I was recently reading an article on the U.S. Gospel Coalition website.
The article was entitled “5 Misconceptions About Dechurching in America.” In the last 25 years, 42% of the city of Orlando, Florida has stopped attending a church. That statement is arresting. Of course, here in Canada, that news is hardly new. The National Post recently reported on a 2021 survey conducted in Canada which found that the number of Canadians who said they “never attended a church” rose from 30% in the pre-pandemic era, to a now astonishing 67%. That in a period of 3 years!
Both the American and the Canadian data have something in common. In the American data, a great many of those who never attend still continue to confess the Nicene Creed. In Canada, where detailed theological convictions are rarely surveyed, even so, most of those who have left church claim to strongly believe in God. Of course, over time, and into the next generation, that belief will fade. Without church, fewer will know the Nicene Creed, or even understand which God we are talking about. Furthermore, they will have no context for a belief in God.
But in both surveys (in Canada and in the U.S.) the results show, at least at present, that a great many of those who “dechurch” seem to be able to separate out their understanding of church, from their understanding of God. They tend to believe that one can be faithful to God and abandon the church. You can, they believe, believe without any religious structure to support them.
Let’s return to the article from the Gospel Coalition website. They make the claim that a great many who have left are willing to come back. According to the article, “The reasons why they’re willing to come back vary from group to group, but on the whole, people are looking for two things: healthy relationships and a local church that actively demonstrates how the gospel is true, good, and beautiful.”
Perhaps, in what I am about to write, my readers will think I am making connections that are unwarranted. But I note how different these two things are: healthy relationships and a declaration of gospel truth is at odds with what has been the modality of the performance-based church. For more than a generation now, churches have been measured in how well they are able to entertain (be attractive and exciting) as well as demonstrate cultural relevance. The older understanding evaluated the church based on building authentic fellowship and a declaration of the truths of Scripture. I remember taking a seminary class led by a key leader in what was then the church growth movement. He proudly declared that church health had nothing to do with sermons or Bible content, but was based on 7 other factors. It included a visionary pastor, the understanding of one’s target group, as well as constructing a church to meet the felt needs of people. The key issue was to meet needs people identified, rather than the needs scripture identified.
This profound change has left an impact on a generation. I often meet people who have attended church all their lives, who do not know some very basic Christian teachings. They often do not understand the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, justification by faith or even answers to their most basic questions. Often, church goers are shocked to find the Bible claims that Jesus never sinned, or that He suffered the wrath of the Father on the cross, that death is a consequence of sin, or that the Father is not impressed by our efforts to do the very best we can. They often do not understand why God allows suffering, or why the Father would condemn the majority of the human race to hell. As one church goer affirmed, she went to church to hear “sticky notes of encouragement from God.” Words like, “you can do it”, or “God believes in you”, or even, “any goal you set is possible to achieve because God is for you.” Sadly, for many, this is what church is meant to be.
The results of this are now in. Over the long haul, the new church has not met the expectations of the client. Felt needs are still left unaddressed. The church offered that needs would be met, but people feel disappointed.
What is to be done? My sense is that we need to rethink what church is for and how it is to be defined. We need to return to Scripture and rediscover its message. The church must proclaim that God is provoked due to our sins. We so desperately need a saviour, not a therapist. Based on the gospel, the church can help people rediscover that their real need was never their perceived need. They need to be reconciled to the righteous God through the gospel of Jesus. And they need to learn how to form relationships of biblical accountability to help them submit to God.
 5 Misconceptions About Dechurching in America. Jim Davis & Michael Graham. September 5, 2023