Terrell Hunt wanted no part of the church. He still believed in Jesus. He wanted to believe in the church.
But he just couldn’t.
Hurt by what he perceived as hypocritical church leaders and gossipy church members, Hunt left his church and spent two years wandering in a self-imposed church exile.
According to an article in The Washington Post reported from earlier this month, Hunt continued reading his Bible and prayed on his own during those two years. Yet he wondered if he would ever feel at home in church again.
Terrell’s story ends well. Thanks to a relatively new Washington DC-area church that prides itself on caring for those who have been wounded by the church, Terrell is a church orphan no longer.
Others who have been hurt or grown disenchanted by the church haven’t been so fortunate. NPR recently described a growing number of Christians who have left their local churches but not their Christian faith. Frustrated with their inability to express openly their doubts and questions concerning their spiritual beliefs, they’ve turned to podcasts like The Liturgists and Bad Christian where they can be more open.
The growing number of dechurched Christians has caught the eyes of publishers, too. The Washington Post article cited above notes there are currently four books on the topic now being published in a five-month span. A few years back blogger Micah J. Murray published a collection of stories from the dechurched, detailing why they left the church and the deep pain that has accompanied their departure.
Murray introduced the stories with this, “We are the children who learned fake smiles too early, who found all the right answers dissatisfying, who know what it’s like to sit in a pew with our hearts a thousand miles away. For us, Sunday morning is the loneliest hour of the week.”
For those of us who love the church, those stories are heart-breaking. Stories like this one below represent many of the others.
“The hardest part is that I feel like I have to do all this searching and seeking alone. I have questions that I’m terrified to ask because I don’t want to just be slapped over the head with a Bible and have various verses spewed at me. I can’t speak for the rest of my generation, but when it comes to church I just want to feel safe. It’s not always about rebelling, and I wish older generations could recognize and understand that.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Read the post and you’ll find story after story of people who felt they had to leave the church in order to find spiritual nourishment.
Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope call them church refugees (and “The Dones”) in their book of the same name. Church refugees are people who aren’t leaving the church because they want to relegate faith to a minor part of their lives. In fact, just the opposite, many are leaving the church because they believe they can’t thrive spiritually within a local church.
“Refugees are people who’ve been forced from their homes—where they’d prefer to stay—for fear of persecution,” Packard and Hope write. “That, in a nutshell, describes the dechurched. They feel they’ve been forced to leave a place they consider home because they feel a kind of spiritual persecution and it would dangerous, spiritually, for them to remain. They tell stories of frustration, humiliation, judgment, embarrassment, and fear that caused them to leave the church. They remark time and again that they worked diligently for reform within the church but felt the church was exclusively focused on its own survival and resistant to change. If they stayed, they would risk further estrangement from their spiritual selves, from God, and from the religion they still believe in.”
Why did the dechurched leave?
Trying to dissect why these “church refugees” left isn’t easy. You can’t easily pigeonhole them into any one category. But here are a few broad reasons they’ve abandoned the church.
- They’ve been hurt by the church. Sometimes it’s people who have been abused by church leaders. Other times it’s people who have had a bad experience with a fellow parishioner. Regardless, they no longer believe the church is a “safe” place for them.
- They’ve felt unwelcome by the church. They’ve had the guts to talk openly about what they believe. As they’ve opened up, they’ve been castigated. They’ve been told their beliefs are incompatible with the Bible and church teachings, and it would be best if they didn’t bring them up anymore. Sometimes the feedback has been even worse.
- They’ve felt the church was irrelevant, or even harmful, to their relationship with God. This probably hurts those of us serving in church leadership most of all. We understand the unique and essential role God designed the church to have in spiritual formation. But many of the dechurched say they couldn’t grow within the institutional church. Worse yet, they say the church was harmful to their spiritual growth. One of the stories Murray posts on his blog said it like this: “My lifetime of church experience drove me away from Jesus. In the wilderness alone I really experienced him. Religion was found in the church. All man-made junk, and little of Jesus. I wanted Jesus, and found him.”
- They’ve encountered hypocrisy in the church. We tend to laugh this one off. These days we make a meme about it and post it on Facebook. Don’t come to church because of hypocrites? Don’t worry. We’ll make room for one more. But smart alecky comebacks mask the true problem. The dechurched didn’t leave the church just because Christians’ actions didn’t match up with their lives. For the most part, they left because Christians wouldn’t admit the dissonance.
Of course, there are many other reasons people leave the church. Some reasons hold up to scrutiny; others hide something much deeper. And, let’s be honest, sometimes what’s offered is a rationalization for a reason that isn’t quite as admirable.
How can we engage them?
The ranks of the dechurched grow every year. One Barna study says nearly 6 out of 10 millennials who grew up in the church will abandon it. Churches that can’t reach the dechurched won’t grow in the coming years.
Hyperbole? Hardly. Packard and Hope assert they may be the key to reaching another demographic—one that’s even growing faster than the dechurched, the unchurched.
“In many respects, then, the Dones and the almost Dones are the strongest bridge to the Nones,” Packard and Hope write. “They’re the ones most likely to come into regular contact and be in community with those who have never been to church. What story are they going to tell about the church? Will they communicate a version of church that reaches out to engage people in conversation, community, and causes? Or will they tell a story of a church that exists primarily to perpetuate itself? Will the church be there with them when they encounter the Nones and others in their communities? Or will the church be standing on the sideline, admonishing them for leaving? Church leaders have an opportunity right now to shape that conversation and the future of the church.”
So if the stakes are that big, what can your church do to better engage the dechurched in your community? Or, better yet, what can your church do to re-engage the soon-to-be dechurched in your own congregation?
- Allow them to express themselves. The dechurched don’t expect you to agree with them on every point of doctrine and practice, but they do expect you to let them ask questions without shutting them down. They want the opportunity to have a conversation on topics even if they don’t hold to the party line. A lady named Meghan, one of the women Packard and Hope interviewed for the Church Refugee book, left the church because she didn’t believe that most of the churches where she had attended really appreciated honest dialogue. She said, “They were only interested in my questions so they could answer them, and they thought they had all the answers.” Packard, a trained sociologist, notes that stifling discussion by either not respecting the questions people ask or not allowing for dissent kills any hope of a church developing meaningful community.
- Preach boldly. The dechurched aren’t looking for wimpy preaching that doesn’t engage truth either. Even if they have their doubts about some elements of historic Christian orthodoxy, they want to hear what the Bible teaches—not just fuzzy illustrations. Mark Batterson, known for his ability to speak truth to the unchurched and dechurched, described his own preaching style like this, “We’re pretty straight up in the way we communicate from scripture—we don’t pull punches—but we also try to bring a little bit of creativity to bear in branding those series in a way that wouldn’t just appeal to the people sitting in our church but encourage them to invite their unchurched friends.”
- Forget cool. Dechurched people see beyond the slick. To them slick is simply one more reminder that you care more about attracting people than following the hard truths of Jesus. This fits with a broader movement in North America away from the church’s longtime obsession with “cool.” Toronto pastor Carey Nieuwhof calls the morphing of “cool church” one of the six key church trends of 2017. Why? The unchurched (and dechurched) who aren’t flocking to our churches these days aren’t staying away for aesthetics. They’re not “into church” no matter how cool your music, preaching, or building is. For the dechurched, skip slick and pursue authenticity instead.
- Be honest. The dechurched aren’t expecting perfection, but they do want you to be honest about your failures. When you mess up, own up to it. Also, make sure you haven’t developed a list of “pet sins” your church condemns while overlooking others. The dechurched know their Bibles. They also know when you’re blind to parts of God’s Word.
The Terrell Hunts of our communities are growing in number. Some have left the church because of hurt. Others have left the church because of irrelevancy. Still others have grown tired of hypocrisy. Many are reading their Bibles, seeking God, and looking for authentic Christian community (which, by the way, is the number one part of church the dechurched say they miss).
That means you can reach them—if you’re willing to make the tough choices to do so.
Although all generations make up this growing exodus from our churches, millennials are leading the way. (Remember, 6 of 10 are saying adios to the church at some point in their lives.) For more information about how your church can better reach your community’s millennials, read the free ebook How to Engage Millennials.