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Why Donewiths never darken the doors again

08 January 2021

If their deeply felt longings are not met, some church people will head for the exit, say Robin Stockitt and S. John Dawson

THE Donewiths — those who have left church — find themselves grappling with a series of conundrums for which they seek resolution.

The people interviewed for a new Grove booklet, Leaving Church, decided to leave church after perhaps a lifetime of membership. They did so for a whole variety of reasons. But underneath the list of specific issues that the Donewiths found so troublesome lie deeply felt longings.


Belonging v. detachment

ONE issue that those interviewed referred to was being required to commit time, money, effort, and goods to projects. At times, these were projects or initiatives that they did not want to invest time and energy in, and yet felt pressure to do so.

The problem then came more clearly into focus. How can I belong to a community of people if I do not fully resonate with their values and priorities? Is it possible to belong partially, hanging on by the fingertips? Maybe there is a looser way of belonging within the body of Christ.

For some, the experience of trying to belong to a church community in which there may be difficult and abrasive people becomes simply too much of an effort. If this is a voluntary activity, they ask themselves, why am I spending my free time struggling to be pleasant to church people who, if truth be told, I simply do not like?


THE felt need to belong, however, is a natural human instinct. Attachment theory asserts that seeking a secure attachment that nourishes and protects is not only our primary task as newborns, but our lifelong task, too. Belonging to a church is a distinct form of attachment and can take a huge variety of manifestations.

Those people who have decided to disengage from one form of commitment to church life often seek an alternative mode of belonging — one that meets their needs at their particular stage of life. What was a nourishing experience at one time is no longer. Maybe their circumstances have changed, the demands upon their time and money have altered, or maybe the distinctive flavour of the church to which they had hitherto belonged has metamorphosed as well. Whatever the range of causes, the sense of dissonance becomes too acute to tolerate and then question marks about belonging come flooding in.

Some people leave their churches only to discover a sense of belonging in a dispersed church or community, such as those found at the Northumbria Community, the Wild Goose community, and St Pixels. Such communities do not meet together each week, but they share a strong sense of community through their Rule of Life. The attraction is the absence of any emphasis on hierarchy or conformity, but, rather, the explicit and gentle message of accompanying one another on a journey of faith.

Others choose to belong in a more anonymous fashion, by attending a cathedral where few demands are placed on them to form new friendships or participate in projects. They can slip in at the back of the building unnoticed and quietly slip away afterwards. The rhythm of the liturgy is enough, perhaps, to offer spiritual nourishment.

Identity v. performance

CHURCHES can often be busy places. There are always jobs to be done, tea to be made, children to be inspired, and the poor to be fed. The neediness of the world around us is never-ending.

It is not surprising, therefore, that churches want to meet this need and to be salt and light to their neighbourhoods. The danger is, however, as the Donewiths can sense, that it gives the impression that this is what the life of faith amounts to. One long list of things to do, leading perhaps — for some — to compassion fatigue.

What some Donewiths long for in their spiritual journey is to discover more of their truest identity. Who is the real me underneath all this activity? What does God really think of me? How can I love my neighbour as myself when I am not even sure who myself is? And so this is the tussle: to give oneself enough space and enough time to know who I am before God.

In his book, The Forgotten Father (Wipf & Stock, 2001), Tom Smail makes the point that the entire ministry of Jesus stemmed from his profound sense of identity as the Son of the Father.


LURKING underneath the feeling of disconnect that Donewiths experience is the longing to discover more of their own identity as human beings in a complex world and as hesitant, stumbling followers of Jesus.

When churches pay more attention to what we do than who we are, when they become absorbed with function rather than learning how to belong together, then those who struggle with the church find themselves looking for the exit door.


This is an edited extract from Grove Book P162, Leaving Church: What can we learn from those who are done with church?, by Robin Stockitt and S. John Dawson (Grove, £3.95; 978-1-78827-126-4).

Listen to an interview with Robin Stockitt on the Church Times Podcast.

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