Sociologist Josh Packard has coined the term "the Dones" to describe this group in his book Church Refugees. He finds the term "refugees" particularly apt because it speaks about people who didn't really want to "leave home" but felt they had no other choice and often flee out of a sense of self-preservation.
I highly recommend the book. Below is my own summary, drawn largely from the book, about who the Dones are. If you would like to download a copy you can find it here.
Key Research Findings on the Dones
Timothy Thompson, 4.4.17, FeralPastor@gmail.com
Unless otherwise noted, observations presented here are from Packard and Hope, Church Refugees, (Group Publishing, 2015); Joshua Packard, Exodus of the Religious Dones: Research Reveals the Size, Makeup, and Motivations of the Formerly Churched Population (Group Publishing 2015); and “Meet the ‘Dones”” by Joshua Packard (Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2015/summer-2015/meet-dones.html)
1. They were highly active in their churches. Dones are not disgruntled consumerist Christians whose preferences were not met, or controllers who stormed off in a huff when they couldn’t get their way. Neither are they marginal members who drifted away over time. Rather, they were typically very active and highly committed members in their congregations, frequently having served in leadership roles.
2. They didn’t want to leave. Dones often worked for years to reform the church from within and address the challenges they were encountering. This is a key insight, and why Packard refers to them as “Church Refugees,” evoking the plight of people who desperately wanted to stay “home” yet felt compelled to leave as an act of self-preservation, suffering a deep sense of loss as a result. One person interviewed described it this way; “At first it was just survival, man. Spiritual survival. We had to get out.”
3. They felt stifled by church structure. A key factor in why the Dones left is not that the church was flawed, which they expect to be true for humans and their institutions, but that the structures in place prevented them from helping to address the flaws. “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” said one person interviewed. This distinction between the structures of the institution as opposed to the people and the faith itself is what is expressed by the saying; “They are done with the church but not with their faith.”
4. There were four key desires that they found frustrated by life in the conventional church:
a. They wanted community in the form of an extended spiritual family of care with shared life and substantial intimacy.
b. They wanted to be able to affect the life of the church.
c. They wanted spiritual conversation that invited exploration rather than doctrinal teaching that squelched it.
d. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world.
The Dones are a large and growing group. Barna and Kinneman (Churchless, Tyndale Momentum, 2014) argue that the “dechurched” comprise about 33% of the American population and are the fastest growing segment as well. Packard estimates that about half of the unchurched - roughly 30.5 Million people - would qualify as Dones, no longer attending church services but retaining their faith in God and Christian identity. An additional 7 Million still attending church report that they are “on their way out the door” as Almost Dones. Beyond the sheer size of the group, it should be stressed that the impact of these people leaving congregational life is greatly multiplied by the fact that Dones tend to come from among the most active and committed members in the church.