No group of people is immune from the Great Dechurching. The dechurched are almost evenly split between men and women (52 percent and 48 percent respectively). According to our study, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and those who identify as “other Christian” have all dechurched equally at 32 percent. In the Protestant tradition, Presbyterians lead the dechurching, losing about 45 percent of their attenders over the last twenty-five years. This is largely due to dechurching in the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). Methodists follow at 37 percent, Baptists at 29 percent, and Pentecostals at 26 percent.
By generation, the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are dechurching in larger numbers as more than 35 percent of the boomers living today have stopped attending church. This is about twice the size of millennials (between 17% and 25%), which is not a surprise as more baby boomers went to church in the first place, which gives them more opportunity to make this shift. Black and white Americans are dechurching in comparable numbers (26% and 27% respectively). Hispanic Americans are experiencing the least dechurching at 14 percent, and somewhat perplexingly, 34 percent of Asian Americans have dechurched.
Unsurprisingly, sexual orientation is a strong indicator of church attendance. According to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study at Harvard University, a heterosexual man is almost three times as likely to attend church at least once a year than a gay man. A heterosexual woman is one and a half times more likely to attend church at least once a year than a gay woman or anyone who identifies as bisexual. While our study did not focus on dechurched LGBTQ+ people, they were included in the study, and we can at least say that they left for different reasons. Some left because they felt the church was too restrictive of their sexual freedom, but others left because they didn’t feel like they were welcome, often because their churches either didn’t adequately address the issue or addressed it in a harsh and insensitive manner.
Figure 2.1. Religious Service Attendance by Sexual Orientation
Neither the political left nor the right is immune to the religious shifts of our day. Twenty-one percent of those who identify as Republican, 23 percent of those who identify as Independent, and 29 percent of those who identify as Democrat and used to go to church have stopped. Americans at every income level, educational status, and area of the country are deciding to forgo their in-person worship for other activities on Sunday morning.
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
Simple as this is, I think it will take a while to get there. Here is what I suggest. Every year, starting in January or August, 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”?
In addition, I’d encourage each group to host a fellowship every month and invite every member and every prospect. For more on this, see https://www.YouCanDouble.com/
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.