The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?
Near the end of active ordained ministry, I sensed that the religious and cultural dimensions of my community had shifted noticeably, even in the traditional religious areas of the Midwest. In the book, The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis, Michael Graham, along with Ryan Burge, not only give statistical validity for my feelings, but sketch the massive tectonic plates of spirituality and religiosity that have shifted in our society. “The Great Dechurching, comparable to the Great Awakening earlier in American history–only in the reverse. More people have left the church in the last twenty-five years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and the Billy Graham crusades combined.” (5)
The authors give a broad-brush description of the causes for dechurching of forty million American Christians. The first basic reason for dechurching is that in the post-World War II period there was a synonymous identification with the term American and Christian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it became culturally acceptable to be both American and non-Christian. Second, the rise of the politically active right as identified with the Christian Church led to the shrinking of the religious middle as many joined the ranks of the nones. And third, the wide use of the internet in the mid 1990s led people to engage in a wide range of worldviews quite different from their own which led to the questioning of faith without risk of social or familial opposition. Other commentators of religion in America may have a more in-depth explanation, but it would not be without these historical and social causes. As a reviewer, I wonder whether secularization is inevitable and that perhaps the current global and domestic chaos of the twenty-first century might bring renewal of faith, the form yet to be determined.
The authors argue that the great dechurching has already had a profound impact on local Christian congregations. The forty million Americans who have left houses of worship represent a loss of giving to those congregations of 24.7 billion dollars a year. The country is increasingly partisan and politically polarized, which has led to distrust not only in the church but all institutions in general. But this massive dechurching is not solely about economics, or social movements, or social discourse; this is about people, families, and entire denominations. The authors anecdotally know of no actively committed Christian adult over fifty years of age who has not lost a family member to the great dechurching. “We miss these people dearly, and cumulatively their absence is reshaping whole churches, denominations, and networks.” (11)
The middle section of the book divides the dechurched into various profiles. The profile categories are the following: Cultural Christians, dechurched mainstream evangelicals, exvangelicals, dechurched BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of color), and dechurched mainline Protestants and Catholics. Each of these categories is made memorable by using a representative person (Tom, Hannah, Tammy, Jeremiah, and Conor) who symbolizes the several ways that America is dechurching. Christian pastors and church leaders should carefully read these profiles. These represent the countless people who have left our churches in the past twenty-five years.
The authors clearly come from the Protestant evangelical experience. And yet they make use of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Westminster Confession, and “the ordinary means of grace,” to define basic Christian belief. This is to be commended. But then the authors lapse into less than Reformed language when they use phrases such as ‘securing souls and not seats.’ The authors clearly have a traditional view of biblical sexual ethics, “but we shouldn’t make sexual ethics our only non-capitualizing category.” (142)
The authors spend the last half of the book with specific guidelines for engaging the dechurched based on the specific profile for the type of dechurched people who have left the church. They conclude the book on a note of hope even though the church is in a new social location in relation to our society. They draw on the imagery of the allied powers at Dunkirk when they were at their lowest point, but it became the basis for an allied victory. The Great Dechurching may appear to many as a defeat, but it “could really be the beginning of something special.” (120)
The authors believe that the body of Jesus Christ as expressed in the local congregation is the key community that God uses to enfold people in faith and life of Jesus Christ. They counsel parents, pastors, and churches to listen better and consistently embrace the fruits of the spirit, which is particularly important with children and grandchildren, which have been the missing generational hand-off of the last twenty-five years. The authors give guidelines for bridging the political and social polarizations that have contributed to the great dechurching:
If we hope to help other people, we must have our wits, reason, and faculties intact. This means we need an inner confidence in who we are, what we believe, and how we are to act. And when we possess that confidence, we can remain emotionally regulated and calm. For more persuadable persons, that calm will be contagious, but we shouldn’t be surprised when others who are more prone to cycles of outrage become confused or frustrated when we don’t mirror their cortisol state. (p. 146)
Toward the end of the book, the authors remind us that Christianity arose in the West very much on the margins of society. We will need to recapture the bottom of the power pyramid rather than focusing on the top of the pyramid where we have been socially located. Secularism will continue to wash over left and right political manifestations, and those who remain faithful will align with neither. We will find ourselves ministering from a place of increasing vulnerability and declining power. A key biblical text is Jeremiah 29 ‘seeking the welfare of the city where we have been placed.’ God’s people have not necessarily made a geographical shift, but the culture has shifted around us, and the main question we must ask is this: Can the church flourish in this new society? While there are blessings that come with Christendom, the Bible teaches us that there are ways to flourish in exile.
Some readers may want to know how to reach people of other world religions, or the never, or the nones. In a New York Times book review on this book, the authors share data not included in the book about other world religions in the United States that have similar rates of loss as the Christian Church has experienced the past twenty-five years. But the Christian authors in this book focus on reengaging the forty million dechurched who have left the body of Christ in the past twenty-five years. As a Christian leader, I believe this should be an important focus of our attention. Despite some qualms about theological language and recognizing that this is not a Pew Research or Gallup study with in-depth explanations of social causality, I came away from reading this book with a better understanding of what has happened in the past twenty-five years, and with hope for the future because God is presently at work, even amid the Great Dechurching.