Who Are the De-Churched? (Part 2)

In Part 1 I identified two sides of the de-churched population—those who have left the church because they had received a false gospel, and those who have left because they’ve encountered the true gospel.

Let’s start with the false gospel side. As Matt Chandler explained, these de-churched are fed, knowingly or unknowingly, a false gospel of morality. They believe that if they just follow God’s rules he will bless their lives. When things fail to work out as promised, they bail on the church. Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion, has called this belief MTD—moralistic therapeutic deism. I prefer a more sinister and downright damnable name: Moralistic Divination—the belief that one can control and manipulate God’s actions through moral behaviors.

While there are many churches that promote this sort of false thinking, including those within the prosperity gospel camp, I believe most churches do not. So why do so many Christians, particularly the young, carry these beliefs? In most cases the problem isn’t what the church is preaching, but in what it’s assuming.

For example, the popular distillation of the gospel known as “The Four Spiritual Laws” begins with the statement, “God love you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This idea, drawn from Scripture and rooted in orthodoxy, may be faithfully preached in your church. But how is it received? How does a person formed and hardened for decades in the furnaces of a consumer culture hear this statement?

The biblical understanding of a “wonderful life” looks dramatically different than the consumer culture’s definition. If this assumption is never identified, named, and deconstructed, a person may hear “God love you and has a wonderful plan for your life” very differently than how a pastor intends. It’s not that church leaders are failing to preach the gospel, but that they’re failing to deconstruct the consumer filter through which people hear the gospel. The result is a false, American gospel in which God exists to serve me and accomplish my desires in exchange for my obedience—voila, Moralistic Divination.

When this consumer gospel fails to deliver on its assumed promises, as it inevitably does, frustration, disappointment, and disillusionment quickly follow. And the pool of the de-churched gains another swimmer.

But what about the other side of the de-churched demographic—those who’ve left the church because they’ve found more meaningful relationships, mission, and transformation elsewhere? They force us to examine a different issue—structure.

The helpful book by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, illustrates the dilemma. In David Mathis’ review of the book he summarizes it’s core metaphor:

The vine of Christian ministry is people; the trellis is the various organizational structures that exist for the health of the vine. So vine work is “the work of watering and planting and helping people to grow in Christ”, while trellis work has to do with “rosters, property and building issues, committees, finances, budgets, overseeing the church office, planning and running events” (p. 9). The warning the authors offer repeatedly is that our tendency in Christian ministry is to let the trellis work take over the vine work (p. 9).

In other words, the structures and programs of the church exist to establish and equip the people. People do not exist to support and advance the church’s programs and structures. Or as I put it in The Divine Commodity: “Every relational community, like a family, needs structure. But the goal of any structure should be strengthening, not replacing, human relationships which are the medium God uses to carryout his transforming work. The Holy Spirit inhabits human beings not institutions.”

When the church loses sight of this and begins seeing people as a means of bolstering the institution, it breeds cynicism. People feel like their pastor is more interested in using them than loving them. The faithful begin to feel like cogs in a machine, a means of production, human commodities. They don’t feel valued for who they are, but for what they can do, give, or contribute. And to be fair, this confusion between means and ends can happen in both large and small churches, in a megachurch or a house church.

The call then is for church leaders to reexamine what they really believe about the church? What is the proper role for structures and programs? What is God’s intention for his people and the role of spiritual leadership? And do these beliefs align with the structures of our existing churches?

My hunch is that where people feel like the priority, and where love rather than efficiency is the operating value, we will see far fewer people de-churched. Unfortunately, for the last few decades church leaders in North America have been heavily influenced by the values of corporations. And I can’t think of a profitable corporation that has achieved success by promoting love above efficiency.

Consider this excerpt from an interview ith Dallas Willard:

[Pastors] need to have a vision of success rooted in spiritual terms, determined by the vitality of a pastor’s own spiritual life and his capacity to pass that on to others. When pastors don’t have rich spiritual lives with Christ, they become victimized by other models of success—models conveyed to them by their training, by their experience in the church, or just by our culture. They begin to think their job is managing a set of ministry activities and success is about getting more people to engage those activities. Pastors, and those they lead, need to be set free from that belief.

What should we do about the de-churched? Clearly I’ve not answered that question entirely, but I hope these reflections provide some ideas to kick start your own thinking. For those leaving because they’ve held a false gospel of Moralistic Divination, church leaders need to put on their prophetic camel hair coats and start deconstructing the consumer assumptions of the culture. For those leaving in search of a more authentic life with Christ, church leaders need to turn those prophetic pronouncements upon themselves and examine their own assumptions about the way they lead and minister.

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  • April 8, 2010

    Ken Eastburn

    Fantastic, Skye. I love what you said about the structures and organization supporting the people, not the other way around. Spot on.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to share this on Twitter.

  • April 20, 2010


    There is tremendous diversity of opinion and little unity among the various denominations. If someone can find a nearby church to affirm their opinions on Scripture/life, why go to a church they disagree with. Each man working out his own salvation too often becomes each man finding people who will afirm his presuppositions, beliefs and actions, instead of calling him to accountability and to bend the knee of his heart to the truth. But what is truth anyway? Is there anybody who has the audacity to be able to perfectly discern the Holy Spirit? Why entrust my soul another person whom I disagree with, when I’m the one who will answer for my actions, not my pastor? Nobody is greater than any other person, so why do we act like anybody else can tell us what God’s truth is, instead of figuring it out for ourselves?

  • April 23, 2010

    Marilynn K. Howe

    Mr. Jethani! Thank you for taking the time and energy to pour your heart and mind out in this blog. I am in the process of grappling with many of the same issues on my personal site http://www.littlegirldancing.com. It is refreshing to know that there are others doing the same. I am very new to this (applying critical thinking skills in regards to church). I appreciate the fact that you are not bashing the way “church is done” but you seem to truly have the best interest at heart for this Bride of Christ. I too have a passion to be a voice for the remembering of who we are. I will be looking forward to reading more!

  • April 25, 2010

    Greg Wack

    Wow! Skye, this is a great two part post! The Russell quote in part one nailed my pain right now. Together they affirm transformation is desperately needed. Thanks for solid food for thought and action! Oh, yes, I will be subscribing to Leadership Journal very soon!

  • April 30, 2010

    Andrea Denner

    As long as there is a dearth of true discipleship in the church, there will continue to be an embracing of strange doctrine (in this case, moralistic deism).
    Until new believers are shown from the scripture that love is not always romance, joy is not necessarily ecstatic happiness, and that patience can only exist if there is a reason for it to be exercised, etc. etc., they will make up their own theologies that fit their view of life- coming from whatever influence and culture that they embrace.
    When the church takes seriously the commands to make disciples, then I believe we will see less de-churched and unchurched.

  • May 15, 2010


    bottom line: people are being taught doctrine and not jesus, rules and not freedom, exclusiveness and not community.

  • September 24, 2010


    My husband and I were already disillusioned by the institutional congregation we attended in the northwest suburbs of Chicago before we moved to a very rural area. But even out here, we’ve run into the same problems: The wine is watered down to make it palatable for everyone, and the members of the congregation become nothing more than food to keep the institutional machine alive. To cite an overworked analogy, it’s like “The Matrix” – people are feeding the machine.

    We can no longer, in good conscience, support the Institutional “Church” or its congregations. How is it following Jesus to support an organization over supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ?

    We ARE the Church. We have friends who are also followers of Jesus, we meet with them, share fellowship, but “go to church” is a phrase that is no longer part of our vocabulary.

    • June 26, 2016


      I’m glad you found a good church to go to. A church is an assembly of believers who gather regularly to study the word and submit to one another. It’s not about buildings, but about people. And yes, it’s dirty, ugly work sometimes. It doesn’t have to be.

  • September 24, 2010


    I had another thought on this.

    Just because I reject the institutionalized congregations, I’m not outside the Church.

    I AM the Church.

    Therefore, I’m de-institutionalized, NOT de-churched.

  • November 22, 2012

    Jeri Falling

    Spiritual can be enhanced by always making sure that you have compassion to everyone. ‘

    <a href="Look at our new internet page as well

  • February 21, 2013

    Jimmy Brender

    In a spiritual reality, nothing can be lost and therefore, nothing can be taken, but while we perceive this physical reality, the idea of losing when you give or gaining when you take, are inbred into the worlds thinking.`

    Very latest article coming from our very own blog site

  • August 4, 2014

    Charlie Singleton

    Don’t know if you ever read Wade Burleson’s blog, but I thought you might find this interesting:

    Your 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Church Is a Kingdom Tool; It Is Not the Kingdom Itself


  • August 8, 2014

    Alisa Hinman Kostecka

    In her book, “Forming Intentional Disciples” by Sherry Weddell, she explores similar reasons for departure or drift away from the Church. I like the premis of “Vine and Trellis” because the Church exists to boldly proclaim the good news and everything she does should be oriented to forming people from where they are to a deeper intimacy with God through Jesus in the power of his Spirit. The genius of this book is the identification of several thresholds people cross on the way to “intentional discipleship.” This is a powerful tool in helping pastors as shepherds of souls to usher people “further up and further in.”

  • […] God all I ask for is wisdom. All I ask is that you show me what it means to walk with You, and to make it in this stupid bold beautiful hard nosed life. Just give me the grace to live each day loving and serving the unlovable as you would do, and to shine Your light into the darkest of places. Inspiration: https://skyejethani.com/who-are-the-de-churched-part-2/ […]

  • June 24, 2016

    Gene R. Smillie

    All good. Let me contribute an anecdote from my own departure from the church in the late 1960s, early ’70s. At that time, for me, the main issue was that the church was apparently on The Wrong Side in every issue of the cultural wars at the time. Whether it was international policies (the Viet Nam war), internal policies (the civil rights movement), cultural matters (rock & roll), no matter what: the church seemed to back the wrong horse. I actually heard a missionary tell me, when I was on a short term mission in Colombia, that a Russian submarine had surfaced off the coast of North Carolina one foggy early dawn in the fifties and had met Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley there and handed over to them the communist blueprint for how to undermine America and ruin our culture, making it more vulnerable for their world-conquering plot. I was startled beyond belief that he could tell this story as if he actually believed it happened! When I pushed back on his fairy tale, he countered with what he considered the proof of the veracity: “…and we can see that it worked.”
    I eventually just could not sustain “membership” in such a nutty, unjust, hateful organism, and left for the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. (Thanks be to God, he eventually rescued me, and today I very gladly identify with “the Church,” though she perpetually disappoints, probably not only me, but her bridegroom. But he still loves her, so I have to also)

  • July 7, 2016


    Seriously? I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, the nesting place of evangelicalism for many years. My family of origin and then the family I raised with my husband in Wheaton were all indoctrinated to believe in behavior theology: if we behaved properly then God would come through. He would bless us and we could actually manipulate Him through keeping the “rules.”

    So yes, we bailed on that kind of therapeutic theology and church attendance. In fact my young adult kids bailed on church altogether. They grew tired of following that rules-religion with its accompanying burden of shame. Disillusioned by the evangelical teaching that they could manipulate and control God (and their lives) w/ their rules-keeping, their faith crashed when they were burned up by real life adult disappointments.

    My husband and I have found a Church whose guiding scripture is this: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

    I’m angry I was mislead by an evangelicalism that taught me a works religion and regret that it was the only evangelical teaching available as we raised our kids. I’m grateful for a new movement of evangelicals who are finding each other as they experience a faith shift and who are committed to doing life with the real God. Not the the man-made one that sold us the lucky rabbits foot with its false promise of blessing. (Talk about “false teachers!”)