Pastors are ghosted all the time. Some people leave and we know why. Others leave with no explanation. We hope they might return, even if they won’t return our calls. Or, at least, we hope they’ve landed in another faithful local church.
Unfortunately, the reality is that many of the regular attendees who no longer come to our churches have simply stopped going anywhere on Sundays.
In The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?, Jim Davis and Michael Graham (with Ryan Burge) describe this phenomenon, which is being experienced throughout the North American church. The ominous title matches a distressing reality: people are leaving the church—many with no intention to return.
This book doesn’t merely cite data that validates an observable reality. It also provides survey results from the departing masses to discern why they’re leaving and what might bring them back again. The Great Dechurching combines a heart for the local church and a deep interest in understanding the culture with rigorous statistical analysis.
The Great Dechurching is painfully honest, a trait that’s hard to find in many corners of evangelicalism. We tend to gloss over negative trends or find excuses for them.
The authors—Davis (teaching pastor at Orlando Grace Church and TGC Council member), Graham (program director for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics)—hold up the stark reality of those leaving the church for all to see. This is a different approach from a post-game press conference by a losing coach who attempts to spin the narrative of the team’s poor play.
The data suggests this dechurching is happening everywhere—not simply among one denomination or stratum of society. What might otherwise seem like mere anecdotes and assumptions become data through this book. This data, which is the result of a statistically rigorous survey, makes clear that the work of mission and evangelism is necessary for everyone.
This data makes clear that the work of mission and evangelism is necessary for everyone.
The book urges church leaders to lift their eyes and consider the opportunities such a cultural moment presents: “What looks like defeat to many could really be the beginning of something special.” However, something special will only happen if leaders “come to grips with some hard realities within the church” (120).
Herein lies a potential use for the book. Church leaders, elder teams, staff, deacons, and lay leaders can and should consider how their churches and communities are reflected in the stories and statistics found in The Great Dechurching.
Objective findings can create a context for honest dialogue about what’s happening and why—and perhaps some tentative conclusions about what to do now. Instead of lamenting the movement away from the church, those wanting to build a healthy future can apply biblically faithful, missiologically savvy practices that meet these trends head-on.
Perhaps the most important revelation of the book is the role relationships play, both in people leaving the church and in their likelihood of returning.
When asked their reasons for leaving church, the largest percentage noted this as the dominant motive: “My friends are not attending.” This social isolation is without question exacerbated by the multiyear disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The authors suggest many of the leavers are open to return if they were invited. They write, “Some people need a nudge, others need a dinner table, and others need years of patient and prayerful, consistent movement into their lives” (50).
Nudges from one person will often not be enough. To be convinced, some people may need to bounce off multiple Christians who encourage them to return to church. Reaching the dechurched will require a whole-church effort.
It’s unlikely that simply doing church better, inventing new programs or polishing old ones, or other top-down, event-driven plans are going to halt the dechurching pattern. Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches that prioritize simple conversations and verbal witness in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and dining rooms.
Perhaps the least surprising conclusion of the book is that many leavers cite the church’s engagement (or lack thereof) in major cultural issues as a leading cause. The church’s infatuation with political themes and partisanship is often a first domino in people’s departures. Or, just as likely, it is sometimes the leavers’ infatuation with politics that contributes to a feeling of alienation or antagonism.
The authors note, “Regardless of tradition, churches that espouse heavy, right-leaning politics will be difficult places for exvangelicals to feel at home” (74). The same is true on the other end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, because “there is no such thing as a Christianity with no political implications” and “the gospel comes with an ethic that will always overlap with our national political conversation” (167).
Churches need bottom-up, member-driven approaches that prioritize simple conversations and verbal witness in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and dining rooms.
Churches and their pastors can’t merely stay out of politics. However, they must hone the skill of prioritizing the gospel center along with exhorting their congregations regarding the implications of these gospel truths, while avoiding undue partisanship.
This isn’t easy. Seasoned pastors may struggle with the rapidly changing cultural conversation. But younger pastors are at a disadvantage. Often they’ve not yet developed the discernment needed to lead multigenerational congregations made up of people with differing political presuppositions and experiences. The polarization of the prevailing culture combined with the gutting of the political center only increases the challenge for everyone.
Our Response Matters
For years, theologically conservative evangelicals have cited studies about declining attendance in mainline denominations. We’ve pointed at their faulty doctrine as a driving force in the decline. But now the decline is affecting us as well. We have to look for answers.
The value of The Great Dechurching is that it seeks to provide some of those answers, or at least raise the right questions. The data shows many of the leavers retain their orthodox doctrinal beliefs––our doctrine isn’t necessary the biggest issue. The main problems are connections within local churches and spiritual formation. Though they could have been stronger, the book is salted with reminders that Christians are meant to be gathered together frequently. Davis and Graham note, “Being substantively plugged into a local church with committed relationships in a defined group of people is God’s plan for Christians to carry out the ‘one anothers’ and grow in Christlikeness. It helps us guard against arrogance, isolation, and flakiness” (179).
Despite its challenges, dechurching provides church leaders a unique opportunity to equip church members to make the most of their relationships so they forge robust connections with each other. We get to innovate ways to digitally disciple our churches in a world that inundates us with information. Thankfully, the church has the Holy Spirit to help with both these issues.