In my role as the Director of Church Publishing at Group, I spend a considerable amount of time chatting with pastors, denominational leaders, and church trend watchers.
About five years ago, I’d say that most of my conversations centered around whether churches in America were actually in a state of decline. Then, about three years ago, those conversations shifted to focusing on how fast are churches declining and what’s causing the decline.
As for my conversations now, the finger-pointing has essentially stopped. Many pastors I speak with are simply resigned to the fact that their church is in irreparable descent and, regardless of the cause or culprit, there’s not a lot that can be done except hold out for retirement or reassignment.
Or is there?
In June 2015, Group published a book by sociologists Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope called Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. After sifting through hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews, Packard and Hope concluded there were four primary reasons why people are leaving the American church in droves:
- They are seeking community but have found judgement.
- They want to make a difference but have found church bureaucracy stifling.
- They want to have a conversation but have experienced only lecture.
- They don’t encounter God at church.
Millions of these “dones” are walking out of churches in search of something they simply feel can’t be found within our institutional walls. So where do they go? Have they lost their faith? And will they ever come back to church?
The answers to those questions may surprise you.
According to Packard and Hope, most dones are finding the community they were looking for. And, they haven’t lost their faith – they often say that they’re in active pursuit of more authentic ways to experience Jesus.
As for whether they’ll be back, that answer may encourage or discourage you based on how you define “church”.
According to the research, most dones will not return to the institutional church. It’s not that they have a particular disdain for the local church; they actually appreciate the important role that the church plays. They just feel that their spiritual and relational needs cannot be satisfied in a traditional church setting.
Rather than expending energy on trying to find ways to get the dones back in the box, maybe we should prayerfully be considering ways to think outside the box.
Reaching the Dones
Back in 2010, we launched a highly relational (out of the box) outreach ministry called Lifetree Café. Lifetree Café is a weekly, one-hour, host-led experience that addresses a plethora of thought-provoking and relevant topics in a coffeehouse-style setting. Group provides the presentation and training materials via a monthly subscription delivered online. Churches or faith-based organizations typically sponsor these Lifetree Café ministries in existing church spaces appointed to look like a coffeehouse or at offsite locations like community centers, secular coffeehouses, wine bars, pubs, or cafes.
Many pastors have found Lifetree Café to be a much more economical and sustainable model than planting a church. We now have hundreds of Lifetree Cafes located in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.
When we first started launching Lifetree Café branches, we felt that this ministry would most likely appeal to people who had little or no experience with church. What we actually found was that most of the people coming into Lifetree Cafés had a considerable amount of church experience. In fact, many of our participants talked about growing up as regular attenders or even serving in leadership roles within the church. At some point in their journey, they just decided that church wasn’t for them. They were done.
Unintentionally, we had stumbled upon a ministry model that was attractive to people who were seeking community without judgment, free from bureaucracy, where they could ask questions and share doubts, and experience God in fresh, new ways.
The dones aren’t the only ones to which Lifetree Café appeals. We found that spiritually mature Christians enjoy their experience at Lifetree as well because it provides them a natural way to share their faith in a setting that encourages spiritual conversations. For the first time, people of all walks and beliefs can come together each week to grow in relationship with each other…and with Jesus.
For any church leader who may be reading this blog post and wondering what to do about the decline of their attendance, I’d like to quote the famous poet Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There are amazing opportunities for ministry in today’s ever-changing, postmodern climate. It just may not perfectly match how you thought ministry is supposed to look.
The most critical tool in your toolbox is your willingness to consider change. I’m not talking about abandoning the foundations of the Christian faith, but I am challenging you to look objectively at whether or not the foundations that we’re often guilty of protecting are more self-serving than Jesus-centered. It’s when you focus on exploring any means possible to help people encounter Jesus that the doors of opportunity swing wide open.