December 17, 2014

The Dones

In a recent column on ChurchLeaders.com Thom Schultz described the growing number of “Dones” in the United States. If this is not a term you are familiar with, you are not alone–I had never heard it either. In fact, it may be a term Schultz coined himself, but it references a group of people that are common enough that they are the subject of research by sociologist Josh Packard. The “Dones” are those individuals who are done with church. Say Schultz, “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.” Instead, the have just up and quit, deciding they have had enough of church and they are not going to take it any more.

According to Packard, the “Dones” are often from the most dedicated and active people within their congregation. This begs at least one question in my mind immediately, in light of the oft-repeated assertion that in most churches ten percent of the people do ninety percent of the work. Are the “Dones” getting tired of doing all the work? In other words, are they getting burned out? Apparently not, according to Packard’s research cited by Schultz.

In his upcoming book Church Refugees Packard suggests that the “Dones” simply feel like they have heard it all before. Others are tired of being told how they are to live their lives. According to one of Packard’s interviewees, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.” Therein, of course, lies part of the problem. Effective preaching and church ministry has nothing to do with “some guy” telling anyone what to do, unless that guy is Jesus Christ. If the pastor is insisting that he has the authority to tell those in his congregation how to live their lives, then he is wrong and leaving the church is probably wise. If, however, the pastor is faithfully and consistently preaching and teaching the entire Bible, he will, necessarily, be touching on many areas that pertain to how Christians are to live their lives. This would not be coming from him, though; rather, he is simply communicating and explaining what the Bible says. If the issue, then, is not liking the idea that God both cares about how we live our daily lives and has a right to care about it then the real issue is the heart, not the church.

Schultz also writes of another reason the “Dones” might be done. “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.” This is an interesting idea and one that requires additional investigation. Perhaps Packard’s book will shed more light on what Schultz is getting at here. On the one hand, it seems to contradict the idea mentioned above, that the “Dones” are often coming out of the most active members of church congregations. If that is true, the suggestion that they do not get to participate does not make sense. On the other hand, if these individuals are tired of listening to “some guy” tell them how to live–in other words, if that is their heart attitude and their mindset–then having them become more participatory within their churches could be dangerous to the spiritual well being of the church. There are, after all, specific biblical requirements for church leadership and additional reasonable requirements for church volunteers and ministry leaders.

Packard, says Schultz, explains that churches are not likely to get the “Dones” back in church, and would be far better off focusing on not losing them in the first place than on getting them back. He suggests seven questions that church leaders should ask church members in order to help the church understand the needs of their congregations and meet those needs before their congregants flee.

Here are his questions:

1. Why are you a part of this church?
2. What keeps you here?
3. Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
4. How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
5. How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
6. What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
7. What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?

These are actually good questions. Much to my delight they are not focused on what would make anyone more comfortable. The last question is particularly poignant, but I would caution churches implementing this approach to couple it with another question: What would need to change in your life to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others? After all, there may well be things that the church could do differently in order to more effectively minister to its congregation and spur on their spiritual growth. At the same time, there is nothing any church can ever do to accomplish that growth if the real issue is within the heart and mind of the individual congregant and he has no interest in changing. If, in other words, he is tired of “some guy telling him what to do.”

If there are previously committed and active members of churches making a beeline for the exit and quitting church, we do need to be concerned. We do need to seek to keep them if they have not left and reach them if they have. Let us now, however, confuse ourselves into thinking that the fault is solely with the church.

May 16, 2013

Making church uncomfortable

A short article in the May 4 issue of WORLD Magazine entitled “Bleachers vs. Pews” highlights a “new study of declining North American churches.” The study revealed that “the most common explanation for congregational malaise is the ‘secularization of Sunday,’ or the way that other activities, especially childrens’ sports, have reduced attendance at religious services.”

The study was conducted by Stephen McMullin of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, and while he reports that one pastor in his study summed up this “secularization” by lamenting that many parents will “sacrifice church ‘for the sake of their son or daughter’s sports program,'” McMullin is not convinced that Sunday sports are a determining factor in the decline in church attendance. McMullin observed that many of the churches seeing a decline in enrollment have “internal problems, such as poor quality music, or making little attempt to welcome guests.”

I both agree and disagree with McMullin. I agree that youth sports are not the sole, or even the predominant, cause of a decline in church attendance, and I agree that the number of people opting to pursue youth sports or other leisure activities on Sundays is a symptom of “internal problems” within many churches. I disagree, though, that “poor quality music” is one of those problems. I am not disagreeing that some churches may have poor quality music; some, no doubt do. Rather, I am disagreeing that the quality of music at a church is a determining factor in anyone leaving the church–or, for that matter, regularly attending it in the first place.

This is not a position I am basing purely on gut instinct or a hunch, either. Several years ago Answers in Genesis commissioned Britt Beemer and America’s Research Group to study why young people are leaving the church. Their survey questioned one thousand twenty-somethings who were raised in conservative churches but are no longer attending in order to find out why they are not. One question in the survey specifically asked “Why have you stopped attending church?” The answer “music is poor” was given by only 1% of the respondents; sixteen other reasons ranked above this one. Only four answers ranked below poor music quality in the survey, and those four answers–miscellaneous, unsure of my belief, just quit going, and always ask for money–accounted, cumulatively, for only 1.6% of the responses. So clearly, music–and particularly the quality of music–is not a big factor when it comes to folks making the decision to stop going to church. (To explore this survey further, check out Already Gone by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer).

In my opinion, the increasing number of sports leagues that allow games or practices on Sunday is just another example in a long line of symptoms of the declining importance of church attendance in our country. Many things that used to not happen on Sunday do now, not just youth sports. I am not going to take a position that youth sports cannot be played on Sundays ever, and whether or not Christian parents allow their children to practice or play on Sundays is a decision I think they need to make for their family after prayerful consideration. I am personally not in favor of it, and I would encourage parents to establish from the get-go that their children will not practice or play anytime doing so will conflict with Sunday school or church services. And if they do make that decision, I strongly encourage those parents to abide by that position.

University of Washington religion professor James Wellman commented that “[c]oaches are less and less intimidated by religious norms and conventions and simply see Sunday as yet another day to schedule practices and games.” That may be. But the real problem is why do they see Sunday that way? And the answer is, why wouldn’t they? Too many professing Christians are no longer committed to regularly attending church on Sunday mornings. They may go if they feel like it, get up on time and do not have something better to do, but it is not all that important–it is not a priority for them. And therein lies the heart of the problem. Why is it not a priority, and what are churches doing about it?

One if the biggest reasons I believe it is not a priority is because so few people see church as being “worth it.” Too many churches have weakened their stance on the Bible, too many of them teach only the “feel good” parts, too many have focused on making church attendees feel good and feel welcome than have focused on making sure they hear the life-transforming message of God’s Word and spurring them on to live it out. And yes, too many have focused on making sure they have great music and lots of “ministry opportunities” without making sure that people are hearing, studying and applying the Word. see, when church becomes more about visiting with friends and getting a feel-good message there is no need to make a priority. People can do that at the ballpark or on the boat, they can get that from their radio or computer or television, or even the local bookstore.

So when churches start to wonder why people are leaving perhaps the best thing they could do is look within instead of without; perhaps they need to focus more on making people in church uncomfortable than on making them comfortable, since the Word of God, when accurately examined, will convict–and conviction doesn’t feel good. Perhaps instead of working to improve their PowerPoint presentations they should work to make sure that their presentations of the gospel are presented with power, and making sure people get the point. People will abandon the youth leagues and Sundays on the lake and lingering in their pajamas with the Sunday paper when they realize that their lives are impacted by attending church, studying God’s Word, interacting with fellow believers, and being challenged to apply what they learn and live out their faith in between services. In other words, the church needs to act like the church.

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