4 Questions for Preston Sprinkle, by Josh Packard
Dr. Josh Packard

The following post is an interview. But instead of me interviewing an author, this time the author is going to interview me. We thought it'd be good to mix it up a bit. Josh Packard, Ph.D. is a sociology professor and the author of the highly acclaimed Church Refugees. He's also the director of The Dechurched Project. As many of you probably know, I've read his book and can't stop quoting it. It's very good! So I contacted Josh and asked him if I could interview him. Instead, he offered to interview me! Take it away, Josh...

JP: So Preston and I dreamed up this reverse interview format over a chat one day as we were thinking about ways to spark some conversation around Church Refugees and why people are taking their faith with them as they walk out of the church. I wanted to shift the conversation away from simply understanding the issue of the Dones toward a more practical conversation about what this means for the church in the future.

I’ll be following along in the comments, and if anyone has questions for me, they can feel free to drop me a line at josh.packard@unco.edu or over at The Dechurched Project (www.dechurched.net).


JP: Preston, much of what we found in our research for Church Refugees suggests that people are okay with, even prefer, being in church with people they disagree with theologically. How can we use those disagreements to help people develop faith and move the conversation and experience of God deeper and further than we normally go in church?

PS: That’s a great question, Josh. And honestly, I think you said it best in your book: “A group’s overall understanding of an issue is deepened and expanded by hearing a multiplicity of perspectives” (Church Refugees, 127). People who are scared of such conversations are often driven by fear and a desire to control. If there’s any gray, or questions they can't answer, then they fear that the truth cannot be known.

church refugees

But as you show in your book, sociologically (and I would say theologically) people come to a better, more deeper, understanding of truth when they listen to and engage different perspectives. So, fostering honest dialogue where there’s disagreement in the context of a safe and humanizing discussion can actually lead to not detract from a deeper understanding of truth.

Plus, the fact is most Christians have complex questions and aren’t satisfied with the prepackaged answers they’ve been given. If the church doesn’t cultivate a rich and safe environment for people to discuss these questions, then, well—they still have questions. They will just hold onto them in silence or take them elsewhere.

So again, fostering environments where there is thoughtful discussion and humble disagreement can actually lead to a better understanding of truth.

JP: I believe that Church Refugees is actually very hopeful for the church. I think the evidence points pretty clearly to the fact that the Dones represent a transition for the church in America rather than a decline. How do you think the institutional church will be shaped by all of this religious activity happening outside of the bounds of their traditional institutional boundaries?

PS: Ya, there are different perspectives on this, aren't there? Some people yawn at the statistics. “The sky isn’t falling,” they say. But I’ve read pretty broadly, and you’ve read very broadly, and it seems clear to me that the trajectory isn’t slowing down.

As you say in your book, the church (as an institution) is pretty resilient, so there will always be church “the way we’ve always done it.” But I do believe that this brand of Christianity will continue to shrink. And I do think that newer types of evangelical churches will emerge and become effective outposts for the kingdom of God.

Think about the popularity of some dechurched celebrity preachers and writers. Some are more progressive like Donald Miller, Shane Claiborne, and Rachel Held Evans. Others are more conservative like Francis Chan and Jen and Brandon Hatmaker. What they all have in common is that millions of Christians resonate with what they're saying and their frustrations with the traditional way of doing church. Jen’s recent book For the Love is refreshingly honest and resonates very much with the dechurched crowd. And it’s one of hottest selling books in the world right now. People are tired of Christianeze Christianity. They’re starving for authenticity and meaningful action.

If I were a prophet, I’d say that these newer brand of churches will be marked by the following:

  • Simplicity—they’ll be engaging in “less expensive” ministry.
  • Meaningful Action—more time and resources will be poured into missional engagement and less on Sunday Services.
  • Doctrine in the context of relationship—there will be less uniformity in terms of secondary doctrines and much more focus on relationships and the gospel as the things that propel the mission

So ya, I read the stats and I’m incredibly hopeful. Even if the number of church goers continues to shrink, the depth of faith and discipleship will hopefully increase.

JP: You have a lot of experience working with pastors and other religious leaders. You’ve also spent a good deal of time reading, thinking and writing (see parts 1-3 of your most recent series) about why people are leaving and what they really want out of their faith life. What do you see as the biggest disconnect between what pastors are being trained to do and what is needed to keep people engaged with the church or re-engage those who left?

PS: I think one of the biggest disconnects is the yawning gap between faith and vocation that is rarely crossed in the typical rhythm of church. David Kinnaman sums it up best:

One hallmark of the exiles [= dechurched] is their feeling that their vocation (or professional calling) is disconnected from their church experience. Their Chrsitian background has not prepared them to live and work effectively in society. Their faith is ‘lost’ from Monday through Friday. The Christianity they have learned does not meaningfully speak to the fields of fashion, finance, medicine, science, or media to which they are drawn” (You Lost Me, 75).

I think this is huge. And this is one reason why the largest group of dechurched Leavers are what Drew Dyck calls “Drifters” (Generation Ex-Christian, 159-171). When going to church Sunday after Sunday has little bearing on what you’re passionate about Monday through Friday, you just sort of drift away.

But what if church was a vibrant environment that encouraged and fostered intelligent discussion—and humble disagreement—about issues that humans think about every day. Sex, science, vocation, health, poverty, economics, race, justice, and whether buying local goods is a form of loving your neighbor as yourself, or whether eating chocolate that’s produced by slave labor (I think 75% is) is a moral issue. I don’t think it’s healthy to farm out the pressing questions to Fox News and hope that this will cultivate a Christian worldview.

JP: As you know, the Dones root their desire for dialogue in their understanding of God. They told us repeatedly that in order to truly experience something as complex and mysterious as God, multiple perspectives were essential. You did a lengthy exchange with Jeff Cook earlier this year about homosexuality. I really think that’s the kind of healthy dialogue that people can get behind. We see this desire for working “across the aisle” in a lot of places, not just religion. How can churches do a better job of modeling these kinds of conversations for people in their congregations and wider communities?

PS: What’s interesting about our dialogue on homosexuality is that neither of us changed our view. We both gained a better understanding and appreciation of where we were coming from. In turn, we both cultivated a better, more precise understanding of our own position that we were explaining. And we did this while maintaining our friendship and respect for each other.

Many people fear this, though. They think that once you stop preaching and open up the door to dialogue, then all hell will break loose and there be no such thing as absolute truth. (I actually had a professor in Seminary who said he hated the word dialogue.) Some people think that loud, passionate, monological preaching that’s peppered with proof texts and leaves no room for disagreement is the only way to communicate truth. Jesus did use this method sometimes, but it only with religious hypocrites. With everyone else, he usually engaged in a discussion and it was often in the context of relationship and mission.

Thanks Josh for taking the time to...dialogue :) And thanks again for all of your hard work put into researching for and writing Church Refugees! 

*Josh is the award-winning author of the ground-breaking book Church Refugees, which examines the phenomenon of the Dones, those people who have fled the church but not their faith. Learn more about the book, the corresponding soundtrack, workshops and The Dechurched Project at www.dechurched.net.  

 Josh earned his B.A. in English from Texas Lutheran University in 2000 and his Ph.D. in Sociology from Vanderbilt University in 2008. If you’re interested in learning more about Josh, you can check out his website: www.joshpackard.com.