The Great Dechurching: Jim Davis & Michael Aitcheson
The statistics on the exodus from the church are reason for all of us to be concerned. What do we need to know? Jim Davis, author of The Great Dechurching, and church planter Michael Aitcheson talk about who's leaving, why, and what needs to happen.
About 40 million people live in our country who used to go to church and don't anymore—used to go regularly and don't—and most of that has happened in the last 25 years. That's the alarming part. What was so hopeful is the vast majority of dechurched evangelicals not only willing to return but believe they will return. -- Jim Davis
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Jim Davis, author of The Great Dechurching, and church planter Michael Aitcheson talk about who’s leaving church, why, and what needs to happen.
The Great Dechurching: Jim Davis & Michael Aitcheson
Jim: About 40 million people live in our country who used to go to church and don't anymore—used to go regularly and don't—and most of that has happened in the last 25 years. That's the alarming part. What was so hopeful is the vast majority of dechurched evangelicals not only willing to return but believe they will return.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: If I was on an airplane or something and somebody said, “Hey, so what do you do for a living?” and I said “Pastor” 30, 35 years ago, it was usually a positive response.
Ann: Like, “That’s cool.”
Dave: “Oh, that's interesting.” You know, “What’s your church like?” blah blah blah. I'm not kidding. Probably in the last seven to ten years, I shouldn't say this, but I'm sometimes embarrassed to say it.
Ann: Because of their reaction?
Dave: It's negative. It's like, “Why would you do that?” “Who would do that?”
Dave: “All I hear is people are running away from the church because of people like you.” It's negative. I mean, it's 100 percent negative. The culture has changed.
Ann: It has changed.
Dave: And guess what? We’ve got two more pastors in the room today. [Laughter]
Ann: This is going to be a great day.
Jim: Well, I can relate to what you said. I'll tell people I’m a pastor and it's like, “Well, that's one way to live your life.” Or “You couldn't find a better job. Okay, I guess that's a good fall back.”
Ann: They don't say like, “Wow, you're a loser. You couldn't think of anything else.”
Dave: That’s pretty much what you hear.
Jim: Now, Christians respond differently, of course, but that's not the majority of who I interact with now.
Dave: Hey, by the way, I could introduce you guys, but you know you're used to introducing yourself. [Laughter] Go ahead and tell our audience who you are. Michael, you introduce Jim. Jim, you introduce Michael.
Jim: I would love that.
Dave: I want to hear what this looks like.
Michael: Make sure you tell them I'm a spiritual entrepreneur. [Laughter]
My name is Michael Aitcheson and I want to introduce my dear friend, brother and colleague, Jim Davis of Orlando Grace Church and the As In Heaven podcast.
Jim: Well, it's hard to follow Michael Aitcheson, but this is— [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, I don't think you could top that. That was—
Jim: You can put him anywhere. This is Michael Aitcheson, AKA Big Mike from his Kentucky football playing days. He is the planter and pastor of Christ United Fellowship Church in Orlando, Florida, a multiethnic PCH church here and dear friend, father of—you have a whole family of girls.
Michael: Yes, yes, and you've got a tribe yourself.
Jim: That's right.
Dave: What's this podcast?—As In Heaven.
Jim: The podcast we host together is As In Heaven. It's a season on a topic so we have had three seasons now. We started this just for our local churches. Season one was Ministry in Orlando, and then season two, we produced a narrative arc that was A Christian Conversation on Race and Justice. And then season three, which started in early May, is on Dechurching.
Dave: Which is what we're going to talk about today. The book is coming out. We've read the manuscript, Ann and I, and I'll give you the title, The Great Dechurching.
Ann: The subtitle is Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? Every parent that's listening, they're going to want to hear what we talk about. Because as parents I get a little worried and scared when I hear some of the data that's coming out on dechurching.
Dave: Yes, so definitely give us the data but first of all, you’ve got to define dechurch. Some of us don't know what that means.
Jim: Dechurching means, for our technical purposes, someone who used to go to church at least once a month and now goes less than once a year.
Ann: You guys both have kids. How old are your kids?
Michael: My kids are 12, 9, 7, and 4; all girls.
Jim: My kids are 15, 13, 12 and 8; boy, boy, girl, boy.
Ann: So this matters to you as dads.
Jim: It does. We want our kids to hold on to the faith and stay in church. We're not so naive as to think that one day this couldn't be us looking at our children or grandchildren having departed church.
Dave: I mean, were you feeling that as you're doing the research?
Dave: You’re dads.
Jim: From this research, we've begun to make major changes in our youth ministries.
Jim: Because A, of what we're finding; B, these are my kids. I might be the most motivated person in my church to see our youth ministry flourish. [Laughter]
Dave: What are you finding?
Jim: We knew that we wanted to do a podcast on this, but we didn't want it to just be, you know, our finger in the air. We wanted to do research. We could not find any research that passed academic muster, so we commissioned the largest and most comprehensive nationwide academic peer reviewed study. Drs. Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe; they’re PhD sociologists. We commissioned them to do this nationwide study initially to prove or disprove this thesis.
We are currently in the largest and fastest shift in religious shift in the history of our country, and we proved it. We are in the largest, fastest shift by a factor of 1.25. The previous largest shift, most people don't know this was post-civil war with the country growing, people returning to church, people starting to go to church who had not gone before. And the shift we're in now, in terms of numbers, now is greater than the First and Second Great Awakening and that shift all combined.
So the percentages are slightly larger; the numbers, obviously, because we're larger are way larger, and so we proved it. Then we did two more consecutive studies to understand, as you said, “why they're leaving, where they're going, and what it would take to bring them back.”
Dave: This is staggering. I mean, it's almost like an epidemic. We've been through a pandemic. It's like here we are.
Jim: That's—it doesn't sound as impressive when we've been through a pandemic, but an epidemic is still a big deal. Even though it's isolated to our country, it is changing not just our churches and our families, but the very fabric of our society and the way we interact with institutions.
Ann: And did COVID have anything to do with that?
Michael: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the stain of COVID is on every institution, if you will, no less true for the church. In many ways, we feel like COVID shined a light on something that was already taking place.
Michael: In fact, going back to Jim's reference about things we figured was happening, anecdotally, some of the soft research we did before starting CUF indicated that there was a problem.
Dave: CUF is your church.
Michael: Christ United Fellowship. Of course, we know some stats about how unchurched Orlando was and where it was spiritually compared to other cities in the US, but we had no idea that we were starting a church amidst the biggest dechurching phenomenon in history. Once COVID came, it became easier for people to just do perhaps what they'd already been pondering. And in fact, people in conversation, honest folks, have said to me, “Hey, it just became easy for me to wake up, stay in my bed, watch church, and then jump in my pool.”
Dave: And they're still doing it.
Ann: And I think I've talked to a lot of parents whose kids are in their 20s, 30s, they're so discouraged because that's exactly what happened. You know they had this rhythm of going to church, but then when COVID hit and what they'll say is “They never went back.”
Jim: Yes, so I think you can go back to the 1990s is probably the largest impetus of dechurching and we can go back there but when you get to COVID, this is another really big one. We've categorized, we've divided our research out in different ways, but two of the big categories we've developed are the casually dechurched and the dechurch casualties.
And COVID increased both. It greatly increased the casually dechurched. So those are the people that dechurched without really meaning to. They didn't have a plan to. Maybe they moved to a new city; they got busy. They developed new rhythms. They made friends that don't go to church. They continued to do that and said “Well, maybe one day I'll come back but I'm not going to church.” With three to twenty-four months of not going to church, people got new rhythms and many of them just didn't come back, so the casually dechurching just grew exponentially.
But then the dechurch casualties; these are pain points. People left because of a reason. The last three years has been very hard. Whether they were abuse issues or political issues or racial issues or whatever it is, it has caused enough stress in our churches. Some churches responded very well, some did not, and some created internal issues and pain points that increased this dechurch casualty category.
Dave: And yet the truth is—you guys know better than anybody—the pandemic isn't to blame. It was a factor, probably, as you tell us, a big factor. But were there indications before the pandemic even started that this is starting to happen? There's a wave starting to happen in our country when it comes to dechurch.
Jim: Well, I'll go back to the 1990s; so church levels, although decreasing, were doing so slowly and steadily throughout the 20th century. But there are a few factors—again, Ryan Burge has done some great research on this, but in the 1990s, the biggest one is the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Previously, during the Cold War, which you two would know a little bit more about that than— [Laughter]
Dave: What are you saying?
Jim: Just saying you are experts in our history.
Michael: You’re wise.
Dave: Yes, we're wise.
Jim: You’re wise; that's right.
Dave: More mature.
Ann: We've lived a little more history.
Jim: A little; that's right. In the Cold War to be American was to be Christian. It was in the Cold War I think was in the 50s when we added “In God We Trust” to our money, when we added “under God” to our pledge. There was a concerted effort on the part of our government. I'm not saying it was bad. It was just war, this Cold War against Christian America and evil atheist communism. Once that war was not there anymore, people begin to feel the freedom to be American but not Christian.
We could talk a lot about that. The rise of the religious right, then there began to be a backlash to that, political polarization, and then of course, the internet. Which people discount the rise of the internet in the 90s because they think, “Well, I didn't have internet. I had dial up or whatever,” but internet starting in 1994 was in the early stages of internet cafes, and people wanting to hear a different voice than what they had grown up hearing could now access that.
So those would be some of the major factors. In every research that you see, you'll see a spike in what we now call the nones and a rapid decrease in Christians. The dechurching happened quicker in mainline and Catholic circles, and really the evangelical circles are just catching up to it now.
Ann: And just for our listener who has never heard of the word, none, define that.
Jim: Yes, someone who has no religious affiliation, would not claim that on a census.
Dave: Every person I think is saying “Why?” Why are people leaving in such epidemic numbers? You've mentioned a couple reasons but is it just, “I don't believe anymore” because a lot of times you think “That's it. They don't believe.” And yet, when I look at your research and others like, that's a part of it. It seems to be a small part of it. Am I right?
Jim: Yes, so there are some that leave because they don't believe. But there are a lot of other internal factors. So let me say the most alarming part and then let me say the most helpful part of the research. The most alarming part, because I said largest and fastest, but let me give a number to that. About 40 million people live in our country who used to go to church and don't anymore—used to go regularly and don't—and most of that has happened in the last 25 years.
Ann: Forty million.
Michael: Forty million.
Jim: Forty million people. This is a shift that will continue to change so much about our country. And if you've lived in Europe you can see—I want to qualify this because their religion has been connected to the state and ours has not, so that changes our outcomes in major ways. But you can get a glimpse of what a society looks like where churches generally not a value outside of where you get married and baptized and buried, in Southern Europe at least. So that's the alarming part.
What was so hopeful is the vast majority of dechurched evangelicals not only willing to return but believe they will return. So that's a really big deal. The orthodoxy scores among the evangelical dechurched are higher than those who go to church still, so if you ask them about the Trinity and Jesus's divinity and the inspiration of the Bible, dechurch evangelicals are going to have a higher value, between 61 and 68% depending on the doctrine, than their counterparts who still go to church. And that includes all parts of all kinds of church—mainline, Roman Catholic Church, evangelical, everybody.
What we're really seeing is they still believe in God. They're still praying to Jesus. They're even still reading their Bible, and they believe they will get back to church one day. But they have chosen, for whatever reason, to not go to church now.
Ann: You guys don't know why they're not, like, it doesn't make sense.
Dave: Hey, you're the experts; you’ve got to know the reason.
Jim: We've taken all the nationwide research and we've had a machine take these and really began to gather data where there are patterns. And so we do break up five different dechurching profiles, people who would dechurch for very different reasons. Those profiles include the cultural Christian, the mainstream evangelical, the exvangelical, BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and then we lumped the main line in Roman Catholic because their data was so similar.
But I'm of the opinion now, if you understand why people are dechurching—both external and internal factors, whether they're casually or casualty—in about five questions, if you know what you're looking at, you can nail down where this person is, and what their main animating concerns are, or pain points and have a ramp to have the kind of conversation with them to push them back to church. Some are going to be much easier than others, depending on why, but the reasons they're leaving abound.
I would be remiss if I didn't also say Jesus told us that there would be weed and wheat. This shouldn't shock us that some of this is revealing what was already true. So while I have this really hopeful data for a lot of these dechurched evangelicals, we also have to acknowledge there's some people who now have the freedom to not go to church, and they're choosing not to because they are not Christian. That also is something we need to take into consideration.
Dave: This is so important not just to our country and to our pastors, to our families, because every parent listening right now is like, I think they're going, “What are those five questions that I should ask my son or daughter that would help me understand why they are where they are and help them come back?” Did you just say there's five questions or do you like have, there's some things you should ask to get to the heart of this?
Jim: Yes, I would want to know what they dechurched away from, why they dechurched. I would want to know are they casually or casualty? Because if they are—and this is a cool story.
There's a church called The Crossing, an APC church in Missouri, who they did a great deal—the people there did a great deal to help fund all this research that was extremely expensive. As a thank you, we gave them the executive summary very early on.
They began to say “Alright, this is clear. The lowest hanging fruit are people who have casually dechurched from an evangelical church.” They digitally targeted them. They coached their people on how to identify these people, have them in your home, then invite them to church. I think they started this just about six months ago. They now have hundreds of new people at church who were dechurched and are now worshipping in church.
So that would be the first step is identifying the low hanging fruit, have those people in your home, be an active listener,—there's a lot to listening that we get into in the book—and invite them. There are these sociological categories that have long existed of belief, belong, and behave. Among the casually dechurched who come from an evangelical church, what they're missing are really fall in this belong category. They have the belief and the behavior, but they would be the first to say “I lack the belonging” if you ask them the right question. And all we're doing is redirecting them to what they're desiring because they're designed to be a part of a community of believers and not to be isolated in their spirituality.
Dave: Jim, right before you said the belong, believe, behave—you know when I started a church in 1990, we talked about that very thing.
Dave: And it was like, they need to believe first, then we need to get them collected to belong, and then their life is going to change, and it sort of matched the culture. Somewhere about ten years in, like probably 2000, we realized—and I know you guys are pastors. You talk about this strategy stuff all the time. We started realizing they're not going to believe unless they belong and so belong needed to be first. We're in that culture now, aren't we?
They want to find a community because we actually created a church where you could come sit in the back row, never talk to anybody and leave. And then people are like “The unchurched want that?” Yes, they're afraid of church people. They don't want to be around them. They just want to come. They want to listen. It’s all intellectual and then they want to have the freedom to come back. It became a different world. It's like “I'm in a church and nobody said hi to me, nobody reached out to me, nobody gave me an opportunity to connect. I'm not going back to that church.”
So right, it's belong first, but you got to help me here, because so many people we've talked to said one of the big reasons they've dechurched is the community that they belong to hurt them, or they were hypocrites, or they saw inconsistencies and they left. So there's that double edged side of, “I want to belong” and “I’m made that way. God made me to belong, but when I did belong to the church people”—
Ann: Mike, have you heard those stories?
Michael: Yes, I'm just running through the index of experiences. We gain members as CUF because no one spoke to folks when they visited other churches. They were completely overlooked, and they said, “Well, why did you come?” He said, “Well, when we visited you, we couldn't get people off of us.” [Laughter] “We went to a different place and eight weeks passed and no one said a word to us.” And so there's definitely a concern to feel accepted, to belong in a place that you can have a partner community.
But then there's also core concerns and people have come to our church, believers and non-believers investigating Jesus, some just coming because they want to see how the beautiful implications of the gospel, is it good? Does it create community? Does it have an impact on society? et cetera. And when they express their concerns about the things taking place in the broader society, they were dismissed, shut down, or just outright told that well maybe that's secular progressive stuff that you’re concerned about.
Well, even if it is, the Bible still hasn't answered to correct whatever that secular progressive stuff may be. So then people found that it is possible to really be orthodox in your belief and have a community where there are people that don't look like me, may not believe the same things as me politically, and we can wrestle through issues together with the Scripture. We found that to be critical in the belonging category. And that's to say nothing of—you know Jim referenced earlier as we were, we've been looking at the dechurching, there's a subset among African Americans and you know BIPOC population. I think it's 1.25 million, 8% of the entire churches.
Jim: Yes, and what's fascinating is we never introduced race as a category to the machine learning. It was so overwhelming; it created a category that was 0% white.
Michael: Yes, well, I think it was New York Times that had released an article way back years ago about this silent exodus of African Americans and people of color exiting predominantly white institutions. And these were folks who were committed culturally—you know coming out of the Promise Keeper movement, committed culturally to go across the line and to pursue reconciliation—but what happened was when their core concerns started to emerge in society, they were overlooked from the pulpit, and the gospel has an answer for these concerns.
And so that helped precipitate a dechurching phenomenon among the black population that we just articulated. However, many of them are still spiritual among the young demographic in particular. They're pursuing other avenues that may address their concerns but don't have the eternal and lasting answers to their concerns.
So that's part of what's going on with the belonging category, particularly for African Americans, and I will extend that out to even non-African Americans, because there are people who care about these things in general. The core concern may not be as acute for maybe a non-person of color, but they still care “How does the gospel impact the way I deal with my neighbor?” And if I'm not hearing that then I'm wondering “Well, what is this whole idea of love God and love people, or love your neighbor? How does Jesus make this real just beyond my immediate circle?”
Dave: Yes, and I would guess you guys agree that's what our kids are asking too.
Dave: The next generation is asking that very question, whether they're part of a family that goes to church or not. And tomorrow we have to talk about what I think a lot of listeners are leaning in right now like, “I'm a mom and dad. I'm seeing this in my home. I'm feeling it in myself. What do I do?” You guys think you can answer that?
Jim: Man, I'd love to, love to take a crack at it.
Dave: Alright. [Laughter]
Michael: Give it a shot.
Jim: The things we're trying to do anyway. [Laughter]
Shelby: How does the gospel of Jesus Christ actually impact your everyday life? How does it affect the way we talk to one another, treat one another, care for one another, or think about the other person when they just cut us off in traffic? [Laughter] Maybe that's happening right now. Well, we’ve got to lean into these kinds of questions with integrity because I don't want to be a squishy, flimsy Christian. I want the gospel to change everything about me. How about you?
I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Jim Davis and Michael Aitcheson on FamilyLife Today. Jim Davis has written a book called The Great Dechurching: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? A very important book and a very timely book. You could pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com or you could give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are back with Jim Davis and Michael Aitcheson. They're going to talk about the importance of creating a gospel centered environment right in the middle of your home. That's coming up tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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