Leaving the Church and Losing our Religion: A Review of ‘The Great Dechurching’ by Jim Davis and Michael Graham


Anne Kennedy

Article ID:



Oct 11, 2023


Oct 4, 2023

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Summary Critique Book Review

Jim Davis, Michael Graham, with Ryan P. Burge

The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going,

and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?

Zondervan, 2023


“Did you know that 40 million people have stopped attending church?” I asked a friend who keeps on telling me that she will be coming to church next Sunday. She blinked.

“People who are alive?” she asked, “or people who are dead?”

“People who are alive,” I said. “So, what would it take for you to come back?”

She laughed and promised, again, that she would be there “this week.”

The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? by Jim Davis and Michael Graham, with help from Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe, delves into that mind-boggling statistic — more than 40 million people in the United States have left churches of every kind over the last 25 years. People who had once occupied the pews and movable chairs of Baptist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Presbyterian, and every other flavor of Christian church you can name have walked out for a whole host of reasons, and have not come back. “For the first time in eight decades that Gallup has tracked American religious membership,” explain Davis and Graham, “more adults in the United States do not attend church than attend church. This is not a gradual shift; it is a jolting one.”1

The stats alone merit the attention this book has received in so many mainstream venues. No less than the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic have run pieces on The Great Dechurching. The radical change in America’s religious landscape should draw a deep and thoughtful pause for every American, not just the church-going ones. But for Christians facing all those empty pews, passing all the people who have left in the grocery store and the dentist’s office, the predicament is even greater and, on the face, more perplexing. What should faithful churchgoers think not only about the numbers but also about the people themselves?

The Method and the Numbers. Jim Davis, pastor of Orlando Grace Church, and Michael Graham, program director for the newly formed Keller Center associated with The Gospel Coalition, together host a podcast called As in Heaven. They joined with Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, to do a statistical analysis of what they were experiencing in their own ministries. They observed that just when Florida seemed poised to become a Christian epicenter, home to some of the most prominent Christian ministries of the last hundred years, instead they were hearing more and more reports of individuals and families leaving the church. The stories piled up. Was it merely their own impression, or could data prove what their eyes were seeing? First, they had to establish what they meant by “dechurched.” “For the purposes of our study,” they write, “we defined a dechurched person as someone who used to go to church at least once per month but now goes less than once a year.”2 Their working thesis was that the United States is “currently in the middle of the largest and fastest religious shift” since its founding, bigger than the First and Second Great Awakenings (emphasis in original).3

They divided the task into three parts. The first population sample included 1,043 adults and broadly sought to determine the scale of the shift in church attendance.4 The second stage was larger, 4,099 dechurched adults. This group allowed them to “compare differences and similarities between churched and dechurched people from all religious traditions.”5 They were able to compare the characteristics and reasons for leaving the church from this second phase. They discovered that “no theological tradition, age group, ethnicity, political affiliation, education level, geographic location, or income bracket escaped the dechurching in America.”6 The third phase narrowed down to consider only those who no longer attend evangelical churches. Four different groups emerged from this final stage.7

From the data, Graham and Smith present fictional prototypes of the kind of people who have left. They describe “Tom,” the Cultural Christian, who was probably never a believer but who did once enjoy going to church. If Tom were to return, he would need to encounter a church-going Christian who was willing to make a substantial investment in him beyond just extending an invitation.8 Next, they introduce “Hannah,” the Mainstream Evangelical. She holds orthodox theological views and hasn’t been able to make it back since COVID. She needs a friend to give her a call and invite her because she knows she needs to go and means to at some point.9 Then there is “Tammy,” the “bone tired” Exvangelical, who discovered her child had been abused by a youth pastor. She won’t return to an evangelical church, though someday she might consider some other expression of the Christian faith.10 There is also “Jeremiah,” the Dechurched BIPOC,11 who “still believed in God” but “church wasn’t working for him and hadn’t for a long time.”12 Finally, the authors describe “Conor,” the Dechurched Catholic.  When he discovered that his younger brother had been abused by a priest, he vowed he would never go back. The thought of it makes him sick.13

Belief, Belonging, and Behavior. Part of the method Graham and Davis employ is the sociological paradigm “belief, behavior, and belonging.”14 Burge writes, “When social scientists think about religion, they typically categorize religiosity in three ways: behavior, belief, and belonging. Behavior is measured through things like church attendance or amount of offering donated to a religious organization. Belief is assessed through asking questions about what a respondent believes about the existence of God, heaven, or hell. Belonging is more about social affiliations.”15 For dechurched evangelicals especially, the “belong” factor, according to Graham and Davis, cannot be over-emphasized: “When we focused on why this group of people left the church and how they thought they would come back, the answer was simple: belonging.”16 If they knew there was a way to integrate into a local body, they feel they would.

When asked how willing they would be to go back to church, 51 percent said they are either somewhat willing or very willing — 51 percent! Unsurprisingly, the reasons they would come back also represent a longing to belong. These dechurched evangelicals said they would come back if they made new friends (28%), if they move and want to make new friends (18%), if they became lonely and want to make new friends (20%), if their children want to go (16%), if their spouse wants to go (18%), if a friend invites them (17%), if there is a good pastor (18%), if they find a good community (17%), if they miss their church community (20%), or if they just find a church they like (14%).17

This data should offer some hope, the authors think, in the face of such staggering losses. Later in the work, they offer relational advice directed at recovering this group. Becoming more curious and open to their needs, engaging in active listening, and being able to take criticism without becoming defensive, they surmise, would bring many back. Especially as this group still holds orthodox doctrinal beliefs:

Dechurched evangelicals are still largely orthodox in their faith. When it comes to our primary doctrines, 68 percent of those we surveyed still believe in the Trinity, 64 percent believe in the divinity of Jesus, 65 percent believe Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for the sins of those who believe in him, 67 percent believe in the resurrection, 62 percent believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and 61 percent believe the Bible is a reliable document for all matters of faith and practice. Collectively, the general orthodoxy scores of dechurched evangelicals in our study are much higher than their mainline or Roman Catholic counterparts. While they may have departed from the church, their responses indicate that they may not have departed from the faith.18

This is a fascinating finding and an encouraging one. Unfortunately, not everyone is so amenable to returning to church. Two issues in particular pose stumbling blocks for those who have dechurched — abuse and politics.

Abuse and Politics. Graham and Davis divided their findings into two groups — the Casually Dechurched and the Dechurched Casualty.19 For this latter group, the reasons for leaving include “spiritual and physical abuse in the church, hypocrisy among church members and leaders, sexual ethics, political syncretism, political disagreement, suffering, racism, bigotry, and a perceived lack of relevance or real answers to the world’s problems.”20 Whereas mostly orthodox dechurched evangelicals struggle with a sense of belonging, the exvangelical group identified “more frequent and deeper pain” as reasons to leave. “Exvanglicals,” they write, “scored 74 percent higher on having experienced a lack of love from their congregations than the other four groups combined. On top of that, they scored twice as high as any other group on ‘negative experiences you personally had in an evangelical church.’ To imagine the frustration and righteous anger of knowing that your daughter has been sexually assaulted and nothing will ever be done about it is to start to understand the perspective of some exvanglicals” (emphasis in original).21 Couple this with the “missed generational handoff” discussed toward the end of the book, and the prognosis is discouraging for regaining this group.

These findings were not surprising. What was more unexpected was the degree to which what the authors call “the secular right” is leaving the church. “Particularly among evangelicals,” they say, “there is more danger of dechurching on the right than on the left.”22 Dechurched who named politics as a reason they left rated it as a “significant factor.”23 What the authors call “political syncretism” goes in two directions. “There are those who become disenfranchised with the church because it is too synchronized with right-wing politics and those who become disenfranchised with the church because it is not synchronized enough.”24 The most disturbing statistic of all is that “more than one-quarter of the dechurched evangelicals…believe the United States should be declared a Christian nation and no longer attend church” (emphasis in original).25 And in this group “many believe the US Constitution is divinely inspired, on par with the Bible itself.”26 The authors break down feelings about racism, January 6, and the war in Ukraine in each of the sketched profiles. They also factor in how well served each population feels by other institutions besides the church. Unwinding the tight cluster of these factors should prove an invaluable help for those who want to try to reach those who profess to believe but don’t think that going to church will benefit them.

What Would It Take to Bring Them Back? The strength of The Great Dechurching lies chiefly in the fresh and immediate presentation of demographic data. Thinking of people in types isn’t always helpful, but having a sketch with recognizable traits within a type might foster engagement with real people whose reasons for not going to church matter. The book falters, for me, on two points. First, their proposed solutions don’t address the anemic ecclesial underpinnings of evangelicalism as a whole. Trying to use a sociological paradigm to address what is really a spiritual and theological crack in an institutional foundation, ironically, only exacerbates the problem. Second — and I’m not sure there is a way around this, for there is no other way to find out this information — asking people what they require in order to come to church again isn’t the best way to get people to come back to church again. I would like to unpack this second point briefly, and then discuss the underlying theological assumptions about the nature of the church that are illumined by The Great Dechurching.

The Consumer Christian. In each of the three sections unpacking the composite sketches of dechurched evangelicals, the authors present a graph called “Reasons for Returning to Church.” The graphs list some of the following answers: “God tells me to go back,” “I find a church I like,” “A good pastor,” “Never going back,” “Feel distance from God,” “Find a church that cares about justice and compassion,” “A good community,” “Begin to miss church,” “Spouse wants to go,” “A miracle.”27 These answers track with my own experience of asking visitors why they decided to try out a worship service. Guilt, a child begging to go, and loneliness often draw a person back who has once attended church. And yet, during COVID, as the authors note, a great number of people stopped going out of a sense of disenfranchisement. What they thought their church believed or practiced turned out not to be true. Many pastors and congregations faltered as COVID and racial upheaval rocked the national boat.

The anemia of “Reasons for Returning to Church,” however, is deeply concerning, especially when coupled with the “ask” itself. Forty million Americans have felt more comfortable out of church than in. Forty million churchgoers don’t perceive any spiritual consequences for not going. Asking the question reiterates to churched and dechurched alike that church attendance is a matter of personal preference. For some it will “work for them,” but for others it might not. Some churches, after all, are just not that inviting or don’t have a good enough pastor. The answers given reside entirely on a spiritually horizontal plane. They betray the crucial fact that people who don’t go to church don’t believe that going to church is essential for knowing God.

Strangely, Davis and Graham do not correct this perception themselves in their recommendations. Albeit subtly, they place the emotional and spiritual weight of bringing the dechurched back to church onto churchgoing Christians. “Hannah thought of calling Amanda that night if she had the energy,” they write. Hannah is dechurched in the sketch, and Amanda is a churchgoer. “How would the story be different if Amanda called Hannah? Our hunch is that if Amanda picked up the phone to reconnect with Hannah, she might find her old friend more than happy to go to church with her. It is reasonable that Amanda could help Hannah think creatively and find ways to overcome the issues of childcare, health concerns, and other obstacles that feel so impossible right now.”28 This thread is resumed later in the chapter on relational wisdom. Churchgoers need to spend time growing in — just to name the subtitles — “God-awareness,” “self-awareness,” “others-awareness,” “emotional awareness,” “awareness of how others perceive us,” “cultural awareness” (which has another six cultural considerations to tackle), and finally, they need to develop “quiet, calm curiosity.”29 “We would all be wise,” they preach, “to trade our defensiveness for curiosity. When some topic comes up about which we have strong opinions, feel the need to be right, or feel the need to justify ourselves, how we respond in those moments can invite transparency and vulnerability in the other person, or it can cause them to shut down. A genuinely curious posture helps others feel heard, understood, and safe.”30

This brand of reproach permeates the work, along with advice that church leaders should “help people pursue healthier information diets”31 and that they will have to “disciple people through the loss of…power.”32 Taken together, it seems, ideologically, that the authors are inclined to accept the idea that the reason so many people have left the church is that the church is worth leaving. The church, then, should do what it can to shape up and go after those who rightly departed. Maybe, when the dechurched see that churchgoers have done what they can to improve, they will change their minds and come back.

While, of course, no one should ever be unkind, hypocritical, abusive, or incurious, if faithful churchgoers were to devote themselves to pursuing the dechurched, believing that they themselves, as churchgoers, were to blame, they would thereby own their own supposed failure. The dechurched would be restored to the powerful place of twisting the churched into knots as the faithful try to make themselves acceptable to those who no longer go.

I can’t help but wonder about all the churchgoers like Amanda, who hasn’t found a moment to call her dechurched friend.33 What is she facing inside the church? Maybe the needs of those who are coming are all-consuming. Maybe the people who drag themselves to worship require prayer and meals and help and Amanda collapses into bed crushed by her own failures. The view of the churchgoer who has the capacity to text all the people who no longer come is a strange one. Really, the best place for people to commune with each other is in church, over the bread and wine after hearing the sermon. The people who can’t remember what that was like or, worse, remember but refuse to come can’t be the responsibility of those who do attend. It feels cruel to say this, of course, but attending church is, and has always been, through the history of the church, a non-negotiable. If you begin to negotiate, you have lost the game.

What Are You Inviting Them To? This brings me to the second concern I have with the substance and conclusions drawn by Graham and Davis. The numbers show, beyond a doubt, that a majority of Americans don’t think going to church is essential for knowing God. And yet, for four decades at least, mainstream evangelicalism has been afflicted by the church growth and seeker-sensitive movements. How ironic that while so many well-meaning evangelicals gutted the content and substance from their worship services in order to win the lost, those Americans they assumed would still come drifted away as well. Even those who historically would agree with the ethical assumptions of Christianity find there is nothing compelling enough to wake them up on Sunday morning. Instead of addressing this sinkhole of substantive meaning, Davis and Graham pile yet more burdens on those trying to keep their own, ever-diminishing institutions afloat.

In my local context, part of becoming a “healthy” church, of transforming a dying mainline into a vibrant liturgical and reformed one, has been remembering that the people who come to church are the people who the worship service is for. We can’t minister to the needs of the people who don’t come because we have only one thing to offer — Jesus. We proclaim His Word, we offer the sacrament of His Body and Blood, we humbly confess our sins and receive the consolation of His mercy, we are bound together by His Spirit. The hard way of saying this is that Jesus is best known in the context of His Body, the church. It’s too bad, but a person who decides not to come is beyond our help.

Not beyond God’s of course, and He uses us, as churchgoing Christians, in all kinds of ways to draw people in who haven’t yet come. We invite friends and family and lapsed Christians and strangers. Every now and then a wave of newcomers and oldcomers will come. On average, with each wave, about a third stay. And, whenever anyone really commits, we often find someone else going out the back door — and that’s all before the most faithful age and die. During COVID, we lost all our shut-ins. It was a grievous and difficult time. But we didn’t lose members of our own congregation who had, before the pandemic, come at least three times a month.

The metric — “attends church at least once a month” — betrays how little understood is the purpose and mission of the church. Going to church once a month isn’t sufficient. You have to go every week if you want to reap the rewards of that early hour. You have to go, worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, and then stick around to chat afterward and maybe drink a cup of coffee.

When you get into trouble, you have to admit it to the people you go to church with and ask for their help. You have to listen to the sermon and accept the conviction of the Holy Spirit. You should try to attend some kind of midweek group as well. If you choose to go sparingly, or not at all, the people who do go to church, however much they may desire to help you, won’t be able to, because you’re not there. Christ ministers to His body as His body gathers.

What are the consequences of not going to church? Graham, Davis, and Burge acknowledge the very dire cultural predicament when more people decide not to go than go. The institution of the church helps people in need. It teaches morality. Even if the people sitting in the pew never hear the saving message of the cross, at least they can be spared the pain of various kinds of sin. The church is essential for a healthy society, of course. But Americans will never go to church if they don’t discover that there is only one name under heaven by which they can be saved — Jesus — and the only place to be bound to Him, body and soul, is in the local church that He builds in His own Blood and by His own Spirit. —Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Standfirminfaith.com and on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.


  1. Jim Davis, Michael Graham, Ryan P. Burge, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2023), 3.
  2. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, xxii.
  3. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, xxii.
  4. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, xxii.
  5. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, xxiii.
  6. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, xxiii.
  7. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, xxiv.
  8. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 39–42.
  9. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 54–57.
  10. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 65–68.
  11. BIPOC refers to “Black, indigenous, and people of color” — a completely non-white group classification. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 84.
  12. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 83–84, see 79–84.
  13. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 98–103.
  14. With respect to ordering what are commonly called the “Three Bs,” Davis and Graham state, “The Christian life is holistic. Our beliefs create belonging and dictate behavior. To prioritize one or two of these elements over the others is to fundamentally miss some part of the Christian faith.” Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 129.
  15. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 120–21.
  16.  Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 28.
  17. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 28.
  18. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 27–28.
  19. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 24.
  20. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 24.
  21. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 74.
  22. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 31.
  23. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 32,
  24. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 32.
  25. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 32–33.
  26. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 33. The authors cite “In U.S., Far More Support Than Oppose Separation of Church and State,” Pew Research Center, October 28, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/10/28/in-u-s-far-more-support-than-oppose-separation-of-church-and-state/.
  27. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 62, 76, 94.
  28. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 63.
  29. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 133–47.
  30. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 145.
  31. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 190.
  32. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 193.
  33. Davis, Graham, Burge, The Great Dechurching, 63.
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