Thursday, June 18, 2015

Dechurched: "The Done-s"

In Church Refugees, Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope have written a ground breaking analysis of the "dones," those who are done with church but not with God. These folks are not dropping the Christian faith- just their affiliation with churches. The book does introduce us to the Dones, and more importantly, what we can begin to learn from them.  

The study summarizes the themes that coalesced from 100 in depth interviews. Interviewees were of all ages over 25, included laity, former church staff members, and clergy. This is not a book about numbers, but rather, a "description of the processes people go through when they decide to leave the church, what they do when they leave, and what they ultimately want out of church."
Who are the Dones? They are reluctant to leave, and try many churches before leaving church altogether. They are not angry, nor are they driven by one negative experience. Authors discovered, "almost without exception," that they were "deeply involved and devoted to their churches up until the moment they left. They were integrated into leadership structures and church life, often organizing daily life around the church and attending some kind of church function two or more times a week. They're the kind of people who are drawn to activity." 
What do the Dones really want? Community based on authentic relationships is an overriding theme of the dechurched who were interviewed. In fact after leaving the church, the dechurched will go to great lengths to find genuine community, but they will not put up with any of the judgment they may have felt in church. The interviewees consistently said they left church because it's set up to be self-sustaining rather than outward looking. The cause was not theology, the worship service, or irrelevant message. Those are reasons people switch churches, not the reasons why they leave church altogether. (p.135)
The Dones also want:
  • More participation as equals in church decision making
  • More ministry with (not for) others in the church and community
  • Flatter hierarchy, less emphasis on organizational control  
Why do the dechurched matter? Once churches begin to lose their most devoted and engaged members, then they will also lack relevance for anyone who is looking for a more active and engaged faith. The same structures that work for the larger segment of the less engaged folks in congregations DO NOT work for the most active. In fact, this arrangement is what's driving the most devoted away. 
Where do the dechurched go? They move to things that "look nothing like the activities that consume the traditional church. They move onto community gardens, art therapy, meals in living rooms around a communal table, internet chat rooms, and quilting groups. Nobody...mentioned replacing church with a worship service or with a sermon series or with committee work. They are replacing church with meaningful activities that engages their communities and builds relationships, things they find missing in church." 
Suggestions for preventing an exodus take up the last part of the book. Most of the strategies address the need to make room for those who are at risk of leaving, the most active, engaged, and devoted. Working together on short term ministry projects like VBS- things that have a beginning and end (and are not on-going or self-perpetuating) can go far in utilizing gifts of leadership and passion of others. Whatever the parallel to Google's 20% time, "the data about the dechurched suggests that it makes sense to devote some organizational resources to provide an outlet for the church's most ambitious congregants."     
One of the more helpful insights is the critique of how we spend our resources. The dechurched saw the Sunday morning gathering as a huge resource hog. Sacred cow?  "The problem is in claiming a missional and outreach focus, or a teaching and small group focus, when the vast majority of resources are spent elsewhere. From an organizational standpoint, this lack of understanding means, functionally, that it is very difficult to make room for worship, small groups, and outreach." Or it's much easier said- and included in mission frames- than actually done.   
This is an important book because, until now, there existed scant research on the dechurched as a category all its own. While numbers are just beginning to show, most research has lopped the dechurched into the same category of the unchurched, or Nones. See for example, Churchless.

What's more, there's an integrity between the focus and rationale for the book. Instead of one more book about capturing the youngest adult generation to feed the institutional machine, it's more about what we can learn from seasoned Christians on the other end of all our assembly line  like schemes for discipleship. If what we are left with is more dechurched, then there's something inherently misguided in our approach, and with the structures that result in more Dones.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Whatever Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger- really?

God, save me from ministry- by- slogan
Even if these words of Nietzsche function as an encouragement for some, their actual truth is debatable. Too, the phrase is not necessarily helpful to anyone who does not gain strength from trauma.  

Because trauma is stored in the body's memory, the "limbic loop," one does not just "get over it." Repeated head trauma does not make the brain stronger but rather, it can severely and permanently disable it with certain dementias.
Hyper- vigilance can be a lingering effect of surviving traumatic events. Hyper- vigilance places the body in default fight or flight mode. Hans Selye, the endocrinologist who pioneered the physiological basis of the stress response, concluded that stress hormones do not strengthen the body but weaken it. With the body on regular high alert, panic attacks break through- seemingly out of nowhere.   
There's a thoughtful post in support of this quote, suggesting that, while Post Traumatic Growth is possible, it is not automatic. We have to choose to engage practices in order to heal. Even then, there is not one practice that works for everyone with the same results. Anything can make us stronger, but only if we let it.

Malcom Gladwell, in David and Goliath, discusses the impact of the many near misses during the London Blitzkrieg of W.W. II. For Londoners who began to realize that their chances of surviving the next bombing were actually good, the repeated bombings had the opposite effect of empowering, rather than weakening, the resolve of the surviving population.

Nietzsche wasn't a medical professional, therapist, or spiritual counselor, but rather a philosopher and son of a Lutheran clergyman. I would seriously question using these words anecdotally or as a substitute for the hard work of recovery. We do well to remember that recovery from trauma is not a given, nor is it easy. And it certainly does not come from the slogans gleaned from dead philosophers. 


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Recovery: You had those ruby slippers all along

Spiritual awakening-- made possible by a loving God
Ever since Dorothy's farmhouse landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy had the vaunted ruby slippers- and the way home- already available to her.

She could have returned home anytime she wanted, good witch Glinda finally revealed. It would have made for a very short movie if Glinda had divulged earlier. 

Half asleep, we mouth affirmations and sing those songs with their baby pablum-like words that loop around without end.  Does it all function as the counterpart of wearing the mysterious slippers? Are we totally unaware of the gift and possibility they bring?

We go back to find our way home, because it's in the beginning that God created us in God's image and likeness. There nothing to be added or deleted to make that any more - or less- true. This was true when God called us out darkness into light and life, and it is true to this moment.   
A beautiful parallel to this affirmation in the Gospel is when Jesus declares that we are light. He doesn't say we have to get something else, be someone else, or out- do everyone else in order to be light. John Claypool, the well known Southern Baptist turned Episcopalian author and preacher, once wrote, "It ... dawned on me that the secret of life is not getting something from the outside by achieving and competing. It is, rather, getting what is already inside outside by acceptance and self- giving."  
Maybe we have heard more about how we do not measure up, how we need to be more like someone else, how we are not worthwhile without something more to do or be. We can easily exhaust ourselves through reacting to others, people pleasing, placating others, and needing to be needed.
We may think we can fix and heal the sick and needy people in our life. But being focused entirely on others blinds us to our own gifts and needs, even our flaws. Instead, we move farther away from self awareness and acceptance. Those traits only obscure the way home.

The core of the Gospel is, now and always, God's acceptance of us, the way to our true and best self, the ruby slippers we had overlooked all along. We can start the journey now and don't have to wait for the end of the movie, like Dorothy did.     

Oldies but Goodies