The religious landscape of the United States is undergoing a massive cultural shift.
In September 2017, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released the “single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted.”
According to the study, in America:
- 43% self-identify as “white and Christian,” compared to 81% in 1976.
- 24% self-identify as “Religiously Unaffiliated,” compared to 7% in 1976
- 38% of those ages 18 – 29 self-identify as “Religiously Unaffiliated”
For decades, the Church has been warning and preparing itself for the “Rise of The Nones.” Broadly defined, the Nones are the growing demographic of young people who consider themselves “unaffiliated” with organized religion.
But after the Nones, a significant portion of those leaving organized religion are those that find the modern institution of Church a hindrance to their spiritual development, intellectual curiosity, and gospel impact.
More often than not, they were previously the most zealous and committed church members.
They are called the “DeChurched” or “The Dones.”
In You Lost Me, Barna Group president David Kinnaman writes,
The majority of young dropouts are not walking away from faith, they are putting involvement in church on hold. In fact, as heart-rending as loss-of-faith stories are, prodigals are the rarest of the dropouts; most are either nomads or exiles – those who are dropping out of conventional forms of Christian community, not rejecting Christianity entirely. In other words, most young Christians are struggling less with their faith in Christ than with their experience of church.”
Instead of dismissing the Dones as cynical millennials or grouping them together with the Nones, we should instead view the exodus of the Dones as a signal that the Church is failing to engage the generational and cultural needs of our modern age.
(Don’t) Take Me To Church
The people leaving the Church are not who immediately come to mind.
In Church Refugees, sociologist Josh Packard writes,
The DeChurched are walking away from church work, but not the work of the church. They’re walking away because they’re convinced that the structures and bureaucracy of church are inhibiting their ability to serve God. Instead of empowering they find the church to be stifling. Over time, they’ve become convinced that their energies and efforts could be better spent serving God outside the Church.”
They’re not heretical, lazy, entitled, backsliding or “in-name-only” Christians looking for an excuse to sleep in on Sunday mornings. More often than not, they’re the spiritually mature Christians asking the tough questions about faith, service, and the mission of the Church.
Instead of canned answers, they’re looking for a safe place to ask questions and explore the edges of their faith through open dialogue and practical application.
They know life isn’t perfect, and they don’t expect Church to be either. But they want authentic. They want real. They want to dive into the mess and unfairness of life.
But they feel guilty. Because they’re bored singing the same songs, every sermon feels familiar, and each Sunday morning gathering is indistinguishable from the previous week.
And they wonder if anybody else feels the same way, but they’re too afraid to bring it up in fear of being labeled “cynical,” “immature,” or “divisive.” They lead Bible studies, volunteer for youth events, and go on mission trips – speaking out may mean they will be given fewer opportunities to participate in church.
They’re tired of talking about Calvinism, systematic theology, and dispensationalism – or at least within the narrow parameters allowed by their church’s doctrinal statement. They still value orthodox teaching but know that what you believe isn’t nearly as important as what you believe enough to do about it.
Instead of inward-focused morality lessons, they want to tackle the systematic issues and generational sins tearing the country apart – like racism, gender inequality, poverty, and violence.
And yet, the Church seems unwilling or incapable of even addressing these matters without fear of alienating or angering their congregations.
They’re not liberal, nor conservative. They’re Christians, and they wish the Church was known more for the benefit it brings to the local and international community than the cultural issues it stands against.
They’re in a spiritual rut, and they’re beginning to suspect that the one place suppose to help them overcome it is also the same place holding them back.
And so they detach.
And this doesn’t mean they’ve given up on faith, God, Jesus, evangelism or Christian community.
They simply believe they can better advance the Kingdom of Heaven through dinner table conversations, book clubs, living room hangouts, “house churches,” nonprofit organizations, and local community efforts without the bureaucracy, baggage, and limitations placed upon them by a local church.
The Dones aren’t so much abandoning Church as they are reinterpreting the conventional definition of what a Church can be and do in search of authentic community, vulnerable relationships, and worthwhile Kingdom work.
Others are simply fed up. They’re sick of congregational hypocrisy, shame-driven behavior modification, repetitive sermons, echo-chamber politics, and limited opportunities to make any real difference in their community.
They leave because, frankly, going to Church is like sitting through the same boring movie every Sunday morning.
Many don’t leave the Church angry or bitter, just sad that it couldn’t work out, but also hopeful as they look forward to something better.
And maybe they have a point.
What is happening to the institutionalized Church is not unique.
Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate said,
In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”
According to organizational theory, once an institution crosses a certain threshold, its resources become increasingly devoted to its own survival rather than to the flourishing of its members.
In order to protect itself, a church will strive toward conformity and uniformity at the expense of intellectual diversity, personal vulnerability, and authentic community. And this breeds distrust, especially among younger generations.
It’s not that the DeChurched value relationships and community over God, it’s that’s they experience God through relationships and community. And these types of relationships can only exist when a person feels valued, heard, and accepted.
In an age of mass information, “fake news,” corrupt politicians, capitalistic greed, sex abuse scandals, and government cover-ups, the American people are increasingly losing their faith in large institutions.
No pastor or ministry seeks out to create “Sunday morning Christians.” But we have to ask:
It is possible the system is inclined to create shallow and lazy church members by default?
Could it be that the current Church model is failing to create a space of true belonging, mission, and empowerment?
These are the types of questions the DeChurched and soon-to-be-DeChurched are asking. And it is this system they are rethinking, reconfiguring, and remixing.
Because despite sermons to the contrary, the “secular/sacred divide” is more prevalent than ever in our society – especially within Christian communities.
Instead of integrating into the culture, the Church has isolated itself from the culture in an attempt to preserve an idealized subculture – producing their own music, movies, books, conferences, and celebrities.
Unfortunately, this Christian “bubble” ceases to become very compelling or supportive for Christians seeking to influence and engage the secular world in any meaningful way – even if it’s motivated by their faith.
In perhaps one of the most damning paragraphs on church culture I have ever read, in Roaring Lions, Bob Briner wrote (in 1996!),
Do you honestly believe that our big churches and highly visible Christian leaders have brought about a movement that is taken seriously in this country? We feel we are making a difference because we are so important to ourselves. But what we’ve really done is create a ghetto that is easily dismissed by the rest of society.”
In an attempt to win back the Nones, some churches have adopted “religion as entertainment” procedures. Budgets are stressed (and broken) to accommodate massive building expansions, concert-like lighting systems, and more hyper-focused demographic “programs.”
Church then becomes an event or service produced for its congregation with a “choose your own price” entrance fee (a tithe). While these “upgrades” may capture the attention of the consumerist church members, the Dones see through the ruse and realize their time (and money) is better spent elsewhere.
And in an ironic twist, the very people leaving the Church because they’re tired of empty spectacle are the same people who might be the Church’s best shot at building a bridge to the Nones.
Moving Forward by Looking
In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul gives a functional vision for “church.”
Paul writes that God gives “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to equip God’s people for the work of ministry.”
The term ministry doesn’t mean what it means today. By “ministry,” Paul is talking about every Christians’ (“God’s people”) duty to manifest Christ’s reign in the world. He is not talking about increasing the size and influence of a religious institution.
This is where so many of us miss the boat.
In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman writes,
We need new ecosystems of spiritual and vocational apprenticeship that can support deeper relationships and more vibrant faith formation. We need to recognize the generational shifts from left-brain skills like logic, analysis, and structure to the right-brain aptitudes of creativity, synthesis, and empathy. We need to renew our catechisms and confirmations – not because we need new theology, but because the current forms too rarely produce young people of deep, abiding faith.”
God hasn’t called us to lead and shape the Church of decades or generations past – he’s called us to love and shepherd the Church of the 21st-Century.
And that entails a lot of personal and organizational responsibility.
It’s okay to look into the past to reclaim the traditions and principles that have been lost or forgotten, but we also need to continually look forward. Through his church, God is continuing to do something both ancient and new.
We need clear eyes, new voices, and fresh vision.
And we need people to start speaking up.
In the book of Hebrews, the author reminds his readers to “not forget to gather as a community” in order to “encourage one another” and “inspire each other to greater love and righteous deeds.”
The purpose of the Church is not the preservation of itself by creating better “church members” through programs and entertainment.
The purpose of the Church is the people God wants to bless through the work of the church.
In Ephesians 3:10, Paul says that God’s objective “through the church” is that his “infinite and boundless wisdom” is to be made known throughout the world.
German theologian Jurgen Moltmann said,
It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in their world; it is a mission of the Son and Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”
It’s the ones working among the poor, feeding the hungry, listening to the LGBTQ+ community rather than talking at them, hosting dinner with their neighbors from different cultural and religious backgrounds, and living in intentional missional community that are the ones operating on the frontlines of the Kingdom of God.
The Church is at its best when it’s pouring itself out in sacrificial love for the people within and outside its walls.
To that end, the Church should be a place where Christians are equipped, directed, and empowered to become the hands and feet of Christ.
And a place where outsiders feel welcome, loved and inspired by the community of Christ pooling their passion, resources, artistry, intellect, and grace to love God and love people.
Addendum: Why I Won’t Give Up On Church
A couple of months ago, my wife and I hosted a going-away party for one of our closest friends. We invited about twenty people and packed them into our tiny home.
We drank beer and wine, arranged tacos on paper plates, and scooped queso from crockpot bowls. An upbeat and folksy playlist streamed from a speaker in the corner. We reclined in chairs in our stuffy living room or sat at a table on our outdoor patio. Some of us talked politics, theology, and good books.
We shared stories and laughed so hard I thought for sure the neighbors would complain. We cried a little too. And, in the end, we shared encouragement and advice with our departing friend. We placed our hands upon his shoulders and prayed over the next chapter of his life.
Somewhere, in the midst of all that light and love, I thought, “This is it. This all we need. This is all anybody needs.”
A couple of days ago, I called a close friend who was also at the party to talk to him about the very stuff you’re reading about now. As I discussed my research and personal trepidations of even publicly wrestling with this topic, he interrupted me.
“Joe, let me tell you something I’ve been afraid to say out loud for a long time – I’ve haven’t felt anything in church for at least three years.”
I was floored. This was coming from someone who knew more about the Bible and the history of Christianity than anybody I know. He’s also one of the kindest and gentlest men I’ve ever met.
After a pause, he continued.
“In fact, the last time I truly felt alive in my faith was at your place during that going-away party. I felt so full afterward, and not just from food. That was communion. It had liturgy. That was church.”
I think we in the Church have a tendency to make things so needlessly complicated.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “For when two or three gather together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The beauty of Church is that it rests upon the truth that the people of God can do so much more for the Kingdom of God together than they could ever do alone.
I believe we are caught up in the middle of a great transition (a “reformation,” if you will) as the Church reinvents itself for the postmodern age. The old form will linger and cling to life, but the dropping attendance rates, fear tactics, and tribalistic thinking are merely the birth pangs for something much more beautiful and pure on the horizon.
You may have not resonated with anything I’ve said in this article. And that’s okay. There are a lot of really great churches out there wrestling (and succeeding) with a lot of the issues I’ve brought up.
I’ve talked with dozens of people who were/are dissatisfied with their church experience. But they weren’t depressed or angry. I saw a hunger in their eyes and heard an energy in their voices as they reshaped and reimagined what church could be.
Their dreams and expectations for the future of Church are far more beautiful, holistic, and possible than I could have imagined.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “this beautiful treasure is contained in us – cracked pots made of earth and clay.” Paul is writing collectively here, not individually. He’s talking about the Church.
To me, giving up on Church means giving up on people.
And I won’t give up for I believe something so much better is on its way.
For Further Exploration
Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are Done with Church But Not Their Faith – Josh Packard, Ph.D., and Ashleigh Hope
Sacred Roots: Why Church Still Matters – Jon Tyson
Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith – Preston Sprinkle
Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – David Alan Black
Spiritual Multiplication in the Real World – Bob McNab
Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church – Rachel Held Evans
“Why Church Needs to Change” is the first article in a trilogy of articles titled The Future of Religion. The second article is “The Lost Voices” and is composed completely of testimonies and stories from those who have left the Church; the third article is “How Church Can Change” and is six recommendation guided by my research, conversations, and observations.