Have you ever heard of someone leaving the church in order to save their faith? That seems so paradoxical, yet it is true for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Countless articles, studies, blogs, and books have examined this phenomenon, the reasons behind it, and what the church could do in response. People keep trying to get the church, especially Protestant, evangelical churches to change. But most churches have turned a blind eye, preferring to blame those who have left, saying they were never true Christians to begin with, or that they prefer their sinful lives. But is that true?
People Have Been Leaving for Decades
Pastors, sociologists, academics, and researchers started conducting surveys and research about this trend decades ago. In the 1990’s, the trend was identified: people were starting to leave the church in large numbers. In 2003, Andrew Strom wrote an online treatise called “The Out of Church Christians” about the phenomenon occurring around the world. He quoted David Barrett, an author for the World Christian Encyclopedia, who estimated that there were 112 million churchless Christians worldwide and that this number would double by 2025.
George Barna was one of the first to study this trend. In 2006, he published a book about it called “Revolution” claiming the trend was growing rapidly and would transform the church. From 2008 to 2014, the Barna Group interviewed more than 20,000 people trying to understand the American public and they published their findings in their latest book, “Churchless: How to Understand the Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.” They characterize the U.S. population as 49% actively churched, 10% minimally churched, 33% de-churched, and 8% purely unchurched.
The Pew Research Group has conducted their own surveys, and in 2012 they found that “one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today.” They call this group the “Nones”, which has now evolved into the “Dones”. Researcher and sociologist Josh Packard, Ph.D., co-wrote a book with Ashleigh Hope, called, “Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why the dechurched left… and what they’re hoping to find.” They identified a group they call the “Dones.” These are people who, it turns out, were very active in church leadership–full-time workers, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, elders–but have left the institutionalized church because they are just “done” with the politics, the power plays, hypocrisy, lack of depth, and performance-based church services.
Leaving the Church but not their Faith
While the statistics paint a broad picture of the current state of the churchless, I think the actual stories by former church leaders and member are more impactful. For example, former church leader, Tony Steward, wrote a blog post about why he left the church. He said, “I’m relearning honesty after being in that world as a profession for more than 10 years. I’m still trying to find out what I think, what it means, and how a real faith in Jesus still exists in my life. I’m detoxing and looking for what remains that is real, that is love, and that is true.”
Another example is Tom Schultz, co-author of the book, “Why People Don’t Want to Go to Church” talks about his own research. He said, “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” He also quotes John Packard, who recounts one of his interviewees as saying, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”
Like Tony and the millions of others, I too left the church. Unlike Tony who is just beginning his journey, I left almost 10 years ago. Why? I couldn’t find God at church in the midst of all the church programs, projects, classes, and ultra structured Sunday services. I was tired of people hiding behind the facade of self righteousness, as they denied their humanity, preferring to quote Scripture than to admit their fallibility. However, I did find fulfilling community in a small home group that was not affiliated with any church. I enjoyed soul quenching conversations about spirituality, faith, humanity, and life with quality people of different perspectives, hurts, joys, foibles, and journeys they were willing to share. Although I moved away too far to continue being a part of this group, I still commune with my Savior.
Perhaps now we can see the churchless differently. They too are people who long for authentic experiences with God, the Creator, and Jesus, the Savior. They don’t want pat answers to questions and they certainly don’t want anyone to just quote Scripture at them. They are young and old, Millennial, Gen X, Boomer, you name it, they are people who long for authenticity, deeper relationships where people can express their doubts, concerns, and questions about God and life. They just couldn’t find what they were looking for in church.
By Guest Blogger, CK Miller