By Jim Tune
Research reveals that when it comes to identifying with a particular faith, the “nones”—those who affiliate with no religion—have been increasing for decades. Recently we have heard about the rising number of “dones,” people who were actively involved in a local church who have simply dropped out. A growing number of lifelong churchgoers, many of them leaders and ministers, are saying, “That’s it. I’m done!”
It’s not that they are avowed atheists. They haven’t rejected God. It’s not that they never gave church a try—quite the opposite. The “dones” have ample firsthand experience with it. They’ve been part of organized religion in the past, and the experience left them feeling burned or burned-out. They identify with 1960s-era comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce, who said, “People are leaving the church and finding God.”
I understand the sentiment. I really do. But leaving the church isn’t going to bring them any closer to finding what they’re looking for. As trendy as the idea of writing off the church may be, it’s a mistake. The church was God’s idea. The church is the bride and the body of Christ. I’ve never seen anyone become a more effective disciple by withdrawing from community.
Is the church imperfect? Yes. People sin. Leaders fail. Community gets messy. Burnout happens. And ministry leaders are at risk.
I’ve felt it. When I’ve allowed my identity to be defined by what I do, disappointment is inevitable. When I work in unsustainable ways to achieve self-imposed and unrealistic goals, I risk making ministry an idol and me its servant.
As Tim Keller said so well, “If work (or ministry) is your idol, if you are successful it goes to your head, if you are a failure it goes to your heart.” If you work yourself ragged to build an institution or your brand or your local church’s status, don’t be surprised if sooner or later you feel like you’re “done.”
Jesus is our brand. When we keep Jesus central, we will always have something to say to the nones and the dones. John Stott observed, “Indeed there are many people who are critical of the church yet who, at the same time, retain a sneaking admiration for Jesus.” Brian McLaren offers this insight: “Think about the people who . . . even though they’ve given up on ‘organized religion’ . . . still have a high opinion of Jesus. Or maybe ‘opinion’ isn’t the right word: what they have is a certain sense of possibility regarding Jesus, a sense that there might be more going on with him than most people realize, including perhaps many who call themselves Christians.”
When I’m starting to feel done, it usually means I need to refocus on Jesus—his possibilities, not my driven agenda. I need to read anew his words: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. . . . Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).