Religious News Service
‘The Great Dechurching’ explores America’s religious exodus
A new study looks at why millions of Americans left church — and what might bring them back.
September 7, 2023
By Bob Smietana
(RNS) — Jim Davis and Michael Graham knew something was up in their hometown of Orlando, Florida.
But they couldn’t put their finger on it.
At the time, both were pastors at Orlando Grace Church, an evangelical congregation, and saw a study showing their community had the same percentage of evangelicals as less traditionally Christian cities like New York and Seattle. Their city also ranked low on a list of “Bible-minded cities” — with a profile more akin to cities with secular reputations than Bible Belt communities like Nashville, Tennessee, or Birmingham, Alabama.
Which didn’t make any sense to them.
Orlando was home to the headquarters of Cru, a major campus ministry, along with Wycliffe Bible Translators and other major Christian nonprofits, as well as booming and influential megachurches like First Baptist and Northland Church.
And Orlando felt different from New York or Seattle.
“Then it hit us — it’s because our people used to go to church,” said Davis.
He and Graham knew of a number of people who had stopped going to church, and the two pastors started wondering how common that was. They began looking for data, and while there were studies of the so-called nones — those who do not identify with any faith group — there were few about churchgoing habits.
Eventually, they decided to do one of their own.
With the help of friends, they raised about $100,000 and enlisted the help of two political scientists who survey religious trends in the U.S. — Ryan Burge at Eastern Illinois University and Paul Djupe of Denison University — to create what they think is the largest ever study of folks who stopped going to church.
That study, combined with other data about America’s changing religious landscape, led them to a sobering conclusion.
“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 Billy Graham crusades combined,” Davis and Graham write in their new book, “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?”(Emphasis added.)
The book and the study that prompted it were driven by both curiosity and stubbornness.
“If we’ve got a question that we need an answer to, we’re not going to stop until we get it,” said Graham, who is now program director for the Keller Center, which helps churches adapt to the changing religious landscape.
Davis and Graham said they wanted the study to be informative and rigorous, which is why they decided to work with academic researchers. The study included a survey of 1,043 Americans to determine the scope of dechurching — which was defined as having attended service at least once a month in the past and now attending less than once a year. That initial survey found that about 15% of Americans are dechurched.
A second phase included a survey with detailed questions for 4,099 dechurched Americans. Their answers were sorted in clusters using machine learning, said Burge — creating groups of people who had statistically similar answers to questions.
“It’s a wonderful way to look at religion without any sort of bias or prejudice,” said Burge. “It just lets the data speak for itself.”
The book appears to have struck a nerve with both church leaders and the broader public. Data from the book was featured in a series of New York Times columns about the changing religious landscape and what it might mean for American culture.
Burge said the book’s surveys build on previous studies of the nones as well as studies showing the decline of congregational life in the United States. The 2020 Faith Communities Today study, for example, found the median congregation in the United States stood at 65 people, down from 137 two decades ago.
A recent look at the impact of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic found that the median congregation in 2023 is now 60 people. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center projects that nones could make up as much as half the population by 2070.
The Great Dechurching finds that religious abuse and more general moral corruption in churches have driven people away. This is, of course, an indictment of the failures of many leaders who did not address abuse in their church. But Davis and Graham also find that a much larger share of those who have left church have done so for more banal reasons. The book suggests that the defining problem driving out most people who leave is … just how American life works in the 21st century.
Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children.
Another Atlantic writer, Derek Thompson, supplied a name for this obsession: The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.
THE GOSPEL OF WORK
The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.
Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it.
No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. . . .
Meador again: Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up… .
… The problem in front of us is not that we have a healthy, sustainable society that doesn’t have room for church. The problem is that many Americans have adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.
The tragedy of American churches is that they have been so caught up in this same world that we now find they have nothing to offer these suffering people that can’t be more easily found somewhere else. American churches have too often been content to function as a kind of vaguely spiritual NGO, an organization of detached individuals who meet together for religious services that inspire them, provide practical life advice, or offer positive emotional experiences. Too often it has not been a community that through its preaching and living bears witness to another way to live.
Part of the advice in [The Great Dechurching]: Be patient. The Great Dechurching didn’t happen overnight and won’t be reversed quickly. Congregations will need what the authors call “relationship wisdom” and a “quiet, calm and curious demeanor” where leaders are quick to listen and slow to speak.
“The path forward,” they write, “is not easy but it is simple.”
[COMMENT: Most articles about the book are very coy and skimpy about this “path forward.” The authors’ comments in interviews indicate that their advice about it is mainly quite tentative, and aims for modest expectations, and offers hope only for reaching “some” of the dechurched.
But one group is ready to run with it: The Keller Center in New York City, which advertises a pricey set of workshops built around it. The climactic one is called, predictably]:
The Rechurching Toolkit
In this final session we will explain the ins and outs of the rechurching toolkit and how to make a number of small adjustments that can cumulatively make a significant impact. Focal areas of improvement include: membership, following up with those who move away, spiritual formation, student ministry, pastoral counseling, professional counseling, abuse prevention, leadership alignment, doctrinal clarity, digital engagement, community engagement, assimilation processes, community physical/mercy needs gameplan, and community spiritual needs gameplan.
A Key quote from the authors:
“The single most encouraging thing about this entire research is that well over half the people that we surveyed are willing to actively return to church today. And many of those people actually believe that they will.”
“It looks like in the data there’s people who just need a little bit of a nudge to return to church.”
Last COMMENT:] “Small adjustments”? “Just . . . a little bit of a nudge”? The Keller Center’s program is way more ambitious than that; and count this observer very cautious about the claims. Will such be enough to take on “Workism” and its grip on us and our culture?