Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

The rise of non-worshipping “evangelicals”

Many of the dechurched still hold key Christian beliefs

iStock/Stephanie Murton

The rise of non-worshipping “evangelicals”
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

According to a recent survey, 40 million people have stopped going to church in the last 25 years. The authors of this new study, The Great DeChurching, which comprehensively polled 7,000 Americans, argue this is the largest religious shift in American history. There is much to lament in the decline in church attendance. It has and will continue to have a negative impact on human flourishing, polarization, and the vital social services churches provide.

And yet, there are some surprising details in the data, compiled by sociologist Ryan Burge and two evangelical pastors, Jim Davis and Michael Graham. For instance, the right is dechurching faster than the left. This is likely because left-leaning religious bodies, particularly the mainline Protestant denominations, started seeing erosion well before this current moment and have few people left to lose.

Of the 40 million leavers, 15 million have stopped attending evangelical churches, and this is where the research might both surprise and encourage pastors. The two biggest cohorts are what the authors label “cultural Christians” and “mainstream evangelicals.” The former group comprises folks who identify as Christians and live in areas around the Bible Belt but who register low scores of belief in key Christian doctrines. There are around 8 million such people in our communities. Dean Inserra, a pastor in Florida, describes this cohort well in his book, The Unsaved Christian, “Self-proclaimed Christians who worship a god that requires no self-sacrifice, no obedience, no submission, and no surrender.” This group of folks leans right politically, and over half are open to returning to church if asked. There is a vast mission field here if we are willing to engage.

The second largest group of dechurched evangelicals are those who affirm orthodox Christian beliefs but who have stopped attending. It’s not surprising that mainstream evangelicals who no longer attend church still hold mostly right-of-center political views. What is interesting is how many—78 percent—have a high view of the evangelical church, and 100 percent would consider attending again. Many claim to stay home and watch church online. Imagine if churches invited these approximately two and a half million brothers and sisters to return home.

It could be that in our good and important work to evangelize and disciple the lost to our left, we should also consider ministry to those to our right, the blue-collar, perhaps right-wing people who also need Jesus.

Both cultural Christians and mainstream evangelicals share surprisingly pedestrian reasons for leaving. Most admit getting out of the habit, experiencing a major life change, or leaving due to disruptions like COVID. As writer Jake Meador says, “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.”

What’s missing in the largest group of leavers is the narrative that dominates mainstream conversations about evangelicals: dissatisfaction due to evangelical engagement with conservative politics. To be sure, there is a cohort mentioned in the study of “exvangelicals” who have stopped attending due to unhealthy church environments, abuse, or partisan politics. Evangelicals should take seriously the problem of abuse and corruption in our midst and should be wary of an idolatrous, all-consuming politics.

Still, it is clear that the simplistic thesis explaining a decline in American church attendance because of evangelical voting patterns is just not true, despite the resilience of this self-flagellating theme in progressive evangelical discourse and despite a thriving publishing genre nearly as prolific as Amish fiction. Day after day, self-hating would-be prophets take this message to media outlets only too eager to evangelize the deplorable nature of everyday followers of Christ. Month after month, cut-and-paste jeremiads hit the bestseller list excoriating the church of one’s youth. 

We always need prophets, but there are other more complicating social factors affecting America’s great shift in religious activity. There are also opportunities, if only we’d seize them. One more uncomfortable data point from The Great DeChurching shows that folks without college degrees are leaving much faster than those with education. Put it all together and it could be that in our good and important work to evangelize and disciple the lost to our left, we should also consider ministry to those to our right, the blue-collar, perhaps right-wing people who also need Jesus. Our Savior’s ministry reached all classes of society, from respected elites like Nicodemus to despised people whom most folks passed by, such as the man by the pool of Bethesda. The invitation into the family isn’t restricted by ZIP code.

The large number of people not attending church is cause for lament but also a catalyst for action. Maybe it’s time for us to stop imbibing the cynicism that has us not believing our own story. Maybe it’s time to stop passing by the mission fields in front of us. Perhaps it’s time to invite our neighbor to church.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

Read the Latest from WORLD Opinions

Colin J. Smothers | The PCUSA prepares to impose LGBTQ affirmation across the denomination

Ted Kluck | On Campus Crusade, pronoun hospitality, and when organizations get big

Jordan J. Ballor | The Vatican offers a timely corrective on contemporary sexuality

Nathan A. Finn | The NAIA’s transgender vote is a big win for female athletes


Please wait while we load the latest comments...