Thoughts on Packard and Hope’s “Church Refugees”

I recently finished Church Refugees, authored by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope.  It is a book about the exit from American churches of the talented and committed.  The book challenges preconceptions about the dynamics of this exodus.  Packard and Hope discovered something during their research that was rather different from what they expected to find, that “…the story of the dechurched was a story of modern religious organizations and institutions stifling people’s ability to engage with each other and their communities.”[1]  The dechurched encountered during the study aren’t done with God.  But as the book relates, they are “done with church.”

The discussions I have found about this book since publication appear to focus on what the “dones” expressed about why the left[2].  Commenters in online venues also had things to say about the theology of those doing the leaving – this was an aspect of the conflicted and frustrated space I was in when I heard about the book.

On reflection since it does seem clear that there are theological issues in play.  I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our faith by separating loyalty to the risen Christ from loyalty to the community of his people.  Attempting to do so simply ignores what Paul has to say about the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.  But having said that, “dones” leaving churches might actually communicate very little about the theology of those doing the leaving.  It might instead say rather a lot about the actual expression of a professed theology in the place that is being left.

Beneath the surface of dissatisfaction with “church” are ways in which the insides of Christian organizations look unfortunately a lot like the insides of any other.  Which is why I think Packard’s comments are such a big deal.  What especially caught my attention was a comment on organization in Chapter 4.

“Existing research suggests that in any bureaucracy, power tends to become centralized, innovation is gradually diminished, and routines become cemented as the organization grows or simply continues to exist over time. The nature of the modern bureaucracy is to erase individual desire. In order to resist those forces, organizational leaders must be intentional and strategic.  It’s not enough to simply wish for things to be participative and innovative. How many pastors have lamented the slow pace of change in their own congregations? Even founding pastors often find that after only a few short months or years of doing church, they’ve largely lost the ability to move the congregation in a new direction. This is true of all modern organizations, not just churches. It’s the nature of bureaucracies, not a function of poor leadership, bad vision, a sign of the withdrawal of God’s grace, or unfaithful followers. It’s simply a part of living in the modern world.”[3]

Most of the comment online about this book seems to drive right past issues of  organization.

The last time I thought about the matter it coalesced into a rather fuzzy idea of how adoption of a specific organizational form might yield toxic byproducts.  Which I think is still the case but I’ve since begun to wonder if something far more fundamental might be in play.  I have had the opportunity to watch group dynamics from the insides of large organizations over the years.  My sense is that there is something hard-wired about us  that affects how large numbers of people behave when they are together[4].

We can’t do without organization except at very small scales —  any numerical growth beyond what will fit in the front room of an apartment necessitates it.  And more growth necessitates more organization.  It seems to me that, absent some critical thinking while our groups grow, the features of whatever organizational structure we adopt are going to come to define the way the groups work.  Which is likely to trump any theology we claim about the body of Christ.

If this is the case it will be true of any organizational form.

At some point nearly everybody rails about “the system.”  The problem is that, get enough of us together in one place and there will always be a system.  So rather than critiquing the “dones” who left, we ought to be thinking about how those of us who stay reflect the body of Christ when we meet.  And if we don’t reflect the body of Christ, we ought to be thinking about what it is about our particular group that gets in the way.


[1] Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. Group Publishing, Inc. 2015. Kindle edition, locations 86-87.  See also:

[2] For some examples see the the following:

[3] Packard and Hope. Kindle edition, locations 1592-1593.

[4] I plan to explore a possible mechanism for this in a future post.