'The great dechurching': Why so many Americans are leaving their churches
About 40 million Americans have left churches and other religious institutions in the last 25 years.
For some, the decision is rooted in deep pain. But for the majority, their reasons for leaving are a lot more mundane than you’d expect.
“Most people have left for really pedestrian reasons. Like, I moved; attendance was inconvenient; or, say, family change,” Michael Graham, co-author of “The Great Dechurching” says.
So, what does that say about the importance of faith in America?
Today, On Point: ‘The Great dechurching.’
Michael “Mike” Graham, program director for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Co-author of “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?”
Pastor Jim Davis, teaching pastor at Orlando Grace Church. Co-author of “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?”
CHAKRABARTI: When we asked you for stories, if you’ve left your religion or houses of worship, you sent us some of the highest numbers of messages we’ve ever received. Here are just a few.
KRISTEN FOWLER: I was raised a Catholic. And went to church every Sunday, but as an adult, I have not gone. I actually don’t even really go on holidays anymore. I think that the reason for that is the views of the church on things like divorce, same sex marriage and abortion just don’t align with my views.
BILL HENLEY: We were raised Catholic in our forties, we had a falling out with the local church because sermons were becoming very political, especially about abortion. And that just really irritated us. That’s not why we go to church.
BRIGETTE BISHOP: I grew up going to a Protestant church every week. I taught Sunday school, I sang in the choir, and I was even a church organist for a couple years. I stopped going to church in my thirties because they hurt me deeply. I got postpartum psychosis after the birth of my second child, and the pastor of the church we were attending accused me of being possessed by a demon.
CHAKRABARTI: So those were On Point listeners Kristen Fowler in Lexington, Kentucky, Bill Henley in Oregon, and Brigette Bishop in Norfolk, Massachusetts, sharing some of the deeply painful reasons many Americans have left their churches. They are among the 40 million Americans who have stopped going to worship services in the past 25 years alone.
Now that 40 million number includes people of all faiths. But today, we’re going to focus on Christianity, because it is the faith that the majority of religious Americans practice. And because, the surprising fact is, most of those people who have left their churches have done so for remarkably mundane reasons.
So what does that tell us about the perceived centrality of organized religion in American life? Joining us now is Michael Graham. He’s the program director for the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. It’s a group underneath the Gospel Coalition. Mike, welcome to On Point.
MICHAEL GRAHAM: So good to be here, Meghna.
Thank you. And also, with us today is Pastor Jim Davis. He’s the teaching pastor at Orlando Grace Church. Pastor Davis, welcome to you as well.
PASTOR JIM DAVIS: Thank you for having us, Meghna. And Mike and Pastor Davis are co-authors of the book “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?”
Now, I just want to emphasize once again that 40 million number. Of course, includes Americans of all faiths, but just because Christianity is such a major part of that 40 million number, I’d like to confine our analysis to American Christians. So first of all, both of you are in Orlando, Florida, and Pastor Davis, let me just start with you.
I’m wondering if your own congregation, if you have seen the effects of this rapid decline in the people who are physically attending services.
DAVIS: We’ve certainly seen it in our city in a major way. Our church is actually growing right now, but I know that’s not the norm for many churches around the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so I should note that both of you are at the same church as well. Okay, then you said you’ve seen it in your city, in Orlando. Would you guys like to describe what has been changing in Orlando?
DAVIS: Yeah, so Orlando, if you go back to the ’90s and 2000s, it felt like it was becoming some sort of Christian Mecca.
You had the president of the Southern Baptist Convention was down here. One of the largest churches in the state was pioneering the non-denominational space, major world Christian organizations were relocating seminaries here. And then you fast forward, and we now have the same percentage of evangelicals as New York City and Seattle.
So we’re seeing this trend as heavily as most any city. I think the latest statistic that I saw has us at the sixth most dechurched city per capita, by per capita in the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow. Okay. So that is a precipitous decline in a remarkably short period of time. In your book, both of you go through thoroughly about the whys. And of course, that’s the heart of our conversation today, which we’ll get to.
But the question that immediately comes to my mind after hearing about such a rapid decline, is it consistent across different groups of Christians, right? So let’s just take it by race, for example. Is the rate of dechurching amongst different or ethnicities in America the same?
GRAHAM: No the rate of dechurching is a little bit faster among Asian Americans, and it’s a little bit slower among Hispanic or Latino Americans, and it’s about the average of the bell curve is there for those who are Caucasian or African American.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Do you have a sense as to why, let’s say for Hispanic Americans, their rate of dechurching is slower?
GRAHAM: That’s a sociological question. If our social scientist Ryan Burge were here, I think if Ryan were here, he would probably say something to the effect that the rate of decline from first, second to third generation Hispanic and Latino Americans of the religion that they were bringing into the country is more sticky than it is for immigrants of other ethnicities.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that leads me to the next layer here of rates in different age groups. Overall, in the United States, we see younger Americans as reporting to be less religious than older Americans. Is that the same for the actual dechurching?
GRAHAM: So it’s complicated. The dechurching that’s taking place is hitting every age category in the country.
What’s interesting is the rate of churching in counties that are older in nature is worse. However, when you look at the people who are dechurching, they are typically de churching in the 13 to 30 age range. In particular, 18 to 29 is the time at which most Americans identify as being the least religious, and then it accelerates from there.
Most people identify as being most religious and most likely to attend in the 0- to 18-year-old time frame.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. No, I just want to emphasize an important point that when we speak of dechurching, when the two of you write of dechurching you’re speaking about people who no longer, who attend less or don’t attend at all.
Or aren’t affiliated with any specific church. We’re not talking about a loss of faith. That’s a not at all what we’re speaking about here. I just want to double check that is correct.
DAVIS: In the sociological categories of belief belong and behave. We are studying belonging. That is very important.
The way we defined dechurching for the purpose of our study was someone who used to attend at least monthly and now attends less than one time per year, which doesn’t even include those who might just go on Easter or just Christmas. So you could make an argument that the shift is even larger than our study shows, we wanted to be as conservative as possible in the way that we studied it.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now you surveyed, what, some 7,000 people, right? Or you used Ryan Burge. I think he’s the one who did the survey of the 7,000. Is that right?
GRAHAM: Yeah. So we commissioned the study with Ryan. We did a three-phase study, 7,000 total people over the course of three successively granular studies, zooming more and more in.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, good. I just, I’m always keen to be sure that people understand where the data come from. Thank you for clarifying those things. Now, I have two more groups of Americans that I just want to talk about to see if there’s any difference in their rates of dechurching. What about between men and women?
GRAHAM: Yeah, so the rates of dechurching among men and women, it varies. pretty widely depending on which profile that we’re talking about. And you should do this, pick up a copy of the great dechurching so that you can get a much more granular look at all of these different profiles. But in the book, we outline four different profiles of dechurched evangelicals, a mainline dechurched profile, and a Roman Catholic dechurched profile.
Those different groups vary pretty widely in terms of their rates of men versus women. You have groups like the ex-evangelicals who are predominantly female, 68%. And then you have groups like the BIPOC group, out of BIPOC people who left evangelical churches, they’re predominantly men, 68%. It just depends on which tradition that you’re looking at.
As well the dechurching that occurred out of mainline context is overwhelmingly female as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And by the way I actually do have the book. I just think it’s incredibly boring for listeners to hear me explain research that our guests have actually done. That’s why I’m asking you what may seem like obtuse questions, but it’s just so that we can all, and our family of listeners, can have a shared foundation for getting to the big questions about why this matters.
So let me just jump to that. And specifically, through the lens of Americans who either, their faith has diminished somewhat or for Americans who profess no faith, I’d love you to make the case for why this massive drop in churchgoing, in your eyes, really matters for the country. Because there are many Americans out there who might actually see this as a good thing, because the church has become, various churches have become so politicized in recent years and decade that they might see a reduction in attendance as a good thing for the country overall. So why does it matter?
DAVIS: So that’s a really good question. And it’s going to matter for different reasons. Mike and I would agree with you that there has been political syncretism. And so even as a pastor, there’s some of this, our data shows some millions of people who are, a group of millions of people are leaving the church who probably never really identified fully as Christian to begin with.
And on one hand, there’s a little bit of a purification of what we really believe and are here to do. But even for people who are outside the Christian faith, I think we have to recognize that if we take the 40 million people who have left the church in the last 25 years or so, that represents a GDP of about $1.4 trillion, which is about $24 billion a year. Now, every year not going to houses of worship and 40% of our social safety net is probably made up by religious nonprofits, and that’s going somewhere.
CHAKRABARTI: That great dechurching is about 40 million Americans who’ve left their places of worship in the past 25 years. Many of them have done so for very deeply held spiritual reasons or maybe even personal breaks with the church that they had been attending.
But one of the major takeaways from The “Great Dechurching” book is that for most of this 40 million who left their houses of worship, it has a lot more to do with the reality of daily life than it does with any political or spiritual reckoning.
LILO: I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and I never really pursued it after going off on my own. I think it had something to do with just not having a local church. Because I moved away, and my husband is not religious.
MARTA: I left the Catholic Church many years ago, because I thought it was extremely boring.
TOM: I do not currently attend church because in my town, and I’m sure this is the case for a lot of other medium sized cities, there is not a church with people in my age range.
MAURA: My main reason for not going to church right now is because I’m taking care of an elderly parent, and there is a time conflict and not being able to leave her alone. So my Sundays are filled with caring for my parents.
CHAKRABARTI: Those were On Point listeners Maura in New York; Tom Hauser in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Marta Silva in Pasadena, California; and Lilo in Somerville, Massachusetts.
So gentlemen, this is one of the most surprising things I found in your book. And here’s how one reviewer described it. That the major problem driving most people out of church may not be church itself, but it’s just how American life works in the 21st century. Talk about that if you could.
Yeah. So probably the biggest surprise that we had going into this study and coming out of it was, there were two storylines that people had. That were the overarching narratives of why people were leaving houses of worship. If your media diet leaned a little bit left, the stories were people were leaving because houses of worship have made major mistakes on things like racism, misogyny, political syncretism, clergy scandal, and clergy abuse.
And if your media diet was leaning a little bit to the right, the story there was people have left houses of worship because of secular progressivism and because of the sexual revolution. And yeah, it was a big surprise for us. The reason why people left were primarily very pedestrian reasons that seemed actually very pragmatic.
And yeah, that was a real surprise for us, to see that it looked like 30 of the 40 million people who left for very pragmatic and, frankly, boring reasons, the other two stories that were there. And certainly, there’s millions of people that fit both of those stories.
And the very first, the stories that you guys played here at the beginning of this very much highlight, “Hey, yeah, there’s real people here and there’s many of them and they’ve experienced significant hurt” But then as we saw here from these last four stories, there’s also these other people that just, they just had life and there’s just the inertia and the patterns and rhythms of American life, just had them getting out of the habit.
The top reason why people left, in terms of dechurching was, I moved. The number two reason overall was attendance was inconvenient. And the number three reasons was that somebody had a family change, a marriage, divorce, remarriage, or those different kinds of things. So I think that you saw that reflected in the gentleman who moved, the person who was taking care of an elderly parent.
So yeah, those are just some of the, we call this in book, casual dechurching as opposed to the, that’s 30 million people and then 10 million people who we call de church casualties. Dechurch casualties, they left with significant pain. Casually dechurched people left unintentionally.
CHAKRABARTI: Since you found that three quarters of the people who had been dechurched were those casual dechurchers, this is, it goes right at one presumption that I think many of us had about American life, that religion and the formal practice of it was actually integral to what life is.
Or at least at one time was, in the United States. And if so many people are being casually dechurched, does that mean that the church itself has lost its centrality? Or that it wasn’t delivering something that made it worth putting forth the extra effort, regardless of how life had changed, to actually attend?
DAVIS: Yeah, I’ll start on this, and I’m going to have Mike speak to institutions a bit now. But going back to the origin of our country, we want to address the myth that we are, that we were formed as a Christian nation. When you go back to 1776, I think it was only 17% of people in the colonies were attending church regularly.
If you consider the constitution compared to some of the colonies, say, Connecticut, for example, that talks about Jesus in their constitution, our constitution was the watershed document into secularism in the West. So we believe we certainly wouldn’t want to return to a 17% belonging from where we are now at, say, around 49% of the country.
Certainly, our high watermark was the 20th century. Mike, why don’t you speak to institutions and how that plays a factor?
GRAHAM: So I think when you look at, I don’t know if you guys saw the Gallup study. That 13 of the 14 institutions in the United States over the last 15 to 20 years have all eroded in terms of the public’s trust in those institutions.
So this would be everything like the president, to the Supreme Court to Congress to media technology. And these different kinds of things. The only institution in American public life that has increased in the public’s trust is the United States military. And so I think these things speak to the ways in which, culture and society continues to reform and reshape itself.
I think a lot of this is downstream from the ways in which technology, the way information, comes to us and the ways in which, you know, our information diet, kind of, we received those things. Everything is, in ’69, you had the moon landing. And I think 80% of Americans watch that live on their television or radios.
You had 9/11, which was probably the last time we had, aside from a Super Bowl, more than half of Americans watching something that was a same, in common touch point. People’s information diets are fractured, and we have everything, even journalism itself, moving from, in some ways, from major newspapers and radio outlets like NPR down to the kind of the Substacking and following various personalities, podcasts, and these different kinds of things online.
So I think that those things are really challenging the ways in which institutions are formed and shaped. And the role of institutions in American public life. And so the challenge with that is, churches. Churches are institutions, they’re physical places, and in order to do most of the things that we need to do, in order to worship, those are physical things.
And so I think the American public’s tolerance for being around people who have differences, and of opinion or differences of perspective, or even differences in tribe or affiliation. That tolerance seems to be waning and classic. And this has presented really, significant challenges for classical liberalism.
CHAKRABARTI: This is so interesting because, okay, there’s a lot that you said there, and I want to dig into it a little bit. First and foremost, I will completely acknowledge that not just in some way, but in major ways, media and internet have moved very far towards, away from institutions and towards narrowly focused sites or groups who are just out there to do one thing, whether you agree with them or not.
I don’t want to water that down. But secondly, so you’re talking, both of you are talking about major changes in life overall. The internet is access to information that perhaps people just never had before, different points of view, et cetera, which may either strengthen or weaken their relationships with their church.
You’ve written about that extensively, but also just the church, churches themselves not being able to keep up with these changes. I wonder if another way of looking at that is that churches have not been able to maintain their relevance in people’s lives, with all of the sort of social and cultural changes that you talked about.
And again, this reviewer in The Atlantic wrote an amazing article about your book and he also pointed to a culture of workism in America as replacing the kinds of meaningful feedback that people used to get from church. Your thoughts on that?
DAVIS: I think this is a great question. And this is why the ’90s was such an inflection point.
When you look at dechurching and how that’s when all of this really hit a tipping point. So you have four factors that I can go through very briefly. The fall of the Soviet Union was a massive deal. Because before the end of the Cold War, to be American was synonymous for being Christian. I can remember a time when I was young, and I’m not that old, when if someone said, “I’m not a Christian,” the next question might have been, “Are you a communist?”
So after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was freedom to be able to say, “I’m not a Christian.” Then you have the Internet coming into our schools and libraries predominantly, at that point in the ’90s, you have things happening like the advent of the Internet cafe. So you have these aspects, but then really at the close of the nineties, when you have 9/11.
Our national enemy overnight goes from the godless atheists to the religious fundamentalists. And so there was another reason for people to say, “If that’s what religion is, I don’t want to be a part of it.” And so what you saw in the ’90s were people dechurching more on the secular left, more in Roman Catholicism and mainline.
But now you fast forward to where we are now and dechurching is happening on the secular right at twice the pace, almost catching up in the full number of those who have dechurched on the secular left.
CHAKRABARTI: That, okay, so let’s take that to the next phase then. Where are they going instead?
DAVIS: Go ahead, Mike.
GRAHAM: Yeah, so I think in terms of the secular right, it’s no great surprise from 2015 to present that, I think for some people, there’s been a revealing. You know the word apocalyptic. Not talking like 2012, the sense of the term, but the actual definition of a revealing.
GRAHAM: So I think one of the things that’s been interesting about the Internet is that with the advent of the like button and all of the dopamine that comes in that, it’s incentivizing people to be increasingly more honest and particularly as social media becomes very algorithmically driven, people end up with people who are seeing what they’re posting in ways that creates a feedback loop. And so that feedback loop is then incentivizing people to become more honest on more controversial topics. I remember growing up, religion and politics. Those were not supposed to be things that we discussed in public.
But in the advent of social media, you now have this incentive structure for people to share their thoughts on those things. And so I think those things have generated people, having greater honesty about what are their actual perspectives, not just with respect to political affiliation, but even down to policy matters.
And people want to use these platforms to exert influence, the digital megaphone. So where I’m going with that, and where I’m going with that with respect to the secular right, is I think for some people, and not everybody, but I think for many people, what’s occurred is people are being more honest about what are their biggest wants and what are their biggest fears. And I think for some people, the politics flag was maybe flying higher than the Jesus flag. And I think in the ’90s, that was more revealed on the secular left. As people left from mainline. And to some degree, to a lesser degree, Roman Catholic traditions.
And then out of evangelical churches, I think many people, probably the political flag was flying higher than the Jesus flag there. And so now, the constant, do you find, do you want to go to church where you have to sit next to the pews from somebody who votes differently, that votes differently than you?
Wouldn’t you rather go to a political rally where you feel like maybe you have more solidarity, from either a civilizational level, ethnic level, or in terms of just the constellation of wants and fears that you have. So I think in many ways, we’ve experienced from 2015 to present an apocalyptic event.
In the sense of the revealing of where people are really at.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, this is a really important point, and I’m going to quote Ryan Burge, who helped with all of the data gathering for your book. He was quoted in the New York Times And by the way, Ryan is, he’s actually a pastor as well.
I want to be sure to emphasize that. But he was quoted in the New York Times as saying politics has become the master identity. And he looked at Iowa in particular. And he said, Iowa, for example, is culturally conservative, non-practicing Christians at this point, which is exactly Donald Trump’s base.
And then in this story, the New York Times story, there was a very, like you said, revealing quote from an Iowa voter, Sidney Hatfield who says she was raised as a Baptist, she prays to God every night, but doesn’t go to church anymore, has attended a lot of Trump rallies because, and here’s her quote, “He’s the only savior I can see.”
Now, I want to ask you that not from a, what does that mean politically? Because I think we’ve done a million shows about that, but I want to ask you about what that means for the church or for churches themselves, when there are a lot of people who profess a profound faith, but they’re putting, like you said, politicians up as having equal, if not greater rank than Jesus and God, whose teachings are supposed to be the thing that provides the spiritual fulfillment in the church.
Some could say that the church brought it on itself, or churches brought it on themselves, beginning in the ’80s with the wedding of evangelical Christianity and right-wing republicanism.
DAVIS: I definitely think the rise of the religious right and some of the political syncretism that you saw in the ’80s and ’90s has had some fallout.
And I think it’s logical fallout. Anecdotally in our own church, just so you know, there was a big push in 2020 by a contingent of people for me to authorize the handing out of right-wing voter guides in worship in November of 2020. And my response was, “Guys, this is not why we’re here. Jesus is not on the ticket.”
We have a hope that is greater, but I do think that the fear and confusion that our culture was experiencing, it revealed some places, or those who are Christians, where we might not be actually looking to Jesus as our real secure hope, as our true purpose and meaning. So I see, I think, unfortunately, we saw some of that play out as well.
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