5 misconceptions about dechurching in ‘the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history’

The story here is nuanced. We’re confident that both beliefs and behaviors have changed for many over the last 25 years. But we’re also arguing that belonging is more of an issue than belief for millions of dechurched evangelicals.

In the past 25 years, 42 percent of our city (metropolitan Orlando, Florida) has stopped attending church. In 2018, we were two pastors who wanted to understand and be fruitful in what we thought was our unique context. We soon learned our context wasn’t unique and that what was happening around us wasn’t as simple as media pundits and Twitter commentators were suggesting.

We’re currently living in the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history. Some 40 million adult Americans who used to go to church at least once per month now attend less than once per year. This shift is larger than the number of conversions during the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and the totality of the Billy Graham Crusades combined.

Over the last two years, we’ve worked with respected social scientists Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe to conduct the largest and most comprehensive study of dechurching ever commissioned. In total, we heard from more than 7,000 respondents over three phases and gleaned as many as 600 data points in the final phase of the study. The results of that study along with a number of pastoral, missiological, ecclesiological, and relational insights were published last week in our book, The Great Dechurching.

Because the results both confirmed anecdotal experience and challenged accepted narratives, the book has garnered interest among a wide swath of our media landscape, with write-ups in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the American ConservativeNational Review, and even the Ben Shapiro Show. What did we learn? People aren’t leaving the church for the reasons we thought. Here are five misconceptions about dechurching that church leaders need to hear.

Misconception #1: People leave primarily because of negative experiences with the church.

Sadly, egregious malpractice in the American church includes abuse of all kinds, racism, misogyny, political syncretism, and clergy scandals. We must deal with these problems. But the majority of Americans aren’t “dechurched casualties” of this type. Are you ready for the number one reason people stopped attending church?

They moved.

Roughly three-quarters of the people who left the church did so casually, for pedestrian reasons including moving, the inconvenience of attending, kids’ sports activities, or family changes like marriage, divorce, or having a new child.

We in no way want to downplay the hurt and suffering of the 10 million who left as casualties. Numerically speaking, that group just isn’t the lion’s share of the dechurched. For an effective response, we must have an accurate picture of who’s leaving and why. Most leave casually and often unintentionally.

Misconception #2: Young people are leaving the church after attending secular universities.

We were stunned by what we discovered about the relationship between dechurching, education, and income. According to the secularization thesis, almost all countries become more secular as their per capita GDP rises; similarly, countries with lower per capita GDPs tend to be more religious (see the chart below).

But the United States is an outlier, and this held up in our study. Among those we surveyed, people with higher education were less likely to leave the church. For evangelicals, dechurching and education were inversely related. More education, more likely to stay in the church. Only 3 percent of evangelicals with graduate degrees were dechurched.

This finding challenges the notion that the secular university erodes the faith of many young evangelicals. While the 18-to-30-year-old time frame is the period when people are most susceptible to dechurching, the cause doesn’t seem to be secular higher education.

Dechurching has hit lower and lower-middle classes and those with less education harder. It’s difficult to say definitively what’s going on here, but it seems logical that the life changes that correspond with dechurching are especially difficult for those without an economic cushion or upwardly mobile social networks. People in these classes need to work long or unusual hours just to make ends meet. As a result, these groups’ relationships with American institutions—whether educational, economic, civic, or technological—are all strained. They seem to have limited access to traditional ladders of success.

Sadly, church can be just another institution that works for those on a certain American track but not for those who are off track. The American church needs introspection on this reality and then to follow that up with community-specific strategies for engaging lower and lower-middle-class people.

Misconception #3: People leave the church because they’ve left the faith.

Beliefs among the dechurched vary widely. Among dechurched evangelicals, roughly 5 million (out of the 10 million surveyed) still confess Christian faith in conformity with the Nicene Creed.

Our machine-learning algorithm identified several profiles of dechurched people. Ninety-right percent of a group we’ve called “dechurched mainstream evangelicals” (most of whom simply got out of the habit of going to church during COVID) and 97 percent of exvangelicals (those who have permanently and purposefully exited evangelicalism) agreed that “Jesus is the Son of God.” So while they’ve left the church, clearly not all have left an orthodox confession. Somehow, mainstream evangelical drop-outs registered a higher orthodoxy score and view of Jesus than evangelicals who still attend church.

The story here is nuanced. Some people who have left the church may have been Christians in name only before they did. Others look like they still largely believe the core tenets of the faith but have either gotten out of the habit or are struggling to disentangle their true faith from problematic church cultures they’ve left.

We’re confident that both beliefs and behaviors have changed for many over the last 25 years. But we’re also arguing that belonging is more of an issue than belief for millions of dechurched evangelicals. Sadly, the outsize role belonging plays has been relatively overlooked.

Misconception #4: The people leaving are primarily on the secular left.

The earliest to dechurch in the late 1980s to mid-1990s were more left-leaning politically. But by 2023, evangelicals are dechurching at almost twice the pace on the right political flank than they are on the left. Admittedly, there are fewer dechurching from the secular left because many of those people have already left the church.

Still, for discernible groups, right-wing politics has supplanted church from a belonging standpoint. People who find meaningful community in political spaces have lower motivation to keep going to church. So, ministers must be leaders who can see and respond to challenges that come from multiple directions at once.

Misconception #5: They aren’t willing to come back.

The single best piece of good news to come from our study is that more than half of those who have left evangelical churches are willing to come back right now. That’s nearly 8 million dechurched evangelicals who are willing to come back to church.

The reasons why they’re willing to come back vary from group to group, but on the whole, people are looking for two things: healthy relationships and a local church that actively demonstrates how the gospel is true, good, and beautiful. Those two factors are almost entirely within our control. Church leaders can grow in their ability to exercise relational wisdom and build healthy communities. Our local churches can grow institutionally to be bolder and clearer with our doctrine, religious affection, and cultural engagement.

We pray that God uses our book and study to encourage church leaders and give them actionable ways to engage unchurched people. We pray that the casually dechurched will find healthy local churches with people who genuinely love Jesus, one another, and their community. We pray the children of the dechurched Christians won’t grow up to be unchurched. We pray dechurched casualties will find peace and healing in Jesus and healthier local expressions of his church in God’s timing.

And we pray the broader culture would see us changed by the good news of Jesus Christ and be curious about his vision for humanity and the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Jim Davis and Michael Graham and originally published by the Gospel Coalition.


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