Dear “Dones” (and “Nones”),
Two important words have entered the English vocabulary of North American religion lately. The first is “nones” which refers to those who, when asked on a survey or in conversation about their religious identification, indicate they have no religious affiliation. “Are you a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist?” These neighbours of ours reply, “None.”
The second is “dones” – those who may identify as Christians (sometimes deeply so) but have given up on church attendance and denominational affiliation (or faith entirely, but then they usually are “nones”). They may have deep affection for Jesus and live exemplary Christian lives but when asked about their institutional religious life or what church they go to, they indicate they are “done” with church, but not necessarily faith in Jesus.
It is to these “dones” that I especially wish to speak for a few minutes – and the “nones” are welcome to listen in on our conversation also if they wish. Both of these groups often have arrived at the place they’re in because of painful experiences with the church or with overly zealous or harsh Christians. Sometimes they’ve been manipulated, coerced, or abused by the church and their pain is very real.
If you’re “done” with church and institutional religion, the main thing I want to say to you is: I get it. I’ve been there. I see it too. I’ve also experienced it – more than I wish were the case. Churches can be very proud, judgmental, inward-focussed, exclusivist social or ethnic gatherings with little meaningful connection to the heartbeat and mission of Jesus in this world that God loves to death. There are churches out there that seem most concerned about money, status, image, influence, control – basically religious versions of all our worst habits in North American culture.
A lot of this is a result of the long history of the church in Europe and North America and our changing cultural and societal landscape we’re in the midst of today. Since the fourth century, Christianity has provided the matrix of meaning for much of what we call the Western world (obviously, there’s more to the world, even the Christian world, but this is the part where I live so I know it best). The church has functioned as the central societal institution, the chaplain for Western culture’s morals and public behaviour. This arrangement in which Christianity and the church have held a privileged cultural and societal position is what many have called Christendom. It is the cultural arrangement in which Christianity has provided the social glue that held communities together. It’s the basis of much of our legal system and most of our public institutions were founded by Christians.
This cultural and social arrangement began to be questioned about 500 years ago with the dawn of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, leading to the rise of the secular mindset and the scientific standard of truth. It was now science and philosophy rather than faith and church that provided meaning and direction to Western culture. Today, the Western mindset has become largely secular with the result that Christians and churches often don’t know how to relate to this rapid change. Often, Christians and churches have attempted to remedy this secular situation with an emphasis on moral conformity and dogmatic slogans. The thought has been that if we can just enforce Christianity or a Christianized culture once again, we, as Christians, will be exhibiting faithfulness and our societies, regardless of their actual beliefs, will be closer to the Kingdom-of-God vision we read about in Scripture. The problem is that at our point in historical and cultural development in the West, these methods tend to ring hollow for those who now inhabit a very different world. To the degree that Christians and churches ignore these significant cultural developments, their witness only tends to alienate or insulate them from others rather than build bridges of understanding with others. As a result, many churches have turned inward, away from the secularized societies around them, and attempted to shore up faithfulness within even if it means disengagement from the world without.
But these don’t have to be the only two options for Christians or churches. It doesn’t have to be Christianity enforced through the coercive power of the state versus wholesale resignation to the secular and evil culture around us. The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper noticed these changes taking place over one hundred years ago and throughout his life he sought a different path: to rearticulate the Christian faith and rehabilitate Christians and churches for their ongoing ministry and mission to the world. His goal was robust Christian faith fully engaged with the whole of life. He didn’t buy into the secular/sacred split – that was an idea imposed on Christianity by non-Christian philosophers who were intent on putting the church in a box on the margins of culture.
You see, if you feel like you’re “done” with church, there are many reasons you may have for that feeling. One reason may be that the form of Christian faith and life that you’ve seen modelled or taught by the church is deeply compromised. It’s a form of Christian faith and life that seeks to impose itself on the world through force rather than through gracious invitation. Or, another reason is that the form of Christian faith and life you’ve been exposed to by the church is one that’s so insecure and defeatist, so willing to adapt and conform itself to the cultural patterns around it.
In fact, even though Abraham Kuyper had all the credentials you could have as a faithful Christian engaging his culture with the gospel, he struggled with the state of the church. He was a Christian minister, theologian, seminary professor and he launched a national (Dutch) Christian newspaper, public Christian university, Christian labour union, Christian political party, and even a new Christian denomination. And yet there came a point in his life when he would send his wife and children off to church on Sunday morning and stay home himself. Even the greatest Christian leaders sometimes spend a season as “dones.”
The question is: What are you going to do about it? The real question, for me, was: What was I going to do about it? I recently felt like I was in the same place as Kuyper. I was frustrated with both the “liberal” and “conservative” reactions to the North American cultural climate. I was fed up with the attempt to empty out Christian faith and transform it into an “anything goes” kind of bland spirituality – equally so with the ramping up of pressure for external moral conformity, turning Christianity into an over-zealous militant crusade to re-take the upper hand in society. Both, in my view, fail to truly comprehend and articulate the message of Jesus for today. And, to top it all off, I had experienced repeated abuse from church leaders which left me with a years-long battle to regain my mental (and spiritual) health. I was fully ready and prepared to quit, count myself a “done.”
Thankfully, I found some of those rare churches that have been doing the hard work of rediscovering the truly amazing and deeply grace- and hope-filled message of Jesus for our day. They don’t have any goal of reclaiming culture through some kind of battle. They don’t see any justification to hollow out the message and teaching of Jesus. And neither are they interested in just turning inward and “saving souls.”
There are churches which still understand our need for authentic hope, for hospitable welcome, and for the never-ending invitation to follow Jesus rather than the countless alternatives that we’re presented with every day – through advertising, social media, or our own imaginations.
So, if you feel like you’re “done” with church, I would like to ask you to consider one possibility: maybe you’ve arrived at this point in your life not to disconnect but to re-engage. Could it be that your dissatisfaction is exactly the prophetic insight and voice that’s needed for the rehabilitation of the church today in North America? Maybe you’ll be used by God to bring about something new and faithful in the church for our day.
Maybe you need to find a church that is courageously learning how to be totally focussed on the grace, love, and hospitality of Jesus, displayed beautifully in Scripture. As yourself: is this church a place where people far from Jesus are being drawn closer to Jesus and finding their lives changed for the better?
Maybe you need to find a church that is trying to be honestly welcoming to anyone who wants to check them out, a church that is open to you belonging before you have all your beliefs sorted out first. Not because they don’t think what you believe or how you behave matters but because Jesus didn’t check his disciples’ credentials before welcoming them to the dinner table of grace. As yourself: is this church willing to wade into the messiness of life in the hope that God will sort it out as we focus on Jesus together?
Maybe you need to find a church that is sincerely working to engage their community in ways that bring about life-giving Kingdom-of-God transformation without manipulation or coercion but just for the joy of it. As yourself, is this church making a noticeable impact on this neighbourhood so that it’s more like heaven rather than more like hell?
Maybe you need to find a church that helps you experiment with what it looks like for you to invite others around you (at work, at the gym, in the neighbourhood, etc.) to check Jesus out, in all the uniqueness of your own life and gifts and opportunities and challenges (not their inflexible demands or expectations). Ask yourself: will this church help me discover the joy of unconditionally inviting others to freely experience what I’ve experienced of Jesus here in this place?
Like I said, there have been periods in my life when church was a tremendous struggle. Sometimes that was because the church had become too inward-looking or too focussed on making everyone conform to some unreasonable cookie-cutter standard through manipulation and coercion. Sometimes that was because I was facing challenges in my own life and the church not only didn’t know what to do but thought that those challenges were too messy and they didn’t want to get messy. But I’ve discovered two things. First, that even the greatest Christian theologians and leaders have experienced that struggle too. And, second, I’ve discovered that despite the cultural reasons for the church in North American today being often only a shadow of what it could be, there are instances here and there of churches that are quite alive through the grace and power of Jesus.
Yes, there are times in life, like in Kuyper’s life, when you just have to disengage, to become a “done.” There’s no shame in being honest about it. But these times might also be the opportunities that you need for a renewed and refreshed experience of Jesus that makes you a catalyst for renewal in the church. Jesus is faithful. He is building his church like he promised. And, therefore, there is ample reason for you to not lose hope.
Michael R. Wagenman
Michael R. Wagenman is Christian Reformed Chaplain and member of the graduate faculty in theology at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. He also teaches New Testament to undergraduate students at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, and “Vocational Wayfinding” to graduate students at the Institute for Christian Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the founding chair of the Scripture and Church Seminar program unit in the Institute for Biblical Research. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (UK) on the theology and philosophy of power within 19th and 20th century Reformed and Roman Catholic ecclesiology. His personal website is www.MichaelRWagenman.com