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The real reasons behind the "Great Dechurching"
It's not their politics, or their attitudes toward sexuality, but their failure to offer a sense of "belonging"
I’m prone to nod and yawn whenever I hear about the latest sociological scrutiny of America’s religious attitudes and behavior. That even goes for brass and mahogany fixtures of academic reputability like the work of the Pew Research Center which churns out reports and statistical tabulations with drudge-like predictability.
The reason isn’t so much I harbor suspicions about the veracity of their findings. It’s just that the survey questions on which they rely to draw their breathless conclusions are often far more ambiguous, if not shallower, than the solemnity our media pundits inexorably bestow upon them.
We also know from political polling that when it comes to contentious issues respondents sometimes interpret the queries differently from what the pollsters intended, and even if they do understand what has been asked of them, they may from time to time dissemble.
In other words, because the true lingua franca by which the members of the intelligentsia in a secular republic are allowed to communicate with each other is the discourse of dry data, sociologists of religion are professionally prone to think more highly of themselves than their subject matter actually warrants.
Thus, I was pleasantly surprised, if not rather taken aback, when I stumbled on the book The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going by a trio of sociologists. It’s pretty much a truism that both religious identity and religious commitment are not only declining, but on the verge of free fall in America, which as recently as the first decade of the new millennium would have seemed absolutely unimaginable.
So why would I browbeat myself into reading, let alone purchasing, another self-indulgent screed by the usual academic suspects regurgitating the sociologically self-evident, namely, that the younger generation is stampeding out the big glass doors of the capacious megachurches their Boomer parents and grandparents erected during the fabled evangelical revival, which got its start with the Jesus movement of the 1970s and culminated with the Presidency of George W. Bush, who flaunted his born-again Christianity from the Oval Office while commandeering “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Does anyone really have to remind me for the 103rd time that it’s all the fault of what we used to term the “religious right”, but now has been rebranded as something known as “Christian nationalism”, which if you doomscroll through X/Twitter sounds infinitely more like an existential menace to the planet as well as a je ne sais quoi that is sufficiently indefinable and utterly creepy?
Yes, I know, it’s also because there are also all those Catholic priests who can’t keep it in their pants, not to mention the vast cast of church ladies with censorious scowls and hyperpatriarchal “theobros” who routinely scare away the gender fluid from the morning prayer gathering.
Which, of course, is precisely what I expected to find in the book by Jim Davis, Michael graham, and Ryan Burge with its lengthy rap sheet on all those once churched that have now been “dechurched”, especially since Obama took office in 2008. But even in the opening chapters my jaded assumptions were blown away like teabags in a Texas tornado.
The book offers some surprising conclusions, which amount to gale-force crosswinds to the dominant academic narrative. It also blends many insightful personal stories and detailed case studies with the standard issue charts and polling summaries to flesh out exactly what lurks behind all the number-crunching.
First, rapidly changing social attitudes toward sexual behavior and gender identity, which clashes with traditional Christian morality and church dogma, have very little to do with the trend toward “dechurching”.
Hostility lodged in a doctrinal statement toward same-sex marriage, for instance, may turn away the more progressively minded from becoming involved with a particular congregation, but its impact on whether the latter reject Christianity as a whole, or the ideal of committed Christian community, is negligible, according to the authors.
Second, contrary to the progressive myth going all the way back to Karl Marx that religion – and therefore church attendance – is principally for stupid people, the authors reveal that the greatest proportion of the population in flight from organized religion is among the working class and the uneducated. It’s actually the cultural elites who are the least likely to abandon their public expressions of faith.
The authors write that “one counterintuitive and fascinating insight is that regardless of tradition, increased education decreases the likelihood of dechurching.” They add that “it is particularly noteworthy that only 11 percent of evangelicals in our study who went to graduate school have dechurched.”
In addition, the authors’ research finds that American churches tend to follow the script of the cynical proverb “those that have get”. Extensive research has shown that the so-called “wealth gap”, a term trundled out by economists for growing inequality in America with regard to income and asset accumulation, is intimately tied up with levels of education.
Furthermore, education attainment itself is increasingly correlated statistically, as Melissa Kearney argues in an explosive new book entitled The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, with the nuclear family.
It is a vicious, self-reinforcing circle. As the liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes in his favorable review of Kearney’s book, “the collapse of marriage has happened mostly among less-educated Americans,” especially African-Americans. The marriage dearth has produced an educational deficit, which in turn is directly responsible for a yawning wealth gap.
At the same time, according to the authors of The Great Dechurching, “the American church and especially evangelicalism is largely built for the nuclear family or those on that track.” On the downside the authors offer the disconcerting observation that “the average American church is not truly hospitable to the less fortunate, making them feel like outsiders in our midst.”
Thus the followers of Jesus, who in his ministry made it crystal-clear he came not for the saved but the lost, in the United States at least have set up shop by and large with an agenda designed to reinforce the sense of exclusion among those who need the church the most.
Third, the most glaring factor that the book highlights in order to provide some sort of causal analysis that might make sense of the contemporary exodus of onetime church-goers is the profound slippage in the feeling of belonging. “Belonging (or lack thereof) is the primary pain point many dechurched feel.”
There is no straightforward metric for the feeling of belonging. However, there is little doubt that contemporary society is experiencing at unprecedented levels perceptions of “disconnectedness”, which is the obverse of belonging.
Just last May the U.S. surgeon general warned about an “epidemic of loneliness” that has fomented not merely a mental health crisis, but also a lowering and pervasive social catastrophe that threatens our physical well-being.
Following up from the surgeon general’s advisory, the Smithsonian Magazine reported:
Feelings of isolation and loneliness may be rising because Americans’ social networks and interactions are in decline. In 2021, 49 percent of adults reported having three or fewer friends, compared to about 27 percent in 1990, per the report. For young people ages 15 to 24, time spent in-person with friends fell from about 150 minutes per day in 2003 to 40 minutes per day in 2020—an almost 70 percent drop.
Social media, of course, is the most obvious culprit behind such a trend. The lingering effects of the Covid lockdowns have been regularly cited in the general news media.
But by massaging both the data at hand and sundry memes extracted from relevant focus group inquiry the authors of Dechurching conclude that it is the churches themselves that not only fail to counter the trend, they both mirror and even fortify it.
The dominant “business model” of the American church, which extols the staged Sunday morning spectacle or “Jesus show” at the expense of nurturing the types of deeper social and spiritual connectivity with each other, which once upon a time epitomized everyday Christianity and which “all the lonely people,” as the old Beatles song goes, increasingly crave.
The extreme politicization of Christianity, whether by partisans of the right or left, has without doubt in the estimation of authors taken an enormous toll.
The churches themselves, the authors emphasize, suffer from a severe shortfall of “relational competence”. The solution is for churches to become more invested in what they designate as “relational maturity” and “relational wisdom”.
The “relational” imperative lies at the heart of Christianity itself. In fact, the imperative is one of a kind of radical relationality that means outreach is not simply an appurtenance, but the very essence of the gospel itself.
The writers of the New Testament made it clear that if the church did not fulfill its epochal mission as the intimate embodiment (the “bride”) of the risen Christ, it would be left to wither by the wayside. As the author of 1 Peter so aptly phrases it, “it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us.” (1 Peter 4:17, NIV).
The “great dechurching” may indeed represent judgment, but beyond judgment we catch a glimpse of what Scripture refers to as the parousia, the “fullness of presence” of the One “who is, and who was, and who is to come”.
And that is something our noble sociologists can’t tell us much about, even with their most exacting methods of statistical sampling and surveys.