregation and survive spiritually. So when researchers discovered a large pool of people who done exactly that and were not only thriving in their faith but engaged with other believers as well as the world, they were surprised. It has been called The Rise of the Dones, an incresing pool of passionate followers of Jesus who no longer participate in a traditional congregation and yet are still deeply involved in the life of Jesus' church as it takes shape in the world.
The research doesn't surprise me. I've been living among those kind of people for the past twenty years and tell that story it in my newest book, Finding Church: What If There Really Is Something More.
Last week in Loveland, CO I got to sit down with one of the researchers on this project, Josh Packard, and talk about his new book, Church Refugees, which will be released June 1. You can pre-order it from Amazon, or read the first chapter here. Let me give you just a taste of it here, though. One of the stories he tells in the book is from Ethan, who grew up in a congregation, was active in campus ministry when he went to college and then was making a career in ministry bevore finally concluding that the he had to look elsewhere. This is part of his story:
We kept showing up and colunteering because we felt the church was God's home. I don't think that's the case anymore. The church is wherever God's work is being done, and too often the way we were treated and the things I saw happen in the institutional church to other people just weren't in alliance with what we thought God wanted.
But here's the thing: I don't think the institutional church is filled with bad people. It hink the church in America is an inherently flawed structre that comepls people to make poor decisions. You're basically judged on how well you can preach and the numbers you bring in. I realise the church isn't perfect, and it's made up of people who aren't perfect, and I'm not perfect either, but the church needs to see that there are things that are broken about the structure, not the people.
Here's what the researcher concluded about Ethan's experience: "He and his wife didn't give up on God; they gave up on the instittuioanl expression fo the church. They didn't stop doing things to advance the work of God; they stopped doing things to advance the work of the church. Their substantial 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. In short, they've created a new religious home."
Ethan isn't alone. My travels and my email continue to show me just how many people there are looking for other expressions of Jesus' church in the world, and finding them. Tomorrow I play the first part of my interview with Josh on my podcast at The God Journey. It's a fascinating study that will encourage many who have not found the traditional congregation a helpful place to be. Hopefully it will open a dialog that will allow us all to discover the church in her greatest splendor.
I’m at the airport this morning getting ready for my trip to Denver, and then continuing next week to Richmond, VA. This is an amazing trip with lots of meetings for reasons as diverse as sharing the journey, consulting with a publishing company that is looking for an appreciation for the “Dones”, to meeting with some people from Kenya who might be able to help us formulate a development strategy for Pokot, and finally to helping a friend with his novel. It will be 12 days with a host of meetings and connections that I hope will advance God’s kingdom in the world.
As I go, I thought I’d leave you with this exchange that explains why I’ve never liked the term, “unconditional love.”
Eileen: I enjoyed your books He Loves Me and Finding Church so much and can't wait to get the latter one on audio book. Well the question I have that I struggle with a little bit us is Gods Love unconditional? My husband and I listened to a message titled "choose life" in which he suggests that there is no such thing as an unconditional love. Even Gods love for us is conditional. Some of the examples he gives are, “ask and you shall receive, knock and it will be opened, you are my friends If you keep my commandments. Those are all conditions he claims. He loves us despite of how we are, which I do agree with, God is love but not unconditional I struggle with. At least that's what I heard from his message. Wanted to hear your thoughts on that.
My response: When you hear someone teach and it doesn't sit right with you, there's usually a good reason—his Spirit within you. When your yuck meter goes off, trust it! In this case it is well-set.
To take Jesus’ invitation for us to engage his Father and turn it into a condition for us to earn his love is poor scholarship at best and manipulative at worst. Seeking him is not a condition for us love, it’s an invitation to draw near to him so we can see how he’s making himself known to us.
You’ll notice that I don't use the term "unconditional love." I know a lot of people like that term, and though I like what they often mean by it, I don't like using it because it gives the impression that something called "conditional love" actually exists. It does not. You either love someone or you don't. If you can stop loving them because they do something wrong, stupid or hurtful, then you didn't love them in the first place. God's love is not conditional, he loves us all the time, even at our most lost and broken. His love never changes. The drama of our story shifts when we begin to discover how loved we are and then respond to him in a way that allows our engagement with that love to grow.
But that doesn’t mean that our actions don’t have consequences. We reap what we sow, but that isn’t God ceasing to love us, it’s the way he made the world work so that we would learn from our mistakes and that our brokenness would invite us back to him. He keeps loving us through the consequences of our own choices, always making a way for us back to his heart.
Eileen: I just wanted you to know that what you said makes perfect sense...that's the way I've carried out my life, but when you're repeatedly told you have to be in church, you start to believe that your the one doing something wrong. I'm so grateful that God has put you in my path, if for no other reason than to confirm what I've always believed—you can win people to the lord by just loving them.
Amen to that!
It is more than a little frustrating to click on an interesting link and begin to read the article it links to only to be interrupted five seconds by a blacked-out web page and a pop-up box asking for my email address or to send money. That's especially true if the box moves so it's harder to close it, or how to close it is cleverly disguised so it takes awhile to find it. I will not go back to a website like that nor will I pass the link along to others because the owners of that site have made it clear to me that their real product is me! They want to sell my eyes to advertisers or my email address to purveyors of junk mail.
Isn't it enough to provide compelling content and know that if people want to follow you they will find a link for email updates or alerts? Why do you think your obnoxiousness will endear me to you or your advertisers? It does not. I'm sure the research shows more people will sign up if you're obnoxious about it, but is it really worth it when you lose so much crediblity about your concern for your customer?
I do not have a problem with people selling their products or services on a website, or even advertising the goods and services of others to help offset their costs of providing content. That can all be done in a comeplling, responsible, and appropriate way, where you guide people to your services, rather than manipulate them so overtly. The need to maximize the monetary value of a website or its statistics by manipulating unnecessary "clicks" has reached such ridiculous proportions, that I've decided I will no longer vist websites that...
- Confront me with a pop-up window to block their page, either to show me an ad or try to harvest my email address.
- Automtically start video or audio without my selecting it.
- Have so many ads around the content they they remind me of NASCAR.
- Have a flashing "donate now" button prominently on the front page, unless they are a charity raising funds for other people.
- Promise something for free, but then require my email address to get it.
- Require multiple clicks to view simple information
- Use false or misleading titles that don't actually reflect the content of the article.
- Intentionally confuse the "continue reading" button with buttons that link me to their adverisers.
All of these set my Yuck Meter off, and even more so when these are found on websites that present themselves as helping people find their way in God's kingdom. Don't they trust that God will provide for them and if not why do I want to partake of their teachings?
Provide me with great content that is relevant to life and I will beat a path to your door, subscribe where I want to and even make a contribution if that's how you roll. But websites that use the above tactics clearly demonstrate that instead of providing valuable content that are exploiting me for their own gain. Visit them if you want, but I don't have the time to navigate through all the garbage unless the content is truly stellar, and it usually isn't or they wouldn't have to resort to such tactics.
Yes, I feel a bit like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, so call it my one-man rebellion against inappropriate exploitation of the Internet for commercial purposes. But if others adopted the same policy those websites would have to change. If you instantly leave any website that is overly manipulative and they will see it. I click away as soon as they block my view of the site for an ad or email sign-up. If I have a hard time finding the content I want for all the ads that surround it, I leave too. Those kinds of websites track such things and they will change when they discover people are taking offense to them. It's a bottom-line industry and it's not your bottom line that they care about. Refuse to be manipulated by these tactics and your world will grow simpler even if they never change. And what's more, you won't miss their content anyway.
In fact, we can do that with lots of things. When you feel manipulated vote with your feet and whether or not that changes the world, it will change your world. Life is too short and time too precious to let others demand more of you than you are willing to give.
When your ten-year old granddaughter asks if we take have communion with our Easter dinner, the only reasonable answer is, “Of course!”
I love that she’s had it enough here to think about it. I love that her mom and her had discussed Jesus serving it to his disciples as they were working through the events of Easter week. This is a child who has never been in a Sunday school or attended a Sunday morning service. She has grown up with Jesus as a part of her daily life and in the community of friends and family who are seeking to follow him.
So after the meal, we took bread and broke it. We took grape choice and toasted the One who have up so much so that we could have life and freedom in him. And we focused on Jesus and that we would one day be re-united in eternity with some special people we’ve lost recently to this age. It was the high point of the day!
Later I was reading an article someone sent me that only an approved clergy member can “sanctify” the bread and juice and only in approved locations, where people truly worship. Yes, my Yuck Meter pegged. Jesus celebrated a meal with his disciples and told us to remember him every time we partake of that meal. We did a horrible thing when our “religious leaders” made the meal something that could only be celebrated when the “right person” consecrated it. That made the Lord’s Supper a contest of power to decide who can serve it and who can take it, and have argued for centuries argued over its meaning and substance.
Such is what man does when he takes a simple gift of Jesus and turns it into a religious ritual fraught with fear. Contrast that with the early church, who for the first 300 years of its existence would not have conceived of celebrating the Lord’s Supper at any place other than the family dining room table. Imagine what it did for that woman who made the bread and poured the wine as Jesus made himself known at her table that evening as the church gathered to celebrate his life in them.
Isn’t it time to reclaim the simple things Jesus gave to his church and celebrate them in the midst of our lives? “This is my body. This is my blood. As often as you do it, remember me!”
If this isn't the strangest trip I've ever booked, I don't know what is. I'm going to Colorado for a week, then out to Richmond, VA for a week. This isn't just about visiting with people, on this journey. I will also meet with a couple from Kenya doing some incredible development work in Kenya in counties next to Pokot and may help us with the need in Pokot as well. I'll also meet with the people behind TheDones.com website to see if our resources might be applicable in that venue. And I'll be meeting with someone who wants my help on a novel that may be one of the most innovative things I've ever read.
So, yes, this will be a crazy trip. But it does allow me some opportunities to connect with readers and listeners in this areas as well.
- I'll be in downtown Denver, CO the weekend of April 18-19. We're planning a Sunday get-together at 1:00 for those that want to come. Space is limited so check in with Michael if you're interested. I'll also be around on Saturday and Sunday morning if people want to connect in a more personal way. You can email me if you're interested.
- On Monday I have to go to Loveland, CO. If anyone is in that area that would like to open up a place for folks to connect, please let me know.
- And, on April 24-25 I'll be in Richmond, VA in some open times for people to connect there. Contact Richard if you're interested in joining us there.
I'm sorry there isn't more time on this trip to just hang out with people who want to come, but we can make best use of the times we do have...
What a crazy week this has been. After a worldwind trip around Florida I returned on Monday. What an amazing trip. I started in Daytona Beach, spent a few days in the Orlando area, then a week teaching The Jesus Lens at a YWAM base in Sarasota through a German translator. After which I finished up in West Palm Beach reconnecting with some old friends and enjoying time with some new ones. This was a wonderful trip and I met so many people who are learning to live in the reality of Father's affection and break free fo the trappings of religious obligation and performance. I am always amazed by what God lets me do in the world and who he gives me to know. And I admire the courage of so many who are willing to take the road less traveled even when suffering the judgment and abuse of friends and family who regard them now with suspicion simply for rejecting the idea that Jesus came to start a religion. He didn't. He came to invite us alongside his Father, to freely embrace his love and to freely share it in the world.
I only had a couple of days to re-orient from the trip, try to catch-up on my email backlog and make the few appointments I had previous scheduled before the lead producer, Kevin, and the screen writer, Angela, for the movie adaptation of So You Don't Want To Go To Church Anymore arrive for a weekend of trying to finalize the script. Tomorrow someone else, Eugene, will join us who might be the director of this picture. I am still amazed that this book is making progress through the machinery that tries to cough out a movie.
But I've had a lot of fun living inside the story again. Tentatively called, "Out of the Game," it takes the major parts of that story and reshapes them in a way that will help it communicate with a different audience on the big screen. I've enjoyed working with all the people on this project and the passion they have shown for this story. We're still not agreed on every detail, but having just finished my most recent read of the manuscript, I'm convinced we're getting very close. So the next three days we will be refining the screenplay as well as making some critical decisions about moving the process forward. And on Saturday we wil be sitting with a group of actors who will read through it so we can see how the dialog sounds in their mouths. It's an adventure to be sure and I love at this stage of my life revisiting that story and my own life being a bit re-shaped by it. I don't usually get touched reading my own words, but some of this I worked on fifteen years ago and have enjoyed the re-focus and the gracious invitation of a Father into a life better lived in the security of his affection rather than the rabid fears religion often uses to make people conform. Only about 15% of the projects that get this far actually get made. There are so many parts that have t come together for this to work. So, we'll see. One step at a time.
And for those who ask about the film adaptation of The Shack, that is still in process as well. Lionsgate is the studio and they've already selected a director and are now workiing to cast the movie and schedule production. There is no clear release date on this movie though it should be sometime late in 2015 or early in 2016. There are lots of rumors floating around about who is involved. Just remember, Hollywood types do a lot of negotiation and compete for media attention by using rumors and leaks. Until you read, "Lionsgate announces...", don't believe everything you read.