I am with a family this week in San Diego, one going through the heartache over a granddaughter who has left the church. At present, she has no desire to return. The reasons are complex, but this much is clear—she was once a faithful attendee who invested in a church internship and likely contemplated giving her life to ministry. But all of this has changed. Maybe she still reads her Bible and prays, but the church is no longer part of her life.
Sadly, her story is not unique. According to authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham (The Great Dechurching), we are experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift our culture has ever experienced. In the past twenty-five years, around 40 million people have left the church. The median congregation in America has reduced in size to sixty people. To understand all of this, David and Graham enlisted the help of two political scientists to survey trends. The book is a compilation of their results, as well as advice for moving forward.
For many of us in ministry, the stats are jolting (though we can see it) and alarming (will this continue?). Their conclusions have captured the attention of many, including the national media. Here are some recent examples—
“The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church,” Jake Meader, The Atlantic, July 29, 2023
“The Largest and Fastest Religious Shift in America is Well Underway,” Jessica Grose, The New York Times, June 21, 2023
“The Great Dechurching Looks at Why People are Leaving Churches,” Bob Smietana, Washington Post, September 15, 2023
I am currently preaching a One-Another series in a church on the east side of Portland, underscoring that our doors have to be open to the unchurched as well as the dechurched. More than ever, we must be attentive to the reasons people are leaving. We must lean into those on the edge, asking searching, caring questions. If we don’t, the nature of spirituality in America will change significantly.
So why the exodus? In their research, Davis and Graham point to several factors. One is a mobile society, where people move and fail to rediscover a new church home. In a highly performative culture, a number have gradually shifted their networks and energies to those that will enhance their careers, curtailing time at church. The pressures of busy families with sports and other activities are also interfering. Sundays are no longer a day set apart from the other six. In most of these cases, the leaving is gradual. Eventually, with lifestyle changes, people realize the church is no longer part of their lives.
For others, the departure is anything but casual and gradual. They have left because of ecclesial pain and trauma. Churches can be places of spiritual and physical abuse, racism, bigotry, political infighting, and pastoral malpractice. I have seen this up close as well as at a distance.
In other cases, it is not behavior or beliefs so much as belonging that have pushed people away. Church can be a lonely place where, over time, a community becomes ingrown, no longer welcoming those on the outside. Covid has also contributed to the stats. A number of people shifted to podcasts, listening to their favorite preachers, and have adjusted to the convenience of it all. Lost, of course, is the reality that the church, by nature, is communal. Just as Jesus was incarnational, so the body of Christ must be.
One could add other reasons—a sense of irrelevance, politics, boredom, music, toxic environments, hypocrisy, inconvenience, biblical positions, etc. I sometimes wonder if the emergence of large churches has contributed. Too often, people come and basically sit passively while a band performs and a pastor preaches. And nothing is really asked of people. They look around and see a room of detached individuals and wonder—does it really matter if I am here? Will anyone notice if I am absent? In a staff-driven church, am I really needed?
There is hope. Davis and Graham find that we are living in what could be the church’s most crucial moment and greatest opportunity. In talking to the dechurched, many actually want to come back. They have found no real alternative, for our culture is not set up to promote mutuality and common life. Workism reigns.
What’s needed is an invitation, a community committed to health, and the assurance that the dechurched can belong. What’s required is what the authors call “Relational Wisdom.” It means recognizing what is important to the dechurched; understanding how they see the world. It involves gaining the kind of relational capital that gives one the credibility to speak into their lives. The church must also gain an awareness of how it is often perceived and what it must do to change.
The church will never be perfect on this side of heaven. Hypocrisy goes with the territory of fallen humanity. As God is with us, so we must be to others–patient, longsuffering, and forbearing. Still, the church can choose to be a healthy, flourishing body. People will come back when trust is reestablished and they find people loving one another, preachers bringing a prophetic word from God, shepherds caring for souls, and leaders leading. They will come back when a church chooses to equip and unleash them, rather than relegate them to the status of attender.