Walking Away from Church



Americans don’t attend church like they used to. But that doesn’t exactly make the United States another mission field of unreached people. A striking recent discovery is that most unbelieving outsiders are actually old friends, yesterday’s worshipers, children who once prayed to Jesus. They walked away for a number of reasons, including this: the church from which they have walked away appears to be broken.


The number of faithful in the pews on any given week is in steady decline in United States, and has been since a brief post-World War II surge in religiosity. Not so long ago it was estimated that about forty percent of Americans found their way to church on a weekly basis. But then, instead of relying on self-reportage of church attendance habits, some researchers decided to measure actual attendance—that is, they collected hard data on pew occupancy. The result was that almost overnight church attendance estimates fell by about half—to less than twenty percent today. The number of people attending synagogues, mosques and worship centers of other religions is still relatively small; for the most part, this is the story of a significant decline in active participation in organized Christianity.


This has led some to label America post-Christian, and to envision the country as an emergent field for missionary endeavor—the new Cambodia or New Guinea, without the pith helmets, malaria pills and native carriers. Well, yes and no. A new book by Drew Dyck, entitled Generation Ex-Christian (2010), reveals that the majority of the unreligious in America are not an “unreached people group.” They are in fact ex-Christians, people who used to attend church but no longer do. These are the “leavers,” the “de-converts” among us.


The trend is especially pronounced among the young. According to a recent report in Christianity Today, “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate.” On the basis of carefully combed demographic data, the Barna Research Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29. Barna president David Kinnaman says: “Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church . . . in a typical year. Take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That’s the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate through their faith during the next two decades.”


Some of this can be attributed to normal human development. Adolescents need to differentiate themselves from their parents’ values; as they themselves mature, some will find their way back to faith. But this time the problem is much bigger and more serious; only a few are likely to trickle back to the fold.


So the really big question is: What is going on?


Author Drew Dyck offers a number of partial explanations. Some people make lifestyle choices that involve moral compromise, and then feel uncomfortable about participating in a religious community that denounces such behaviors and makes them feel guilty or unwelcome. Others conclude that Christianity, or at least the version to which they have been exposed, fails to measure up intellectually. This perception is only reinforced when church authority figures (like youth pastors, for example) squash or denounce doubters rather than provide then with credible answers. Still others have been hurt by Christians or disillusioned by some aspects of their experience of Christian community. Often, of course, the reason people drift away from church is a unique personal cocktail of all three of these explanations.


There is one additional explanation, which the aforementioned author does not mention, although it is implicit in his reflections. It is (and it is almost impossible to articulate this delicately) that many churches are barely worth attending. What goes on there, week after week, is neither informative, nor empowering nor inspiring. There are no glimmers of the transcendent, no beauty of the sacred, no way of seeing life with profound new eyes. Too often it is tawdry and banal and pandering. There are still many good and sincere Christians in America, but the sad, sobering reality is that overall the church in America is broken. Any hope for a viable future for the church must begin by candidly acknowledging that this is so. It’s not enough to blame those who aren’t showing up anymore.


For further information, see: http://www.christianitytodaycom/ct/2010/november/27.40.html


8 Responses to Walking Away from Church

  1. Henry June 2, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    I am just one more of those ‘casualties’ that finally had enough of all the games. Doctrinal statements, policy manuals, etc. have a tendency to stereotype people into little boxes that, if adhered to, do not necessarily reflect Godly character. We have had to come to terms with not having an ‘institutional’ anchor simply because of my own restlessness with the paltry results derived from the billions of dollars of real estate invested by the institutional churches as well as the millions spent of staff costs coupled with the countless hours of energy expended in keeping a machine running. I keep asking a question that most institutional leadership does not want to answer honestly:”If your church disappeared from its location tomorrow, how many folks in that neighborhood would care or even notice?” I would hazard a guess that in most cases the answer would be sobering. My experience has been that the average pew warmer knows nothing about that community any more than do the folks in the community know anything about what goes on inside the four walls. What is particularly disturbing to me is that the early church turned their world upside down (or maybe right side up) for Christ when we, with all our modern gimmicry, have for the most part very little to show for what we do. We know little to nothing about the spiritual power that characterized this fledgling community that began in a prayer meeting in Jerusalem. Most churches today are houses of almost everything else but prayer. My constant prayer is the our Head will do in the North American church what has to be done to purify us in order to return us to our first love-Him.

  2. Brian W. January 16, 2011 at 3:06 am #

    I believe another explanation for this is that there are substantial numbers of people who are believers in Christ but are choosing to not attend an organized church. They are put off by perceived hypocrisy while not seeing the plank in their own eye, or are put off for other reasons. Frank Viola’s book Pagan Christianity is a book that I know many have read, and many more subscribe to its message that the modern church has added much to the Biblically described church. There are many who are either taking a Jesus & me approach or meeting in what an organized church member would call a small group and calling that their church.

  3. Glen G. Scorgie December 4, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    I think Jason raised an important question that warrants further research. What portion of those who have checked out of traditional church involvement have abandoned their Christian faith altogether? It would be helpful to know how many now participate in more informal associations of Christians (meeting in homes, etc.), and how many have in effect privatized their faith so that it is a personal matter just between them and God. Perhaps their is a North American equivalent to the so-called “underground church” in countries where Christians are persecuted.

  4. Ross Bassingthwaighte December 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    I have been so very fortunate – richly blessed – to have been led to a church where we are fed clear, expository, biblical preaching in a service that focuses on glorifying God, and not on “doing church.” And this is continued through the week. (I know – almost everybody thinks their church is doing this. But read Michael Horton’s “Christless Christianity” and see if your church hasn’t deviated.) So many “ex-Christians” (what a terrible term!) were subjected to cheap gospel and psychobabble that it is no wonder they left… it is no wonder they found it wanting. I have to add that studying Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God” was an almost profound experience for me, in articulating how the “elder brother syndrome” promotes a self-righteousness that is crippling much of the church in North America.
    Much of the American church has diluted the Bible and the gospel to the point where many of us aren’t even able to recognize true gospel teaching anymore, and are offended by it when we do encounter it. The church has allowed itself to be absorbed into the surrounding culture to the point that it is indeed broken – in many places, in many ways. What else is new?
    Thank God for churches that choose a path of faithfulness for the glory of God.

  5. Ryan Castillo November 30, 2010 at 5:25 am #

    This blog post is a good first step as far as I’m concerned. I have long held an interest in exploring the apparently mass exodus of young people, especially in my generation, from church as we know it. I appreciate the comments in this post, as well as the article from Christianity Today. I think that Dr. Scorgie sums it up well in the last sentence of his blog post here: “It’s not enough to blame those who aren’t showing up anymore.” Too often we feel justified within the church simply patting ourselves on the back for not being the ones who left and too bad for those who did! Taking responsibility for what the church has done in contributing to people leaving the faith is a very necessary step to healing the deep wounds of the people I often call “church casualties.” I’ve met plenty in my few short years, all with their own “unique personal cocktail.” But more than admitting fault, if the church is serious about bringing some of these casualties back into the joyous fold of God’s family, those within the church may have to venture into places where you might not normally find Christians. Dr. Scorgie mentions here, as does Drew Dyck in his article, that a lapse in practical morality often parallels a person’s leaving the church. As such, we as Christians may have to go places we don’t feel particularly comfortable. If we are to engage in the stories and lives of ex-Christians, it just might have to be over a beer at the gay bar in Hillcrest. We might have to go to an Earth Day rally with friends who are pronouncedly anti-Christian. It’s clear from Dyck’s article that those who left the church are afraid to come back. We as the church can’t afford to be afraid to go to them, too, or we will literally never meet again on the spiritual level.

  6. Kyle November 29, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    This sobering article confirms the necessity of some sort of change in the American Church. The problem is stated plainly and unapologetically and this dilemma demands response.

    My question is, how much of this decline can be attributed to the ‘consumer culture’ mentality in America, where it is expected that everything needed should be handed to us in one simple package presented on a silver-platter? If one goes into a church expecting to get all their needs met if they are somehow able to stay awake during a 30 minute sermon, then ultimately that will lead to disappointment and a negative posture towards the church.

    No matter the solution, whether that involves an organic home church movement or not, it will require work and effort; two dirty words in America.

    Thank you for the article and opportunity to contemplate this issue.

  7. Jason Hardy November 29, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    Thanks Dr. Scorgie for a great post. I have heard this report several times, of the “decline of the American Church”. While I work as a Pastor in an institutional church setting I myself admittedly have wrestled with the question of leaving the church, but not the faith. Many of the questions I ask are “is what we are doing as a church working in creating transformed lives that Glorify God?” or “have we become so focused on doing church that we have failed to be the church, the spirit indwelt body of Christ on earth?” I have even wrestled with leaving the church for a more organic house church experience. I see that many in my generation find a disparaging gap between what is portrayed in scripture in the life of Jesus Christ and what one experiences in the church. The question that I need to ask, out of the numbers that are leaving as reported by Barna are they leaving Christ and the faith or are they leaving the Church and moving underground into more organic or simple expressions of their faith? There is a greater increasing house church movement that is happening in the United States, Frank Viola and George Barna write about this in Re-imaginig church. I truly feel God is in the midst of bringing about change in the American church wether it be a post-modern Christian nation, or a more organic Christian movement, the way that many connect their Faith and the church is changing.

  8. Danny November 29, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    This article is a excellent assessment of the current state of Christianity in America. The perspective of honest reflection of the past yet strategizing the solution for the future is a healthy approach, in my opinion. The Church should not be a chore but should be a sacred space where the transcendent meets our humanity. Thank you for your insight and humble concern. There is much to reflect upon here.