Why these Americans are 'done' with church, but not with God
An estimated 30 million Americans are former churchgoers who nevertheless keep faith in God. Here are some of their stories.
COURTESY OF DONNA RICE
Kyle Rice pretty much stopped going to church a few years ago.
But the marriage and family therapist in Torrington, Wyo., has hardly abandoned his Christian faith – or his deep longing to share it with others and experience God’s love within a community of believers. Mr. Rice, who is in his late 20s, has simply found that what he calls “the Sunday morning experience” – that is, the traditional institutions of Christianity – no longer works for him.
The reasons he feels this way are as complex as any individual’s earnest spiritual journey. But one reason he stopped attending church, he says, is that it came to hinder many of the meaningful relationships in his life – especially when sharing himself and his faith, and connecting with those who may not believe as he does.
“I didn’t want to invite the people that I was first exploring a conversation of spirituality with to church anymore,” says Rice, who was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home, then pursued a life in full-time ministry, and still maintains his mostly conservative, evangelical faith. “I didn’t want them to see walking with God as a relationship of jumping through hoops – that it was about behavioral management or sin management.”
“You know, the places where I had seen God move the most were in places like on a river while fly-fishing, or backpacking with a group of teens, or sitting at a pub with a group of guys from the UK and South Africa, talking about life,” he adds.
Rice’s frustrations are at the crux of a growing disconnect between historical religious institutions and an increasingly pluralistic society. While much of this has to do with the stormy and publicly vivid politics of abortion and same-sex marriage, scholars see deeper tensions, even among those who want to remain faithful.
Many are uneasy with the exclusivity that their conservative traditions lay claim to – in which the denominations assert that they have the right interpretation of Scripture and the prescription for obtaining salvation. Many are also uneasy with how this exclusivity translates into treatment of those outside the fold – what can feel like a critical judging of “others.”
For those grappling with these issues, religious institutions have a rigidity that just isn’t jibing with the increasing diversity of America. And so they’re leaving the institutions, although they still want to be on a spiritual journey with others.
These people see faith not as being about rituals and doctrine, but as about individuals coming together and enjoying an honest exchange of views.
As tens of millions leave the “Sunday morning experience,” “many of them are getting together and finding other ways to do life and community together, and they are not so hung up on, do you believe what I believe?” says Josh Packard, a sociologist of religion at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
The US religious landscape
According to both scholars and pollsters, the American religious landscape has been simmering with change over the past decade. There’s been the dramatic rise of the so-called nones – those who no longer subscribe to any religious tradition, and who include increasing numbers of those who label themselves atheists and agnostics. This diverse group now includes nearly 1 in 4 American adults and 35 percent of Millennials, researchers say.
Yet as the Monitor reported in a recent cover story (“Why religion still matters,” Oct. 12), religion is still flourishing in the United States, especially within many conservative denominations. While fewer people may now affiliate themselves with a particular religion, more than 3 in 4 Americans still do, and many of them are becoming more committed and active within their houses of worship, according to the Pew Research Center.
But not included in this group are what sociologists are now identifying as the “dones.” Roughly 30 million Americans are former churchgoers who nevertheless maintain their faith in God and their Christian identity, according to Professor Packard, who coined the term.
According to his research, another 7 million are “almost done” with institutional religion.
“It’s hard to demonstrate love from the institution now,” says Jimmy Wolfe, a pastor and married father of four who lives near Atlanta. “But in a relationship, I can live out love: If I have an opinion about same-sex marriage, and I’m talking with someone who has same-sex attraction, then I’m able to figure out what’s in their heart.... And I can share what I think God shows me in Scripture, and be open to go on a journey with them whether I’m right or I’m wrong.”
Mr. Wolfe left the institutional setting of church but still ministers to people in informal settings – coffee shops, gatherings at his home, and through his relationships in the inner city of Atlanta, where he visits a former foster son and his family regularly.
Some people say that institutions aren’t working for them because of a lack of open debate about beliefs.
“We found time and again that people were leaving not because they couldn’t find agreement – in fact, many were leaving because they couldn’t find disagreement,” says Packard, who recently published “Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE With Church but Not Their Faith.” “They would tell us that God is bigger than any one person can understand. How can I possibly understand God and hear just one perspective?”
“That wasn’t compromising their core values, or becoming some relativistic form of religion,” Packard adds. “They weren’t really committed to altering their understanding; they just wanted to know what other people were doing with the same God.”
Yet faith traditions must define themselves, theologians say, through statements of faith and doctrine, community-shaping moral precepts, and shared rituals. Such definitions have an inherent exclusive character – and more and more, that’s run headlong into the country’s changing social landscapes.
This week, Wheaton College, an influential evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., disciplined a tenured political science professor, Larycia Hawkins, after she said she would wear the hijab as an act of Advent devotion, and in solidarity with Muslims facing increasing harassment after the San Bernardino terrorist shootings. She was suspended from her post, however, for saying Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
Wheaton College officials felt her words violated the exclusive character of the college’s evangelical statement of faith – though hundreds of students protested her suspension, and theologians disputed that her words went beyond the parameters of a diverse tradition of evangelical thinking.
Last month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran into controversy: It came to light that the church has declared that legally married same-sex couples are apostates and that children in such households cannot be baptized or blessed until they turn 18 – and then only if they renounce same-sex unions. As a result, hundreds resigned their church membership in protest.
Yet Mormon leaders have also tried to balance their historical teachings in the past few years. In 2012, the church launched the website MormonsAndGays.org, hoping to bring a spirit of love to the issue.
In 2015, Mormon leaders supported a legal compromise in Utah, as the state became the first Republican stronghold to pass nondiscrimination laws for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, while also bolstering religious exemptions to these laws.
The Roman Catholic Church, too, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has sought to find ways to expand its pastoral ministry to gays and lesbians as well as to those who divorce and remarry – a serious sin in Catholicism.
Moments of community
In his research, Packard found that many people who left such institutions said they had attended church precisely because they found moments of community there, in the midst of brokenness in their families and other parts of their lives.
Olivia, a college professor in her mid-30s whom Packard cites by her first name only, recalls church being a sanctuary from her broken home when she was young. “[The members] were really there for me during that period of time,” she said in an interview with the scholar.
She noted that without this church community, she may not have made it through this period in her life – and she added that participating in communal rituals and shared beliefs really did help her connect with God.
But Olivia ultimately left the institutional church because she didn’t like how, based on church teachings, she was judging others both within and without her faith tradition.
That critical stance continues to bother her. “I think one of the biggest reasons I feel I’m never going to go back to the church is because I was so judgmental,” she told Packard. “I judged my parents, all of my friends – everyone. I could never do that again because it feels terrible. I can’t believe I did that to people.”
And yet, as she and others leave churches, there remains a commitment – including for Olivia – to try to seek God and express faith in new, communal ways, many observers say.
“For a lot of people initially, they really can’t put their finger on it,” says Wayne Jacobsen, author of “Finding Church” and coauthor of “So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore: An Unexpected Journey,” both of which explore the experiences of Christians who decided to leave the institutional settings of fellowship and worship.
“They keep hitting this stifling bureaucracy, or, what I’m hungering for, other people aren’t so hungry for, or [the other people are] more interested in maintaining the rituals or the doctrines and not really having an experience with God that matters,” Mr. Jacobsen says.
Fifteen years ago, Mike Rea was a successful productivity manager for General Electric. He felt “the call” to ordained ministry and began the process to become a pastor. But his training, he says, mostly reminded him of the corporate techniques he followed at GE. There was something deadening about that to him, so he left his ministry and became involved in the house church movement sweeping through many evangelical traditions.
“I got introduced to people from other denominations, and they were seeing and reading Scripture in different ways than I had – which was challenging,” Mr. Rea says.
But here he again encountered what he describes as “high levels of control” and a frustrating emphasis on what he, too, terms “sin management.”
“People had issues in their life, moral and marital issues, and we knew the fixes, and all they had to do was just follow suit,” Rea says. “And that becomes uglier and uglier the more you go down that road.”
As his ministry in house churches began to unravel, he says he started praying a really simple prayer: “God, I want to know You for who You are. Not what people say about You, not what I may think Scripture says about You, but I need to know You.”
Today, Rea and his wife have left almost all the institutional trappings of Christianity, focusing instead on building community in their neighborhood – “a community of people helping each other out, fixing tires, trimming trees, whatever anybody needs,” he says. “Some are Christians, some unloaded the idea of God, but these are beautiful people who are all on a journey in their own way, whether they recognized it or not, and just being a light here, we got to watch amazing things happen.”
‘A group of believers’
Rice, the therapist in Wyoming, has had his own shift away from a traditional congregation. When he was young, he had bristled under the expectations he encountered from his Baptist faith – and from a painful relationship with his morally exacting father, a rancher and former pastor.
Still, through most of his 20s, he was preparing to be a pastor, working with youths on rock-climbing excursions, planting churches in Spain, and becoming a promising young preacher at Mosaic, a congregation once dubbed a “hipster megachurch” on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
He left that behind, but says today, “I would say that I am very intentionally engaged with a group of believers who are committed to one another and committed to seeing God’s word make an impact around the world.” This includes while fly-fishing and rock-climbing – and even discussing faith and morals with LGBT friends and family members.
“The more that I walk with people, there’s never a simple black-and-white ‘this is exactly how it is every time for every person,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to go postmodernistic, or say there are no moral absolutes. I’m just saying that before, when I was working as a pastor, when I was in the traditional institutions of Christianity, and when I was younger walking with people, I was much more rigid; I was much more judgmental.”