By Jacqueline J. Holness
If your minister is anything like my minister, you are always encouraged to ask your friends to come to church with you—and if you don’t have a friend, invite an enemy! But I wonder if it ever occurs to ministers to challenge church members to ask fellow members back to church?
According to Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, a book from the Barna Group, 43 percent of American adults are “churchless.” However, what is most startling is that 33 percent of that number are “de-churched,” defined as “those who have been churched in the past but are currently on hiatus.” According to the book, “The de-churched are the fastest growing segment.”
In the chapter “Disengaged and Dropping Out,” Barna researchers devoted most of their efforts to understanding why young adults have disengaged and dropped out of church; they concluded that a significant portion of their discoveries are applicable to older adults as well. Young adults offered six main reasons why they leave church: “churches seem restrictive and overprotective, Christianity as practiced is too shallow, churches seem antagonistic to science, churches are judgmental and rigid about sexuality, the exclusivity of Christianity is a turnoff, and churches are unfriendly to those who doubt.”
Thom Schultz, coauthor of the book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, wrote a blog post about people he labels as “Dones” (holysoup.com). “Dones” are a “growing multitude of ex-members. They’re sometimes called the de-churched. They have not abandoned their faith. They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones.” The term was discussed at the Group Publishing’s 2014 Future of the Church Conference.
Schultz also referenced the book Church Refugees, coauthored by Josh Packard, a University of Northern Colorado sociologist who explored the causes of this cultural trend of church members who are done with church. “Among the reasons: After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all. One of Packard’s interviewees said, ‘I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.’”
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, wrote that nominal Christians are becoming “Nones.” “Many of these who have been labeling themselves as Christians are starting to feel free to be honest about their religious affiliation, or lack thereof” (Christianitytoday.com).
Each of these sources also offered solutions to address the deluge of Christians departing from churches. “Waiting patiently for dropouts to arrive at some magical life event that will bring them back to church is a fool’s game. . . . It is up to faith communities to communicate with dropouts and other unchurched folks about how church involvement can meet their felt spiritual needs and imbue their lives with meaning and significance,” according to Barna researchers in Churchless.
Schultz recommends heading them off and listening to them before they leave, as Dones are not likely to return to church. “When it comes to listening, church leaders are too often in the habit of fawning over celebrity ministers for answers. It would be far more fruitful to take that time and spend it with real people nearby—existing members. Ask them some good questions.” Questions for potential Dones include: “Why are you a part of this church? What keeps you here? Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not? How would you describe your relationship with God right now? How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years? What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God? What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?”
Stetzer forecasts that churches will likely respond in two ways to changing cultural trends. “The lasting effects of these shifts will force churches to make a critical decision. They will either become a cultural church that allows the societal trends to dictate their ever-changing beliefs. Or they will become a counter-cultural church that faithfully adheres to Scripture and proclaims the gospel in a carefully considered way.”
Whether people are de-churched, done, or none, what is clear is that those of us who remain in the church cannot operate on autopilot and expect to retain and gain ground as we navigate the new territory of our cultural landscape.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service, an online, national news service for attorneys. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).