Prone to Wander—The Dechurching Phenomenon in America

We are living in the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history. Some 40 million adult Americans who used to worship at church at least once a month now attend less than once per year. Almost all of those 40 million people have left in the last 30 years. And of those 40 million, 15 million have left evangelical churches. 

We call this phenomenon “The Great Dechurching” because this shift is larger than the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening and the conversions from the Billy Graham crusades combined. To learn more about this trend, we commissioned a comprehensive study by sociologists Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe.

What we discovered is that in the midst of this bad news there is a silver lining. Of the 15 million people who left evangelical churches, 51% of them are willing to return—right now

To understand who wants to come back to church, we first needed to look at who they are and why they left in the first place. After surveying a few thousand dechurched evangelicals, Burge ran a machine learning algorithm over the data set to determine clusters of people who share very common answers on demographics, when they left the church, doctrinal convictions and their willingness to return to an evangelical church. What came out of that were four rather distinct profiles.

* Cultural Christians

* Mainstream Evangelicals

* Exvangelicals

* BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color) Dechurched 

But before we talk about these groups, we need to share two big ideas that we will refer back to. First is the importance of understanding the difference between casually dechurched and a dechurched casualty. We estimate that roughly 30 million of the 40 million people who left houses of worship left casually. They moved, had other things to do with their time and money, found attending church to be inconvenient, etc. 

The other group is dechurched casualties, the roughly 10 million people who left because of relational strain; political tensions; negative experiences with the church as an institution; instances of racism and misogyny; and other things we refer to collectively as “church hurt.” 

The second idea is that there is a whole spectrum of engagement that people need in order to be willing to return to church. Some people just need a nudge—a personal invite or an invitation postcard would most likely prompt them to come to church. Others need to spend time at our dinner table. They tend to be more distant from Jesus or maybe have more substantive concerns about the church. They would benefit from having a deeper relationship with you and more of your time. They might also need to connect to the church from the side door of a small group, a service project or another avenue.

Still other people need years of faithful, tangible relationship. They are statistically unlikely to return to church, but nothing is impossible for God. We should always exercise attentiveness to the Holy Spirit and when he is encouraging us to move toward people and/or when God keeps putting someone relationally right in front of us.

Now let’s look at the four dechurched evangelical profiles and how you can help them return to church. 

1. Cultural Christians

The simplest way to describe Cultural Christians is that they don’t have a deep grasp of the faith, but do have some ideological and existential tension with the church. This group makes up a little over half (52%) of all dechurched evangelicals; roughly 8 million adult Americans fit this broad profile. 

Demographically speaking, people in this group are mostly male (58%) with an average age of 40, are married (87%), have a high income, are well educated, work full-time (87%) and are white (98%). Doctrinally speaking, Cultural Christians don’t look like Christians, with only 1% saying that “Jesus is the Son of God.” The group scored 56% overall on the orthodoxy score that measures Nicene Creed-type level of the faith on the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus in one unified person, the Trinity, the sinlessness of Jesus, the death of Jesus on the cross for the penalty of sins, the Resurrection, the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation, and the reliability of the Bible.

People in this profile left the church for largely casual reasons, such as attending was inconvenient (18%), their friends didn’t attend (18%), or they moved to a new community (17%). Respondents also cited some reasons that show a little bit of existential and ideological tension: suffering changed their view of God and the congregation (17%), clergy scandals in the broader culture (16%), and the church being too restrictive of their sexual freedom (16%). 

Almost half of this group (48%) are willing to return to an evangelical church today. That is roughly 4 million adult Americans. Many of the reasons they gave as to why they would be willing to return were relational, including wanting to make new friends (28%), feeling lonely (22%) and receiving an invitation from a friend (18%). 

What Your Church Can Do: Cultural Christians have unmet relational needs, and their mental health is not great in regard to anxiety, depression and loneliness. Given their overall lack of doctrinal clarity, Cultural Christians need churches that have a healthy doctrine and good pathways for spiritual formation. They also need the church to better engage with them when they are in the 18–39 age range as this is the timeframe when most of them are leaving the church. 

2. Mainstream Evangelicals
Mainstream Evangelicals look like evangelical Christians who still go to church, but they have gotten out of the habit of going. Demographically speaking, they are mostly female (61%) and are on average 40 years old, are mainly married (66%), have an average income and education, and are heavily white (91%). 

Interestingly, with respect to their doctrinal positions, they are more orthodox than evangelicals who still go to church, scoring 86% on the same orthodoxy standards described in Casual Christians. An extremely high 98% of them agree that “Jesus is the Son of God” and also lead all profiles with 59% agreeing that the “Bible is the literal Word of God.” 

On the whole, this group looks to be overwhelmingly part of the casually dechurched. The top four reasons why they left the church are they moved (22%), attending became inconvenient (16%), COVID-19 (15%), and divorce, remarriage, or another family change (15%). 

We found that 100% (yes, you read that right) of this group are willing to return to an evangelical church, making them classic “nudge” people. They miss going to church, know they need to be back in church, and just need a little relational effort to get them back in the habit of going. This group cited three constellations of reasons for why they would be willing to return:

* Relational. They said they wanted to make new friends (38%) and are lonely (22%).

* Sensitivity to God working on their heart. Respondents felt God was telling them to go back in some significant way (35%) or felt distant from God (32%). 

* Healthy local church. Mainstream Evangelicals also cited wanting to find a church they like (34%), missing church (33%), wanting to find a good pastor (30%) and finding a church that takes both doctrine and ethics seriously. 

What Your Church Can Do: The most important thing you can do to help Mainstream Evangelicals return to church is to scroll through your phone and your social media to proactively and systematically invite these people to church. They want to return, so maybe you can ask some questions that will help make resuming that habit easier or simpler for them. This group also needs to be at a church that is strong in both doctrine and ethics. Finally, like Cultural Christians, the key timeframe to reach Mainstream Evangelicals is 18–39 years old. 

3. Exvangelicals
Exvangelicals are the people who really got hurt in an evangelical church and are very unlikely to return to one, even though many of them still look like they have sincerely held onto the gospel. Demographically speaking, they are predominantly female (65%), are an average age of 53, are married (66%) but also have high divorce rates (17%), have below average income and education, and trend white (82%) but a tad more diverse than Cultural Christians or Mainstream Evangelicals.

One important caveat about this group is that we are using the term Exvangelical a bit differently than how some people are accustomed to it being used. Many of the largest Exvangelical voices online trend younger and more educated than what we are seeing in our survey. However, we chose this term for this group because none of these people are willing to return to an evangelical church right now. Certainly, there are many well-educated and younger Exvangelicals, but on the whole most of the group doesn’t spend much time online and seems to be struggling in just about every area of life. 

One bit of data that is surprising is that this group seems to have a decent grasp on the basics of the faith. On the whole, their orthodoxy score was 70%, and this is with 21% of them stating that not only would they not go back to an evangelical church, but they wouldn’t go back to any type of Christian church. A jaw-dropping 97% of them say that “Jesus is the Son of God.” This group had the second highest view of the Bible with 44% agreeing that the “Bible is the literal Word of God.”  

Across the board, this entire profile reads predominantly as dechurched casualties. They have significant and palpable church hurt. Consider some of their reasons for leaving: They didn’t fit within the congregation (23%), they didn’t experience much love within the congregation (18%), they disagreed with the politics of the congregation (15%) and the clergy (13%), and they no longer believed what the congregation believed (14%).

Though none of them said they were willing to return to an evangelical church, many were willing to return to a Christian church of some kind. When you see the reasons why they would come back, the answers are actually encouraging: God told me to go back in some significant way (28%), I want to find a church that I like (27%) and that has a good pastor (22%), I feel distant from God (19%), I want a church that cares about justice and compassion for vulnerable people (17%), and I want a good community (17%). 

What Your Church Can Do: Exvangelicals need a nonpartisan church community that will take doctrine and ethics seriously. The church also will need to be committed to caring for vulnerable people and to being especially sensitive to racism, misogyny and abuse. 

4. BIPOC Dechurched
BIPOC Dechurched is a fascinating group of extremely hard working and upwardly mobile people who left the evangelical church in the late 1990s. (The people surveyed left evangelical churches and do not include those who left Black Protestant traditions.) 

Demographically speaking, they are overwhelmingly male (68%), have an average age of 51, have high marriage rates (80%) and very low divorce rates (4%), and are highly educated and have a high income. Our data also shows they are 76% Black and 13% Hispanic/Latino. 

Regarding doctrine, this group looks just a bit better than Cultural Christians with a 58% orthodoxy score, 13% agreeing that “Jesus is the Son of God” and 29% agreeing that the “Bible is the literal Word of God.” Like Cultural Christians, there are substantive gaps in the beliefs of this group. 

Those in the BIPOC Dechurched groups give a mixture of casual and casualty reasons for why they left the evangelical church: they moved (21%), faith just wasn’t working for them (19%), they had other priorities (18%), they began to doubt God’s existence (18%), clergy scandals (17%), and the messages were not relevant (16%). This group’s rationale for dechurching looks broader than the other profiles with faith deteriorating for some, casual reasons for others, and some church hurt for others. 

A surprisingly high 65% are willing to return to an evangelical church right now. The reasons the BIPOC Dechurched gave for why they would come back are almost entirely relational: They want to make new friends (33%), they feel lonely (27%), their child (22%) or spouse wants to go (18%), they want a good community (20%), and they feel distant from God (18%). 

What Your Church Can Do: If you are going to be successful reengaging this group, you will need to develop close friendships that exhibit relational wisdom, especially cultural and emotional intelligence. For those BIPOCs who haven’t left the church yet, you will need to engage better with those in the 13–30 age range as this group tends to leave evangelical churches at a younger age than the other profiles. 

Moving Forward

We hope to have demystified for you the massive number of people who have left the church recently. So much of all of this boils down to individuals relating better with other people and building healthier churches that proclaim and demonstrate a gospel that is simultaneously true, good and beautiful. 

We hope you take action and move toward some people in your life with the appropriate nudge, dinner table or long-term relational investment. God is still at work, and we believe he has put many dechurched people in our path because he wants them to love both Christ and his bride, the church.