There is Hope for Evangelicals Returning to the Church

In the past 25 years, 40 million persons in America (15% of the USA population) who self-identify as “Evangelicals” have left the institutional church. Why is that? And is there a way to “bring them back?” In in their excellent book The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis and Michael Graham, with Ryan P Burge, wrestle with these challenging questions.

In this relatively brief Musing, I cannot adequately address the plethora of helpful insights, backed-up by much data, that is presented in this very informative book. Therefore, what follows will focus primarily  on my understanding of the authors’ reflections on “Belief,” “Belonging” and “Behavior.”

BELIEF:  What you believe to be “true” is important. Many who have left the church, called “Cultural Christians” in this book are not “big on doctrine” (the authors suggest there is not much evidence that they are even “believers”). But numerous Christians who have left the church are “orthodox” in their beliefs and “do not hold the church in contempt.” These two truths present hope that they may return.

BELONGING: The authors assert that “Belonging (or lack thereof) is the primary pain point many dechurched feel.” When asked why they left the church, numerous dechurched Evangelicals gave reasons that testified to a feeling of “not belonging,” not experiencing “human connections”; “lack of love, gentleness, kindness and generosity,” “inability to engage with other viewpoints,” “inability to listen,” “the last few years have shown some ugliness,” “I didn’t fit in with the congregation,” “I didn’t experience much love from the congregation.”

A surprising and very hopeful sign in the midst of this pain is that 51% of surveyed Evangelicals said they “are either somewhat willing or very willing” to “go back to church,” with 28% saying they “would come back if they made new friends.” 

But as important as experiencing friendship is, “belonging” has a much deeper dimension, captured by the authors’ assertion that “Church is not an event, it is a family.” Therefore, we need to uncover the tell-tale signs of what it means to “belong” to a church that is a “family.”

For me, “belonging” to a church that is a family means that you are accepted and valued as a brother or sister in Christ even if you have strong disagreements with other church members about some contentious issues (e. g., the question of whether God will bless same-sex marriages where the marriage partners have made a lifelong covenantal commitment to love and serve one another for a lifetime). You are never silenced (A terrible unloving thing to do to another person). Rather, as a deep expression of love, you are given a safe and welcoming space to express your point of view regarding the issue at hand, and the reasons, deeply informed by your life-story, you have for holding to your point of view; the hope being that after we share our respective “reasons,” we will be able to uncover some common ground.  

BEHAVIOR:  What you say you believe doesn’t carry much weight if you don’t “live out those beliefs” in your daily life.  Being a faithful follower of Jesus requires a synergy between what you say you believe and how you live.

When asked why they left the church, many dechurched Evangelicals gave reasons that testified to their not finding such synergy in their churches; reasons such as “Being out of step with the Sermon on the Mount,” “not combining the gospel with the ethics of the kingdom,” “inconsistency between what people believe and what they do,” “not seeing the gospel tangibly demonstrated.” A hopeful sign is that many of these dechurched Evangelicals indicated that they would return to the church if they could discern an “interest in doing tangible good in the community.”

After describing the nature of “Belief. Belonging and Behavior,” the authors are careful to point out that all three are necessary, asserting that “To prioritize one or two of these elements over the others is to fundamentally miss some part of the Christian faith,” adding that “it is impossible to hold any two at the exclusion of the third.”


Given the significant number of dechurched evangelicals who express a willingness to return to the church, the authors suggest that they may just need a few “nudges.” But I will suggest the need for more than a nudge or two in the form of four strong recommendations for churches that decide to be serious about bringing back the unchurched.


The need expressed by many dechurched evangelicals for “belonging” cannot be emphasized enough. And this need for belonging is not primarily a cerebral matter. It emanates from the “heart,” reflecting a deeply felt need that all human beings have for warm and caring personal relationships. 

The first necessary step in creating such a feeling of belonging for those who have left the church is for each one to receive a warm, personal invitation from a church member who wishes to be a friend. 


To repeat what I have already said for emphasis (because it is typically ignored), receiving a sincere and encouraging invitation to return to a church is a good place to start. But to actually feel like you “belong” requires much more. You must feel that you are valued and respected as a brother or sister in Christ. This includes you experiencing your church as a safe and welcoming space where you can express views about contemporary contentious issues (like same-sex marriage) that many other church members do not share, and your reasons for holding to your views, without fear of animosity from those who disagree with you; without fear of being judged to be an “inferior Christian.”

For this to actually happen in any church will require that the pastoral staff, the Governing Board and members of the congregation be characterized by a strong measure of humility and by exhibiting an extremely rare combination of “commitment” and “openness,” by which I mean holding to their beliefs with deep conviction, even heartfelt passion, at the same time that they are willing to say “I may be wrong.” The underlying basis for the need to exhibit this rare combination is the fact that all human beings are finite and fallible; not one of us has captured the “full truth” about any given contentious issue. Therefore, we need to respectfully talk to each other about our respective “partial glimpses,” with the hope that in doing so we will together uncover a more comprehensive perspective on that “full truth” – For an inspiring story of how Joel DeKok, the Senior Pastor of Covenant Christian Church in Sioux Center, Iowa, has provided leadership toward creating that type of church, I refer you to a previous Musing titled “A Redemptive Approach to Human Sexuality Disagreements Within Christian Churches.”

Any church that can create such a safe and welcoming space for disagreement will be modeling a very deep expression of love for neighbor to which Jesus calls all who aspire to be his followers.   


The dechurched will want to return to a church that emphasizes the need for all its members to wed (so to speak) the doctrines they believe with how they live their daily lives. A synergy will be created between “confession” of doctrinal beliefs and “mission” to a fallen world.

To enable church members to create such synergy between “confession” and “mission” will require strong instruction on how the convictions they already hold apply to and should affect their lives. Such instruction will include lessons on how to formulate a personal “Christian ethic,” by which I mean a set of beliefs about God’s redemptive purposes for all of Creation, and beliefs about those particular actions that foster those purposes and those actions that are destructive of those purposes. 

And, in light of the teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25, each such ethic will place a strong emphasis on addressing the needs of the marginalized and vulnerable members of society, starting with those residing in the church’s own community.


My final recommendation does not emerge from my reading of this book. Rather, it flows from some marvelous instruction I have received from two close friends in my own church; one being a biblical scholar and one being a theologian, which I will describe in a later Musing for this website titled “Can I Always Give Jesus the Last Word?”

A lesson I learned from the conversations that will inform this later Musing is that the typical person in the pew in most Christian churches is woefully educated with regard to interpreting the Bible (Biblical Hermeneutics). An egregious example is the manner in which contemporary Christian nationalists have erroneously given a literal interpretation to select biblical passages in the books of Joshua and Deuteronomy as warrant for their condoning violence as a legitimate means for “saving America.” If you eventually read the Musing mentioned above, you will see that both my biblical scholar friend and my theologian friend present strong arguments for these Old Testament passages to not be taken literally as condoning violence.

Therefore, every Christian church (not just those that want the dechurched to return) needs to provide opportunities for its members to become knowledgeable regarding the complexities of biblical interpretation. 

In summary, if I were included among the dechurched demographic, I would eagerly come back to a church that implemented these four recommendations.



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