In every tradition, the more education people have, the more likely they are to stay in church. This offers a surprising challenge to the common belief that higher education is facilitating departures from the church. Many Christian colleges were founded based on the belief that secular liberal arts colleges and institutions of higher education lead young Christians astray. For example, the founder of Bob Jones University said, “Bob Jones College . . . stands for the narrow road. We don’t stand for the broad road. We don’t stand for what is stood for in most educational institutions.” While the value of Christian versus secular higher education is a complex topic beyond the scope of this book, support for the idea that secular higher education has a negative effect on the Christian faith may not be as well-founded as many assume. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Ryan Burge wrote on this phenomenon in The Wall Street Journal:
It pains me to say that I don’t have much influence over the students in my courses. But that doesn’t mean college doesn’t change them. Looked at in its entirety, the college experience may actually make students more sure of their religious beliefs after they graduate. This is the idea known to psychologists as the “inoculation effect”: When someone is confronted with weak attacks on their beliefs, they become more prepared to defend those beliefs when they come under serious attacks. This is essentially how a vaccine works: It gives an individual a weakened version of the virus, so that when the immune system encounters the real thing, it can easily fight off the villain. Similarly, challenging a young person to defend their beliefs in a supportive, open environment like college may leave them better prepared to hold firm to their convictions later in life.
The data also leads us to believe that the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to see social value in religion, believe in institutions, and have higher levels of interpersonal trust.
Broadly speaking, 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. Why is this the case? In our opinion, America is largely built for a specific type of person. If you belong to a nuclear family, graduate from college, and have children after marriage, America’s institutions tend to work better for you. If you get off that track (or never started on it), the US is a more difficult place in which to thrive. Ninety-seven percent of millennial Americans live above the poverty level if they follow what American Enterprise Institute calls the success sequence, which involves three things: graduating from high school, working full-time, and having children after you get married. The more you get out of that success sequence, the more the friction between you and American institutions increases. The church is no exception to that. We cannot underestimate the real challenges often posed when there is friction from differences in class, race, education, marital status, employment type, or nonnuclear family.
The American church and especially evangelicalism is largely built for the nuclear family or those on that track. The young, single parent working multiple jobs to make ends meet is going to find it harder to create the bandwidth necessary for meaningful church involvement and be more likely to experience depression and even shame in a church culture that creates programs that work for and elevate the nuclear family. The early church that used to cheerfully bring the poor and destitute into their lives now (at least in the US) often serves them at a distance through benevolence programs without fully embracing them into their church family. Modern American churches are financially incentivized to target the wealthy and create a space where those on track feel comfortable. Biblical hospitality, though, is so much more than just throwing money at a problem, and the net result is that the average American church is not truly hospitable to the less fortunate, making them feel like outsiders in our midst.
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.