A friend alerted me to a blog by Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, on “The Rise of the Dones.” At first I thought there must be a misprint. Surely the title meant to refer to the rise of the “Nones,” the increasingly large number of people, especially among those under 30, who choose as their religious affiliation “None.”
But “Dones” was correct, so I set out to learn more about this new group. Dones are those who typically were at one time the most active and loyal of church members. Now they have left. They did not go to other churches. They stopped going to church completely. Sometimes these persons are referred to as the “dechurched.”
Schultz points to people fatigued with being talked at through countless sermons and Bible studies when they really want to be more engaged and to participate.
Schultz points out the danger for churches. “The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews.”
Drawing on research by sociologist Josh Packard, Schultz points to people fatigued with being talked at through countless sermons and Bible studies when they really want to be more engaged and to participate instead of a Sunday routine of “plop, pray, and pay.”
Schultz asks if they will return. “Not likely, according to the research. They’re done. Packard says it would be more fruitful if churches would focus on not losing these people in the first place. Preventing an exodus is far easier than attempting to convince refugees to return.”
Often I will ask a pastor to think of a few people in the congregation who, if they left in the next year, would cause the church to be most vulnerable. Once they come up with their list, my follow-up question is, “What personal engagement have you had with them in the last two weeks?” Usually the answer is “none,” precisely because these are the people who are most loyal and dependable. They do not “require” or insist upon attention. But not giving attention to them is dangerous.
Pastors, staff, and congregational leaders need to spend time with the most active people to stay in touch with their thinking and feelings. Such ongoing connection can pick up clues about concerns or opportunities that would be missed otherwise. Decisions to leave are not made suddenly. They have been brewing for some time. Once people leave, often the clues that something was not right become all too obvious in retrospect.
Finding ways to talk with long-time, active members about their spiritual journeys and the connection of those journeys with your congregation can go a long way toward understanding the heart of the congregation and issues that can guide congregational leadership. Schultz suggests these questions.
- Why are you a part of this church?
- What keeps you here?
- Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
- How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
- How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
- What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
- What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?
Remember that leaders listen. Leaders usually have to listen to those expressing upset and displeasure. Good leaders make sure they are finding time to listen to the most faithful well before any of them become “Dones.”