Review: Church Refugees

Church Refugees:
Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not with faith
by Ashleigh Hope and Josh Packard, Group, 2015

Reviewed by Wayne Matheson

Do you know that thought you have that something is going on; you have your own suspicions or ideas…and then you read something and have one of those ‘aha’ moments? I had seen, heard others talking, and wondered about the stories that lie behind statistics…for it seemed to me I was becoming aware of a group of people who had been activity engaged in the church, and then left. They still had faith…just that they were done with church. Can you identify with that? Either way – I think this book should be on your read list; part of your book club list; part of your church council book list. Only 140 pages long it is made to be read and discussed!

Yes – this is a North American book. Rather than a focus on statistics – it tells stories. It uses sociological research to get to the heart issues. It collects data from interviews. This is not from those with no religious affiliation – rather from people who have faithfully served in local churches for years. Now they are Done.

It is a book about Dones. These Dones share a number of things. Chapter one outlines these. They had all been heavily involved in church life, some in paid staff positions. They loved the church enough to be committed to seeing it become all it had the potential of being. Yet along the journey the cost of keeping up that energy against institutional structures eventually become too high. There are features in common in their stories. High on the list is a desire for community. The Dones wanted their churches to be places where people connected in meaningful ways. This was more than some small group program – but was the place where people actually connected. Related to this is a commitment to authenticity. They wanted to be themselves. They wanted to talk about their questions and differences, yet felt they had to tow the line to demonstrate allegiance or face implicit or explicit judgments being made about them. The Dones had a bias toward action both inside and outside the church. They want faith to matter, in making a difference in people’s lives. In their view, the church was often only interested in a program when it aided and supported of the church. Nothing else seemed to matter.

Those who left church (we read their stories in chapters 2-5) were not likely to do so because of theological differences but because they were not allowed a safe place to discuss differences. They noted there was therefore no authentic community. In the end the cost of remaining become too great. They become church refugees.

Having reached chapter 6, I was ready for some light shining at the end of the tunnel! Headed invitingly ‘Being the Church no one wants to leave’ – it explores strategies to encourage re-engagement. This is not about some prescriptive set of boxes to tick – rather it is about how to learn and create some productive practices.

The final chapter explores Church for the de-churched. Looking at refreshed belief systems; community; meaningful activity; preventing an exodus; and domino effect. The point is clearly and powerfully made ‘The de-churched are leaving to do more, not less. The church is not asking too much of people; it is asking the wrong things of them.’

In reading the book, I was struck with the notion that the denial of authenticity may have an exponential cost. Each step that moves away from that deep longing of true community magnifies the ones that have gone before. It has the effect of creating a deeper longing for that one community that meant so much.

I also noted that the people in this book were honest about their struggles. They had a vision of what the church could and should be and worked hard to make that happen. In the end, the costs to them were too great to bear. The organisation or institution of the church was not open to them. They left the institutional church. They found new ways of being in authentic community, of having theological conversations, of sharing life together, and of impacting the world around them.

One of my takeaways from the book is to ponder how many ‘near refugees’ exist in local congregations. How many people are ‘one more thing’ from making the decision to be done?

Yet in all this, the authors are clear: the church is not going away. The church will persist and move forward. Yet, there is nothing that guarantees that the church must play a significant and influential role in society. The response to the de-churched – the Dones – may well impact the vitality of the church in the years to come.

2 thoughts on “Review: Church Refugees

  1. When you have personally travelled this journey and you decide you want to walk away from it all, if you seek from the “Spirit” so gifted to all of us, the right answer, you will hear your Creator God say clearly to you, no matter how humble your “calling,” – – – “I Am”- – – I ordained you!” not them! ”
    Just get on with what “I” have created you to be and do!”


  2. I read this book and found it most useful. For me the key learning for the New Zealand church is that we do not discuss differences. It is difficult to maintain friendships and contact with people with a different theological and political perspective. This is what according the authors one of the things the “Nones” found difficult about the church and left. If we are keep people as part of the church we need to encourage diversity.and welcome differences with open arms.


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