Are “Dones” a Major Warning Sign for the Church?

By | March 10, 2015

Not long ago Thom Schultz published an article called “The Rise of the Dones“. This article, which has received a lot of attention, is brief and doesn’t contain a lot of meat. Yet I believe Schultz is getting at something important. Unfortunately, I’m not sure he does a great job of communicating why the “dones” are leaving church and what they are doing once they leave. I also feel that “done” may be a poor term which reinforces some misconceptions.

People have been leaving church for quite some time now. There has been a significant increase (as I understand it) of people who are religiously unaffiliated. This group has been labeled “nones”, as in no religious affiliation. The terms “done” is obviously a play on this. Unfortunately, in my opinion, “done” gives a very similar impression to “none” and I believe many will end up placing them in the same camp. However there is a significant difference in these groups. “Nones” are often those who were more on the fringe of religion to begin with. If they now have beliefs about God and spirituality, they are likely to be more open, general, and an amalgam of various of religious and popular ideas.

“Dones”, in contrast, had been the most involved and committed in their churches. They would be the “poster children” of their church. They grew up and embraced Christianity and the church. They have essentially orthodox beliefs and may well have been leaders in one way or another. These descriptions are of course generalities but hopefully helpful in getting a sense of who we are talking about.

“Dones” have been labeled done in describing them as done with church. However I feel this is problematic and, again, reinforces some misconceptions. At issue here is the meaning of church. In Western culture, we have ideas about church which are so deeply ingrained that I’d venture to say many people can’t conceive of anything outside these bounds. We think of a church as an organized (probably incorporated) group of Christians who are led by a clergy person (priest, pastor, preacher, etc.). This group meets at least once a week, normally on Sunday mornings, at some public building and performs a service led by the clergy member(s). And I dare say you won’t find a shortage of those who will argue that this is all what God ordained.

What is the deal with “nones” and “dones”? Why are people talking about this? What difference does it make? The church in the U.S. is highly troubled. I believe almost all church leaders are likely aware of this at some level, though no doubt many try to push it out of mind and would like to disagree with this proposition. I believe most church leaders are sincere and well intentioned. However, as mentioned, most of us Christians have grown up only seeing a certain kind of church and, having not been made aware of other alternatives, we assume that this is the only way church can possibly be.

On top of this, many church leaders are invested in perpetuating the status quo (intentionally or not). Unfortunately, many of the members who support the church institution are opposed to change. This puts church leaders in a bind. It’s been said that it is difficult to believe in something (in this case, the necessity of change) when your livelihood depends on not believing it. So churches make relatively insignificant changes to the worship service music or the look and feel of the sanctuary in an attempt to stem the tide of irrelevance. (Ironically, church attenders are sometimes quite upset by what are, in reality, insignificant changes.)

As I understand it, virtually every denomination and broad category of Christianity is experiencing declining church attendance and membership. Obviously there are some churches which are growing, but these tend to be taking members away from other churches. (Generally speaking, I believe mega-churches are more effectively church consolidations rather than growing through new believers.) The trend over recent decades has been either to large or small. In the past, people were more likely to be invested in their local church and denomination. The rise of the automobile and the shift to contemporary worship and an attractional model has meant the church which puts on the best show draws the largest gathering of Christians in their area.

As Schultz describes, “dones” are tired of the show. They are tired of powering the machine. They are tired of playing the game. They are frustrated by being unnecessarily tethered and held back by church leaders who want to ensure everything remains in control. (While we may not be consciously aware of it, this actually demonstrates a lack of trust in God.) They aren’t done with Christ or Christianity. They are just frustrated by the church machine.

I believe the problem is that church leaders, for the reasons mentioned above, almost can’t help but to have a negative reaction to “dones”. Now certainly there are people who leave church for ignoble reasons. But I believe the paradigm from which many church leaders are working from can’t allow the possibility of a Christian leaving church for a good reason. Think about it: if church is this organization I described above, and if we believe that being a part of Christian community (read: church) is an essential part of being a follower of Christ, then it can’t possibly be good for a Christian to be done with the Christian institution.

The reason I’ve taken so long to go into all this is because I’m afraid that church leaders could be missing and unable to see what may be an important warning sign. Think about it: if the church’s best, most committed members and leaders are leaving, and not because they’re losing their faith nor backsliding, then what are they doing? Mightn’t this be an important question to ask? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that they are still living out of their faith in God? And if they are, doesn’t it beg the question, “Why didn’t they feel able to do these things while in relationship with the church institution?” This brings us to the scary question, “Is it possible that the church was getting in the way of these most committed Christians fully expressing their faith?” I say this is a scary question because churches are built on the assumption that they help people connect with God. I recognize that I’m calling this very foundational assumption into question.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s possible that the “rise of the dones” is an indication that the church is missing the mark is some important ways. And this isn’t a problem that bringing a guitar and drums and Powerpoint into the worship service are going to solve.

Now let me go ahead and quickly point out some other things I believe. Many people still attend church, and I’m certain God is still working through churches. I’m convinced that churches as we think of them now will still be around for quite some time. Nevertheless, Christianity has already become largely irrelevant to our western culture. This needn’t be the case. But it is because too many people refuse to let go of the status quo, of tradition, of control, of security, of the numbers, of “being right”, etc. They are staying the course, even if doing so means sinking the ship. We can’t keep going as we are and think we’re being effective. It’s time to be honest about the trouble we’re in. I believe that we Christians have something—something true and worth believing in and following. However I’m concerned that we are too often getting in the way more than we are helping. I write because I don’t want to see us continuing to harm what we truly value.

Instead of “dones”, I believe “mores” would perhaps be a better label for this group as it communicates a differentiation from the “nones” rather than sounding similar to them. Also, I believe that many of them are done because they are seeking something more as I’ve described. In a real way, they are often going above and beyond traditional church rather than simply dropping out of active engagement. So I see “mores” as potentially heading in the opposite direction of “nones” rather than ultimately finding themselves on the same path.

To summarize, I think that some our fundamental paradigms about church got knocked off track centuries ago (most notably around the 4th century to be precise). I believe that church as we usually think of it will continue to slide into irrelevance though God will continue to work there too. It seems to me that Christianity’s best are leaving the traditional, institutional church because God is revealing its inadequacies. These “dones” are pursing Jesus, his ways and his community outside the church institution in a way which is more in line with God’s leading.

Here are a few other people’s thoughts on “dones”:

photo credit: Xerones via photopin cc

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