Church Refugees: The Most Important Book Most Church Leaders Won’t Read

Yesterday morning, I finished reading Church Refugees by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.  It’s the most important book I’ve read concerning the direction the churches in the US are going (probably applies to some extent to the UK as well).  And most ordained leaders will not read it, because it is by sociologists rather than pastors.  Those who read it will likely dismiss it.

They will do so at their own peril, because nothing currently being done to reverse church decline is working.  When a medical doctor implements a course of treatment for an illness, and it doesn’t work, the first thing that doctor does (if s/he is worth the paper their license is printed on) is to question the original diagnosis, re-assess the situation, look deeper, and try another therapy.  Repeat as necessary, until something works.  Look for other, alternative explanations of the condition.  Think about side effects of the treatment, and find ways to mitigate those that are less desirable than the presenting illness.

And always, listen to the patient.  Take into account what the person who is experiencing the symptoms says about how s/he feels, whether some treatments are helping, what negative consequences they might have, answer their questions, be available to hear concerns.  Listen to the trade-offs the patient is willing to make:  a little less pain relief for a lot less nausea, a slightly longer recovery time for a few less hours a week occupied in rehab.

The health care team of doctors, nurses, physical/occupational therapists may have professional opinions about reasonable expectations concerning outcomes, but the patient is paramount.  The patient knows when the illness began or injury occurred, how long s/he waited to seek treatment, what s/he tried to alleviate symptoms before asking for professional care, what his or her medical history contains that might have an impact on treatment plans.  And, ultimately, it is the patient’s call (or his or her family) concerning when to stop treatment.

Furthermore, if a business notices that loyal customers have stopped purchasing goods or using services, or even haven’t stopped in for a while to see what new things might be on offer, that business asks its customers how they might be better served, and how their loyalty may be reclaimed.  And they listen.

Those who provide services and goods, and rely on a client, patient, or customer base to earn their living, ordinarily understand that the customer (or client, or patient) has a choice in where, and from whom, they will obtain even the most essential necessities. Loyalty must be earned, because if customers aren’t satisfied, they find other providers to fulfill their needs.

The Christian church operates differently.  I understand fully that Christians are not “customers” of their churches; they are meant (ideally) to be committed, participating members.  We are meant to make things happen in our churches, to get on board with programs promoted by our ordained leadership at all levels.  We are asked to give money and time, and told that our generosity is meant to be outward-looking–it is principally for the benefit of those who are not (currently) members of our church, or any church.

One would think that, because we’re supposed to be so much more invested in our churches’ vitality than we would be in the profit/loss sheet at the local Target, our opinions might be more sought after, our talents more carefully cultivated and deployed, our contributions more carefully stewarded.

This is not the case.  And when committed, mature, involved Christians leave the church, it is treated like a bad joke by the pastoral leaders.  A few years ago, I reviewed Lillian Daniel’s When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough for the Lay Anglicana blog. Daniel’s book is a poorly written diatribe based only on personal anecdote, and so it is an extreme example of the disrespect shown by ordained leaders toward those who either have never attended church or have left (and it is ill-informed to think that the never-churched and those who leave are the same entity). But the attitudes are there, usually fueled by unsubstantiated assumptions:   not attending church, or identifying as “spiritual but not religious”, or “Christian without church” is an indication of spiritual or intellectual laziness, just wanting to “feel good” without making serious commitments, or being lured away from truth by secular temptations like Sunday shopping, sports, or just lazing around in our pyjamas drinking coffee while the “real” Christians listen to a sermon in church.

This is nice for ordained leaders, because they can lay the problem all on the people who have left (or never attended).  It absolves them of responsibility for their own actions as contributing to church decline.

But it is not true. I started taking Christianity seriously as an adult at least in part because I am looking for intellectual, moral,  and spiritual truth.  I can’t give assent to spiritual, moral, and intellectual leaders who are not at least as rigorous as I am in that pursuit.

Packard and Hope, two sociologists from Northern Colorado University, authored Church Refugees.  Their research methodology was primarily interview and questionnaire, and their respondents were mainly contacted through a sort of “grapevine” of people who had left church, and knew others who had done so.  It seems skewed toward a more evangelical form of Christianity, but that is to be expected when it’s a word-of-mouth:  You get the people who have some direct link to those you know.  I will freely admit that my own work in the Derby diocese (Church of England) had a similar bias:  When you rely on people to consent to your interview (or, in my case, participation/observation), you will get those who are likeliest to be sympathetic to your project.  In my case, I had to admit that the data was skewed toward clergy who felt satisfied and confident in their roles and identities as ordained ministers–much harder to get those who are not to consent to interviews and observation.

Although there were some tendencies in the responses that I didn’t share (mostly, the emphasis on finding community, and the right of the church to dictate personal morality), I was gripped by how the responses rang true to much of my own experience of leaving church.

Packard and Hope recount the stories of people who were–and continue to be–serious about Christian spirituality.  Even without church, they serve their communities.  They support other Christians.  They study the Bible and perhaps other Christian literature.

But Church became harmful to them.  In most cases, it was less burnout from being asked to do too much, but either being asked to do things that only supported the institution rather than the mission of Jesus, or they were not being asked to do enough of what they offered from their genuine talents and gifts.

People realized that much of the causes the churches ‘get behind’–feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, anti-racism–are things they can do outside the purview of the Church, and sometimes much better without the Church looking over their shoulder.  So, why be less effective than one can be, if it’s really important?

People wanted conversation and welcome more than they wanted doctrine and judgment, but got the latter–judgment being the biggest thing, it seems that drove people away.  It wasn’t that they wanted a church that only “agreed” with them, or “affirmed” their position, or let them be more morally and spiritually lax.  But they wanted a place where the biggest questions could be freely discussed and, and agreement didn’t have to be reached.

It’s important to note that the “Dones” were not fringe members of their congregations.  Instead, they were often the people who were most involved in their local churches, who got things done, who made things happen.  They weren’t the people who visited a few times, said “this isn’t for me”, and never showed up again, nor did their participation dwindle over time before they made their departure.  They were people who were long-time members and were involved right up until the time they left.

There were many stories where people left a church because they moved to take a job in a different city–but decided not to join another in their new location.  Or they visited several in the new place, and didn’t find a church where they felt confident they would be better utilized than they were in the one they left behind.

Or, they just left.  I wonder how many pastors actually noticed that someone who had been a long-standing, loyal, involved congregant was no longer there.  I wonder how many made a call or visit to ask what was going on.  I wonder how many could actually hear what was said.  (I have a friend who has worked for a denominational body for years, is a committed Christian, but left her own local church over five years ago–and only recently has anyone from the “official” leadership been in touch.  That does not speak well about “care of the sheep” that Jesus commanded.)

There is a sense (which I share) of being driven out, having stayed well beyond the point where staying in church was safe or healthy, and a feeling of bringing what I could from my “home” in the church that was of value and might be used in a new context.  And a tremendous sense of guilt and failure for having left, even though it was the thing that really needed to happen if I was going to retain any level of spiritual wellbeing.  Church Refugees  is the first book I’ve seen where these things were shared by a significant number of other people–especially others I do not personally know.

I am not sure that the last bit of the book, where the authors outline ways in which the de-churched might be re-engaged by standard church strutcures, is workable.  That is less because our current ways of identifying, selecting, and training candidates for lay and ordained ministry will need a significant overhaul so that people who can do this work will be educated and deployed alongside those who can minister to those who are less involved (and less likely to leave).

I do think that Church Refugees is one of the most important books about Church I’ve read in a very long time–but one that church leaders will find so challenging they will either ignore it, or dismiss it if they bother with it at all.  But I am personally thankful that it was written, because the church needs to take people like me seriously.

The book raises some important questions in my mind, and I intend to write a few additional blog posts concerning those questions, over the next few weeks.


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