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Why People are Leaving the Church (With Michael Graham)

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Over the last two decades, church attendance has declined across denominations. Some stop attending because they no longer identify with the religion, some because they have had negative experiences in the church, and some leave because of lifestyles that make church attendance challenging. Regardless of the reason, though, this is a significant shift that will have implications years into the future.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Michael Graham, Program Director for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, to discuss what is known as the “great dechurching” and how Christians should respond.

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Family Policy Matters
Why People are Leaving the Church (With Michael Graham)

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks so much for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. For the first time in 80 years, more US adults don’t attend church than do. 40 million US adults who used to go to church no longer do. Well who are these Americans, and why have they left our churches? What impact is this trend having on our country, and how can we reverse the trend? Michael Graham is Program Director for the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. He co-authored a new book analyzing this trend, and it’s called The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving? Why Are They Going? And What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? Well, he’s here today to discuss his findings. Michael Graham, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

MICHAEL GRAHAM: Thank you, Traci.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s start with hope, because sometimes we as Christians, we hear Christianity is in decline. American culture is increasingly intolerant of Christian ethics. Church membership is in a decades-long decline. Before people go running and screaming down the aisles, please give us a glimpse of the hope that you have regarding this issue and just all of these issues that surround it. God is not taken by surprise by this.

MICHAEL GRAHAM: Well going into this research, we weren’t sure what to expect. There were two prevailing stories as to why all these people were leaving houses of worship in America. The two stories were basically, if your media diet leaned a little bit to the left, the story was, well, people are leaving because of racism, misogyny, clergy scandal, clergy abuse, political syncretism, Christian nationalism. If your media leaned a little bit to the right, then the story that was being told there was, people are leaving because of secular progressivism, the sexual revolution, and these kinds of things.

Now the good news and the hope is most of the people who left houses of worship primarily did not leave for either of those two reasons. They left primarily for very pragmatic reasons of things like number one, I moved. Number two, attendance was inconvenient. Number three, there was some kind of family change, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, the birth of a child, these kinds of things. Well, on the two older stories, and there’s, you know, of the 40 million people who left, maybe 10 million of them fit those two stories, you know, that were the predominant narratives before. 30 million people left in this very what we call casual way. The good news about that, and what’s very hopeful about that, is most of these people are willing to return to a house of worship today, even though many of them have been gone for 10, 20, in some cases, even 30 years. And then the other piece of good news there is, unlike the two prevailing stories from before, none of us can really do anything at the national level, you know, on any of those issues, on those two stories that were previously told. So there’s tremendous hope in terms of engaging people interpersonally and building healthier local churches.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, well, that is a hopeful statement. Let’s talk about, then, do we not do a very good job of explaining maybe why church is important, either while they’re in the church, or while we meet them casually somewhere in our neighborhood, perhaps

MICHAEL GRAHAM: One of the things that Jim and I have aimed to do in this book is to inspire people to take relational risk on the interpersonal level, and then to inspire those who are clergy or who work in ministry settings in the local church, to inspire them to, you know, kind of always be improving on the institutional level. And so it seems very clear from the data that there there’s a lot of hope, but there’s also a lot of low hanging fruit. And just in terms of us taking some relational risk, opening up our dinner tables and then just doing church in a way that helps people understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good, it’s true and it’s beautiful all at the same time.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, so the picture you’re painting is not quite as bleak as some are painting for us. So you’re saying, if we just ask or invest some time in our relationship with our neighbors, they may be very willing to go to church with us and would appreciate the invitation.

MICHAEL GRAHAM: What it looks like from our data is roughly about half of the people who used to go to church on a monthly or greater basis, if we engage them, they will return to church and are actively willing to do so right now.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, very interesting. Well, let’s talk about this study. What was the catalyst for doing this in the first place?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: You know, I was a pastor before taking my my role at the Keller Center. And Jim and I, along with our elders, we had run across some data that basically said that 42% of our city had de churched, and that’s Orlando, Florida, and so that’s some 2 million people in our metro area. And we didn’t feel like we had recent, academically credible and granular insights as to who those several million people were. Why did they leave? When did they leave, and are they willing to return? And under what conditions would they be willing to return? So we felt like we needed to do this out of pastoral necessity in terms of the mission of our church to the city.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, let’s get a little more granular then on some of the things that you’ve said, give us some specifics. What are some of those reasons that people are leaving, and do you have stats on what will bring them back?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: Yeah. So one of the things that’s important to understand about dechurching is that it’s not monolithic. So you have several different profiles of people who have left for a wide variety of reasons at different times, you know, some in the late 90s, you know, all the way through, you know, last few years during Covid. And so the first thing you really need to do is actually read the book and get a sense of, okay, you know, here’s the six different profiles. Here’s kind of the gist of each.

If you had to zoom out at the highest level, you have 30 million people who left, what we call casually, and then you have 10 million people who left as dechurched casualties. The casualties had significant pain and hurt for a wide variety of reasons. It’s mainly those reasons of racism, misogyny, clergy scandal, clergy abuse, political syncretism, Christian nationalism, some of those kinds of things. Then you have 30 million people who left for things that basically just amount to habits and rhythms and those sorts of things. Very practical reasons for why they left. In terms of evangelicals, of the 40 million people who stopped going to church regularly, 15 million of those people left evangelical churches. And we have four very different profiles of the evangelical dechurched, and so we devote a chapter to each of those different profiles in the books. It would take way too long for me to unpack some of the differences and nuances between those four groups, because they’re massively different.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: As believers and church goers, who most of us, I think, believe in the Great Commission, we understand that we’re supposed to share the hope that is within us, like if we’re going after people who are Christians but who just aren’t in church, why is that an important thing for us as Christians to focus on?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: What we’ve observed is that the longer you that you’re out of church, the more that your belief in the basics say, Nicene Creed level Christianity, the more that those things erode over time. And so it’s not good for people to be out of the habit of regular church going. The second thing would be about the about to about 10 of the 15 million people who left evangelical churches, they don’t really look like Christians anymore, at least in their beliefs, and about 5 million still look like they do. So this is really low hanging fruit. You know, when you have 8 million of the 15 million people who left evangelical churches who are willing to come back to church right now, and the reasons why that you’re looking for at the highest level are really just two things. They’re just looking for good friendships, and they’re looking for a healthy local church, one where they can see the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel, kind of present there in the congregation.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so do you think that sometimes people don’t try to go back to church? They don’t know where to go, or they maybe don’t think there are healthy local churches in their area?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: It’s really going to boil down to this. And this is going to sound really simple, but people go to church because somebody invites them. And so if we are bought into the notion that, oh well, if I invite them, well this is going to end our relationship. Or if I invite them, this is going to go bad, or they’re not going to come, people have to get over that interpersonal risk. So Jim and I want to demystify what’s out there. You know, at least in three quarters of the situations that you’re talking about inviting somebody to church that’s not a relationship ending conversation. And there’s ways to go about this, in ways that are very natural.

One way that you can go about it in terms of when you’re relating with somebody who you’re relatively new with, is you can ask non threatening questions like, Hey, are you a person of faith? And these are kinds of simple questions that you can ask people early on in a relationship that are non threatening, and they don’t get at one tradition or another and give lots of openness for a wide variety of responses. And it’s questions like that that help you get a sense and get a feel of, you know, oh, what’s someone’s history? And did they have any, were they churched in their background, and these different kinds of things. So those kinds of non threatening questions are easy ways to just get a foot in the door and, you know, get further on into the question of, hey, I really like you. I like spending time with you. Would you have any interest in coming to church with me this Sunday? We can go grab lunch, you know, after if you want, at your favorite place, you know, whatever’s normal in different parts of the country, in your region, in your context.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk a little more about our motivation as believers. We may hear from the pulpit that it’s important to share our faith with people that have never heard, and we all know that that’s important, but we also know the Great Commission talks a lot about making disciples, and so talk about how that fits into what you’re talking about here.

MICHAEL GRAHAM: A good practice is not just to, like, invite people to church, but yeah, that’s a starting point. You know, we do want to stay in their lives. And the great commission is simple. It’s clear. So many of the issues that we’re looking at culture and society today and even internally in the church, are these are discipleship issues. And so we have to help people understand what it looks like to follow Jesus. What does that look like in the workplace and in our marriages and in our parenting, in all of these different kinds of things. How do we relate to people who are struggling in culture and society? What are our ethical implications of you know, how we go about business and relationships and all of the interactions that we have, where we live, work, and play?

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk in a practical way about how this shift of so many people leaving the church has affected churches?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of implications. Obviously, this is going to put financial strain on many churches, particularly those that are under the 150 in size, which is the overwhelming lion’s share of churches in our country. It’s also going to put strain on communities that are in demographic decline, where, say, there’s negative population growth and these different kinds of things. That’s certainly going to exacerbate those dynamics and those situations. You’re probably looking at increases in pastors and clergy who are bivocational in the future, particularly in places like the Midwest and other parts of the country that are kind of negative population growth.

There’s implications in terms of, just like during Covid, you’d have a Covid spike, and you know, the spike goes up, but then the spike goes down. Why does the spike go down? Well, the spike goes down because eventually, for that particular strain, there aren’t enough people who have yet to have that strain to maintain that growth. So basically, the dechurching spike in a generation will yield an unchurching spike, because what do de church parents raise? Well, their child is going to be unchurched, and so we’re in a unique once in a generation opportunity that while all of these people have some semblance of cultural memory of what it was like to be churched, we have a generational opportunity to capitalize on that cultural memory while people are still willing to return to church, lest we face a whole different set of issues. Another 20-30 years with a spike in unchurched settings, and all you really need to do is look at certain coastal cities in America, Seattle, New York City, other parts of New England or, you know, look up to Canada or Europe, and you can kind of see, okay, this is what some of the challenges of living in an unchurched culture is going to look like.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Wow, thank you. That was a great challenge. Very convicting. All right, so North Carolina Family Policy Council is a public policy organization, and we address policies in the state legislature here in North Carolina. So does this kind of dramatic drop in church attendance, does it affect that as well public policy?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: Certainly will. I mean, any trend that you’re talking about that deals with one in six adult Americans can’t not have an impact on culture, society, politics, and public policy. So just given this, the sheer size of those things that are there it’s certainly going to have an impact there on that level.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: In a way we’re almost voting with our feet in a strange sense, in that, you know, if people think, well, church is not that important to people anymore, so the church ethics may not be as important, and that could certainly have an effect, I would think, before we go, Michael, we’re about out of time. Where can our listeners go if we want to follow you, possibly on social media or wherever you communicate these days, and get a copy of your book, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?

MICHAEL GRAHAM: Yeah, you can pick up a, you know, a physical, digital or audio book copy of the book on Amazon. You know, if you’re clergy and you’re listening to this and you want resources that are just purely institutional for helping your local church address this problem of dechurching, we did build a website, and that’s and on there, there’s a 20-point audit for how you can make significant improvements at the local church level on this dechurching issue from a local church institution standpoint. I don’t do too much online, but you can find me on Twitter @MSGWrites, that’s write, as in, W R I T E S.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, Michael, thank you so much for an encouraging and very informative word. Thank you so much for being with us today. Michael Graham on Family Policy Matters.

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