Dissecting the Dones

Posted on August 20, 2015

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The Dones are not a Reality TV family. They are an ever-growing group of people who no longer attend church, nor do they want to any time soon.

A host of articles have been written in the past 18 months looking at and analyzing this group.

The analysis is being done both by the “Dones” themselves and by those who do not want them to be done: i.e. church leaders. In these reports on the reasons Dones have left church, there are 7 reasons mentioned most commonly:

  • The church is too judgmental
  • Church leadership stifles creativity and personal expression
  • Lecture style of preaching is not the style Dones want
  • Their church’s stand on some doctrine or political stance differed from theirs
  • They find authentic experiences of God more often outside of church life
  • The church is unbending on certain moral issues the Dones consider complicated
  • They were hurt by people in more than one church setting

Well-known Christians now count themselves among the Dones. Heralded fiction writer Anne Rice wrote this a few years ago:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Donald Miller, author of the best-selling “Blue Like Jazz” was less harsh, but just as “done”, with his admission he was no longer attending church:

It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through…How do I find intimacy with God if not through a traditional church model? The answer came to me recently and it was a freeing revelation. I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him.”

Rob Bell, a former pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan has announced that he will be a regular contributor to the Oprah Network. He was quoted as saying that if the church does not embrace homosexual marriage, it will become meaningless and a byword in history. He went on to say,

“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,”

After saying this, Bell was so thoroughly castigated and disapproved, he willingly joined the ranks of the Dones. And he encouraged others to do the same.

I have taken a long time to dissect the inner workings of the “Dones” I know personally. Several of these are my closest friends and associates and  a couple are close family  members. So, I believe I am accurate in my findings.

Underneath the stated reasons that people have left church behind are factors that seem to unite this disparate group of people. I believe that even though these factors cannot possibly be universal–after all, there will always be unique reasons why people make certain decisions–I believe they represent the vast majority of Dones.


Unmet Expectations

This factor is easy to identify, for you will find it underlying any decision to be done with a relationship. A person has a reasonable expectation the relationship was going to go one way, and it ended up somewhere not as good. In this case, the relationship is between each individual Done and the local churches they have been part of.

Author Frank Viola, in his book “Pagan Christianity” claims there is only one authentic New Testament expression of Christianity: That is the one found in the 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians. I won’t break down that chapter or his argument, but his assertion is a good case in point concerning my idea that people leave church because of unmet expectations.

Viola is one of modern Christianity’s most vocal critics. Some would even say he led the original vanguard of the Dones (though he would likely dispute that on grounds he never left the church. He just redefined it).

Viola believes in the “pure” New Testament model of the Corinthians. However, the 14th chapter has to be placed in its context. For thirteen chapters, Paul has been criticizing the Corinthians for partisanship, greed, immorality, homosexual practices, the rich exploiting the poor within the church, pagan practices, loud public arguments between leaders: In short, he describes a church that few of us would ever want to join or stay with. But in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul commends them for the way they conduct their public meetings. They allow more than one person to teach. They invite participation from non-leaders, the music is intimate and communal, and the style is more free-flowing than modern churches embrace. The gifts of the Spirit are obvious and manifest and the Body of Christ seems to be functioning properly.

But though Paul commends them for this, the rest of their “junk” makes this group appear very dysfunctional, no matter how great their public gatherings appear.

If you study the letters of Paul, you find a Christianity disjointed, rebellious, given to cultic behavior and beliefs, rife with sectarian infighting and openly immoral. There is nothing about the first century church that would lead any of us to be satisfied with the Christianity they had over that of our present day. Paul in his letters even toyed with taking his own life and at the very least said he wasn’t averse to the idea of God taking him home early.

What I’m saying is that Christians since the first year of the church have felt this disappointment when their expectations of what the Church should be are not met with reality. But church history shows us a curious pattern: most great changes in the history of the church happened because someone got discouraged and said “I’m Done”.

Martin Luther said it many times. So did Ulrich Zwingli, Count Von Zinzendorf, William Tyndale, Samuel Rutherford, Charles Finney, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Aimee Semple McPherson, A. B. Simpson, Billy Graham, John Calvin and C. S. Lewis. All of these saw the Church as it should be and then compared the Church to what it was in their day and decided they didn’t want to keep going the way they were. Some, like Martin Luther, A. B. Simpson and John Wesley started new churches. Some like Zinzendorf, Zwingli and Tyndale just lived their life the best way they could and changed their world even though they weren’t plugged into the church. Others such as Finney, Rutherford and Billy Graham learned to come back into the church and help her change.

It just shows me that there are many ways to handle the disappointment of Unmet Expectations. But there is another factor that goes deeper than this. As I have written in the past, I hope the Dones will eventually give us something that can help modify and change today’s church into something better.


Pain and Resentment

John Bevere calls Resentment “The Bait of Satan.” When we are hurt by others, that hurt lasts for only a particular length of time. It has a shelf life. But if we entertain resentment for how we are hurt, then the pain does not stop. At times, the pain can take a life and a destiny all its own.

Gordon Sinclair was a newspaper reporter of some renown in Canada. He also was a recognized leader in his Church and denomination. In 1969, he announced to the world that he was done with the church, done with Christ and done with religion. From that day, he became a vocal opponent of Christianity and sought at every turn to point out the mistakes and sins of the church. What made him so vitriolic?

Sinclair joined the staff of a famous Canadian television program “Front Page Challenge.” It is through this medium that most Canadians came to know him. At one point in every show, the panel was asked questions about their personal life. (It was a news program designed to look like a game show). On one of those programs, Sinclair was asked why he hated Christianity so much.

He hesitated for a few moments and then launched into his explanation. In the late 1950s, he and his wife lost their only daughter to a debilitating disease. After this happened, he said, members of his church in Toronto barraged him with pat answers, phony good cheer and other nonsense. His pastor just wanted him to learn how to move through the grief into “victory”. After several years of this, Sinclair decided to stop attending church. That is when his denomination and friends who went to church turned on him. (This is his telling of the story of course).

He admitted he was bitter and resentful over all that happened. He resented God for taking his daughter, he resented the church for telling him to get over it, and he resented his Christian community for criticizing his decision to stop attending church.

Many of those who leave church and are “done” report some of these same feelings. So many of the Dones that I know grew up in conservative, almost legalistic, churches. In today’s church climate–and maybe it has always been this way–people feel very free to comment on each other’s mistakes, setbacks, family problems and life choices. Christians feel justified to do this since we use words like “body”, “family” and “community” to describe our church life. Inherent in those words are the implication that we should be able to be forthright and brutally honest. If you give that many people that many opportunities to comment on your life choices, you can be sure some of their opinions will cut to the core.

I know a Christian couple where one spouse was unfaithful. The other one decided they did not want to be married any longer. That is their choice and it really is no one else’s business. However, the rest of their Christian circle has adopted it as their mission to save the marriage. This hurts my friend and they have told me they are “done” with church.

But the pain is one thing: Resentment is another. Pain is inevitable, but resentment is a choice. If a Done can be hurt and eventually move on without resentment, they will eventually play some role in God’s quest to renew and change his church. But if resentment seeps into the core of the soul, there is little chance of recovery.


The Move Away from Classical Orthodoxy

A close friend of mine, a pastor, told me he no longer believes God will send anyone to hell. We call this belief Universalism, and for centuries it was considered outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. An estimate was made that a full 40% of those who attend evangelical churches now are Universalists in doctrine.

A recent study done by Christianity Today revealed that 25% of pastors now support Gay Marriage. When asked if they would openly support it, only 1 out of every 25 said yes. Obviously, this has not been the historic belief of the church.

The numbers vary, but it is commonly believed that the majority of Christians do not hold to a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, including details like Creation, the Flood, the Egyptian Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the Fall of Man into sin. Curiously, many of the people who do not believe in the literal translation of the Bible still believe in miracles, prayer, the Voice of God and the Resurrection of Jesus.

What this shows me is that classical doctrine has now become a hometown buffet. As Christians today read through the Bible, listen to sermons and watch Christian movies and television, they are instinctively taking the doctrines they want and leaving the ones they don’t. This may be one of the most important underlying factors in why so many people are Done.

How did this doctrinal soup happen?

I will probably write another article in the coming weeks on all the factors that led up to this, but let me mention the one most responsible in my opinion. The universality of the Internet has made the sheer number of doctrinal opinions on every issue too many to grasp. I read a ton of articles every month related to the doctrine and practice of the Christian Faith. And it is hard for me, even with my Theology degree, to adequately interact with all I am hearing. I can imagine what it is like for people who have limited knowledge of the Bible when they encounter this barrage of opinions on every doctrine and practice.

Two years ago, I wrote an article on evangelicals and their beliefs on premarital sex. In that article, I pointed out that certain biblical questions still remain about premarital sex. It’s not as cut and dry as most Youth Pastors–and the parents of their teens–would like it. I quoted several contemporary Christian writers who talked about their own struggles to remain chaste in the middle of a culture that believes all sex is good if both parties are consenting adults. What made it hard for these authors is that the majority of their 20-something Christian friends were openly sexual. It is hard to feel you are the last person holding up a tent pole as the tent begins to collapse.

What effect did this trend have on the Dones? First, since most Evangelical churches are known for taking dogmatic stances on core beliefs, if you struggle to accept any of the core beliefs of Christianity you will feel ostracized from your church. Second, if you practice Christianity differently than others, often because of these differing belief systems, you will hesitate to hang around with people who may condemn the way you’re living. And third, there are many people in this world who do not go to church who are willing to accept the way you’re living while you’re sorting out your beliefs. Many of these people are nice, moral and easy to get along with.

Every time the church has focused on a particular facet of living to condemn, those who practice those things are “Done” with the church. In the late 1800s it was drinking alcohol. In the 1970s it was divorce. In the 1980s, it was premarital sex. Smoking, doing drugs, missing church, provocative clothing, swearing, declaring bankruptcy are all practices that have caused churches to shun their members.

In today’s church, if you believe in a woman’s right to choose an abortion, are sex-positive, believe that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex, support gay marriage–any of these will bring harsh reactions from church leaders.

This is the reason that Anne Rice and Rob Bell both became Dones.

I am not saying that the church should refrain from commenting on how people are living. I am not making any kind of judgment either way on that issue. Each church needs to decide what they believe and how they will communicate that to their members. What I am saying is that as church members realize there are millions of people who love Jesus and don’t believe what their church believes, they get discouraged. They realize that unless they adopt the entire package of things their church believes, they will have to be Done with church.

And many of them are. The Internet and the tendency of the post-modern age to say that nothing is absolute and no belief issue is settled make it easier for people to be Done with church.

And I wrote this article for two reasons:

  1. To help those who Stay with church to understand why some don’t
  2. To help those who are Done with church to know why you chose it.