Something significant is happening. You’ve probably seen the graphs charting the rapid increase of religious disaffiliation or the “Rise of the Nones.”
Perhaps you’ve also read the headline of the 2020 Gallup study, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below 50% for the First Time.”
But there is a new nationwide, quantitative study that has a lot of people talking about the future of the church in America.
The study was conducted by Dr. Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, and Dr. Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University, to better understand America’s spiritual landscape. The results have revealed that the size, pace, and scope of dechurching are at such historic levels that many are now calling it “The Great Dechurching.”
What follows is a summary of the study, a profile of those leaving the church, and how to innovate to reach them.
How Big is the Problem?
If you were to add the number of people who surrendered to Christ in the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, and all of the Billy Graham Crusades combined, it would not equal those who have left the church in the last 25 years. Sixteen percent of the population no longer attends a local church.
To be considered “dechurched,” a person who previously attended church at least once a month now attends less than once a year. Forty million people fit that profile.
What is happening? The trend began to pick up steam in the 1990s, and most point to the end of the Cold War, postmodernism, digital consumption, and political division as critical reasons for the shift. I wrote an article titled “What Happened in the 1990s” with some of my thoughts. The trend shows no signs of slowing.
I’ve been personally affected by friends and family no longer professing faith in Christ and surprised by recent conversations with solid, Bible-believing followers of Jesus who have recently revealed they haven’t attended church in over a year. I know others with kids at Christian schools who serve the community, display the Fruit of the Spirit, and believe in Jesus, but don’t attend church. How should we think about the dechurched in America?
The study yielded six profiles of different types of dechurched Americans, and the largest two were those who grew up in mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions. This group accounts for over half of the dechurched in America (60%+). Much more has been written addressing these two groups, but I would prefer to focus instead on the 15 million Evangelicals who have left over the last 25 years.
Group #1 – Cultural Christians
The largest of the four subgroups of Evangelicals who have left the church are “cultural Christians,” accounting for 8 million people. Based on doctrinal beliefs (also documented in the study), it might be accurate to say that few of them were believers in the first place. They haven’t experienced significant church hurt. They aren’t angry with the church. Instead, they were nominal to begin with, and now that Christianity no longer offers any “benefit” for their career, social standing, or credibility, they don’t see the need to attend.
Why did they leave? Church wasn’t a priority anymore.
Many are suffering from anxiety and depression, most are white, and most are center-left in their political views. Cultural Christians came from biblically and doctrinally shallow expressions of Evangelicalism, and to come back to church, they will need more than a simple invitation. Most say they will need a consistent, real-world, close friend to draw them back. They never found great community or spiritual transformation in the first place and will probably need a bit of convincing to return. That said, only 3 percent said they would “never return,” and more than 50 percent are “actively willing” to return.
Group #2 – Mainstream Evangelicals
The second largest group of Evangelicals who have left (2 million+ people) are Mainstream Evangelicals who dropped out in the vicinity of 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the Cultural Christians are politically more center-left, this group trends more center-right.
What are the top five reasons they left? They moved (22%), it was inconvenient (16%), a family change (15%), Covid-19 (15%), or I didn’t fit in (14%). The fascinating thing about this group is that Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals (DMEs) are MORE orthodox than Churched Mainstream Evangelicals (CMEs). Ninety-eight percent of DMEs believe Jesus is the son of God, while only 88 percent of CMEs believe the same. Furthermore, Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals have better mental health, lower anxiety, and lower rates of depression than those who still go to church.
Why did they leave? They simply got out of the habit of attending.
This group loves Jesus and has nothing against the church. One hundred percent of these individuals are actively willing to return to an evangelical church. They read the Bible, pray, share their faith, and some attend church online. What would bring them back? Thirty-eight percent said new friends, 34 percent said finding a church they like, and 30 percent said a good pastor. If you connect with any Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals, a simple invite may be all it takes for them to begin attending once again.
Group #3 – Ex-vangelicals
This is the third highest group, at just over 2 million people, and probably the group you most likely think about when it comes to dechurching. However, it is slightly less than 5 percent of the 40 million who have dechurched. These folks aren’t coming back to an Evangelical church.
The research distinguishes between the “casually dechurched,” which comprises the first two groups, and what the researchers call the “dechurched casualties.” This second phrase describes Ex-vangelicals. They have permanently and purposefully left evangelicalism.
Why did they leave? They had a negative experience with the church.
Many Ex-vangelicals left the church because they didn’t fit in relationally, socially, politically, or in many other ways. That said, like Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals, 97 percent of them believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and most still identify as Christian. Plenty of gospel-preaching churches are not in the Evangelical tradition, and many more are structured differently (microchurches) and may be able to make an impact. The key with Ex-vangelicals is to win their trust with humility, active listening, and curiosity.
Group #4 – BIPOC Evangelicals
The smallest of the four groups, this category is fascinating and stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. While the machine-learning algorithm was not allowed to see ethnicity or race, what emerged was a distinct subgroup that ended up being 100 percent non-white and overwhelmingly black and male.
This proves that racial/ethnic makeup has a profound correlation with the Evangelical experience, especially for black men. The most significant reason the BIPOC group left the church was “I struggled to fit in or belong” and “I had some bad experiences in the church.” This group also moved most frequently and had the greatest amount of friction with their parents.
Why did they leave? They didn’t fit in with the church.
The good news is that 65 percent are willing to return to an Evangelical church, and their most significant reason for returning would be because of friendships. The top seven reasons for their return are all relational in nature. It seems that Evangelicals individually and institutionally failed this group of people, especially relationally. That said, most would likely be willing to return.
Where to Go from Here?
Max DePree once said, “The first job of a leader is to define reality,” and I find this research incredibly helpful for understanding the shifts happening in local churches in North America. It’s also helpful for mobilizing the church for ministry. Here are five quick thoughts from “The Great Dechurching.”
First, the power of community. Somewhere near the top of reasons for leaving, nearly every group struggled with belonging or “fitting in.” Likewise, the most significant reasons for those willing to return to church would be friendship and community. Every church should ask, “How strong are the relational connections in our church?” and “How do we deepen genuine community?”
Second, the impact of politics. Those on the political left dechurched decades ago and continue to leave. Now, there seems to be a growing exodus on the political right. When politics takes center stage in churches, the results will almost always be negative. With the 2024 election looming in the distance, it will be important to keep the church focused on the core message of the gospel.
Third, the challenge of mental health. Most Cultural Christians and Ex-vangelicals report very, very low mental health. However, Mainstream Dechurched Evangelicals do not. This should be explored further, but one thing is certain, we are facing nothing less than a mental health crisis in the U.S., and the church must wrestle with its causes and implications.
Fourth, we need to mobilize the church. Other than the Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals, none of the other three groups will ever return to church without some type of established friendship and invitation. No amount of programming excellence, compelling sermons, or relevant worship services will bring them back. The key will be mobilization and training lay leaders in building relationships and bridges with the dechurched.
There are many other questions we could raise from this study. Why do BIPOCs feel so lost in Evangelical churches? What does this say about our cultural intelligence? Why did so many groups point to their parent’s obsession with the culture wars as a reason for leaving? Where will Ex-vangelicals end up? Are there new expressions of church that might better reach dechurched America?
Want to Learn More?
If you have more time, I would recommend watching the video summary by CLICKING HERE or if you want the entire report, check out “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will it Take to Bring Them Back.” While there are always cultural forces at work against the church, I’m hopeful that “The Great Dechurching” will reveal new ways to minister and a better understanding of how to re-engage this growing group of people with the gospel.