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The Great DeChurching?
Americans are leaving churches in droves... or are they?
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV).
Someone recently shared an interesting podcast reporting on what the commentators called “the great de-churching” of America. Authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham were discussing their book, The Great DeChurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?, and the research they had done on what appears to be a mass exodus of Americans leaving church. According to Davis and Graham, the U.S. has reached an 80-year low in church attendance, with most Americans not attending church at all.
Not long after, someone else shared an article from the Wall Street Journal, published July 28, 2022, entitled “Religion is Dying? Don’t Believe It.” In that article, authors Byron Johnson and Jeff Levin, two professors from Baylor University, argue that church plants and start-ups are growing as fast as mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches are shrinking. In fact, they say, Americans are more religious now than we have been in decades. They cite a new study conducted by several PhDs from Baylor as evidence.
So, what gives? Is the Church in America in the throes of death or on the verge of revival? I think the answer might be “Yes.” There’s no doubt that people are leaving established churches by the tens of millions, as Davis and Graham argue in their book. Yet, as Johnson and Levin point out, new denominations and non-denominational church plants tend to get left out of research that examines established denominations and churches (which are naturally easier to quantify). So, the data can be skewed toward the negative.
As a pastor, I frequently see the exodus from what I call “establishment Christianity.” The type of cookie-cutter, self-improvement, “church as a spiritual gym” Christianity that has been commercialized, gimmick-ified, and professionally marketed for the past 40+ years is finally, finally, FINALLY starting to fade. We are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel of massive “corporation churches” that measure success by butts in the seats and bucks in the bank.
Now, I’m not saying that large churches are bad. In Acts 2, three thousand people were saved in a single day! The congregation I pastor consists of several hundred people—not a megachurch, but still a large congregation. Bigger churches face some challenges in the shifting winds of our culture. Large churches are more likely to be establishment churches. At first, your primary concern is reaching people for Jesus. As your congregation grows, however, more time, energy, and money are spent on maintaining the institution, sustaining the programming, and clarifying the metrics by which you can report your success to your stakeholders… er, I mean, your flock. It can become, as one author put it, “the vast evangelical machine.”
But let’s face it, most people who are looking for spiritual truth don’t want to be part of a machine. They’re not looking for a corporation church or a Christian factory. They want something deeper than a spiritual service provider. They’re not really interested in sustaining the programming simply because we’ve always done it that way. Nor are they up for cutting traditional programming in favor of some new lame gimmicky attempt to be a hip church. They don’t care about programming at all—they want a real encounter with Jesus and a spirituality that actually changes their lives. They’re looking for a truth that transcends the whims of pop culture. They want to give their lives for a cause that does more than invite people to adopt a new set of religious beliefs. They want to do more than show up at an overly produced worship service with people they don’t know, attend a small group where conversations never break the surface, and buy the pastor’s latest self-help book.
And I don’t blame them. In fact, I count myself among them. I wanted to be a pastor, in part, to see if I could lead a congregation to go beyond establishment Christianity and into something meaningful, deep, and real. I pray my flock will do just that. A vast ocean stretches out behind us while we play in a kiddie pool on the beach. It’s time to leave the puddles behind.