One of my delights in attending our denominational meeting (General Synod) every summer is the pre-Synod conference on evangelism sponsored by our denomination’s agency for church planting and revitalization, Outreach North America. When ONA was searching for a Director a couple of years ago I was actually tapped to help plan this conference with another Pastor for two straight years. I’d like to think this conference has been a benefit to our Pastors, Elders, and other ministry workers.
This past June, the speaker for this conference was Josh Packard, a sociologist and professor at the University of Northern Colorado and author of the well-received and challenging book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are Done With Church but Not Their Faith.
Packard is an evangelical Christian who is a very competent researcher and scholar in his field. It is a blessing to have someone like him in the academy who uses his vocation to also serve the church. His book is a service to the church, and it has been read and received by many denominational officials, church planting networks, conferences, etc.
What is Packard’s thesis? In recent years, sociologists have done much research about the rise of the ‘nones’, i.e. those who claim no religious affiliation. However, another group on the rise are the ‘dones’, i.e. those who were once part of a religious institution but who, for various reasons, now reject such institutions while still claiming ‘faith’ in their lives.
Packard gives helpful data on how this has affected the church in America and why churches need to be prepared to reach those in the pews who may be on their way out. While not a book trying to give theological or practical ministry advice to Pastors, Packard shared during our pre-Synod conference some wisdom on reaching the ‘dones’. His advice is somewhat standard and overlaps greatly with material from Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, Reggie McNeal, etc.
The interesting thing about Packard’s presentation was that he was speaking to a conservative, confession Presbyterian body. His material is well-received in more broadly evangelical circles, but confessional Presbyterians are markedly different from such evangelical groups. We come already with suspicions of church-growth movements, new techniques, or any “latest and greatest” fads.
However, Packard’s research is not a fad. It is good for any denomination seeking to be faithful to the Great Commission to listen to and receive helpful sociological data in order that we might be “all things to all people.” (1 Cor 9:22) While the ‘sociology talk’ probably shouldn’t be the topic every year at our pre-Synod conference on evangelism, it is a helpful discussion to bring up every 3-5 years.
Packard has done the church a great service in providing a piece of the ministry contextual mosaic which is before us the North American church. Now, it is up to Doctors of the church and Pastor-Theologians (i.e. Pastors in the local church who engage in rich theological reflection and dialogue for the sake of the church and the public square) to diagnosis the problem of the ‘dones’ and begin offering gospel-centered remedies.
While I agree with Packard and others that authenticity, community, servanthood, mercy ministry, etc. are important things for a church to consider in reaching to the ‘dones’ in their pews, it seems that a deeper problem exists which puts typical complaints about the church into the second tier. Namely, the American church has, for multiple generations, exponentially dichotomized commitment to Jesus and commitment to the church. If three decades ago evangelicals were debating whether Jesus was both Lord and Savior for a Christian, today the issue is whether commitment to Jesus as well as his church is what marks out a Christian.
If the local church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation,” (WCF 19.2) and that a professing Christian “can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother,” (Cyprian of Carthage) but we have grand bulk of professing Christians who think the opposite of these things, then perhaps Pastors need to revisit this problem of the ‘dones’ by discipling, preaching, catechizing his people about the intimate connection between Jesus and the church.
It is obvious that when Packard says that ‘dones’ may have abandoned the church without abandoning their faith that he is speaking from the standpoint of his academic discipline and also trying to differentiate the ‘dones’ from the ‘nones’. Yet, for Pastors in the parish trying to minister to ‘dones’ on the way out it is important to closely unite faith in Jesus to commitment to the local church.
Of all people, Derek Webb gets this point. The former Caedmon’s Call member turned to edgy CCM singer-song writer was divorced from Sandra McCracken (another well-known CCM artist) after he committed adultery. Since that time, Derek no longer attends a local church on a regular basis. When asked in an interview if Derek was one of the ‘dones’ who says no to the church but still yes to faith in Jesus, Derek pushed back and said that he has never encountered a legitimate, orthodox form of Christianity which would dichotomize Jesus from the church in such a fashion.
Here is someone who is saying no to the church but who pushes back Christians and non-Christians who might try to categorize him as a Christian. Webb’s music lyrics always indicated a deep, heavy theology, and he still seems to have better theological chops than most American Christians today.
The precise remedy for emphasizing ecclesiology and the union Jesus has with the church is difficult because discipleship isn’t mere cognitive addition. Just telling the ‘dones’ that to be done with the church is to be done with Jesus is never enough. They need to fall in love with the church in a way that imitates Jesus’ love for the church.
Pastors, Elders, ministry workers, and Doctors of the church need to band together to sift through important sociological data so that we might understand the times (1 Chron 12:32), but we also need to reimagine dischipship through the lens of a biblical ecclesiology. And, our ecclesiastical praxes need to align with our biblical ecclesiology.