Late last summer there was an article in the Huffington Post titled “Are you Fed Up with Church? 30 Million Say Yes!” The Writer, Patrick Vaughn, is a Presbyterian Minister and the article summarized the findings of research by Dr. Josh Packard. The full report by Dr. Packard is available from Group Publishing for $25.00. Vaughn’s article can be accessed here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-vaughn/are-you-fed-up-with-churc_b_7941012.html
I wish I could say that I was shocked by the article, but I’m not. Other research—such as the Pew survey of American religious life– confirm similar results: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
But the Huff Po article does more than report weal and woe; Vaughn pulls out two lessons from Packard’s study that can be helpful for congregations desiring to be an exception to the rule of decline. The study is basically an exit interview on a mega-scale, finding out why those who are “done” with churches (plus those headed for the exit at the time they were surveyed) are walking away.
Vaughn says, “the Dones are not giving up on God. They are giving up on an institution.” Parenthetically, this contrasts with my own first-hand observations (which are vastly more limited, and confined to my politically liberal college town setting). Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with the majority of people who’ve left my congregations, and the largest single cause has been loss of religious belief; people’s beliefs changed from Theist to Atheist or Agnostic, and they felt incongruent in a Christian worship setting. But again, this is apparently not the case on a larger scale national-scope survey; the broader majority left their churches while still identifying as believers in God.
The first major reported cause for being ‘done’ with church was failure to experience deep and meaningful community. The people surveyed wanted very much to be part of a group, where they belonged, were supported by others, and were connected to other church members in substantial ways—and they were largely disappointed by the lack of such experiences.
The second reason for the disappointment of the Dones was the failure of churches to engage them in activities that were of value to the larger world. While churches were eager to solicit volunteers, the content of volunteer activities was focused on institutional maintenance, such as committees, classes, work days and etc. that were purposed for the continuation of the congregation. In other words, churches were internally focused, rather than seeking to better their cities or planet.
This survey of those leaving churches can be useful for those of us still active in churches insofar as they suggest a dual focus of our energies. There are manifold aspects of church life, and proponents and enthusiasts of each aspect can make good case why more effort be expended in their sphere of interest (I recently blogged in this forum suggesting the neglected importance of contemplative spiritual disciplines). Looking at the big picture of Dr. Packard’s work, it behooves us to focus on two things: building community, and encouraging participation in social action.
Efforts at building community within a church are sometimes disparaged as “social club,” with the insinuation that they are less valuable than “spiritual” or worship events. This survey suggests that they are, however, essential for continuity of healthy congregations. Worship itself can be re-designed to foster community; by seating people facing toward one another, inviting lay members to share the rites and symbolic actions of worship, inviting prayers from the congregation, framing the sermon as more of a dialogue, and so on. Likewise, all other activities of a church—small groups, classes, and even the dreaded committees—can be re-designed to facilitate fellowship. And activities that smack of “social club” such as dinners for eight, or amateur talent night, or microbrew tasting (for the hipster church) should perhaps be elevated to more valued status.
It’s good news for UCC churches that people wish to be involved in activities that better society. Our churches are premier social justice centers, and even our small congregations tend to be outward-focused. Perhaps we can refine this area of our expertise? Rather than simply posting meetings for the homeless, racial justice, refugee advocacy and so-on, make sure that every notice is an invitation with the clear message that newcomers are welcomed and encouraged to participate. And when mobilizing, make sure that new volunteers can be incorporated into ongoing projects with the least possible amount of hurdles to jump (accountability and safety are always paramount—but sometimes we have rules that are just unnecessary barriers for new participants).
In this age of church decline, it’s a valuable gift knowing that there are ways to make the church exits less appealing. By shoring up our ministries of community-building and mission, we can lessen the flow of members toward the exits and strengthen the Body of Christ.