A Response to Carey Nieuwhof: Get to Know the Dones

Carey Nieuwhof does not understand the Dones, i.e., those who have enough of Christian community and leave.

Or maybe he’s only talked to the most vapid, shallow, and inarticulate of the bunch.

Or maybe Carey Nieuwhof just built a straw man he could work over on his blog with no challenge.

But something went really wrong over at Carey Nieuwhof™®©.

Nieuwhof is responding to “Christians who are done with church,” by which he means those who have formally broken communion with other Christians. I’ve alluded to this above, let me make it explicit here: he uncharitably and uncritically caricatures Dones and lumps them all together. Taxonomies are fun and all, but they’re not the most helpful when you’re dealing with really real human beings who (quite stubbornly) refuse to fit neatly and perfectly within their labels.

Dones are a diverse group. I’ve met they types of folks Nieuwhof describes. I’ve talked to Protestants who, after taking seriously that centuries’ old message of the Reformation – that neither priests, the Eucharist, nor hierarchies are necessary for salvation – feel that leaving is the only logical end. Thanks to Dan Brown, I’ve also had lots of just really fun conversations about the “man-made” invention of the church and Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s sex life. Despite his all-encompassing title, Nieuwhof seems to be only addressing these folks – call them arm-chair theologians, high-minded, principled, etc. They represent the extreme minority of Dones I encounter, who by and large leave because of more real-life issues.

Some Dones leave the church because the youth leader doesn’t go on the “right” summer trip, the pastor changes the flow of worship for the four Sundays of Advent, the board meets on the wrong Monday of the month, or some other bunk reason. Some of them just float away, no longer compelled by the good news. Maybe the teaching, preaching, and care they’re giving and receiving stink. Maybe they’re great. Maybe the person “backslides,” is really a “tare,” or just spiritually morphs. Either way the church loses its importance.

But, let me spend a little extra time on the two types of Dones I most often encounter.

The Unwelcomed

Some leave because the church lets them know they’re not welcome. I know Nieuwhof wants to think of the church as a group of believers, and not a building, but I’ll be darned if Christians don’t tend to meet in buildings they often call “churches.” And they find the most impressive ways of making people feel like they’re trespassing. Sometimes this is just poor communication. A church I served had a “No food or drinks” sign on the doors to the sanctuary, but the font of the “No” was so much larger than the rest that anyone paying attention would have to push through a few dozen feet of being told “No” just to reach the sanctuary doors. Other messages are more explicit:

  • The way people of color are watched at white churches.
  • The leadership list in the back of the bulletin that lets women know men wear the pants in God’s house.
  • The chancel’s inaccessibility to those who can’t shuffle, roll, or hobble up steps.
  • The not-so-subtle “we have a cry room” comment aimed at overwhelmed parents 5 minutes into the service.
  • Stinkeye directed at adults who utter loud, unexpected noises because of neurological differences.
  • That 7 month sermon series on Romans 1, followed by 6 months on Genesis 1-3, just so people know that if they, their best friend, or their kids aren’t heterosexual they might want to mosey on.

The church can be dumbfoundingly, faithlessly inhospitable, and many of the Dones just don’t have (not should they) the energy to force open doors that should already be open.

Change Agents

Nieuwhof argues that instead of leaving, what Christians actually need to do is go deeper in their commitment and spiritual practices. He’s talking pre-sunrise prayer, daily gatherings, communal ownership of goods, and forsaking your family if need be. His logic seems to be that your church will only be as good as you – the potential Done – are willing to make it, but many of the Dones I know tried to live more fully into God’s call and found themselves effectively shunned.

  • There was the pastor who dared to preach on racism after the church elite prevented the hire of a candidate because of their race. Church leaders urged members withhold pledges to get him back in line. When that didn’t work, they lied about his work performance, and got caught. When that didn’t work, they launched a smear campaign against him in their town; his kids heard horrible lies about their dad at school. DONE.
  • There was the lesbian woman was a leader in the youth group and later interned at the church she grew up in, but can’t get married at the church she faithfully served and led because the board is too afraid to do the right thing and risk running off members with deep pockets. DONE.
  • There’s the board member who fought and lost for months to keep the senior pastor from burying an investigation as to why their staff turnover rate was so high (spoiler alert: the senior pastor is T-O-X-I-C). The rest of the board was worried about “optics” and blessed the burial, leaving this warrior out in the cold. DONE.

There is nothing “trendy,” “simplistic,” or “reductionistic” about the hard choices each of these people made. They served, fought for, and were hurt deeply by their churches. And, at that point, there’s not much of a choice to make; all you can do is survive the spiritual pain and trauma by removing yourself from it. These Dones were not fair weather Christians; they tried to deepen their discipleship and bring the community with them, and all they got was hurt. And for God’s sake, Carey, leaving doesn’t mean you’re being deceived by “our enemy,” and saying so only perpetuates that hurt.

One Final Thought

If Carey Nieuwhof wants to address anyone in the great Exodus from the church, I’d suggest he turn his attention to church itself. Yes, “community is messy.” Yes, church people are “flawed” and “sinful.” But, the good news Christians have been sharing for the last two thousand years is that God doesn’t leave us that way. In Christian community, we are supposed to be sanctified, transformed, saved, you pick the word; and Dones are done settling for anything less than what Jesus preached: truth, repentance, and new life that entails the pursuit of righteousness. If a church, a community of believers, show time and again that they aren’t interested in that (and at times, hostile to it) then I don’t know what Christians are to do but kick the dirt off their sandals and keep walking.

Finding yourself done and walking away is not, as Nieuwhof contends, “the ultimate consumerism.” The ultimate consumerism in the church probably looks A LOT like this:

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