Some books introduce concepts and information totally new to most readers. Others provide research and documentation that confirms and amplifies what many readers already know intuitively, anecdotally, or experientially. The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?, by Jim Davis and Michael Graham (Zondervan Reflective, 2023), falls into the latter category.
Few churchgoers, whatever their denomination—and fewer still who are deeply involved in church life either as clergy or lay leaders—have not recognized and been alarmed by the widely publicized drop in church attendance and membership over the past three decades.
However, what is not as well known are: The type of people who are exiting. How many have become dechurched. Why they are leaving. The far-reaching sociological significance of what is happening. And what might be done to slow or reverse the current rush out the door. Those are the details Davis and Graham, aided by other researchers, have sought to discover and then share in The Great Dechurching.
“This book is the compilation of our research and our practical pastoral applications to better understand and address the Great Dechurching,” say the authors. “An important caveat. We are pastors, not scholars. Our hope is that this intersection between the academy (the research) and the church (our application of the research) will render reliable, helpful, and actionable results for many different expressions in the local church . . . .”
Their pastoral perspective is clearly present throughout the book. However, because of their commitment to “reliable, science-driven data,” Davis and Graham say they engaged social scientists Dr. Ryan Burge and Dr. Paul Djupe (from Eastern Illinois University and Denison University, respectively) to undertake “an academic-review-board-approved, nationwide, quantitative study to answer our questions about the dechurching phenomenon.” The Institutional Review Board at Denison University approved the process for each of the three phases of the study.
The first phase sought to ascertain the magnitude of the dechurching phenomenon. The second sought to determine who are leaving churches and why. These two phases looked at the Christian landscape in general. But their findings received relatively brief attention in the book. The third phase focused specifically on what is happening within evangelicalism. The book’s focus is predominantly on that group.
Although I would have liked to see more comprehensive comparative data between specific Christian denominations, the focus on evangelicals may actually be more instructive for Seventh-day Adventists. As a subset of Christianity, the conservatism and dogmatism that pervades much of Adventism is probably more akin to evangelicalism than to mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. While not everything said about evangelicals will translate directly into our Adventist social and theological milieu, a significant amount will. Thus it is my opinion that Adventists would benefit from reading this in-depth look at the evangelical experience.
The introduction to the book takes a couple pages to describe the spiritually rich Christian milieu—and the implied promise of ongoing success—that existed in Orlando, Florida, in the early 1990s. But that once-promising future has evaporated, and the sobering reality, as the writers point out, is that in the intervening 30 years, “42 percent (roughly 2 million people) of our metropolitan area have stopped attending church.” Orlando is but one possible example of how dechurching has expanded into what feels like an inexorable torrent.
Both of the book’s authors and Reformed Theological Seminary, from which both men received their MDiv, are based in Orlando. Which means that for the writers, Orlando’s statistics hit close to home—as they do also for me, granted that I arrived in Orlando at the beginning of the time period being studied, and have lived here ever since. I am personally acquainted with most of the religious leaders, congregations and institutions highlighted in the book’s introduction, though I am not personally acquainted with the authors.
For 20 of my 32 years in the Orlando area, I pastored a mid-sized Adventist congregation. After retirement, I spent nearly 11 years as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. So not only did I hear about the challenges of dechurching that Christian congregations faced, I often listened to local leaders of non-Christian traditions describe the challenges they faced. In fact, on occasion I would be invited to a seminar or conference conducted by a non-Christian faith. And the most common recurring theme at such gatherings was how to retain the youth.
So while Christians wrestle with the reality of dechurching, those of other faiths are often, with equal intensity, wrestling with the growing reality of de-synagogue-ing, de-masjid-ing, de-mandir-ing or de-gurdwara-ing, de-temple-ing. In our frenetic, media-saturated, materialistic, secular-leaning world, the challenge of retaining the flock—old as well as young—is a high priority for nearly every faith tradition. But let’s get back to The Great Dechurching.
Although the contents page of most books is typically on a par with reading the “begats” in the King James Bible, I believe that in this case the contents page provides potential readers with a truly helpful picture of what the book has to offer. Note the following sections and chapters:
Part 1: Meet the Dechurched: 1. What Is at Stake? / 2. Who Are the Dechurched?
Part 2: Profiles of the Dechurched: 3. Cultural Christians / 4. Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals / 5. Exvangelicals / 6. Dechurched BIPOC / 7. Dechurched Mainline Protestants and Catholics
Part 3: Engaging the Dechurched: 8. Reasons to Hope / 9. Relational Wisdom / 10. The Missed Generational Handoff / 11. Messages for the Dechurched
Part 4: Lessons for the Church: 12. Spiritual Formation and the Dechurched / 13. Confessional and Missional / 14. Embracing Exile / 15. Five Exhortations to Church Leaders
The first four chapters in “Part 2: Profiles of the Dechurched” are about dechurched categories within evangelicalism. The fifth chapter in that section looks at the dechurching problem among Catholics and Protestants.
No matter how familiar we might be with the shrinking of Christian adherence in the United States, it is hard not to be taken aback by the sheer volume of what has taken place—and the end is by no means in sight. Davis and Graham report that about “40 million adults in America today used to go to church but no longer do . . . . For the first time in the eight decades that Gallup has tracked American religious membership, more adults in the United States do not attend church than attend church.”
The writers highlight another sobering reality: “At some point, the rate of dechurching will slow down, not necessarily because the underlying reasons have been mitigated, but simply because there won’t be enough people going to church to sustain the rate of people leaving the church. The dechurched will give way to the unchurched—those who never attended church to begin with.”
Although much of the content of the book confirms what I already knew in generality, there were definitely some surprises. Davis and Graham write: “We often hear people attributing the loss of religious adherence solely to ‘the left,’ ‘liberalism,’ and ‘progressive’ ideology, and while it is true that the secular left has been a source of erosion for congregations, a new secular right is on the rise with a strong focus on nationalism, individualism, law and order, immigration fears, and populist right-wing ideas.
“Particularly among evangelicals, there is more danger of dechurching on the right than on the left. In phase 2 of our study, we saw evangelicals deschurching on the political right at twice the frequency of those on the political left, almost catching up to the total percentage of those who have dechurched to the secular left.”
Another surprise involved levels of education and the likelihood of dechurching. Davis and Graham claim that “support for the idea that secular higher education has a negative effect on Christian faith may not be as well-founded as many assume. In fact, the opposite may be true.”
Equally surprising was the impact of money. “Broadly speaking,” the book’s writers say, “and contrary to modern sociological opinion that Christianity is more attractive to the poor, our research overwhelmingly shows that Americans who make less money are more likely to dechurch than those who make more money.”
A feature of the book that I greatly appreciated was some 30 Tables of Figures spread throughout the book, which provided visual summaries of various data sets in a clear, easily accessible form. For example, comparing percentages, say, of those who claimed each of the many reasons given for not attending church is more impactful in a visual form than simply in a narrative form.
The authors’ pastoral orientation shines through as they seek to ascertain what might entice the dechurched in each evangelical category to come back to evangelical church attendance and full participation. Depending on the category, the options may be more—or less—plentiful. But notice this about the group labeled exvangelicals: “The heartbreaking truth is that 0 percent of exvangelicals in our survey are actively willing to return to an evangelical church. Zero percent! They are done.” Although it seems these former evangelicals have seen all they want to see of evangelical Christianity, they aren’t necessarily averse to testing the waters in other forms of the Christian faith.
“The main difference is that their religious belonging has shifted,” the writers state. “Although no longer part of an evangelical church, 32 percent still describe themselves as Protestant. Others have switched affiliation, with 20 percent of them self-identifying as ‘Other Christian,’ and 19 percent as Catholic.” In other words, large numbers of those in the exvangelical category have sought spiritual fellowship and nurture in other Christian traditions. While they have a substantially jaundiced view of evangelicalism, their opinion of at least some other forms of Christianity is far less negative.
Such revelations must be painful for pastors to share when they no doubt feel that their brand of Christianity is la creme de la creme. But facts are facts. And facts must be faced if the evangelical subset of Christianity is to remain viable. However, what surprised—and encouraged me, I must say—was that these conservative writers/pastors seem to care more about true spiritual ministry to individuals than about protecting tribal turf. Note their following comment:
“The good news is that there are plenty of gospel-preaching churches that aren’t in the evangelical tradition. We have many pastor friends deeply committed to the gospel in Black Protestant and mainline traditions. We don’t think it is ideal for people to be out of fellowship with Christ’s body, and we would like to see these individuals loved, cared for, and pastored.” It may—or may not—have been an oversight that Catholics are not also mentioned as a valued venue in which dechurched evangelicals might seek spiritual solace.
I wonder how many Adventist pastors would rejoice in knowing that those who have left their congregation are at least finding spiritual nurture and fellowship in some other Christian communion. In today’s world, the very fact that there probably isn’t such a positive response might in and of itself help explain why some would seek spiritual nurture elsewhere in the first place.
In reviewing a book, it is always a challenge to know what to highlight and what to leave for potential readers of the book to discover on their own. In this review, I have chosen to provide dramatically more detail from the first half of the book than from the latter half—and for a specific reason.
The first half is the report of a comprehensive survey that was done to ascertain such things as who are dechurching, the factors that led to their dechurching, and what they say would possibly make them consider rechurching. For the most part, the first section of the book simply presents data the research uncovered. The facts are what they are.
The second half, by contrast, addresses what the book’s writers feel could and should be done to turn the tide. They suggest approaches that merit serious consideration because they offer a cogent spiritual/biblical basis for actions and practical methods to make it happen. But what they advocate is largely the opinion of two men who come from a particular background and who view life through a specific lens—meaning that this section of the book requires a more rigorous application of the principle advocated by the apostle Paul: “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” Allow me to offer one example.
In the chapter “Relational Wisdom,” the writers acknowledge that “one problem that becomes clear from our survey is relational incompetence in the ways both churched individuals and churches themselves relate to persons at risk of dechurching.” So they go on to call for developing various types of awareness—God-awareness, self-awareness, others-awareness, emotional awareness, awareness of how others perceive us, and cultural awareness. It’s a worthwhile list of much-needed competencies.
In elaborating on cultural awareness, Davis and Graham quote a list of seven faith assumptions/narratives that characterize current culture in general, which come from Tim Keller’s book How to Reach the West Again. “Keller suggests that we need to ‘expose the main flaws in our culture’s narratives, showing how they fit neither human nature nor our most profound intuitions about life—let alone our moral ideals.’” The seven assumptions, taken from Keller’s book, and presented negatively by Davis and Graham, are:
- Identity: You have to be true to yourself.
- Freedom: You should be free to live as you choose, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.
- Happiness: You must do what makes you happiest. You can’t sacrifice that for anyone.
- Science: The only way to solve our problems is through objective science and facts.
- Morality: Everyone has the right to decide what is right and wrong for themselves.
- Justice: We are obligated to work for the freedom, rights and good of everyone in the world.
- History: History is bending toward social progress and away from religion.
I see nothing innately and categorically bad in the foregoing assumptions. Certainly, as presented, they may need some qualification, clarification and amplification. And without such adjustments, they could be turned in the wrong direction. But there is a core truth in each of those statements. In fact, I would suggest that the failure of religion, religious teaching and religious leaders to recognize and highlight such core truths—appropriately qualified—has itself been a contributor to our dechurching dilemma. It is an example of the proclivity of Christian conservatism to see total evil in assumptions and narratives that just need to be appropriately tweaked and qualified.
While I can quibble with aspects of the latter half of the book, Davis and Graham have provided a great service to all Christians in North America—and even further afield—by their research into the true nature of the dechurching phenomenon, by highlighting its magnitude, by providing possible solutions, and by seeking to engender an upbeat and can-do spirit despite the formidable nature of the challenge.
The authors are probably right when they say: “The Great Dechurching could well be the American church’s most crucial moment and greatest opportunity.” The real test is what church members and church leaders will do to ensure that the current historic mass exodus is brought to a halt because the negative factors that produced it have been replaced with a more compelling demonstration of Christianity.