Who Are the De-Churched? (Part 1)

33 percent of Americans are now officially “de-churched,” but they’re not all de-churched for the same reason. To understand who they are, first we need to know where the whole idea of being “churched” came from to begin with.

In days gone by, missional efforts were focused on presenting and demonstrating the love of Christ to non-Christians. But in the 1980s, a new term was coined to describe the growing number of North Americans without any significant church background. They were called the unchurched. Untold numbers of books were written about them. Ministry conferences discussed them. Church leaders engineered worship services to attract them.

The shift from “evangelizing non-Christians” to “attracting the unchurched” was perceived as benign at the time, but it represented an important shift in our understanding of mission. The church was no longer just a means by which Christ’s mission would advance in the world, it was also the end of that mission. (This shift is the focus of my first video commentary, “Why You’re Sick of Church” and my ebook How Churches Became Cruise Ships.) The goal wasn’t simply to introduce the unchurched to Christ, but—as the term reveals—to engage them in a relationship with the institutional church. This paved the way for the ubiquitous (but flawed) belief today that “mission” is synonymous with “church growth.”

Well, another new term is on the rise and gaining attention among Christians in North America. Those without a past relationship to the church are called unchurched, but there are many with significant past church involvement who are exiting. They are the de-churched.

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church near Dallas, explains his take on the de-churched phenomenon in this short video.

Essentially, Chandler attributes the exodus of young people to the proclamation (explicitly or implicitly) of a false gospel of “moralistic deism.” This understanding of the Christian life says that if you obey God’s rules he will bless you with what you desire. This represents a form of the prosperity gospel which saturates the Texas soil where Chandler pastors, but it’s also popular beyond the Deep South. (How many teens have been told that abstinence will be rewarded by God with great sex once married?)

The problem arises when God’s blessing doesn’t come—or doesn’t come in the form we want. Divorce, illness, poor grades, failed relationship—virtually any hardship has the potential to destroy one’s faith in Christ and the church that represents him. So, according to Chandler, people walk away. They enter the ranks of the de-churched.

I think Chandler is right—but only half.

There is another group within the de-churched population that has not held to a false gospel of morality, and they haven’t walked away from faith in Christ. These Christians have simply lost confidence in the institutional structures and programmatic trappings of the church. For them, the institutional church is not an aid in their faith and mission. Rather it’s become a drain on time, resources, and energy. It feels like a black hole with a gravitation pull so strong that not even the light of the gospel can escape its organizational appetite.

As I’ve traveled and encountered de-churched Christians, including some friends, I’ve found they usually belong to three categories.

1. The Relationally De-Churched

These Christians have come to recognize that human beings are the vessels of God’s Spirit and not organizations. They may have first engaged the institutional church because they longed for meaningful relationships with other followers of Christ. They may have joined a small group or found a tight network of friends through whom they lived out the “one another” commands in Scripture.

But over time it dawned on them—This small group is really my church. These are the people I am living out the gospel with. Why do we need the big institution? Ironically, a number of house churches started as megachurch-spawned small groups—a trend even documented by Time magazine and currently seen in the “Organic Church” movement.

Ultimately the relationally de-churched leave the institution because the programs proved less effective at fostering faith and love than relationships with actual people. And the authenticity they crave and experience within their small network of Christian friends eclipses the relative shallowness of wider institutional involvement. Let’s face it—authenticity becomes more difficult the larger an organization becomes. But it’s worth noting that these folks haven’t abandoned the church theologically, they’ve just redefined it apart from the 501c3 organization we culturally identity as a “church.”

2. The Missionally De-Churched

“If the church were doing the work God appointed it to do, there would be no parachurch organizations.” Have you heard that one before? It’s a popular defense I was told many times while serving with a campus ministry in college—and there is some truth to it despite the self-righteous cheekiness.

If the relationally de-churched abandon the institutional church because they desire authenticity, the missionally de-churched leave because they are die-hard activists. They are driven to see the world impacted by the gospel whether via evangelism, compassion, justice, or some other facet of God’s redemptive work. They may become frustrated that the institutional church spends enormous amounts of energy and resources maintaining itself rather than advancing the Kingdom of God in a dark and broken world.

I’ve had a few friends deeply involved in such parachurch groups confess that, “Even though we don’t take communion or baptize, in every other regard the parachurch ministry functions as my church.”

3. The Transformationally De-Churched

A few years ago we published an issue of Leadership Journal which included an article by John Burke, pastor of Gateway Church in Austin. Gateway is comprised of many recovering addicts, and as a result, the church has incorporated a lot of recovery group values into its community—rigorous honesty, acceptance, dependency on God, and grace. But Gateway is an exception. Many churches give these values lip-service, but few are able to instill them into the culture.

In that same issue of Leadership, Matt Russell wrote about the year he spent interviewing de-churched people in his community. He wrote:

Most people left church not because they had a deep theological problem with something like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. They left because people in the church have the tendency to be small and mean and couldn’t deal honestly with their own sins or the sin of others. As one man put it, ‘People in the church were more invested in the process of being right than in the process of being honest.’

Russell spent a lot of time with de-churched people in recovery from drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, eating disorders, and gambling. The level of healing and transformation many of them experienced in their recovery groups was far greater than what they ever knew in the church. I’ve spoken with a number of men who have experienced significant life transformation via a parachurch men’s ministry in my area. One said, “This is what the church is supposed to be doing.” When deep life change happens outside the church, it can make you second guess the church’s vital role and, like Matt Russell’s interviewees, drop out altogether.

So, where does this leave us? On one side the de-churched are leaving because they’ve received a false gospel that made promises God has failed to fulfill. On the other side are deeply committed Christians who are finding more authenticity, missional impact, and personal transformation outside the institutional structures of the church. What is the church supposed to do?

That’s the question I’ll address in Part 2.




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19 Comments

  • March 18, 2010

    Ken Eastburn

    Skye,

    This is really great. I think you’ve managed to put to words something that many of us have been thinking and feeling for some time about why this group of “de-churched” exist. By the way, I appreciate the graciousness with which you write – you summarize what happened with each church, and maybe even offering critique, without throwing any of them under the bus.

    Then again, I haven’t read Part 2…

  • April 6, 2010

    Peter P

    My wife and I are relationally, missionally and transformationally de-churched.

    This is a great article which sums up quite well how we feel!

  • […] ended Part 1 of this post with a question-what is the church to do about the growing ranks of the de-churched? I […]

  • September 24, 2010

    Ivy

    “What is the church [institutional?] church to do with the growing ranks of the de-churched?”

    Nothing.

    Frankly, there is not a thing short of a direct message from the Lord that will drag me back into those institutions. They do not exist to worship and serve God; they worship and serve their own existence. If I want entertainment, I can go to a play, a school b-ball game, I can read a book, turn on the stereo.

    I want to learn, I want to be challenged, I want to be “allowed” to use my gifts for the glory of God. The institutional congregations are NOT places where that happens.

    IMO, the institution and the “professional clergy” have replaced corporate worship with Corporation Worship.

    Not for me. I worship my Lord and Savior, not a monolithic corporation, synod, or denomination.

  • November 1, 2011

    John

    This is a good article, but it leaves out one more group of the dechurched. Those who have been abused or otherwise terribly mistreated by institutional church’s clergy and or congregation. They can be read about in the following book, The Church and the Dechurched: Mending a Damaged Faith by Mary Tuomi

  • May 20, 2012

    Ginger

    The above statement really does identify a 4th regiment of the dechurched. These are Christians who have been torn to pieces by “Christians.” These are the people in the church who get caught up in the busyness of the church, they forget its’ business. They forget the main thing Jesus said to Peter after his resurrection, “Peter….feed my sheep.” So plain and simple. People have tacked on way more than is necessary to do that. They have created family run, clanish type churches that close ranks and won’t hear the truth. They descimate people who are supposed to be their brothers and sisters.

  • July 31, 2014

    Charlie Singleton

    Very insightful. Now if we can just get you squared away on the gospel 🙂

  • August 1, 2014

    Mark

    Looking forward to your thoughts about what the church should do!

  • […] ended Part 1 of this post with a question-what is the church to do about the growing ranks of the de-churched? I […]

  • November 18, 2014

    Ryan

    There were a lot of things in this article that hit home for me especially the, “For them the institutional church is not an aid in their faith and mission. Rather it’s become a drain on time, resources, and energy.” I stopped going at age 42 because it was a non-value-added waste of time, energy and resources. I was trapped in ministry and burning out. I am happy now just living life outside the institution with God.

  • June 9, 2016

    Michele

    I wound up in a meeting with a couple of pastors, and a church leader with whom I was trying to heal a relational rift, and was told, in essence, that I would best be served by finding another church “family” where I could be “loved” because the roots of my desire for relational healing were too much, they made me too needy, which created destruction in my relationships so I needed to go find this other mythical family who would love me and then I would be fully welcome there and in a group with this leader.

    WTF? Where is Jesus in that?

    I have not yet completely given up on churches and Christians but it’s a wrestling match. I could come out as LGBT and experience more welcome and love than I have experienced, especially in the last 6 or so years, in any of the churches in have been part of – including churches with the best reputations. If I named the church where the pastors I mentioned above serve, people would probably be shocked.

    Why bother to keep trying? I am not yet one of the de-churched but it’s close. I don’t know where Jesus is…

    • June 10, 2016

      Jdt

      Your relationship with Jesus Christ does not / should not rely on relationships with others.

      Are you perhaps relying on or looking to earthly relationships, acceptance, good vibes or feelings to somehow make your relationship with God valid or real?

      People are human, fallen, imperfect, sinful creatures. Discussing the church…is one thing, but coupling our relationship and or satisfaction with Christ to it, the church, is a recipe for being lead astray and spiritual disaster. Our relationship with Jesus is one to one and vertical.

      And…don’t be fooled by your own notion regarding other people groups that might appear “more loving” etc… For these are made up of the exact same fallen persons…who I’m certain can be as mean, heartless, and unloving. They are just people. Their cause pushes them to unite, but they’ve proven to be as intolerant , self focused, and cruel as the next grump.

      Seek the Lord where He can be found…as a one to one relationship. Do not place your trust or hope in men.

      His peace.

  • June 9, 2016

    jdt

    I agree with much of what this article says. At the same time, the Word of God encourages believers to meet together, encourage one another, pray for one another, etc…. Unfortunately, this “meeting together” has over the years morphed into an institutionalized church (small “c”) approach. Most within these organizations have, for the most part, good motives, desire to “know God”, and a willingness reach out to others. Like any good thing, our sinful natures tend to drag it down. Programs become more important than people. Spiritual integrity and righteous living are smothered out by self-interested church politics and unrighteous living ‘paid for’ by the repetitive swiping of the “grace card”. Very interesting article…but I’d not allow it to chase believers out of the church…or make them feel justified for their leaving all together. Find another group of believers to meet together with…

  • June 10, 2016

    robby mcalpine

    Detoxing from Church is a redemptive book focused on recovering from negative church experiences and finding our identity anew in Christ.

    I share this link because I, too, am passionate about the subject of this article. If posting a link is inappropriate in the comments, I apologize. (delete it if necessary)

  • June 11, 2016

    Tom McClaren

    I resonate with much of what was written in the article and with many of those who have responded, but I am still in church. Why? Because quite frankly I feel my children need to be there. They are learning the biblical stories and the basics of salvation. However, even with that being true they are not learning how to use their bibles (looking up texts), memorizing scripture, etc. My church has three services on Sunday morning with two worship songs performed by a praise team, the offering and a 40 minute topical sermon focused on some area of Christian self help (same pattern week after week after week). Don’t bother taking your Bible as the lights are so low you cannot read it even if you bring it. I feel like I’m starving spiritually while sitting at the table. I desire to grow deeper in Christ and his word. I desire authenticity and truth and the hard teachings of Jesus. Churches please dispense with “christian lite” sermons, they do not satisfy spiritual hunger and thirst. Please do away with the focus on praise and worship concerts and lights and video streaming and let’s get back to congregational singing, using our bibles, sermons with Christ at the center, times of prayer and meditation – teach me how to build and grown and my interior life – teach me how to walk closer to Christ and what it means to live like Jesus in our day and time. Not de-churched but may be soon.

    • June 12, 2016

      admin

      Tom- I think you speak for a lot of people. Thanks for sharing so honestly. You represent what recent research is showing. It’s the most spiritually mature who are the most frustrated with the church and the most likely to leave. Put simply, it’s those most hungry for Christ who are least satisfied with the current shape of the American church. If that’s true, we have a very big problem. – Skye

      • June 13, 2016

        Bev Sterk

        wow on if that’s true, we have a very big problem… would be very interested to hear more of your thoughts on that…

        and since I see you just responded earlier today, so I’m curious for your perspective 6 years later on this… I read this article a few days ago for the 1st time because someone posted it on a forum I read… this resonated deeply… I also noted the missing group of those abused/harmed/hurt by the institutional church that the commenter John refers to in his Nov. 2011 comment… I’m curious if we have become more aware since 2010 of those who have been abused and harmed by the institutional church or if this group is growing significantly, which from my experience and perspective I think it is… but wondering from your perspective…

        then wondering if there is a connection between those who have been hurt and pushed out through abuse of power and your comment today OF: “It’s the most spiritually mature who are the most frustrated with the church and the most likely to leave. Put simply, it’s those most hungry for Christ who are least satisfied with the current shape of the American church.EOQ

        because I’m thinking these “most spiritually mature” are often considered a threat of some degree to the leadership and are usually a minority voice and end up being viewed as divisive and rocking the boat etc and then via some manipulative abuse of power they are “butted and shoved” out of the flock/congregation (see Ezekiel 34:21)… I hope that makes sense.

        anyway, Skye, would love an updated perspective from you after 6 additional years of experience… I am working on watching your Wheaton Chapel talks from January 2016…1 down, 2 to go… and I agree that the institutional church/organization is not doing well, but the organic Church/Ekklesia is thriving, hallelujah… and of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end!

        bless your heart, Brother.

        Bev Sterk

  • June 11, 2016

    Steve Randle

    I can relate with this article very well, and I serve in spite of it because God put me where I am, to disciple others to maturity so that God can change their lives. I see a more basic problem in most of our American churches today, at the foundation of the symptoms described in the article. The problem is pervasive, and is based on the lack of a personal relationship with, and faith in God. This leads to a church that is shallow, comprised of and led by people who are stuck in spiritual infancy, or possibly not even saved.
    John Owen described the problem very well in his book Mortification, written sometime in the 1600’s. I paraphrase: he writes that most people will conquer their most troublesome sin problem in their own strength, and then stop when they achieve a comfortable sin level, one that still satisfies their flesh but does not overstep the bounds of social acceptance. This results in our flesh still comfortably ruling our life, and provides opportunities for serious sin to take over in areas that we are not mortifying with the help of the Holy Spirit. We see the evidence of this failure in things like the church’s divorce rate being higher than the unsaved community around it, or drugs being used to medicate spiritual hurts, or hidden pornography and abortion, or the myriad of sexual issues that plague us today. Many churches are even striving to make these sin areas acceptable so that our flesh remains satisfied.
    This also results in looking for temporal things like focusing on programs which we can corporately control, instead of trusting in the strength of the Holy Spirit, which we cannot control.
    All areas of church life suffer, even affecting our service to God. We see people serving God in the safety of the church in comfort and in our own strength, instead of being obedient to the Spirit’s leading, and going outside the church to where God is actively working. This also stunts the growth of our faith, and keeps us immature. As a result, we almost never see miracles in the church. It makes the church appear insignificant and powerless. Why stay in a church like that?
    When people begin to see God working in amazing ways, which is His normal way of working, then the worldly busyness of the church gets discarded and it gets real again.

    • June 12, 2016

      jdt

      Thank you. I agree. Shallow Christianity has been peddled by the “growing your church” movement for far too long and it’s resulted in exactly what you’ve described.