The downfall of public Christianity in modern America has been well documented. What has not been studied nearly as closely, however, has been the source of the downfall, the devil driving the great unawakening.
Two evangelicals are hoping to change this. In their soon to be released book The Great Dechurching, pastor Jim Davis and Gospel Coalition writer Michael Graham seek to answer this question with data. Together with political scientists Ryan P. Burge and Paul Djupe, whose survey of 7,000 Americans and their church habits forms the backbone of the discussion, the writers examine the reasons people say they are leaving the church. What they find, at least according to one advance review, is that, far from asking too much of their members, perhaps churches are not asking nearly enough.
As Christian magazine editor Jake Meador writes in his review of The Great Dechurching for the Atlantic, while religious abuse and moral corruption in churches have driven some people away, “a much larger share of those who have left church have done so for more banal reasons,” such as scheduling conflicts. Church just isn’t an important enough commitment to be worth the upkeep: “attendance ends up feeling like an item on a checklist that’s already too long.”
The book suggests that the defining problem driving out most people who leave is…just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children.
Modern individualism, no doubt, has butchered community on the altar of individual achievement. But as destructive as this atomization has been, the church itself seems to have played a role in the slaughter. It has catered to this culture, with churches styling themselves like businesses attracting customers, rather than as guardians of the faith.
This commercial approach tells church leaders to ask less of parishioners, not more, so that their economizing minds will recognize the good deal they’re being offered. Thus, sermons are shortened and avoid thorny passages. Children of all ages are split up and taken out of the service for various Sunday schools and youth groups. Services are live streamed to make attendance as easy as pressing “play.” This market approach to membership has led Americans to view Christianity as just another social club, and an expendable one at that.
Sociology gets confused, however, when it sees the correlation between responsibility and commitment, and concludes that the solution to this “Great Dechurching” is to give everyone a job. It is good for churches to demand physical things, like more volunteers for children’s chapel. Jobs should be given, yes, but they are only half the story. The missing piece is the cornerstone: If the church is not demanding enough of Americans for them to care to attend on Sunday, it is not demanding enough of itself theologically, too.
We have heard this before, but it seems to need saying often: In addition to Americans leaving the church, the church has also left Americans—specifically, those Americans who desire life under the shield of biblical orthodoxy. Consider for example that the Southern Baptist Convention was recently taken to task over nearly 2,000 women serving in pastoral roles in churches within the convention. Female pastorship is explicitly prohibited under the convention’s constitution, but it took more than two years of a few outsiders wrangling with leadership to get the convention to affirm this membership requirement and disfellowship a prominent megachurch violator. This is from a denomination that is generally considered to be a conservative holdout; the mainline denominations have been flying the rainbow flag for decades now.
All this watered-down theology and minimal effort is supposed to make Christianity more palatable to non-Christians, to make the bar so low that anyone can jump it. Yet, as Burge and Djupe’s study illustrates, the church’s lack of demands is actually doing the opposite of growing its numbers.
Out in Moscow, Idaho, a different story has been unfolding. A fiery Reformed preacher and author of a number of books on Christian theology, Pastor Douglas Wilson has been branded controversial for the content and style of his teaching alike. Under his leadership, his congregation, Christ Church, has remained committed to Biblical orthodoxy on sexuality, marriage, and male headship, among other things. And, especially since 2020, the church has exploded with growth.
“Our position on men and women is simply that of the Bible, and which the church universally affirmed up until just a few years ago,” Wilson told me in an email. “We care about faithfulness to the Word, and not about popularity, which is one of the reasons for our…[sic] popularity.”
Wilson wrote that Christ Church’s members often mention “the sense of community” as a reason for joining the congregation. But he was careful to note that this community “is grounded in a shared commitment to the authority of Scripture.” It does not, and cannot, exist apart from that.
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We are accustomed to life a la carte, with community treated like a cherry on top, rather than the bricks and mortar that compose it. Meanwhile Wilson’s view, and that of historical Christianity, posit community as something entirely different, something that stems organically from a shared confession, and that requires duties and sacrifice from those who commit to it.
That means church suppers aren’t what make Christians stay in church, but that those Christians who are united by their commitment to this unchanging, life-altering path want to have supper with others who are as well. “If the Church is simply going to drift along behind the world, what is the point of being a Christian?” Wilson said. “In our experience, the fact that we expect our members to stand with us as we stand for the Bible makes our community much more attractive, not off-putting.”
This is an image of the church that requires much of its people, and that by its nature invites slander from the cult of self. It is, perhaps precisely because of that contrast, a church that is not only not declining, but growing.