Early in our research, it was disorienting to realize how orthodox the dechurched still are in their beliefs. This brought equal parts hope and confusion. Sixty-eight percent of dechurched evangelicals (DE), 69 percent of dechurched mainliners (DM), and 63 percent of dechurched Roman Catholics (DRC) all still believe in the Trinity. The divinity of Jesus (64% DE, 54% DM, 53% DRC) is still a strongly held view, as well as his sinlessness (61% DE, 52% DM, 45% DRC). Dechurched evangelicals still hold to primary doctrines like the atonement (65%), the resurrection (67%), the exclusivity of Jesus (62%), and the reliability of the Bible (61%). Dechurched mainline Christians hold similar numbers, as do dechurched Roman Catholics, except on the exclusivity of Jesus (40% DM, 27% DRC) and the reliability of the Bible (45% DM, 36% DRC).

Around two-thirds of the dechurched Christians we surveyed across tradition still believe evil forces are working in this world, including a literal devil. Fewer than 10 percent of the dechurched evangelicals we studied believe Jesus is a fictional character, while just a slightly higher percentage (20% DE, 5% DM, 4% DRC) believe Jesus was real but not special in any supernatural way. More than half of the dechurched we studied believe the Bible is a God-inspired book they can trust and believe in a literal heaven and hell. An astonishing 85 percent of dechurched evangelicals still pray to the God of the Bible.

We would be wise not to interact with the dechurched as we might with our unchurched friends, assuming they have no faith. Likely, their primary doctrinal convictions may well align with ours. Rather, we need to show them how the convictions they already hold apply to and should affect their lives. So what does this look like?

In our city, we have been encouraged by conversations surrounding belief with the dechurched. Not only is there a familiarity with our core doctrines but a general embracing of them as well. These conversations happen naturally over the dinner table or even at the gym in the context of relationships and trust. In almost every conversation we can think of with a dechurched person who is still largely orthodox (unless church trauma is involved), the person has expressed not only a knowledge that they should return to church but also a willingness to do so.

In 2020 my (Jim’s) rhythms were upended, and exercising (something I have been fairly consistent at over the years) became nonexistent. I knew I should get back to the gym. I missed the relationships I had there. I missed being physically and emotionally healthy. I could see my anxiety levels rising and feel my body deteriorate. But I didn’t go back. The problem wasn’t in my beliefs. The problem was in my motivation and the knowledge of how my entire lifestyle would have to be altered. My bedtime would have to change, my alarm clock would have to change, and my eating would have to change. I knew I would go back, but each week I put it off one more week. I didn’t need someone to tell me to go back to the gym; I needed someone to nudge me—to invite me back with them. And that is exactly what happened.

We believe a similar thing is needed with dechurched people who have maintained orthodox beliefs. Going back to church will upend their new Sunday morning rhythms. It will affect Saturday nights. It will mean prioritizing new relationships. But many dechurched individuals already think they will do it again one day. That day will perpetually remain tomorrow until someone invites them back to the community of God’s people. If there is one single application from our research that you walk away with, please let it be this: invite your dechurched friends back to a healthy church with you. But unlike a simple nudge to go back to the gym, we would do well to open the doors our homes and chairs at our table. We aren’t just telling them they should go back to church; we are inviting them into our lives, which includes church.

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.