These days, when you ask a Canadian what religion they would identify themselves with, the majority of people (about 65%)1 will still tell you that they are part of a Christian tradition, even though these numbers have been in decline for over 40 years. By contrast, the demographic seeing the largest increase during this same period are those who would say they have no religious affiliation, often referred to simply as the “Nones,” a group who now make up roughly 25% of all Canadians.2 In the midst of this divide between those who identify with a Christian Tradition and the rising number of Nones there is a new category emerging, an increasing number of people who still hold onto Christian belief and practice, but who are no longer a part of any institutional church. These are Christians who are done with church, but not with their faith, otherwise known as the “Dones.”
Sociologist Josh Packard3 has been engaged in studying this new demographic in the American context and has written an excellent book called Church Refugees.4 Packard’s book walks us through four things that Dones are looking for in their Faith, but ultimately failed to find within the Church. Namely, Dones wanted…
Loving Community… but instead they got Judgement
Transformative Activity… but instead they got Bureaucracy
True Conversation… but instead they got One-Sided Doctrinal Monologue
Meaningful Ministry About things That Matter… but instead they got Shallow Moral Prescription
As you can see, in each of these examples the things that Dones longed for were inhibited by the presence of something else they experienced within the church. These negative experiences were not the opposite of what they wanted so much as something present within the church that made it impossible for them to pursue each of these values. In a series of future posts I will be drawing upon Packard’s book to explore each of these values and the importance of listening to the Dones.5 For today, let me say just a little bit more about who the Dones are (and aren’t) and why understanding them is vital for the church, and church planters.
Dones span across generations,
they are not just Millennials
It may be tempting to assume that the Dones are primarily comprised of young people and that their disillusion with church is about a generational divide, but Packard’s research shows that this simply isn’t true. The Dones are comprised of people from across generations including Millennials, Gen Xrs, and Boomers. While the emergence of the Dones does not reflect a generational divide, it may (at least in part) reflect the nature of the current cultural moment these generations share. We live in an age where we see decreasing participation in many traditional social institutions, as well as a decreased trust in many forms of authority. This shift comes at the same time as new avenues for forging connection and community have disrupted old orders of social cohesion, as the internet, social media, and other new social spaces provide opportunities that didn’t or couldn’t have existed in the past. The church in North America no longer assumes the prominence it once did as a social institution, and culture no longer assumes the same shape. Nevertheless, people continue to seek out ways to build and maintain community in this new reality.
Dones were highly committed to the church,
they didn’t just drift away
Doubtless, there are many people who have simply drifted away from the church over time for a host of reasons, but these are not the Dones. One thing that characterizes the Dones is that they were deeply committed to the church right up until the time they left. Indeed, before leaving the church most Dones would have been counted as some of the most committed church members – people who served as board members, worship leaders, and even pastors before making their exit. When Dones finally did leave the church, they didn’t do so flippantly, but only because they saw no possible way to stay. Packard’s title of “Church Refugees” is apt in that it reflects the way in which the Dones, who considered church their home, eventually came to experience church as a hostile territory that they needed to flee from in order for them, and their faith, to survive. What’s more, it was not just a matter of Dones feeling that had to leave one toxic church, or one denomination (in that case they could just change churches), but that the whole of the religious system/structure no longer feels welcoming for them.
Dones continue to take their faith seriously,
they are not Nones or “Spiritual But Not Religious”
The reasons and experiences that have led the Dones to leave the church may be similar in some ways to some of those who have become Nones, including a specific subset of Nones who would say that they are Spiritual But Not Religious (or SBNR). The designation of SBNR describes people who in a very broad sense are open to spiritual growth and experience but who don’t feel the need to explore their spirituality within organized Religions. It’s important to note that being SBNR is not the selfsame thing as being a Done, even if there may be some superficial similarities. The thing to keep in mind is that Dones still say that they are Christians, unlike the broader spiritual seeking of the SBNR, who would not likely claim any specific religious identity. Dones may have come to reject the institutional church, but they continue to identify with the Christian faith. More importantly, they have left the church precisely so they can live out their faith in a more robust way.
In conclusion, the Dones represent the vanguard of people for whom existing church structures are no longer working. Even if these church structures continue to work for the majority of Christians, so long as they remain unchanged it is quite likely that the number of Dones will only continue to grow. This presents the church with a number of challenges and opportunities. This may be an era in which the church needs to take a look backward, to its roots, and forward, to its hopeful future. Listening to the Dones may help provide insight into the key values and traditions that the church has neglected even as we attune ourselves to the current cultural changes that will continue to shape our future. More on this in future posts.
More to read on the blog
- Pew Reserach http://www.pewforum.org/2013/06/27/canadas-changing-religious-landscape/
- For a more nuanced understanding of The Nones see the work of sociologist Reginald Bibby, including his paper “Nevers, Nones, and Nots” http://www.reginaldbibby.com/images/NNNpaper07.pdf, See also this video clip from the FMCIC – https://vimeo.com/183356524
- available online
- I will also be drawing upon an interview that I did with Josh in 2015. Watch the whole unedited interview for yourself here – https://youtu.be/acARQrlFb0k