When social scientists think about religion, they typically categorize religiosity in three ways: behavior, belief, and belonging. Behavior is measured through things like church attendance or amount of offering donated to a religious organization. Belief is assessed through asking questions about what a respondent believes about the existence of God, heaven, or hell. Belonging is more about social affiliations; a survey asks about a person’s current religion, if any. The person taking the survey can say they are Protestant, Jewish, atheist, or some other choice from a menu of about a dozen options.

What is often overlooked is that when people say they no longer go to church or affiliate with a religious institution, that doesn’t mean they leave all vestiges of religion behind. For instance, among those who say they are “nothing in particular” when it comes to their religious belonging, a third still say religion is “somewhat” or “very important” to them. They left the religious label behind but not their belief.

In the same way, a lack of church attendance doesn’t necessarily mean someone has given up on the idea of God. Among those who report never attending church in the General Social Survey, the share who don’t believe in God is about 20 percent. But the share of these never attenders who say they believe in God without any doubts is also about 20 percent.

Despite the fact that about 40 percent of Americans never attend church and 30 percent say they have no religious affiliation, just one in ten Americans says God does not exist or that we have no way to know if God exists. Religious belief is stubborn in the United States, and while someone may not act on that belief by going to a house of worship on Sunday morning, that doesn’t mean they think their spiritual life is unimportant.

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 or August, do a church-wide study of evangelism. (You might consider a sermon series to go along with the study.)

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.