Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Daniel Darling: Evangelical exodus


WORLD Radio - Daniel Darling: Evangelical exodus

Most “exvangelicals” would return to the pews if someone invited them.

iStock.com/Photo by KL Yuen

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 12th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. WORLD Commentator Daniel Darling now on the post-COVID trend among conservatives to leave the Church. He says, it’s time to invite them back.

DANIEL DARLING, COMMENTATOR: According to a new book titled The Great DeChurching, 40 million people have stopped going to church in the last 25 years. The book’s authors argue this is the largest religious shift in American history, and it continues 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 years ago. They have few people left to lose.

Of the 40 million leavers, 15 million have stopped attending evangelical churches. The authors label the two biggest cohorts “cultural Christians” and “mainstream evangelicals.” “Cultural Christians” are folks who identify as Christians and live in areas around the Bible Belt but who reject key Christian doctrines. This group of around 8 million folks leans right politically, and over half are open to returning to church if asked.

“Mainstream evangelicals” are the second largest group. They affirm orthodox Christian beliefs but have stopped attending for one reason or another. Interestingly, 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.

Both cultural Christians and mainstream evangelicals share surprisingly pedestrian reasons for leaving. Things like 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.”

The largest group of leavers doesn’t cite dissatisfaction about evangelical engagement with conservative politics. This is surprising because it has been the mainstream narrative. To be sure, there is a cohort of “exvangelicals” who have stopped attending due to unhealthy church environments, abuse, or partisan politics. Evangelicals should take these problems seriously and be wary of idolatrous, all-consuming politics. But it’s just not true that voting patterns alone explain the decline in American church attendance.

Another data point from The Great DeChurching shows that folks without college degrees are leaving much faster than those with education. In our efforts to evangelize and disciple those on our left, we should also consider ministry to those on the right. Blue-collar, right-wing people also need Jesus. Our Savior’s ministry reached all classes of society, from respected elites like Nicodemus to despised people 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. Perhaps it’s time to invite our neighbor to church.

I’m Daniel Darling.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...