The emptying of America's churches

The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?
By Jim Davis, Michael Graham and Ryan P. Burge. Zondervan. 2023. 272 pages.

While many interesting books have been published in recent times on the topic of societal secularisation, few are written from the perspective of those at the coalface of religious ministry.

The pastor of Orlando Grace Church, Jim Davis, and a member of his congregation, Michael Graham, have now attempted to diagnose the cause of American Christianity’s decline, with a view to proposing ways in which Christians can encourage former churchgoers to return.

Published in August, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? combines the best of both worlds: Davis and Graham’s practical insights, combined with research from the respected social scientists Dr. Ryan Burge and Dr. Paul Djupe about the scale of the movement away from churchgoing.

These findings are stark indeed, suggesting that around 15 percent of American adults - amounting to about 40 million people - have stopped going to church regularly.

This process has accelerated in the last quarter of a century, and the phenomenon of dechurching - defined here as a change from going to church at least once per month to going less than once per year - is more prevalent among Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) than among younger generations.

“The size, pace, and scope of dechurching in America is at such historic levels that there is no better phrase to describe this phenomenon than the Great Dechurching,” Davis and Graham write.

Revival to regression

This clever title connects their thesis to the so-called ‘Great Awakenings’ - Evangelical revival movements which have occurred at various stages of American history.

As the authors remind the reader, formal church membership was rare in colonial America.

The First, Second and Third Great Awakenings, along with the massive expansion in community involvement in early and mid-20th century America, created the modern churchgoing nation of America.

All has changed, though. Recent Gallup research showed that church membership within the population had fallen below 50 percent.

America’s once vibrant churches are slowly closing their doors. Whereas 4,000 Protestant churches were officially opened in 2014, this figure was just 3,000 in 2019, and though there were 3,700 Protestant church closures in 2014, there were 4,500 in 2019.

Small church communities are increasingly threatened by falling numbers and the greater popularity of ‘megachurches’; the authors point out that only 10 percent of America’s faith communities have more than 250 people at weekly services, yet around 70 percent of churchgoers attend such churches.

dechurching

Davis and Graham point to one estimate suggesting that the 40 million lapsed churchgoers may have contributed almost $25 billion per annum in donations to their former churches.

Without this revenue, churches find it harder to sustain their existing operations, let alone counteract a massive exodus from the pews.

There are three key drivers of the increased pace of change from the 1990s on, according to the authors. Firstly, the ending of the Cold War against the explicitly atheistic Soviet Union made it “more culturally acceptable to be both American and non-Christian.”

Secondly, the authors join with others such as Robert Putnam in arguing that the political battles waged by the ‘Religious Right’ have alienated many Americans.

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Finally, the rise of the internet has made it far easier for people to communicate and to find others of a non-religious mindset, thereby reducing the social pressure to conform to religious norms.

This analysis appears to be broadly correct, and the authors also deserve praise for making clear how the rise of a secular right has made it harder to bridge the social divides within a hyper-individualistic America.

Loose adherents

Oddly, according to the research on Evangelicals who no longer attend church, this cohort retains a large degree of religious orthodoxy, more so than dechurched Catholics and Mainline Protestants.

“When it comes to our primary doctrines, 68% of those we surveyed still believe in the Trinity, 64% believe in the divinity of Jesus, 65% believe Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for the sins of those who believe in him, 67% believe in the resurrection, 62% believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and 61% believe the Bible is a reliable document for all matters of faith and practice,” they write.

In addition to there being a good deal of residual faith amongst the non-churchgoers, there also appears to be some affection for the institutions to which they once belonged.

In fact, 51 percent of the dechurched Evangelicals who were surveyed for this book said they were willing to resume church attendance, and the factors which they said could tempt them home should be of broader interest: such as the prospect of making friends, finding a good community or just being invited by friends and family members.

The question of religious obligation or religious truth does not feature too strongly. Overall, this is a book which would be of greater interest to a Protestant reader, naturally enough, for it is written primarily for such an audience.

Those seeking a more profound analysis of the available statistics and the change underway in America would benefit more from the work of Stephen Bullivant.

One key cultural insight has far wider implications though, and would have been worth expanding upon, and that is the authors’ emphasis on the need for greater engagement between the religious and the secular.

“Running broadly with this idea, what if cultural Christians were to find their way into the metaphorical forecourt of the church and then enter its inner court where deep saving faith can be found?” they ask. “That liminal space where people are still exploring, examining the faith, and in community with those with deep faith is important.”

In a secular society, fewer people will become churchgoers by way of their upbringings. As the cultural gap between churched and unchurched threatens to become a chasm, the task of creating such Christian forecourts aimed at communicating with the broader society should be a priority for all denominations.

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James Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture, film and literature.

Image: Pexels

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  • mrscracker
    commented 2023-10-05 01:59:00 +1100
    I’m being a broken record again but demographics comes into play & so does the movement of mainline denominations & faith communities towards progressivism. The more progressive a denomination, the fastest its ageing & shrinking. The CE is basically in a managed decline now whilst the Amish, Mennonites, Hasidic Jews are growing exponentially. Some are doubling in population each generation & at least for the Amish, there’s a very high retention rate of young people. Judging from the number of young families with several little children & infants at Latin Masses, Traditional Catholics aren’t doing too badly either.
    You have to have a succeeding generation to pass a culture down to.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2023-10-03 17:54:15 +1100
    “Secondly, the authors join with others such as Robert Putnam in arguing that the political battles waged by the ‘Religious Right’ have alienated many Americans.”

    Wow. It only took about 50 years for at least some Christians to understand they’re being used by a political party for nefarious purposes.
  • Peter
    commented 2023-10-03 17:53:17 +1100
    The decline in church attendance, as highlighted in the article, raises questions about the changing nature and role of churches in America. Connecting this decline to the historical ‘Great Awakenings’ draws attention to a potential shift in teachings. Historically, during the Great Awakenings, emphasis was placed on themes of repentance and holiness. If contemporary churches are prioritizing worldly emotionalism and self-fulfillment over these foundational principles, it might be contributing to the decline. A church that mirrors societal values, instead of offering distinct moral and spiritual guidance, may find its relevance questioned.

    The assertion that the end of the Cold War made it more culturally acceptable to be both American and non-Christian is intriguing and could benefit from a deeper theological reflection. From a classical Christian perspective, faith is a constant, irrespective of geopolitical shifts.

    Furthermore, the influence of politics on religious beliefs is a double-edged sword. While the article posits that the activities of the ‘Religious Right’ might have distanced many from the church, one could also argue that a perception of churches bending to societal pressures or political correctness, especially on issues that might contradict traditional teachings, could alienate believers.

    Lastly, the revelation that many Evangelicals, despite their absence from churches, still adhere to orthodox beliefs suggests a gap. This chasm might be between individual spiritual beliefs and the perceived alignment with institutional religious practices. This divergence prompts reflection on whether modern churches are truly catering to the spiritual needs and expectations of their congregations.