I just finished a haunting historical description of the church in my lifetime. I’d like to offer a suggestion. But, before I do, let me give you an excerpt from the book:

From 1870 to 1895, church attendance more than doubled, from 13.5 million people to 32.7 million, as the general population grew from 38.6 million9 to 69.6 million people. The net result was a 12 percent increase in churchgoers.11 Because this growth happened in the short span of only twenty-five years, it became the largest religious shift in the history of our country until now. What we have witnessed in the last twenty-five years is a religious shift about 1.25 times larger but going in the opposite direction. In that time, about 40 million people have stopped attending church. 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. Adding to the alarm is the fact that this phenomenon has rapidly increased since the mid-1990s.

The 1990s is when churchgoing in America really changed. As Ryan Burge writes, “The early 1990s was an inflection point for American religion. Between the early 1970s and 1990s, the share of Americans who had no religious affiliation had only risen two points. But from that point forward, the nones would grow by a percentage point or two nearly every year through the following three decades.” Here the term nones refers to those with no religious affiliation.

So, what happened? While there is room for nuance on the acceleration of dechurching in the 1990s, three factors cannot be overlooked. First, during the Cold War, the terms American and Christian were often used synonymously in our struggle against a nation that posed an existential threat to America’s way of life. President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” During this period, we added “In God We Trust” to our currency and “under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and that struggle ended, it became more culturally acceptable to be both American and non-Christian. — Davis, Jim, Michael Graham, Ryan P. Burge, and Collin Hansen. 2023. The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

What will it take to bring them back?

I suggest a long-term perspective. We didn’t get here in a day and it will take more than a day to get out. I’d suggest a three-year approach. It took roughly three years for Jesus to make his followers into fishers of men. It may take us at least that.

While most churches are struggling, many churches are not. The churches that are not struggling are doing evangelism differently. They don’t do Sunday School. They don’t do VBS. They don’t do revivals. What do they do? Here is a good summary of how many of them are doing evangelism:

If I had to summarize what the research and my experience told me about what those around us are looking for, I could do it in one word: friend!

The research confirms it. What else would you call someone who listens without judgment, offers you wise counsel but helps you make your own decision, and loves you no matter what? That’s a friend!

Friend /frend/ (noun)—a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection

It’s that simple. It’s also that challenging. People are looking for you to be a friend. They are looking for a friend who will live the good news, be good news, and then share the good news in the form of their own story. In that order! Wow! It was that simple “Aha!” that brought me back to the Bible and opened my eyes to see that this is exactly how Jesus did it.

“Friend of Sinners”

Do you know what Jesus’s nickname was? It was “Friend” (Matthew 11:16–19 NIV). More specifically, “Friend of Sinners.”

Who gave Jesus that nickname? Religious leaders who watched how He lived His life and didn’t like it. But apparently Jesus liked it so much that He kept it!

It was easy for “Friend of Sinners” to stick because everywhere Jesus went, He befriended people and was a blessing to them. His entire life and ministry were a rhythm of befriending and blessing. Jesus blessed every person and every place He encountered. — BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson

The plan

Simple as this is, I think it will take a while to get there. Here is what I suggest. Every year, starting in January, do a church-wide study of evangelism. (You might consider a sermon series to go along with the study.)

  • Year #1, Study BLESS: 5 Everyday Ways to Love Your Neighbor and Change the World, Dave Ferguson
  • Year #2: How to Talk about Jesus (Without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan.
  • Year #3: Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael frost

Each of these studies is about six weeks and are available on Amazon or as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription system. www.MyBibleStudyLessons.com

During the rest of the year, I recommend you spend five or ten minutes each week in each group talking about such questions as:

  • Who are you praying for that is far from God?
  • Who have you had the opportunity to listen to this week about their walk with God? What have we learned about why people are leaving church?
  • Did you share a meal with anyone this week who was far from God?
  • What service project could we do to “let our light so shine before others that they would see our good works and glorify our father in Heaven”?

I close with a quote from the last book above:

As should be obvious by now, I’m not merely promoting these five practices as a one-off program. I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life. You see, doing a short-term project, like Forty Days of Purpose, is great. But missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them. — Frost, Michael. 2016. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.