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The Slow Exit

August 14th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

One objection that has come up repeatedly to my argument regarding dechurching is that whatever one says about the data, we all really know that the problem is that evangelicals are terrible. Put another way: The problem can't be people being too busy or American life not being conducive to thick ecclesial fellowship. The problem just has to be how bad evangelicals are.

To be sure, a sizable chunk of evangelical dechurchers are, according to Davis and Graham's book, exvangelicals who left over abuse, corruption, or hypocrisy and have no intentions of ever coming back. There's about five million people that fit that description just in the past 25 years. So, yes, we have often handled abuse and corruption very badly. I've said it before and will say again that anti-corruption should be one of the defining concerns of evangelical institutions and churches moving forward.

That being said, what the data in Jim and Mike's book suggests is that the exvangelicals are not actually the majority of evangelical dechurchers. The majority are "cultural Christians" and "mainstream dechurched evangelicals." The former group are the sort that grow up in nominally evangelical households—go to church occasionally, definitely for Christmas and Easter, probably there's a few Bibles at home, that sort of thing. The latter are folks like the young woman I described in the essay—still theologically orthodox, even desiring to go to church. They just don't.

So why does the data suggest that those folks are the more common dechurcher when everyone's anecdata seems to suggest otherwise?

Two plausible answers:

First, it's entailed in the way the respective groups leave. People who leave over corruption and abuse tend, quite understandably, to leave in ways that draw more attention and are more noticeable. Certainly, when I nearly left the faith this was what I did; I was leaving over corruption and I was quite loud about it—sometimes in ways I now regret, in fact.

In contrast, the people who leave in the ways the cultural Christians and mainstream dechurched evangelicals leave tend to be much quieter. Dechurching for them is either not a big deal because church was never a huge part of their life to begin with or they leave very quietly because they're actually kind of embarrassed and feel ashamed—not necessarily because of what churchgoers will say, but because some part of them knows they should be going to church—and they don't want to talk to anyone about it.

Because of this, it's quite understandable that many of us would think there are way more in the abuse and corruption group that leave and far fewer in the too-busy-to-go group. But that's mostly just a kind of selection bias.

Now to the second point. Let's press it a bit more and get uncomfortable a little. Growing up, I remember that my parents' rule for me playing youth sports was that I couldn't play in any league that required practices or games on Sunday. And, at the time, that ruled out most youth sports in Lincoln. So I played flag football for two years, I think, and I did a year of micro soccer and that was about it, aside from the hockey league our church ran for a short time. We were in an extremely conservative fundamentalist congregation and yet even in a church like that, our family was weird. There may have been others with similar rules, but I don't recall knowing anyone else with kids who wanted to be in youth sports who had such a rule. Even in fundamentalism, youth sports were a kind of untouchable element of life for many.

So: Shift away from general ideas about "being too busy." Instead focus on a specific category—families who make it to church when their kids' youth sports events don't get in the way. If I said there are more people who dechurch for reasons such as prioritizing sports ahead of church than there are who leave over corruption, would that seem more plausible to you? If I suggested it to your pastor, would it seem plausible to him? (The answer is "YES, OF COURSE IT WOULD.")

Don't take my word for it. Here are two pastors from very different corners of evangelical Twitter both saying similar things earlier this summer:

When I talk about the majority of dechurching stories being a story of slowly rolling down a slope rather than a specific moment where you lost your faith, this is what I have in mind. Certainly, there is a kind of generalized busy-ness that afflicts us all. And that can sometimes be enough to keep people away. But I'm also thinking about specific choices that churchgoers will make that announce to everyone in their family and friendship groups that church is actually not that important.

In a recent Times column about The ExorcistMatthew Walther suggested that the attitudes modern Americans take toward religion fall into two categories:

When it came out, “The Exorcist” didn’t just shock audiences with lurid scenes of projectile vomiting and spinning heads. It also forced them to acknowledge a tension, most acutely felt in the Catholic Church but omnipresent in Western society, that had grown between two rival conceptions of religion. Is religion an expression of a transcendent moral and metaphysical order? Or is it just another way of pursuing ideals of compassion and social justice, which is how many liberal theologians have popularly conceived it since at least the mid-1960s?

Now, if you told the fundamentalist families I grew up with who prioritized youth sports that they were engaging in their own version of reducing religion to "another way of pursuing ideals," they would have been scandalized.

But when church attendance is sacrificed on the altar of youth sports what that choice says is that between those two things, church is of lesser importance. Once you've said that through your behavior, how can you avoid the conclusion that what you're ultimately saying is precisely that church is simply "another way of pursuing ideals"?

The corruption that has been too common in our churches and institutions is a great tragedy crying out to heaven for judgment. And yet if we identify that problem while ignoring the subtler, more respectable idols of American life that often divide us from the people of God and public worship, then I do not think we are speaking the full truth.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).

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