You've probably heard of the Nones. That's the name researchers have given to the growing number of people who now claim to have "no religion." While stories about the Nones have dominated the media in recent years, I've been focused on a different group of people. I'm a sociologist who has been studying dechurched people. They're what I call the Dones.

The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they're dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they've decided they are better off without organized religion.

As one of our respondents put it, "I guess the church just sort of churched the church out of me."

We dove into the stories and the patterns behind those individual experiences. Our goal was to paint a more complete picture of why people would choose to leave the church and how those decisions are made. Such decisions are always personal, but there are common threads running through them.

1. They Were Highly Active in Their Churches

Almost without exception, our respondents were deeply involved and devoted to their churches up until the moment they left. They were integrated into leadership structures and church life, often organizing daily life around the church, attending some kind of church function two or more times a week.

They are the kind of people who are drawn to activity. Take Jeff, for example. He's 55 years old and recently retired, from both his job and his church, where he was active for three decades. He served in a variety of capacities, including as worship leader and youth director. When we talked, he said he had to make a break with his church once he felt he could no longer have an impact there.

"It's hard for me to be just a passive worshiper," Jeff said. "I've got to be in the mix. I've got to do things. That's how I understand my faith and how I understand God."

Jeff's words summarize a theme that emerged repeatedly in our interviews. The dechurched see involvement and activity as being central to their pursuit of God. They don't know any other way to be a Christian.

Additionally, not one person in our sample reported leaving the church after just one bad experience. In fact, in our sample, the average number of churches attended prior to leaving is more than four, spanning a number of years. The dechurched wanted to make the institution work, and they often worked for years to reform it from within.

2. They Didn't Want to Leave

Although the dechurched have walked away from the church, they demonstrated high levels of commitment before they left. We conducted nearly 100 in-depth interviews. The general profile of our respondents supports the idea that the dechurched are valuable contributors. Our respondents were generally financially stable, very likely to be married, and have substantially higher levels of education than the churchgoing population in general. The vast majority had spent years in the church and in ministry positions. They're the opposite of the free riders, people who consume church resources but contribute little.

Dones often worked for years to reform the church from within.

For all the talk of religious decline, church still plays a major role in the life of many Americans. Church serves a combination of spiritual, social, and civic needs. It also provides a sense of home and a central identity marker for millions of Americans.

Leaving such a place, then, often means giving up social connections, activity groups, and—perhaps most important—taking on a certain amount of guilt. Nobody enthusiastically walks away from those things or eagerly embraces feelings of guilt. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that the dechurched typically struggle with the decision to leave for a long time before they do.

3. They Felt Stifled by Church Structure

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the general profile of a dechurched person is through Ethan's story. Ethan is a 47-year-old salesperson with three children. I met him at a coffee shop near his office. He was initially reluctant, he said, to be interviewed because he still felt protective of the church and didn't want to be seen as trashing it.

"Church leaders have been through a lot lately," he said. "Some of it's deserved, brought on by their own actions, but a lot of it isn't. I think they're tired of getting beat up."

He was eventually convinced to do the interview after his friend, whom we interviewed, convinced him that we weren't looking to point out the church's flaws.

Ethan explained how, after growing up in the church, he went to college and got involved in campus ministry. Eventually he had a career in ministry but eventually abandoned what he called the "flawed structure" of the church.

"I thought we could fix it from within, but we got beat up pretty bad."

"I'm done with the top-down, institutional church. I thought we could fix it from within, but we got beat up pretty bad. I know we didn't always handle things the best way, but at the same time, we kept showing up and volunteering because we felt the church was God's home.

"I don't think that's the case anymore. The church is wherever God's work is being done. Too often the way we were treated and the things I saw happen in the institutional church to other people just weren't in line with what we thought God wanted.

"But here's the thing: I don't think the institutional church is filled with bad people. I think the church in America is an inherently flawed structure that compels people to make poor decisions. You're basically judged on how well you can preach and the numbers you bring in. I realize the church isn't perfect, and it's made up of people who aren't perfect. I'm not perfect either, but the church needs to see that there are things that are broken about the structure, not just the people."

When I asked Ethan what led to his departure, he said, "At first it was just survival, man. Spiritual survival. We had to get out."

For years the church has laid almost exclusive claim to the energies and talents of faithful people. Years ago, if a person like Ethan wanted to be actively engaged in his community, the church served as one of the few outlets to organize such activity. But this is not the case today. People are increasingly connected in myriad ways beyond the church to groups that allow them to serve their community and minister to others.

Dechurched individuals might lament the loss of an institution they once loved and served, but that doesn't stop them from expressing their faith once they're gone. As one respondent, Ava, told us, "There's pain in leaving. There's loss. But there's hope, too. We're able to do things now."

The Dones represent a challenge to the church. Will churches be vibrant, indispensable guides in helping people find meaning in life and make a difference in the world? Or will they continue to alienate some of their most passionate members?

Josh Packard is professor of sociology at the University of Northern Colorado. This article is adapted from Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Group, 2015).

How Can We Respond?

Four pastors share their thoughts on reaching the Dones: Maina Mwaura, Rachel Triska, Lee Eclov, and Eric Bryant

Invite them to Serve

As I finished the 5k run I had been training for, my running partner, Joe, asked the question I had been avoiding: What did I do for a living? Every time Joe and I got together he talked about how he had left the church after having hurtful experiences in three congregations. Joe, like many of the Dones Josh Packard profiled, was very involved in his local church, even serving as a deacon at one time.

As I began to answer his question, I warned him that he might be done with our friendship once he found out what I did. "What? Are you a minister?" he asked. I confessed that I was, but our friendship was far from over. In fact it grew stronger. We discussed why he had walked away and what would have to happen for him to ever consider returning.

I began to pray for Joe. I never once pressured him to come back to church, but over time, I could sense his heart began to soften. Eventually I asked if he'd think about visiting a church service with me. His initial response was no, but he asked what he could do to serve the church. Joe started serving in our food program every week. He went from serving in one program to now being deeply involved in the life of the church. He still carries his scars but is open to serving the one who bore his.

— Maina Mwaura is the mobilization pastor at West Ridge Church in Georgia. He lives with his wife, Tiffany, and their daughter, Zyan, in the Atlanta area.

Get Real

When my husband and I chose to pastor a faith community in Deep Ellum, a historic art district in Dallas, Texas, we unknowingly made a decision to specialize in ministering to "Nones" and "Dones." Approximately two-thirds of the people in our congregation today once fell into one of those categories.

A refrain heard here is, "I came to Life in Deep Ellum because I wanted to give God (or church) one more chance." We may have stumbled into this particular ministry, but we're honored to help these friends engage (or reengage) the church.

One thing I've learned from listening to dones: the church may need to rethink its marketing strategy. I recently saw a tagline for a weekend service that read, "Welcome to the Best Hour of Your Week."

Another church advertised a six-week program, promising participants "change that will make your marriage last for a lifetime." At a conference one prominent pastor shared how he promised his congregants, "If you get your friends here, we'll get them saved."

These formulaic approaches can backfire. The catechism of easy answers and quick fixes may be partly to blame for the rise in the dechurched. For several decades now I believe the church has been torn between two values: excellence and authenticity. The exodus of the Dones and rise of the Nones seems to indicate a turn in this tug of war. People want real more than they want perfect.

At Life in Deep Ellum, part of why we've been able to engage Dones is that we've majored on authenticity. We strive to make one thing clear: God works through his broken body.

The church is an imperfect representation of Christ yet God promises to work through it. If we can believe that and communicate that truth to others, perhaps the dones will once again see Jesus afresh in his church.

—Rachel Triska is coleader of Life in Deep Ellum in Dallas, Texas.

Beware Their Benign Legalism

I can't figure out who gets my goat more—the Dones or the churches they're leaving. I've certainly seen people leave our church because they felt we weren't doing enough or because we didn't give them enough opportunities for outreach, but they didn't drop out of church life altogether. They chose other solid churches.

I've also met people who all but abandoned church life because of nasty things that happened. But these Dones left because their busyness hit a dead end. Theirs is a kind of benign legalism. "Activity is central to their pursuit of God. They don't know any other way to be a Christian." Where is that in the Bible?

Christian service should make us better disciples of Jesus. The measure of personal and congregational success is whether we grow in unity and mature in Christ. The church's "Wordworkers," like pastors and teachers, are to "to equip [God's] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13).

This article doesn't only describe a sociological phenomenon but a spiritual one. It describes failures of both the disciples and their churches.

Ethan said they "had to get out" as a matter of "spiritual survival." I take that seriously. I know churches can threaten spiritual survival. It happens to pastors more than anyone else, I suspect. But, Ethan, what survived? Jason (in the sidebar) said, "We no longer stand on the ground of religious doctrine; we stand on the ground of relationship." That is an either/or you won't find in the Bible.

These Christian servants need more of the basin and towel and less "sons of thunder." They don't seem to be more child-sized for all their efforts. I wonder if they know how to be with God in stillness. I wonder if they've given much thought to Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary.

I cringe at the characterizations here of "the institutional church," as if all churches who have a building or boards have "inherently flawed structure that compels people to make poor decisions." That's bogus. I believe it is true that churches who judge their success by "the numbers you bring in" run a risk of using people rather than nourishing them. I know, too, that churches that do not help Christians find and use their spiritual gifts are missing a discipleship essential. But, Ava, the Bible doesn't charge church leaders with keeping people busy, but in helping them be holy. Maybe these Dones needed better generals, but I think it is more likely that they needed better shepherds.

—Lee Eclov is pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Our culture is fractured more than ever before. Consider what's happened in industries like music, publishing, or television. In just a generation we've gone from a few large companies distributing our entertainment to streaming music, self-publishing books, and uploading clips to YouTube.

We shouldn't be surprised the same thing is happening with the church. The American church has gone from the center of society and a position of influence to a place of increasing irrelevance. When church leaders assume everyone wants the same traditions, songs, and structures, many people walk away. A one-size-fits-all approach leaves out more and more people.

As equippers of the saints (Eph. 4:11), we should be freeing others to accomplish their God-given potential and dreams within the context of the church's mission. When we do this, Christ-followers are more than likely to stay involved and create the best version of what the church can become.

Many of the dones need to feel permission to create new expressions of the local church. Are we willing to let them do that?

It will mean allowing for the local church to take the form of a house church, a traditional church, a megachurch, or anything in between. Different expressions of the local church are needed to reach different types of people. The type of church that helps me grow and helps me reach my friends may not be what helps you grow or helps you reach your friends.

Rather than pointing fingers at the people walking away, we should work to create expressions of the church that comes from a biblical standard, reaches our current culture, and disciples others to grow up to do the same.

—Eric Michael Bryant is pastor of Gateway Church Austin in Austin, Texas.