Where are they now?
I sometimes find myself reflecting upon ‘where are they now?’ By which I mean people who used to be at church and no longer are. People from youth-group days, or from local churches I have been part of. As a minister, I have been given the membership lists of a congregation, and told about some names on it: ‘But we don’t see them much anymore…’ We are experiencing what someone has called ‘The Rise of the Dones.’
That is not a misprint. ‘Dones’ is meant to refer to the rise of the ‘Nones’, the increasingly large number of people — especially under 30 — who choose as their religious affiliation ‘None’.
‘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 people are referred to as the ‘de-churched’.
There are obvious dangers 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 re-fill the emptying pews.
It seems people are fatigued with being talked at, through countless sermons and Bible studies. They really want to be more engaged and to participate, instead of a Sunday routine of ‘plop, pray, and pay.’
Will they return? The research suggests not likely. They’re done. It would be more fruitful if churches would focus on not losing these people in the first place! Preventing an exodus before it occurs, is far easier than attempting to convince refugees to return.
So perhaps I should ask now whether you can 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 you come up with that list, my follow-up question is: ‘What personal engagement have you had with them in the last two weeks?’ I expect 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.
Ministers 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.
Find ways to talk with long-time, active members about their spiritual journeys, and the connection of those journeys with your congregation. This can go a long way toward understanding the heart of the congregation, as well as issues that can guide congregational leadership. Try 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 good leaders will listen to the most faithful expressing their upset and displeasure, well before they become ‘Dones’.
Rev. Dr Andrew Williams, General Secretary
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