What Is Driving the Great Dechurching?

It’s not exactly news, but there are fewer people attending church now than before the pandemic. What we’re finding out now is just how big of a drop it was. According to a survey by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, the percentage of people ages 39 to 57 who attended a worship service during the week, either in person or online, fell to 28% in 2023. That is down from 41% in 2020.


So what happened?

It can’t be explained solely by the rise of the nones. The post-pandemic reality is that many who were churched, who were anything but a “none,” simply didn’t return to their community of faith.

And it can’t be explained by ideological divides that led people to leave their church during the heated height of all things COVID. There certainly were a number of people who left their church for another congregation due to positions on vaccines, masking, meeting in person and more, but that would account for migratory patterns, not a 13-point overall plunge.

So what did happen?

Did they simply get out of the habit of attending when many churches were closed to in-person gatherings?

Did they enter a stage of life in which it became more difficult?

Did they become disillusioned with churches in general due to the ideological rancor that was often exhibited?

Were they already drifting away from the church beforehand, and the pandemic allowed them to “quiet quit?”

Did their church’s stance (or lack of one) on various social and racial issues push them out of the door?

Did they become disillusioned by high-profile leaders falling into moral disarray?

Were churches simply not challenging enough to arrest their attention, as argued by Jim David and Michael Graham in The Great Dechurching? Or, as Jake Meador writes in The Atlantic:

“Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.”

Daniel K. Williams, writing for Christianity Today, suggests that the deeper issue is a weak ecclesiology at the heart of most Christian’s theology, particularly evangelical theology, something I’ve written on and lamented for many years (see my Christ Among the Dragons). As Williams puts it: 

“What if the problem with dechurched evangelicals is not their faulty understanding of faith, but rather evangelical theology’s own lack of emphasis on the church? Relative to other forms of Christianity, evangelicals have historically maintained a rather low view of the church, compared to their high view of a believer’s individual relationship with God.”

So, with so much to choose from, what is driving the great dechurching? 

The answer, of course, is “all of the above.”  

So what is the way back? There are certainly many things worth pursuing of a practical nature, many of which I outline in my book Hybrid Church, written specifically for churches wanting to thrive in a post-Christian, digital age.

But one key dynamic will never change: The church must be the church. And this is what it has to offer the world that the world does not already have: authentic biblical community.

In an opinion piece for Christianity Today, Luke Helm writes of skipping out on church for three years, only to return out of spiritual loneliness. His reasons for the initial departure?

“Faith and church have been tough for a lot of people coming out of the pandemic. I’m one of them. The last three years ushered my wife and me through two job changes, a cross-country move, and months spent hunkered inside, trying to keep our young children healthy and ourselves sane. By the time the world began to reopen, so much felt different.

“Until recently, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d physically attended a church service since March 2020. I could give many reasons for our absence – a toddler and a newborn, disillusionment with a church tradition that was once home, enjoying a second weekend morning, sheer exhaustion and more.

“But if I’m really honest, one reason stands out: The further I get from church, the less Christian faith makes sense to me. The physical drift begets an intellectual one.”

So what brought him back? Helm ended his essay by noting that the “strength of togetherness” was what not only drew him back, but what he noticed most about being back in church.

In the 1970s Hal Lindsay wrote a sensationalist book titled The Late Great Planet Earth, which detailed how much the day mirrored the end times. He even suggested that everything seemed set to take place by the 1980s and the 1970s was already the era of the antichrist. It was alarmist to say the least. It would be easy today to write “The Late Great Planet Church” on the impending demise of the church.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

We can orient ourselves anew to the unchurched and the dechurched in our missional strategy.

We can reach out in new, hybrid ways to this new, hybrid world.

We can renew our thinking about the centrality of the church through a renewed ecclesiology.

And we can flesh out the unity and power of the body of Christ—the “strength of togetherness” that only the church can offer the world.

Read more from James Emery White »

This article originally appeared on ChurchAndCulture.org and is reposted here by permission.