Belonging (or lack thereof) is the primary pain point many dechurched feel. Of all the things people said would make them likely to return, this is the greatest felt need. We asked two vital questions to understand the animating concerns of the dechurched: What made you leave? And what would entice you to come back? The answers to these questions show us opportunities in front of us in this area of belonging.

Why did the dechurched leave? Some in our study left simply because they moved (19% DE, 25% DM, 13% DRC). They moved to a new city, hit the ground running, and developed new rhythms and friendships that changed their Sunday-morning patterns. This is also true for those who stopped going to church during the pandemic and never came back (13% DE, 7% DM, 8% DRC). Most dechurched evangelicals still worship online (which is more common among evangelicals anyway), but they do so at their convenience. Many evangelical churches now call their online worship services “on demand,” and that is exactly what people are choosing to do. What is intended as a new front door is often having the opposite effect by helping the dechurched leave through the back door. Our research showed that physically going to a church in our consumerist digital age has become inconvenient, and many people have concluded that they have other priorities for their time and money.

As we said in chapter 2, these are the casually dechurched. No abuse or scandal sent them packing—no overarching, animating concern. They just stopped going to church and realized they prefer their new Sunday morning activities. They found another place to go, but in many cases, they did not find the sense of belonging they left behind.

The dechurched casualties left more intentionally. Some left because they didn’t feel like they fit in (14% DE, 14% DM, 14% DRC) or because their friends didn’t go with them (12% DE, 4% DM, 4% DRC). Others left because they didn’t feel loved by their congregation (14% DE, 8% DM, 9% DRC) or because of a family change like divorce or remarriage (12% DE, 9% DM, 10% DRC), and they did not have the community in their church to overcome the difficulties of that change. Millions of people have left church simply because they desired to worship with people they knew and felt loved by but didn’t experience that in their context. They desire to worship in a community where they feel like they belong.

What would it take to entice these people back? They told us. The desire to make new friends in general (28%) would be enough for some, but others would only desire those new friends after a move (18%) or if they became lonely (20%). For others, all it would take is a friend inviting them (17%) or finding a good community (17%). Some would go back if their child (16%) or spouse (18%) invited them. Finding a good pastor (18%) or a church they like (14%) would be enough for many. These are not high or unreasonable bars for a Christian community.

As church leaders, it’s tempting to point the finger at the dechurched and their lack of commitment or discipline (which may in fact be an issue). But what if we instead held a mirror up to ourselves and asked what the Bible says about belonging in a Christian community? What are we doing to foster it in our churches? It’s a sad indictment on the church that so many people find a more compelling and rich community around their children’s sports teams, paddle boarding clubs, and the gym than in church.

Church is not an event; it is a family. It’s not a perfect family, but it is a real spiritual family. We are, in some mysterious way, all grafted together into Jesus’ body. This is a doctrine called Christus totus, the whole Christ. Christ is composed of both the person of Jesus and the church, which is the very body of Jesus. We are a part of who Jesus is, which makes genuine Christian belonging something we cannot find outside of the 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.