What to Do When You’re DONE With Church

There’s a large and growing number of people who say they’re done with church, including many clergy.

done with church

There’s a large and growing number of people who say they’re done with church.

These aren’t the Nones—those who are increasingly checking the box marked “none” on religious affiliation surveys—these are people who self-identify as Christians but have intentionally stopped attending church.

According to several recent writings, including The Rise of the “Dones” by Thom Schultz, the Dones are a growing percentage of society. Many of them have come from the clergy.

Yes, I know what many of you are thinking. This is just more evidence of our entitlement culture that doesn’t want to make commitments or be held accountable. I have to admit that thought occurred to me, too.

Certainly there are people leaving the church who fit that description. But there are regular church attenders and leaders who fit that description, too.

The Dones aren’t like that. They’re not lazy, apathetic or self-serving. Often they’re just the opposite. As Schultz says in his post, “to an increasing degree, the church is losing its best.”

Many of them may be like the kid in class who’s acting up and getting bad grades, not because they’re not interested in learning, but because their learning style doesn’t fit in a classroom setting. They want to leave, not because they don’t care, but because they hate having their time wasted.

Almost everything I’ve read from within the church about the Dones (and it’s a lot), has been written from one of two standpoints:

1) What can we do to win them back? or

2) An attitude of “good riddance,” with an underlying, sometimes directly stated, attitude of “they’re just lazy people who want everything done their way.”

I think that second attitude is inaccurate, dangerous and arrogant. But the first attitude may be missing the point too, since it feels a little like a salesman trying to woo customers back with a semi-annual sale. Either way, we don’t get it.

But everything I’ve read by the Dones (including conversations I’ve had with them) tells a different story. They’re not lazy or self-serving. And they’re not looking to be won back. They’re tired, frustrated and hurt. And they truly are done.

So this post isn’t written to church leaders to offer ideas about what we can do to entice the Dones to come back. Today I’m talking to the Dones or almost-dones, maybe even to fellow ministers in one of those groups, with a simple message.

If you’re done with church and the way we do church, don’t leave it, help us change it.

What Are They Really Done With Church?

As I’ve read blog posts and books about and by the Dones, a few patterns have emerged. As it turns out, when people say they’re done with church, here’s what they often mean. 

They’re done with:

  • the institutional church
  • judgmentalism
  • infighting
  • being a passive audience
  • lack of applicability to daily life
  • hypocrisy
  • abuse of power
  • anti-intellectualism
  • lack of compassion ministries
  • questionable use of finances
  • (insert your frustration here)

Take a look back at that list. Do you notice anything missing? I do.

None of the things people usually leave the church over are things that actually define the church.

The church is two simple things—neither of which almost anyone wants to be done with.

The church is people loving Jesus and loving others.

When former churchgoers say they’re done with church, they’re seldom actually done with loving Jesus or loving others. What they’re done with is the extras we’ve attached to Jesus and people—often at the expense of the two essentials.

I have to agree with them. I’m done with all that, too.

But, despite my own doneness, I’m choosing to stick with the church. Why? Because the things that really make up the church, the things that matter—the Jesus and people stuff—are worth staying and fighting for.

What to Do if You’re Done With Church

If you’re done with the way we do church, good for you. Those feelings of frustration are a good start. It means you haven’t stopped caring.

It probably means you’re fed up with business-as-usual. It probably means you want more of Jesus, not less.

The good news is you’re not alone. In addition to me (as if you cared about that), there have been a lot of people in history who were done with the way we do church.

  • Martin Luther was done.
  • The Pilgrims were done.
  • John Wesley was done.
  • William Booth was done.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. was done.

And long before all of them, Jesus himself was done with the way worship was being conducted in his day.

But they didn’t leave. They didn’t give up. They stood up and changed things.

Yet it’s important to note what they didn’t change. They didn’t add anything new to the Gospel. And they didn’t remove any of the essentials. They reinforced the basics. They helped the church—or their segment of it—realign with one or more of the core values we’d lost. They pointed us to the timeless truths defined by Jesus himself in the Matthew 22:37-40” href=”https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+22%3A37-40&version=NIV” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Great Commandment and the Matthew 28:19-20” href=”https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+28%3A18-20&version=NIV” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Great Commission.

Don’t Be Done With Us

The church is not a building, a denomination or a set way of doing things. It’s people who love Jesus and love each other enough to want to change the world.

So, go ahead and leave the way church currently does things. Be fed up. There’s plenty to be fed up about.

But stop complaining about “them” and the way “they” do things. Them is us. If you’re a believer, you’re a part of the church, even if you’ve stopped attending. You don’t stop being part of the church when you stop going to church any more than you stop being a member of a family when you stop going to family reunions.

If there’s a problem with the church, the only place any solution can come from is us.

Don’t quit. Don’t stop getting together with other people who love Jesus, or working with them to touch the lives of people who don’t know Jesus.

You don’t like the way church is done? Do it better! It can be done better. It must be done better. You may be done with your church, but don’t be done with the church.

We need you now more than ever.

So what do you think? What do you plan to do?

Karl Vaters
Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.