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.