Growing up, I attended a megachurch of around 4000 people, most of whom were predominantly working-class Hispanics. The Church, though situated in the heart of Brooklyn-Queens, functioned like any megachurch you can find in America: a three-song worship set of contemporary music, followed by a 20-30 minute inspirational message for a roughly middle-class audience to have faith, trust God, and follow their purpose. This is the Church in America that I know. This is the Church where I grew up, found community, volunteered, and stayed. When my high school education put me in the ranks of the secular elite, I stayed. When I became Reformed in 2014, and my theology put me squarely at odds with everything I was taught, I stayed.
Even when I started going to college, which uprooted me and left me free to do what I wished, I not only stayed but increased my volunteering. I stayed despite undergoing a number of personal changes, which could have driven anyone to not attend Church because at the end of the day, that Church was my family. Before any theological disagreement, philosophy of ministry disagreement, or even political disagreement, the small community of friends I had was there for me, and I was there for them. My belonging, dwelling, and living were rooted in my rhythms with them. Going to parks after Church, getting food after a Wednesday night prayer service, impromptu visits to a couples’ home – they all show a way of life structured around enjoying God’s people. I treasured the organic, unstructured, but shared time in between Sundays. The text in the middle of the day to ask how I was doing did more to reinforce my commitment to the Church and the Church’s commitment to me than any sermon ever could. These were my people. We did life together. I was a cage-stage Calvinist, and this was my generic megachurch. They may not have read Bavinck or know any songs pre-CCM, but they loved me. I did not know life without them.
But that life dissolved when COVID came. The lockdowns in New York shut down churches for over a year. The Church, undergoing a change of leadership, leaned into flashier online productions while neglecting care for the community. After a few months and many conversations with my future fiancée, whom I met at this Church, we decided to leave. While we eventually found another Church that we would faithfully attend, many of our peers stopped going to Church altogether. Others I know casually church-hop, but still haven’t committed to a single body. COVID turned everyone inward, disrupting the way of life that kept me in Church, keeping everyone concerned with their own personal success, and yet starving for meaning. They are de-churched, trying to navigate life where the Church isn’t essential but is either an inconvenience or an afterthought. For some, that meant a life centered in politics, but for most, it became the acquisition of personal peace and affluence. Even for me, I yearn to return to the intimacy I experienced while also walking with me in the midst of increased hostility to Christian morality. I want a Church that will say to me, “Yes, we know the world is going crazy, But we will be here for you, and if you let us, we will pour our lives into you.”
My story, sentiments, and longings are not unique. In fact, the main point made by Jim Davis and Michael Graham’s The Great Dechurching is that dechurching is driven less by the rise of ideology but more by the Church simply becoming inconvenient. In short, many dechurched are only casually so:
One large group stopped attending church without initially intending to do so. Some moved to a new city with the intention of finding a church but never took that next step into a faith community. Many young professionals prioritized personal networks around their careers and, as a result, found themselves disconnected from a local church. Some families prioritized children's sports and other activities that increasingly happen on Sundays. Then there are those who stopped attending church during COVID-19. They developed new Sunday rhythms and now prefer those new activities over Sunday morning.
Davis and Graham employ a taxonomy of the dechurched in their data, but the same story plays out in large numbers across multiple groups. For Cultural Christians, who constitute 52% of all dechurched Evangelicals and no longer hold to the Nicene Creed, 18% stopped attending Church because their friends stopped. Another 18% stopped attending because it was inconvenient. 17% moved to a new community and 15% had other priorities. For Dechurched Mainstream Evangelicals, de-churched Evangelicals who broadly hold to the Nicene creed, 22% stopped attending Church because they moved to a new community. For 16%, attending was inconvenient, and another 12% didn’t experience much love from the congregation. For Dechurched BIPOC, 19% struggled to fit or belong in church, and 13% cited the busyness of their life. Contrary to expectations set by social media personalities, Exvangelicals, former Evangelicals who aren’t actively thinking of going back to an Evangelical Church, fall along similar lines. 23% stopped attending Church because they didn’t fit in with the congregation, and 18% didn’t experience much love within the congregation. For 18%, attending was inconvenient, and 21% moved to a new community. Across the board, the people who have stopped attending Church are driven by the breakdown of their institutions and the pull of other endeavors. The Church failed to be important to their life.
But reversing dechurching is not simply a matter of inviting more people and becoming amenable to people’s lifestyle. Surprisingly, Davis’ and Graham’s analysis also show “the more education people have, the more likely they are to stay in Church.” From the data, Davis concludes that if you are educated, the more likely you are to attend Church. “Contrary to modern sociological opinion that Christianity is more attractive to the poor, our research overwhelmingly shows that Americans who make less money are more likely to dechurch than those who make more money.” Ryan Burge writes elsewhere: “the people who are the most likely to attend services this weekend are those with college degrees making $60K-$100K. In other words, middle-class professionals.” The data implies that if America, taken as a whole, works for you, i.e you are making it in life and achieving the standard markers of success, then the more likely you are to believe in institutions, including the Church. If America does not work for you, if America’s institutions have failed to provide a stable life, then you are alienated from not just America’s political parties, but its institutions, including the Church. “College degree, middle-class income, married with children. If you check all those boxes, the likelihood of you regularly attending church is about double the rate of folks who don’t.”
In short, dechurching is a phenomenon that is experienced prior to ideology (i.e. I was a conservative, but now I’m a liberal and don’t go to Church”). Instead, it happens at the place of being, dwelling, and belonging. Hence, dechurching takes place on the right as well. In fact, according to Davis and Graham, “in phase 2 of our study we saw evangelicals dechurching on the political right at twice the frequency of those on the political left.” In fact, 28% of dechurched evangelicals surveyed believe that the United States should be declared a Christian nation!
On this point, these de-churched Evangelicals seem less interested in the retrieval of traditional Christian politics but are reacting to their large-scale alienation from American institutions, which is happening on the left and the right. For exvangelicals, who trend left, Davis and Graham note that this group had uniquely low confidence in American institutions. “Aside from marriage (49%), police (41%), and democracy (37%), not a single U.S. institution had more than 33% confidence.” These findings show that dechurching is broadly a function of the breakdown of social life. Sociologists call this trend atomisation, describing how people tend to turn inward, distancing themselves from civic institutions, local groups, and traditional mediating institutions between the people and government.
However, atomisation isn’t a new trend in American society. Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term individualism to describe the state of democracy in America: “Individualism.. is a sentiment… that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw to the side with his family and his friends; so that, after thus creating a small society for his own use, he willingly abandons the large society to itself.” DeTocqueville observed that democratic society tends towards accelerating individualism by lacking the set social bonds in aristocracy. His description of democratic, individualistic life resonates: “The thread of time is broken at every moment, and the trace of the generations fades. You easily forget those who preceded you, and you have no idea about those who will follow you. Only those closest to you are of interest.” Moreover, the free movement of wealth generates a taste for well-being. “In America, the passion for material well-being is not always exclusive, but it is general…The concern to satisfy the slightest needs of the body and to provide for the smallest conveniences of life preoccupies minds universally.” This concern for material well-being, because it is so easily lost and gained, causes Americans to be occupied with their own immediate affluence. “The inhabitant of the United States is attached to the goods of this world as if he were assured of not dying, and he hastens so much to seize those goods that pass within his reach, that you would say that at every instant he is afraid of ceasing to live.”
This taste for affluence causes restlessness in American life. The person fixated on affluence is always in a hurry, for there is only a limited time to find and enjoy the goods he seeks. For DeTocqueville, the Church provided an antidote against the acidic effects of this dynamic. The Church provides rest to the restlessness of individualistic life. He writes, “In the United States, when the seventh day of each week arrives, commercial and industrial life seems suspended; all noise ceases. A profound rest… follows.” On Sunday, “He is told about the necessity to control his desires, about the ﬁne enjoyments attached to virtue alone, and about the true happiness that accompanies it.” In this way, the Church brought people outside themselves and pointed them to an eternal and unchanging good awaiting them. The Church bound together people who tend toward separation. “The American escapes in a way from himself, and…. tearing himself away for a moment from the petty passions that agitate his life and from the transitory interests that ﬁll it, he enters suddenly into an ideal world where everything is great, pure, eternal.”
Reading Davis and Graham in light of DeTocqueville shows the culmination of individualism and material well-being on Church life. Whereas before the Church and civic society mitigated the effects of individualism, individualism threatens to hollow out everything that stands in its path. Hence, observing the same patterns in American life a hundred years later, Francis Schaefer coins twin terms to describe the acidic dynamic of individualism: personal peace and affluence:
Personal peace means I want to be left alone, and I don’t care what happens to the man across the street or across the world. I want my own lifestyle to be undisturbed regardless of what it will mean — even to my own children and grandchildren. Affluence means things, things, things, always more things — and success is seen as an abundance of things.
These dynamics—the pursuit of personal peace and affluence, are the principal threats to the Church today. Not the rise of “Christian Nationalism” nor the “MAGA Trumpists” nor even the “Progressives” and the “Woke” represent as much a threat to the life of the Church as these two things drive the breakdown of American society, whereas all the above are consequences of this breakdown. In response to the American compact failing, people on both the left and right, in many cases motivated by resentment, envision new ways to restructure society. The promise of affluence did not work for them, and so someone is to blame. For the left, it’s white privilege, for the right, it’s East Coast elites. Regardless of the truth of these statements, the dynamic is indicative of a deep helplessness in the midst of life, and a desire for an alternative way of life. In all of this, there is a deep restlessness.
The technology this ideology spawns has only intensified this restlessness in all aspects of life. Modern life is nearly impossible without a smartphone, which enables connection but separates us from the real world. Social media funnels us into our individual enclaves and separates us from the embodied world. Technology even separates our bodies from ourselves. Progressives treasure the pill, which separates sex from procreation. They encourage teenagers to obtain pills and surgery to undergo “the puberty of their choice.” Still, libertarians look forward to when they take an organized set of pills to prolong their aging. In all these things, technology shows that the culture of modern life, in all its schisms and fractures, remains personal peace and affluence. Any attempt by the Church to engage this culture that does not resist these powers is akin to moving around the furniture in a burning house.
Aaron Renn is right when he says evangelicalism has entered the negative world. However, the real hostility the Church faces runs deeper than progressivism; it is individualism as such. The fundamental issue progressivism has with Christianity is that it places demands on how we should live. Though this specific ideology has the cultural capital to exert its will, this same issue is held by the Niezcheans on the right. The Church’s exposure to this hostility is downstream from its failure to address these dynamics when American society has been crumbling. In March, the WSJ reported that American adherence to traditional civic values has plummeted since it first started asking Americans in 1998. The percentage of those who say having children is very important to them dropped from 60% in 1998 to 30% today. Community involvement dropped to 27% and religion to 39%. The only value that increased in importance was money, which was 43%, up from 31% in 1998. The busyness of life and the inconvenience of commitment do not just come for the Church, but every aspect of our lives. The love of many has grown cold. We have become accustomed to letting people around us drift away, while we focus on our own things.
The Church’s task, then, is not to simply integrate itself with modern American life, marketing itself as one lifestyle choice among many. Nor is it to retreat from the world. The Church’s call is to repair the remains of modern life. The U.S. is aching for a different way of life. Only the Church can offer that alternative. The Church must engage in a grand political project. She must reform a people accustomed to consumption. The Church must see itself as the source and center of cultural renewal. She must take responsibility for resolving the atomisation we all experience because no one else will. Consequently, the Church should think of cultural engagement less through cognitive, propositional, and “winsome” terms, and more towards an approach that prioritizes making Church essential to communal life. The Church that hosts community fairs and car shows is doing cultural repair. The Church that models strong, healthy families, which encourage women to pour into each other, for men to sharpen one another, and for both to have more children than they can afford is waging a culture war. The Church that has its families cheerfully open their homes cultivates commitment to one another through thick and thin is conducting a cultural insurgency.
These practices, emblematic of classic Christian hospitality and morality, threaten the regime of modern life. The Church is in a culture war, but it must wage it not through incendiary or even winsome rhetoric but at the level of embodied practice. To be sure, the Church wages this war first with the ordinary means of grace: the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments. These means, then, cultivate a renewed and abundant life, turning us outward to be builders and defenders of the common good. The Church’s call to discipleship in a crumbling America means modeling, by example, a comprehensive alternative way of living.
For instance, as a member of Gen Z in NYC, I did not grow up learning the importance of children nor did I think I could want more than two or three. It was only until I saw Christian families with four or five children and all describing the great joy and purpose that having them was, that having children independent of economic convenience became not just plausible but an expectant hope. Their embodied life convinced me more than any theoretical argument against contraception ever could. What happened to me in this area is what the Church must do in all areas, especially the ones where it is prone to argue through fierce debate. The Church must lean in and embody values that charter a new way of being that embraces intimate life.
The on-the-surface takeaway from Davis and Graham is that we all need to get better at inviting people to Church, but that would overlook the rot that led us here in the first place. Renewal begins by inviting people to Church, but for it to continue it must model the life we are all starving for. Want the dechurched to come back, invite them to Church. Want them to stay, invite them into your life. Resisting the rot of individualism begins with each of us. I can not put it better than Schaeffer:
Don’t start with a big program. Don’t suddenly think you can add to your church budget and begin. Start personally and start in your home. I dare you. I dare you in the name of Jesus Christ. Do what I am going to suggest. Begin by opening your home for the community.
The Church the U.S. needs is the Church willing to take Schaeffer’s dare. It’s the Church that sees, in all the division, an alienated people starving for a center to life. It’s the Church that opens its doors and says, “we don’t have much, but if you let us, we want to walk with you.” It’s the Church that is willing to do the hard, messy work of real love. Ultimately, it’s the Church that takes seriously Jesus' words, “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Stiven Peter is an M.A. student at Reformed Theological Seminary-NYC. Previously, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in economics and religious studies. He currently lives in NYC.