The Great Dechurching, Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?

The idea for The Great Dechurching began when Jim Davis, pastor at Orlando Grace Church, and Michael Graham, program director for the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics and member of Grace, observed the rapid decline in church attenders throughout America. They engaged Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, and Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University, to conduct a high-level survey of those who previously attended church (at least once per month) but no longer do. There were three surveys taken, one for each phase of the project. The phases examined were (pp. xxii-xxiv):

How Big Is the Problem. It was discovered that we are in the midst of the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of America, with 40 million people (about 15% of adults) dechurching during the last 25 years, most of which has transpired recently.

Who Is Leaving and Why. Phase two found “that no theological tradition, age group, ethnicity, political affiliation, education level, geographic location, or income bracket escape the dechurching in America” (p. xviii).

What Is Happening in Evangelicalism. This phase focused specifically on those who had dechurched from evangelical churches. More on this one later.

The first chapter addresses the depth of the problem. While there have been three periods of rapid growth in church attendance over the centuries in America (the First Great Awakening, The Second Great Awakening, and post-Civil War), the current shift is about 1.25 times larger but going in the wrong direction (pp. 4-5). Three significant factors are blamed: the end of the Cold War when it became more culturally acceptable to be both American and non-Christian (p. 6); the polarization caused by the religious right (pp. 6-7); and the rise of the internet, which gave easy access to other worldviews and accommodated those desiring to dechurch (p. 7). Of course, in time the dechurched becomes the unchurched, who raise children who have never been to church.

It is important to remember that this study concerned those who at one time went to church, but no longer do. It is not a general survey of all people who do not go to church, although overall church membership has dropped below 50% for the first time in decades. By comparison, it was over 70% from WWII to the mid-1990s (p. 11). And while 41% of Americans claimed to attend church nearly every week in 1972, only 24% do so now and only 18% in the eighteen-to-thirty year old bracket do (p. 35). Of those who go to church, 70% attend large churches (250 or more). Most of the rest attend churches under 100, which comprise 70% of all churches (only 10% of American churches have over 250 attenders). Financially, the authors figure that with the loss of 40 million church attenders about $24.7 billion have exited with them, which will surely truncate many churches’ ministries (p. 13).

Contrary to popular ideas, those who dechurch are more likely to be the less educated, demonstrating that higher education is not the primary cause for Christian deconstruction (pp. 25-26). And the authors strangely, and I believe contradictorily, declare that most of the dechurched are still largely orthodoxy in their theology (p. 27). Will be addressed this issue later in this review.

The authors break the dechurched into five categories:

  • Cultural Christians who represent over half of the dechurched. They left primarily because of career conflicts, family, and other life issues. They would return if they could find authentic friendships and a sincere community. However, the authors admit that many cultural Christians are not saved (pp. 42-43).
  • Mainstream evangelicals are more orthodox; but 59% embrace some form of the prosperity gospel, and 20% are Catholic. They left for a variety of reasons but are willing to return, mostly for social reasons, rather than biblical ones. While many claim to retain orthodox views, this is highly questionable since the authors confirm that many in this category are not actually Christians (pp. 57-64).
  • Former evangelicals are declared Christians by the authors (p. 72), yet they are the most resistant to returning to church. Absolutely none claim they would do so (p. 75). They comprise two million people (17%) and are angry at the church for various reasons (some legitimate) and want nothing to do with it. Given their hardness toward and refusal to attempt to resolve problems with the church, their faith is questionable.
  • BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) are relatively unorthodox and do not believe in the basic tenets of Christian theology (p. 88). While the majority said they would return to church, they want the church to change first to fit their views concerning issues such as gender, women in leadership, and inclusivism (p. 93). They are looking for community and friendship, not biblical teaching or worship (pp. 79-97).
  • Mainline Protestants and Catholics give a number of reasons for dechurching, but even the authors admit that few of these possess a saving knowledge of the gospel (pp. 108, 114). They would return for better social and educational programs (p. 108) but have little interest in spiritual matters (p. 109).

Part three of The Great Dechurching deals with how to engage the unchurched in order to bring them back. But before looking at the authors’ analysis and recommendations, I believe it is crucial to examine the data more closely, which reveals something Davis and Graham seemingly gloss over. Of the 40 million who have dechurched from the five different categories, many reasons were articulated and many different on-ramps (their words) for return are presented. But the data is clear—the vast majority of the dechurched simply are not Christians. They have left the established church because they were never part of the body of Christ. While the authors offer a number of ways to attract them back to the church, it is pivotal that they be reached by the gospel not through better social programs, adjusting the church’s standards to fit the culture, or meeting their felt-needs (see pp. 124-129). Sadly, Davis and Graham don’t get this and blame the church for failing the dechurched and for faulty methodology. In addition, they do not believe that 21st century people can be reached by a 20th century gospel that majored on truth. People are looking for a good and beautiful Jesus, rather than a Jesus who is true, and “People are looking for a better self, city, country, and world” (p. 134). The idea is that if the church can provide these things, it will draw the dechurched back home. Our culture has changed and so must our gospel, is the message.

Chapter 10, “The Missed Generational Handoff” offers a good example of the authors misdiagnosis as they give the stories of three dechurched individuals. But when the dust settles, it is obvious that none of these individuals are saved. They didn’t walk away from the church for any of the reasons the authors suggest, instead they walked away because they do not know Christ. This fact shifts our efforts away from the authors’ recommendations and on to the need for the gospel. To bring people back to church for better friendships, social outreach, or to enable them to thrive is to bring them back still in their sins and without a relationship with Christ.

The authors do not totally skip the importance of the gospel; they just think we have to change it to meet today’s culture. They are careful to confirm that we must not water down essential beliefs to draw the dechurched (pp. 203-206), but that does not seem to hold true for the gospel. The “two-chapter” gospel of the past that focused on the fall (that we are sinners) and redemption (that we need forgiveness from sin and salvation) will not do in contemporary culture, we are told. Rather, drawing from Tim Keller, we need a “four chapter” gospel today. The chapters suggested are, Creation: God made everything and it was good; Fall: man sinned and everything became cursed; Redemption: Jesus saves sinners and inaugurates His kingdom; and Consummation: Jesus consummates His kingdom, and all of creation is recreated (pp. 190-191). The authors still confirm chapters two and three, although they add to redemption that Christ has inaugurated His kingdom. But they believe the first and fourth chapters have been neglected. Concerning the first chapter, I do not know of any conservative evangelical who deemphasize that God is the Creator or that all things were created good. As for chapter four, the authors claim that God is “making” all things new. Using Revelation 21:1-8 out of context, they put the focus on God renewing creation now (p. 191). This is a message that might appeal to unsaved people, but the context of Revelation 21 is the eternal state. They are promoting a postmillennial eschatology (or something akin to it) in which mankind works with God to make the world a better place. This fits well with the social gospel, but it is not the message of the true gospel. The insinuation is that people are dechurching because the church does not understand that culture has changed (p. 203). To win them back, we must become students of culture and adjust our message to fit the contemporary world.

The above premises are faulty. While certain suggestions given are helpful, such as Christians should merely invite friends to church, the true issue is lack of conversion on the part of the vast majority of the dechurched. The authors fail as well, in this reviewer’s opinion, by not tracking down and analyzing the trends that have reshaped Christianity since the 1970s, which serves as the backdrop for the dechurching we are witnessing today. With the rise of the seeker-sensitive church, which showcased performance and social action, and minimized truth, doctrine and biblical instruction, the church was transformed into a community with a focus on addressing the physical and therapeutic needs of the world around us. Unnoticed by the church is that there are plenty of organizations that do these tasks much better than the church can. The authors do not see this and encourage more of the same, with predictable results.

The rise of the megachurch is symbolic of the problem. With numerical growth and outward success as the end-game, it was hardly recognized that while the front door was drawing in the masses, multitudes were walking out the back door. What Davis and Graham’s study shows is that millions of those exiting did not simply go down the street to another megachurch. Instead, they dechurched altogether. As megachurches continue to flourish, and small churches die, the overall total number of people going to church is rapidly decreasing. Better entertainment and multiple programs are not what the dechurched need. They need the true gospel boldly proclaimed, serious discipleship, expository preaching and teaching, and robust, life transforming theology. The church needs to get back to doing what only the church can do. If it does, perhaps the Lord will once again revive His church in America. In summary, the study and statistics found within The Great Dechurching are impressive and helpful, if discouraging. But the analysis of the results is faulty and the proposed remedies deficient. Ponder the dechurching trend, but turn to the Scriptures for a superior solution.

by Jim Davis and Michael Graham (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 24 pp. + xxiv, hard $23.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel