The Exodus of the American Church: Why so many are leaving, and is there anything we can do about it
I recently heard a stunning statistic. No, it’s not that Taylor Swift earned more money last year than approximately 50 countries, although I did hear that one too. It’s that in the last 25 years 40 MILLION Americans have left the church. That number represents the greatest religious shift in the history of our country, positive or negative. If you’re someone who cares about the church and seeing people thrive in relationship with Jesus that should be more than just a statistic, it should be truly alarming. And, it should leave us asking, what in the world is going on here?
To say this weighs heavy on my heart is an understatement. I have spent the majority of my adult life doing everything I can to help people experience the Jesus I know. The one who is both my savior and my king. The one who laid down his life so that I could truly live. The one who gives me hope and purpose. The Jesus who offers not just eternal life in heaven but the power to overcome (anxiety, depression, fear, addiction and everything else we face) here on earth. So, when I hear that people are leaving the church in droves it is crushing. Because “the church” (the people of God working on mission with God) is how the name of Jesus is made known in the world, and Jesus is transformative and life changing. Some might say, what’s the big deal? As long as a person still believes in Jesus isn’t that enough? Well, yes and no. While you don’t have to be part of a church to be a believer, it’s pretty clear that being disconnected from the body is not Christ’s design for His people.
Jesus established the church to be the primary place where we are developed to take the message of the gospel to our world. It is the place where we’re equipped to disciple our families. The place where we find accountability when we’ve strayed from obedience to God, which leads to devastating consequences in our lives. And finally, the place where we lift up and encourage one another in Christ-centered community. The data is overwhelming; people who consistently engage with a local church experience far less anxiety and far greater peace and purpose. The church is clearly an essential part of an abundant life in Christ.
So no, as someone who loves people, I’m not OK with letting them go without a fight, and my challenge to you if you’re reading this is to join me in that mindset. The dilemma I’ve found myself facing is this; it’s one thing to know people are leaving, it’s another thing to know why. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. Today I want to answer two questions that I hope will help us understand what’s going on and most importantly what we can do about it. Because at the end of the day, we all have family and friends we love that have walked away from the church, and I know you want to see them return.
First, a profile of who left the Church and why?
1. The Comfortable Christians. This is the friend or family member who once was super active in their church, but somewhere in the last few years life got complicated and they got out of the “routine.” For some it was a job change that required a move to a new city and they never got plugged back into another church. For others, their kids' sports schedules and the busyness of life made it much harder to get to church on Sunday’s. For others still, COVID 19 changed their rhythms and now they love staying home on Sunday mornings. Whether it was just easier to do online church in their pajamas or the thought of finding a new community and starting all over again was too overwhelming, they got disconnected and never reengaged. They are living out the gospel and hold to Christian values. If you match their lives up against the world they definitely think and act differently. Most Comfortable Christians absolutely believe they will come back to church some day. And if a good friend or family member simply asked them, they probably would.
2. The Cultural Christians. This is that friend or family member who grew up around Christianity. Many would say they are Christian simply because their parents are and that’s just what their family identifies as. Christianity is “American” afterall, right? They may have grown up going to church or in a culture where everyone around them did. They may or may not have negative feelings about the church but one thing is clear, being part of the church is not a priority. Their jobs, sports, recreational activities and pretty much everything else in their life is more of a priority than being involved in a local church. Christianity is part of their identity in name but they exude almost no signs/fruit of being a Christian. They look like everyone else in the world and the sad reality is many of them do not understand the gospel and are not saved. For the Cultural Christian, getting connected to a church is going to be a much harder sell. They are living the good life and don’t really see the need for “church.” Seeing those family and friends come back to church will require playing the “long game” of relational evangelism to help them see their need for Jesus. It means spending time with them around the dinner table and at social events and looking for opportunities to share Jesus when their lives inevitably aren’t going so well.
3. The Critical Christians. This is the friend or family member who left the church on negative terms. For a variety of reasons there is just a bad taste in their mouths about the “institution” of the church. It may be because they had a falling out with another brother or sister in the church and now view most Christians as hypocritical and unloving. For some, it was a pastor who failed and caused mistrust in their mind about the leadership of the church. Others feel like the church is simply corrupt as an institution. And for others still they don’t believe the church puts their money where their mouth is. They talk a big game about loving others but it seems all they do is condemn. They say they want to make a difference in the community but it often doesn’t translate to any tangible good being done. For the Critical Christian, coming back to the church is a non-starter, they are done. They love the idea of Jesus but as for the church, they’re better off without it. This group will need a tremendous amount of patience and love. They have to learn to trust again.
Second, is there anything we can do about it? Yes!
1. Churches must STOP entertaining people and START challenging them. In the 1990’s the “seeker movement” produced an explosion of churches geared toward entertaining/attracting people into the church. Part of that strategy was to preach man-centered messages that make MAN the central theme of God’s Word. The message people heard? It’s all about YOU. God just wants YOU to be happy. The problem with that strategy is that if you tell people it’s all about them, well, they’re going to live like it’s all about them. In many ways that feels counterintuitive, but think about it. If it’s all about me and I have a choice between serving in my church on Sunday morning or sleeping in, going on a weekend trip or doing travel sports with my kids I know what I’m choosing. Afterall, God just wants me to be happy, right? So while I understand why churches adopted that strategy, the bottom line is it eventually backfires. You may fill the seats for a while, but eventually people will seek their entertainment elsewhere. The truth is the reason so many people have left the church is not because we’ve made following Jesus TOO HARD, but because we’ve made following Jesus TOO EASY. Following Jesus has never been and never will be about YOU. It is about HIM. Jesus says in Matthew 16:25, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” If we want people to come back to and stay engaged with the church the answer is and always has been to preach the whole truth of the gospel; Jesus laid down his life to save us, and now we are called to lay down our lives for his church. Everything else in the world screams at us to make life about ME. The church offers a different life, a more fulfilling life, a life of laying down our desires for the good of OTHERS. THAT is what ACTUALLY makes the church attractive, because what people want is peace, joy and contentment. Surrendering to Jesus is the only way we truly experience those things. As Kyle Idleman once said, “what you win them with, is what you win them to.” We must win them with the gospel.
2. Christians must learn how to engage the culture better. There is no question that the church and the culture are at war. The way of Jesus is often totally counter to the world in every possible way. Issues of economics, sexuality, science, politics and the like seem to divide people like the Great Wall of China. And whether Christians want to admit it or not, we have not always engaged the culture well. On the one hand you have a group of Christians who, in an effort to not push people away, and with the best intentions, appease sinful culture. Some by flat out affirming wrong thinking and behavior and others by simply remaining silent. On the other hand you have a group of Christians who, again with the best intentions, forcefully proclaim the truth. But, come across as arrogant know-it-alls that only care about being right and have no love for the people they interact with. Neither of those strategies will win people back to Christ. It is only when we engage people with BOTH grace AND truth that we will see them come back to the church for the right reasons and for good. So how do we do that? It starts with becoming better LISTENERS. If we want people to hear us, we must start by hearing them. As we seek to understand why a person thinks and believes what they do, it builds trust. And as we build trust we’ll earn the capital needed to share the truth in love. It is only when a person trusts the people of the church that they will consider engaging with the corporate body of Christ. But we must also KNOW the truth. People are smart. They have access to more information than ever before. But did you know studies show that the more educated someone is the MORE likely they are to believe in God and be active in the church? That’s because faith in God is never blind. It is rooted in reason. When a person takes the time to genuinely seek the truth, it makes far more logical sense to believe there is a God than to believe there is not. So, we need to STUDY God’s Word. We must critically think through the major rebuttals people have to Christianity. As 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Forty MILLION people have left the church in the last 25 years. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. It is never too late to change that trend. Every day, through the relationships in your life, you have the opportunity to bridge the gap between people who are hopelessly lost and the hope of Jesus. I pray this both encourages and challenges you to do just that in your circles of influence!
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