In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle, suggests that about every five hundred years the church goes through enormous upheaval. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and under the guidance of Pope Gregory the church established a plethora of monasteries. In 1054 we experienced the Great Schism, the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western. Five hundred years later in the 16th century, the church was again thrown into a period of confusion and rebirth in the Great Reformation, and today...well what is happening today? The church is changing, and one of the changes we are experiencing in North America is the rise of the Dones.
A couple of weeks ago, sociologist and author, Josh Packard, released research that details the vast number of people who have left the church.
I recently interviewed Dr. Packard. Here is how he describes the Dones.
35 million have left the church and abandoned their faith. But while the Dones, numbering 30 million, have given up on church, they have not given up on God.
When did they leave? Again, we turn to Dr. Packard.
As we noted last week, the Dones are not angry or bitter. They are stymied and stuck. They are seeking authentic community and an opportunity to serve others. Frustrated by the church's bureaucracy, they are creating and exploring other expressions of faith.
The Bigger Picture
Importantly, this is not a generational issue. The challenge facing the church is part of a larger movement that is sweeping across our country. People have lost trust or confidence in social institutions of all types. People aren't just giving up on the church; they are giving up on local school boards, the federal government, political parties etc. According to Dr. Packard our faith and participation in social institutions are at an all time low. This is a significant dimension of his findings.
Reason for Hope
It seems that the church experiences great upheaval about every five hundred, and just as we saw renewed hope and growth and excitement and energy during the Great Reformation, so too today are we witnessing new forms of ministry. People are much more engaged in mission through the local congregation than though larger denominational bodies. Organizational structures are getting flatter. The rule of thumb now is the larger the church, the smaller the governing body. This gives leaders a better opportunity to get to know one another and frees up others to invest more of their time in the ministry for which they are gifted. 10% of churches today have satellite locations. Others are livestreaming their worship services to reach more people. The internet is making it possible for people to connect with one another in community over great geographical distances.
In part, the church is reclaiming the importance of relationship. Since the reformation we have basically followed this pattern: you believe and then you belong. You figure out what to hold to be true and then you find a community that matches your beliefs. That is no longer the case. Today, belonging comes first. We find a community that accepts us, that appreciates our talents and gifts, that cares for one another and others and then we might get around to thinking about what we really believe.
This doesn't mean that beliefs are unimportant but we are returning to the Biblical foundation that in Jesus we all belong to God in Jesus
Listen one more time to Dr. Packard words, words of challenge.
Dr. Packard's research will no doubt alarm many. The prospect of losing more members will stir the anxiety of churches of all sizes and types.
Yet, the witness of the Dones serves to remind Christians of the centrality of community and service in our faith tradition. In an era that ever hungers for authenticity, this witness will be heard by many of as good news!
If you are Done with the church or if you are an Almost Done, please click HERE to contact me. I want to hear your story, and I want to learn from you. As a pastor whose experiences have given me a heart for the Dones, I am hopeful that together we will discover anew the heart of the Gospel.