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The Great Dechurching and the Elephant in the Nave

“We just don’t have time for it anymore.” It’s the sentiment encapsulated in “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church.” The Atlantic article by Jake Meador provides an overview of The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why are They Going, and What Will it Take to Bring Them Back? by Jim Davis and Michael Graham. While the book lays out the statistics of who is leaving and why, the article suggests a strategy for bringing them back. Meador says American churches should provide a more communal atmosphere where time and commitment are both expected and freely given. In doing so, dechurching will be mitigated and previous drifters might even come to realize that the church is really “where it’s at” and reorient their lives accordingly.

Davis and Graham surveyed thousands who no longer had the time for regular church attendance. There were numerous reasons cited: lack of convenience, gender identity, church scandal, relocation, loss of faith, lack of affinity, politics, etc. They noted that roughly 75% of the respondents claimed casual reasons for dechurching rather than for any kind of intense annoyance or loss of faith (the number one reason given for dechurching was simply that they had moved).

They also noted five dechurching misconceptions: (1) people leave primarily because of negative experiences with the church, (2) young people are leaving the church after attending secular universities, (3) people leave the church because they’ve left the faith, (4) people leaving are primarily on the secular left, and (5) they aren’t willing to come back.

While the responses to the Davis and Graham survey must be acknowledged, it doesn’t follow that the responses must be taken as candid. With 75% of responders claiming casual reasons for a life-altering decision to dechurch, might there be some equivocating going on? Is churchgoing really a casual activity that can “casually” be given up? Upon moving, interruptions to prior activities certainly do occur, but do you give them up because restarting is troublesome? If you were a golfer before relocating, you’ll probably find a new place to golf. If you were a physical fitness buff, you’ll likely find a new gym. If you were family oriented, you’ll surely find a way to maintain your family ties. Whatever it is, if it’s near and dear to your heart, you’ll likely find a way to maintain or replicate it. So, why upon moving, would you suspend churchgoing? Churches are not difficult to find; there are multiple choices available in virtually every community. If still deemed important, why would you not choose one and adopt it? A candid answer might be that relocation was an excuse for the dechurching, and not really its cause. Moving simply made stepping away a bit easier.

The Davis and Graham study found that loss of faith is denied by nearly all evangelicals who no longer find time for church on Sunday mornings. In fact, their survey indicates that: “mainstream evangelical drop-outs register a higher orthodoxy score and view of Jesus than evangelicals who still attend church.” It is indeed an odd finding. It seems to suggest that those who don’t go to church on Sunday have more faith than those who do. Or, looked at a second way, those who are most familiar with church and biblical orthodoxy are more apt to dechurch than those who are less familiar. A third perspective (which needn’t exclude the second) is that faith has indeed not been lost; it’s been modified. Faith is still present, but it’s no longer a faith that aligns with church doctrine.

Dechurching does not necessitate becoming an atheist. One can stop going to church and still believe in something rather than nothing. Dechurchers may not readily cite loss of faith when questioned, because they might believe they still have it; it’s just not the precise faith defined by strict Christian orthodoxy. Their concept of God is no longer defined by strict church doctrine. The dechurchers have stopped going to church because their evolved faith no longer warrants it. However, there is a stigma attached to stepping away: it can be seen as a defection and/or as a reproach to those still in the fold. Relocation (and the other casual reasons cited for dechurching) provides an inoffensive and non-confrontational explanation for having stepped away from an orthodoxy that has become personally untenable.

Loss of faith, with regards to church doctrine, means no longer assuming its credibility. With Christianity, it means no longer accepting the Bible or its proponents as bearing the unquestionable word of God. For many, it means that going to church on Sunday has lost its luster. Loss of orthodox faith as cause for dechurching though, gets danced around and likely minimized; church advocates (invested in traditional faith) conducting surveys are comfortable with not finding it, and those being surveyed (divested of traditional faith) are comfortable in not reporting it. So, all kinds of casual reasons are cited for the great dechurching rather than the one that makes sense: church doctrine has lost credibility.

8,000 years ago, when the universe held but one sun that passed over a flat Earth, the proposed gods did make sense and everybody had one (or more than one). Every culture, even in the furthest corners of civilization, found deities that provided some sort of explanation for the mysteries of human existence. As the known Earth expanded and cultures bumped into one another, some cultures and their gods became more dominant than others. The gods of the most powerful became the most believable, at least to the dominating cultures that held them. It all made sense millennia ago when the Earth was flat and the center of the universe.

Perception is flexible. Orthodoxy is rigid; it can’t keep pace with human observation. The Earth is neither flat nor unique today, nor is the sun. We know there are billions upon billions of “suns” in our Milky Way galaxy, and uncountable planets. Beyond this galaxy there are more, perhaps infinitely more. To an expanding number of doctrinal skeptics, it’s unbelievable that a creator of this incomprehensibly vast universe would abruptly come forth thousands of years ago and pick just one tiny location on an already widely populated planet to briefly reveal “himself” to only a few select men of but a single select culture, and then return to silent mode. To the skeptical, it’s inconceivable that a creator of this incomprehensible universe would then set aside a place of eternal suffering for the unfortunate souls born into cultures bereft of the revelation imparted to those privileged few, or for anyone who might doubt the veracity of men claiming to be the exclusive recipients of such a revelation.

40 million Americans have stopped going to church in the past 25 years. Davis and Graham have comfortably found the departures to be mostly for “casual” reasons rather than for conflict with church doctrine. Jake Meader pretty much agrees, and suggests that dechurching might actually be quelled by asking more, rather than less, of churchgoers. Neither Davis, Graham, nor Meader seem willing to broach the possibility that church doctrine might be a significant factor in the dechurching of America. How could they? They are not just churchgoers; they are stewards of church orthodoxy. Their aim (whether conscious or not) is not to implicate church orthodoxy in the great dechurching; it’s to look elsewhere and find other reasons.

The stewards of Christianity (or any of our ancient religions) might emphasize or deemphasize aspects of orthodoxy to promote acceptance, but they can’t substantively rewrite doctrine for the sake of palatability. They’re stuck with promoting the baggage of ancient scripture, stuck with the words of men who claimed divine guidance to inspire obedience thousands of years ago. Not all churchgoers are so stuck; 40 million Christians have dechurched in a trend that continues.

Dechurching is not an abrupt happening; one doesn’t wake up on a Sunday morning to the sudden realization that churchgoing is over. It’s a process, likely a two-step process. First there’s a rational disconnect as perception clashes with church orthodoxy. When the cognitive disconnect is absorbed, it might be followed by a physical departure where one actually stops going to church. Or, it might not be; one might disengage mentally without ever doing so physically. There are constraints to leaving: family and community expectations may keep one bodily in the fold long after the mind has moved on. Some might find the “casual” means for dechurching inconvenient or inaccessible, so they remain; physically present, but spiritually detached. Exaggerated affectation often accompanies pretense. Some with seemingly deep-set convictions may have already left without going away. The “present but detached” category might include more than just pew occupants. A church steward in the pulpit could also wear a veil of conviction. They too, might experience a spiritual disconnect, but be even more subject to the constraints of social expectations and self-defining appearances. A strange dynamic would then unfold: those pretending to be blind, leading those pretending to be blind.

After all the departures in the last 25 years, there are still 167 million U.S. adults who identify as Christian (Pew Research Center, 2019). In another 25 years (or less) it will likely become known that millions more have stepped away to further expand the great dechurching. Stepping away from a church, from a god, or from the heaven and hell of ancient orthodoxy is not really a casual undertaking. It’s not done simply because one relocates, or because there’s no time for church attendance. Dechurching happens when churchgoing is not seen as important. To a growing multitude, churchgoing is no longer important because church orthodoxy is no longer credible; they’ve moved on, even if reluctant to explicitly voice it. While the great dechurching is acknowledged by church stewards, it is misrepresented. It’s not really for casual reasons that congregants are dechurching. They’re dechurching because church orthodoxy has lost its holding power; human perception has moved on.


Davis, Jim, and Michael Graham. (2023, September 5). “5 Misconceptions About Dechurching in America.” The Gospel Coalition. <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/misconceptions-dechurching/>.

Meador, Jake. (2023, July 29). “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church.” The Atlantic. <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/07/christian-church-communitiy-participation-drop/674843/>.

Pew Research Center. (2019, October 17). “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

Smietana, Bob. (2023, September 7). “‘The Great Dechurching’ Explores America’s Religious Exodus.” Religion News Service. <https://religionnews.com/2023/09/07/the-great-dechurching-explores-americas-religious-exodus/>.