“The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?” takes a sledgehammer to both of those explanations by showing, through mountains of data, that none of these issues are at the heart of why people are leaving churches. Authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham, with Ryan Burge (author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going”), reveal how conventional wisdom on both sides is either incomplete or plain wrong. What the authors do is create a new — more accurate — thesis to start discussing the issue from.
“The Great Dechurching” is the kind of book that amateur lovers of sociology and religion like myself love. The book is packed with data and stats, but is also incredibly readable and thoughtful, with strong arguments for how to interpret the data they give and what solutions they see going forward.
At the same time, the book is still being kind and pastoral. The book is always balanced between giving facts and telling stories, which is probably due in part to its multiple authors.
According to the book, the exodus of people leaving church is far less about different beliefs and far more about changing priorities. The vast majority of people “dechurching” still believe in God and have some level of orthodox Christian beliefs (although with some exceptions, the largest subgroups of the dechurched still have the least orthodox beliefs). Most of them either want to or are open to going back to church someday. They are just simply too busy.
As the authors cheekily put it, most dechurched people talk about going to church the way they talk about going to the gym: They know they should, but it’s hard to find the energy or time. And despite the claim by those in surveys that conservative politics really have driven them away from attending church, the fact remains that the most liberal-to-moderate churches are the ones that have been declining most for a long time, with conservative churches catching up only recently (partly because mainline Christian denominations don’t have enough numbers anymore to continue losing people at the rates they once did).
This has radical implications on how we look at America’s church decline and how we go about addressing it. Progressives who thought the way to bring people back to Christianity was to jettison conservative politics for liberal ones have to wrestle with why people are leaving them at higher rates compared to doctrinally conservative churches. They have to contend with the fact that politics and church abuse remain a relatively small percentage for the reasons people give for leaving church. (Although when abuse is the dominant reason given, they tend to be the most orthodox of the dechurched, which is something traditional Christians should take note of).
Conservatives whose strategy was either removing their young people from secular environments or giving them apologetics tools to help them defend their faith from their college’s secular onslaught need to wrestle with the fact that most of their kids are not leaving church because of competing beliefs, but competing priorities. Many of those priorities are ones that conservatives support like work and family. It’s not that none of these issues — on both the left and the right — are unimportant, but they are not the headline when it comes to issues of church decline.
While the authors list three big reasons they believe the church has declined so fast over the past 25 years (a move away from the Cold War, politics and social media), it’s clear by reading this book that perhaps the biggest factor has been an inability by the church to pass on to each new generation of Christians a desire to prioritize a relationship with God. Whether it’s prioritizing work and family over church or politics, people are choosing the culture’s priorities over the church.
The book tells a very incisive story that illustrates this: The world has more time to form people than the church does. Chapter 12 tells the story of a fictional Susan who loves her church and her pastor, but she’s at church one day a week and small group one day a week and the rest of the time is watching cable news, social media, TV and a bunch of other things that are forming her. In time, her heart has to be shaped more by her outside church time than her church time.
And yet, very little of the book addresses how Christians could go about solving this problem. Most of the solutions given feel like Band-Aids on an exploding dam, featuring recycled solutions other Christian book might give (particularly ones inspired by Tim Keller’s work)m such as being a better listener, modeling Christ better, being a church that balances doctrinal truth with missional good works in the community and conducting social media fasts.
These are all good things, but they don’t solve the fundamental problem.The best new idea is that because the root of the problem is not beliefs but church attendance, outreach to the dechurched should focus on making sure they people feel welcome and plugged into the church community rather than convincing them of a doctrinal truth. Even this, however, feels like plugging leaks rather than dealing with the coming iceberg.
In fact, the authors seem to respond to the problem that the culture has more influence over Christians by the church by cheering for the church to have less cultural relevance. In Chapter 14, the authors list the advantages of being a church that has less cultural power than it has enjoyed in the West for the last 1,000 years. There is definitely something to be said for a church that can “witness from the margins” — but only if you can find a solution to the problem of the culture having more influence over Christians than the church does, which the book does not spend real time giving tangible solutions for.
“The Great Dechurching” also contains other notable blind spots that blunt the potential helpfulness of its solutions. As Lymon Stone of the Institute for Family Studies points out, children are losing their faith often without their parent’s knowledge even before they turn 13. It’s often already too late. Yet the book focuses its solutions on targeting young adults after the damage is already done.
We know from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s landmark book“The Coddling of The American Mind” and articles like The Atlantic’s“A Shift In Family Values is Fueling Estrangement” and“That’s It. You’re Dead To Me.” that increasingly Americans are interpreting disagreement as “toxic” behavior worth separating from family and friends over. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume there’s no advice in this book on how to “listen better” in situations like this.
Whatever the weaknesses of “The Great Dechurching,” this is a book deserves credit for completely shifting the conversation around the reasons and solutions for America’s church decline. Every thoughtful public discussion to be had on the topic will have to contend with the data in this book as one of its chief starting places. And every discussion will be better for it.