Have the dechurched stopped believing in God?

Published: Mon, 02/05/24


The part of our study concerning dechurched evangelicals provided possibly the biggest surprise and the most hope. Dechurched evangelicals are still largely orthodox in their faith. When it comes to our primary doctrines, 68 percent of those we surveyed still believe in the Trinity, 64 percent believe in the divinity of Jesus, 65 percent believe Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for the sins of those who believe in him, 67 percent believe in the resurrection, 62 percent believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and 61 percent believe the Bible is a reliable document for all matters of faith and practice. Collectively, the general orthodoxy scores of dechurched evangelicals in our study are much higher than their mainline or Roman Catholic counterparts. While they may have departed from the church, their responses indicate that they may not have departed from the faith.

When we focused on why this group of people left the church and how they thought they would come back, the answer was simple: belonging. Sociologists have long divided sociology of religion into the categories of believing, belonging, and behaving (categories we will expand on in later chapters). The animating concerns for their departures and potential return mainly fall into the category of belonging. When asked why they stopped attending a house of worship, 19 percent said they moved and didn’t find a new faith community, 14 percent said they didn’t experience much love from their faith community, 14 percent said they didn’t fit in, 13 percent said that COVID-19 got them out of the habit, 12 percent said their friends weren’t attending with them, and 13 percent said that recent family changes like divorce or remarriage made church feel uncomfortable.

When asked how willing they would be to go back to church, 51 percent said they are either somewhat willing or very willing—51 percent! Unsurprisingly, the reasons they would come back also represent a longing to belong. These dechurched evangelicals said they would come back if they made new friends (28%), if they move and want to make new friends (18%), if they became lonely and want to make new friends (20%), if their children want to go (16%), if their spouse wants to go (18%), if a friend invites them (17%), if there is a good pastor (18%), if they find a good community (17%), if they miss their church community (20%), or if they just find a church they like (14%). This group’s high orthodoxy scores also inform other reasons they would come back: if they feel the distance from God (20%) or if God tells them to go back in some significant way (18%).

The main takeaway here is that many dechurched evangelicals simply need a friend to invite them to church. For hundreds of thousands of dechurched evangelical Christians, all they need is a personal invitation to a decent church community. We gave our early research to a Presbyterian (EPC) church called The Crossing in Columbia, Missouri, and they began initiatives to engage this group of people. Some initiatives were technology based and some were more personal. They identified dechurched evangelicals whose dechurching was belonging based, and in just a matter of months, they had over 120 formerly dechurched people worshiping with them in person! The Great Dechurching is reversible and doesn’t have to have the final word for faith communities in our country.

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.



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