The Dones: The Demographic the Church Ignored, Forgot, then Lost

Posted on February 24, 2015 in Theology by

walk away from churchScores of pastors in “hip” churches with trendy gimmicks and attractions can’t figure out why people seem to come, linger for a while, then leave. Yes, many of these churches are large – some have hundreds or even thousands of people each week – but they are an ever-revolving role of people that never seem to stick. Why?

Other pastors are having the same problem. The difference is that they oversee small, traditional churches that have “faithfully” held the ranks against any kind of change in their churches. Though younger generations disappeared, they comforted themselves with the knowledge that they were being “faithful” to their calling.

Two different churches with the same problem: people – both young and old – are leaving and not coming back.

This is not a traditional vs. modern church problem. This is a church problem; a Christian culture problem that transcends shallow differences like music and décor. Anyone that can’t see the reality that many people are simply walking away from the church needs to pull their head from the sand. The first thing we need to do is understand this group, then we can figure out why they are leaving.

Writing at Patheos, Mark Sandlin calls this particular group the “Dones.” Exactly what does that mean? Well, unlike the “nones,” or the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,” groups, The Dones are easily identified and understood. They are that group of formerly active and committed people in churches that have decided to walk away. Simply put, they are done with church.

The Dones are not composed of one generation. They are not merely the young that don’t like traditional churches, and they aren’t the older that don’t approve of modern church methods. They are a multi-generational group that were, at one time, core members of churches serving faithfully on a regular basis in every aspect of church life. And now, they are done.

Pastors and church leaders have wondered out loud and in private meetings why their churches are losing people and seeing others “not stick.” As they ponder this seemingly elusive answer the input of many soon-to-be Dones is ignored. Pastors and churches bent on keeping up traditions, structures, and rules have silenced the voices of many of their most loyal and faithful servants to the point that they walk away. And as they walk silently away from the church it is The Dones that are castigated as villains for “abandoning the church.”

But as Sandlin notes in his article at Patheos, this simply isn’t the case. The reality is that many current Dones don’t care about traditions, structures, and rules. They care primarily about people and community. The church, however, especially in recent decades, has done a lousy job of creating a place where authentic community can take place. Sandlin writes:

“The Church is killing spiritual community or at least killing it in an ever-growing portion of our population. The Dones’ experience with the Church killed their desire to ever go to that place of spiritual relationship in community again.”

This is how we know this isn’t a traditional vs. modern church problem – this is a church body problem. People from larger, more modern churches are walking away feeling like there is something missing after “the show” is over. Sure, going to a concert with 2,500 of your closest friends is awesome. But trying to worship through all of the lights and blaring guitar solos is trickier. And people at smaller, more traditional churches are trying to figure out how focusing on what people wear, and guilting those who don’t come Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night has to do with Jesus. (Didn’t the first church meet daily? Why don’t we do that?)

The Dones have been disillusioned with the glitz and glamor and with the legalistic stringency churches have offered in place of a genuine faith community that is willing to get messy for one another. The truth is, most churches, most Christians are not willing to get messy for one another. Don’t’ believe me? When was the last time during prayer meeting you heard someone stand up and confess his sins and ask for help repenting and making life changes?

Sandlin puts the weariness of The Dones into practical terms:

“Decades and centuries of rules, regulations, formal and informal expectations have created a quagmire of social ‘norms’ that have to be negotiated for doing even menial tasks as simple as using the church’s kitchen sink. Those who are willing to brave and navigate the obstacle course for the sake of getting things done ultimately (and understandably) burn out…That’s not community; that’s control. That’s not unconditional love; that’s playing games of politics and power. That’s not spiritual community; that’s abuse.”

He’s right. Far too many pastors and church leaders have exploited their congregations under the guise of being a “bible expert” only to be found guilty of abuse. We’re not just talking about sexual abuse; though there’s plenty of that going on. It’s no wonder people don’t trust Bible teachers and preachers like they once did, years of abuse and former victims speaking up have cast a dark shadow on the pulpit of our churches. And for what? Power? Money?

I have to confess that when I think back on things I taught and answers I gave to questions asked, I cringe. Not because I lied or intentionally led someone astray. I truly believed what I was teaching. I cringe because as I’ve learned and grown in my own sanctification I realize the undo burdens I placed on people through excess rules and regulations that have nothing to do with loving Jesus or being the church. I’ll give account for those things one day.

The truth is that the rise of The Dones is a clarion call to the church. The church is in danger of losing not just one generation, but whole generations if it continues on this destructive path. The church must admit that it has failed – in many ways – to foster the type of authentic faith community it was born to do. A community where honesty is valued and people – no matter what their sins – are welcomed and loved.

In response to Sandlin’s article, another article at Patheos sums up the churches’ failure clearly:

“[T]he church hasn’t simply failed to be something interesting or helpful.  It has failed to be what God intends for it.  Instead we have given ourselves to alien definitions that are the empty, small reinterpretations that have shaped the church over time: the church as one institution among others; a club to belong to alongside other clubs; a bureaucracy to be maintained; an agency for good works; and an incubator for amateur politicians. The only thing that can revitalize the church is to grasp its central purpose and then reevaluate what it does and is, discarding anything that cannot be justified on that basis and nurturing new ways of being that conform to that purpose.”

It’s sad to know many people think they can be better Christians without the church. This might be one of the most defining characteristics of The Dones. In this they are wrong. We were created to live in community with one another. The church was born from the death of Christ and must be viewed as a sacred gift of His life. But until the church cares more about being what it was meant to be – a living body of sinners living in community together for the purpose of sharing Jesus with a lost world – there is little hope for change. The importance of the church was captured in Sandlin’s article:

“Just look at Jesus. The very first thing he did when beginning his ministry was to intentionally form a spiritual community. In a healthy community we find support that would be impossible to give to ourselves. When we falter and struggle, those who are not struggling as much can be there to help hold us up. When we are doing well, we can offer the same support to others. As believers, spiritual journeys are so essential in our formation that they are wrought with difficulties, struggles and doubt – and they should be. We need community to guide us along the way.”

Churches where this is the culture will grow and thrive. Churches where “the show” or the traditions are most important will continue to see people leave. The true concern of pastors and church leaders will be made very clear in the next 10 years. If I’m right The Dones will be the fastest growing demographic – along with house churches – surrounding our churches unless churches change.

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