This post is part of a series looking at Christians who are done with church, but not with their faith, a group otherwise known as the “Dones.” This series is largely focused on distilling and reflecting on the content of a book written by sociologist Josh Packard called Church Refugees. You can read other posts in the series here: Who Are The Dones?
I remember sitting in the car with my friend, a friend who identified strongly with the LGBTQ community, had since high school, and yet still faithfully attended the pentecostal church where we first met. I remember my friend wishing they could invite all their gay and queer friends to come to church and experience it as a loving community, but also expressing fear for the judgement these friends might experience in coming there. Reflecting back now, I wonder also about the judgement my friend may have experienced personally, something I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. We’ve lost touch with one another, but I still think about my friend from time to time and wonder if, for the sake of Christian community, they have toughed out sitting in the pew, or if fear of judgement eventually became too much and pushed them out the door.
It’s a common enough charge levelled at the church – they’re judgemental, they’re self righteous, holier than thou. While this appraisal is not always fair or justified, it’s important to acknowledge this perception of the church is very real. We should admit, too often it is a justified perception of how church is experienced by people, even by those who are faithful attenders. My friend’s fear of judgement being cast upon friends from the LGBTQ community was certainly not without justification, especially given how loaded the topic of sexuality can be within the church and the broader culture. Moreover, judgement is often experienced in church over much more mundane things – from whispered gossip about what clothes people are wearing (or not wearing), to explicit ostracism because someone doesn’t participate in the same social activities or hold the same political views.
This experience of judgement within the church is identified by sociologist, Josh Packard, as one of the key factors that is driving more and more people away from church and placing them among the Dones. Expressing a deep desire for church to be a place where they and their friends can experience community, Dones see community as “fundamental to their understanding of God.”1 Yet the experience of judgement makes it impossible for them to embrace the church as the place where they can find that loving community. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that Forgiveness, Grace, Humility, and Love are theological tenets at the heart of the gospel, but if that is true, then it is worth asking why so many people have ended up experiencing the opposite in church? Finding it to be a place of judgement and exclusion rather than a community of love, forgiveness, and welcome.Dones see community as fundamental to their understanding of God Click To Tweet
At this point some might want to say, “Doesn’t this mean that Dones are asking for the church to give up on traditional theological beliefs and loosen moral standards in order to seem more inclusive?” To which we should say, “not at all.” Rather, let us point to what Jesus does time and again throughout his ministry – showing us that love comes first, that God’s forgiveness precedes our repentance. That everyone is welcome at the Lord’s table regardless of their moral purity or conformity to a group. One does not gain the reputation Jesus did, of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” (Luke 7:34, Matthew 11:19) for nothing, and yet one can hardly accuse Jesus of lowering moral standards. If anything Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount demonstrates a moral calling even higher than that of the Mosaic law, and yet it is a high moral calling that is united with, and not contrary to, the good news of God’s radical love and grace for all people. Why then does the church end up looking more like a Pharisee standing before God and saying, “I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)
The discipline of sociology has shown that, generally speaking, people need to belong before they believe, that is to say, people need to feel a part of a social group before they accept the belief of that group. And yet too often this is the opposite of how churches operate. As Packard says, “Instead of understanding that shared life leads to shared beliefs, churches frequently want to make sure that everyone signs on to a common belief system before they can begin to do life with each other.”2 And this is only the beginning of how the church undermines its ability to be a loving community. As Packard points out, Dones often see “religious leaders making lifestyle declarations and judgements without owning up to their own shortcomings.”3 Dones see precisely what Jesus saw in the Pharisees who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 5:24), people who point out the speck in their brother’s eye but fail to see the log in their own. Furthermore, it’s not simply that Dones feel judged by the church, but actually feel the pressure to partake in that judgement themselves. One of the Dones Packard talked with related how while still part of the church “she took every opportunity to point out the transgression of others because doing so brought her in closer alignment with the group’s professed beliefs.”4 What this story betrays is a community that is more interested in virtue signalling rather than actually living out the call of Jesus Christ.
All of this should direct us to hear and heed the words of Jesus when He says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) The Judgement that Jesus condemns, the kind that is driving Dones away from the church, is judgement which writes off individuals and people groups as uniquely deficient, diminished in their humanity. The judgement Jesus condemns is that which doesn’t recognize the centrality of imago dei theology to all of Christian ethics , judgement that fails to honour the image of God present in each and every human being that we encounter. To understand this is to prioritize what Jesus called the weightier matters of the law, namely justice, mercy and faithfulness.(Matthew 23:23)
If the first thing people hear from the church is moral pronouncements on sexuality or our disapproval of certain social trends, how do we ever expect people who aren’t already the same as us to not feel judged, and to draw close and experience the radical grace and love of Jesus Christ. Likewise, if we can’t speak of (and live out) our beliefs with a conviction that demonstrates greater charity and humility toward those we disagree with, how will we ever cultivate meaningful conversation with anyone who is vastly different than us, something especially important to recognize when those we don’t see eye-to-eye with are likely sitting next to us in the pew.
In the end, what we need to accept is that the cultivation of loving community is hard work, it can’t be taken for granted. The challenge of forming a loving Christian community that is not disrupted by judgement is nothing new, it has been the same challenge ever since the early church had to make sure Greek speaking widows weren’t getting snubbed in the distribution of food (Acts 6), ever since the Apostle Peter started virtue signaling in front of other Jews by refusing to eat with Gentiles (Galatians 2). We should not be surprised that the cultivation of loving community is hard work, but if we care about creating healthy churches that won’t push more Dones out, then it is hard work worth doing. It means welcoming those who are different – different in culture, belief and practice – sharing life-on-life with them and trusting that the Spirit of God is at work in all of our lives to make us holy, without us needing to point out every speck and flaw. Trusting that the moral actions of a community, when rooted in God’s grace and love, speak for themselves.
photo credit: Joe Gratz