Thinking about the ‘De-Churched’

Most of you who know me will at some time or other have heard me talk about my faith in and love for Jesus.  It’s not something I hide, but then again its also not something I force onto others.  I’m not a pushy Christian – one of those annoying self-righteous types who insist on hijacking every conversation and making it about sin and damnation.  I don’t have a hidden agenda.  My faith is what makes me who I am, and therefore it is important to me.  But this is my point.  If the gospel of Jesus is good news, then that is what I should be to others – good news – not a pain in the backside who is tolerated as long as I don’t mention Jesus.  I want my friends to know about my faith and see it as an integral part of me.  I want them to recognise that what and who I am has come about because of, rather than despite, my Christian values and motivation – as a consequence of my ongoing Christian journey.
I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and admit that there are times over the years (mainly at the end of and just after my University years) when the pub was more home to me than church, but I have never doubted God’s love for me and my need for Jesus.  I might have ignored God’s call on my life but I never denied it.  I might have ‘back-slidden’ at times (a phrase I really do not like) but I still felt the presence of Jesus with me.  I knew what I was doing was selfish and wrong, but I did it anyway.  And even when I was far from God, I still went to church – even then, I looked for fellowship.  I might have been a hypocrite, but I was trying to get back.  It was just that during that part of my life the world around me had a greater attraction than my faith.  What I found, however, was that no matter how hard I tried to run away from God, he wouldn’t let me go – and in the end I came back, tail between my legs, because I needed to feel again the love, hope, grace and forgiveness that only comes from staying close to Jesus.
But one thing I have never understood, and don’t think I ever will, is why apparently Spirit-filled, faithful believers just stop coming to church, no longer see the need for fellowship and never return.  I have seen it many times over the years, with even some very close friends just giving up on church.  They say they haven’t stopped believing in Jesus, they just don’t want to attend church any more.  More disillusioned with the sheep than dis-believing in the Shepherd.
It seems that this group of people are now coming to be called the ‘de-churched’, as Skye Jethani explains in his recent articles entitled ‘Who are the de-churched?’ posted on the Out of Ur blog:
“…..another new term is on the rise and gaining attention among evangelicals in North America. Those without a past relationship to the church are called unchurched, but there are many with significant past church involvement who are exiting. They are the de-churched.”
The two Jethani articles, found here and here, ask why this exodus of previously faithful people takes place, and after some discussion, and use of a YouTube clip of a Matt Chandler sermon extract, he comes up with two specific groups of dechurched:
“…..those who have left the church because they had received a false gospel, and those who have left because they’ve encountered the true gospel.”
The first group of de-churched people are viewed as those who have been:
“…..fed, knowingly or unknowingly, a false gospel of morality. They believe that if they just follow God’s rules he will bless their lives. When things fail to work out as promised, they bail on the church. Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion, has called this belief MTD—moralistic therapeutic deism. I prefer a more sinister and downright damnable name: Moralistic Divination—the belief that one can control and manipulate God’s actions through moral behaviours.”
As he continues to explain:
“The biblical understanding of a “wonderful life” looks dramatically different than the consumer culture’s definition of a “wonderful life.” If this assumption is never identified, named, and deconstructed, a person may hear “God love you and has a wonderful plan for your life” very differently than we intend. This is the problem we must begin to address if we hope to slow the exodus of people from the church. It’s not that we are failing to preach the gospel, but that we are failing to deconstruct the consumer filter through which people twist and receive it. The result is a hybrid consumer gospel in which God exists to serve me and accomplish my desires in exchange for my obedience—voila, Moralistic Divination.
When this consumer gospel fails to deliver on its assumed promises, as it inevitably does, frustration, disappointment, and disillusionment quickly follow. And the pool of the de-churched gains another swimmer. “
But then there is also a second group of de-churched:
“….that has not held to a false gospel of morality, and they haven’t walked away from faith in Christ. These Christians have simply lost confidence in the institutional structures and programmatic trappings of the church. For them the institutional church is not an aid in their faith and mission. Rather it’s become a drain on time, resources, and energy. It feels like a black hole with a gravitation pull so strong that not even the light of the gospel can escape its organizational appetite.
As I’ve travelled and encountered de-churched Christians, including some friends, I’ve found they tend to fall into three categories. (These are generalizations, as all categories are, but they may prove helpful.)  
1. The Relationally De-Churched
These Christians have come to recognize that human beings are the vessels of God’s Spirit and not organizations. They may have first engaged the institutional church because they longed for meaningful relationships with other followers of Christ. They may have joined a small group or found a tight network of friends through whom they lived out the “one another” commands in Scripture.
But over time it dawned on them—This small group is really my church. These are the people I am living out the gospel with. Why do we need the big institution?….
Ultimately the relationally de-churched leave the institution because the programs proved less effective at fostering faith and love than relationships with actual people. And the authenticity they crave and experience in their small group eclipses the relative shallowness of the wider church. Let’s face it—authenticity becomes more difficult the larger a group becomes. But it’s worth noting that these folks haven’t abandoned the church theologically, they’ve just redefined it apart from the 501c3 organization we culturally identity as a “church.” 
2. The Missionally De-Churched
“If the church were doing the work God appointed it to do, there would be no parachurch organizations.” Have you heard that one before? It’s a popular defense I heard many times while serving with a campus ministry in college—and there is some truth to it despite the self-righteous cheekiness.
If the relationally de-churched abandon the institutional church because they desire authenticity, the missionally de-churched leave because they are die-hard activists. They are driven to see the world impacted by the gospel whether via evangelism, compassion, justice, or other facet of God’s restorative work. They may become frustrated that the institutional church spends enormous amounts of energy and resources maintaining itself rather than advancing the mission.
I’ve had a few friends deeply involved in such parachurch groups confess that “even though we don’t take communion or baptize, in every other regard the ministry functions as my church.”
He also goes on to mentions his third category in this group of de-churched:
3. The Transformationally De-Churched
This category of people are those who have left church because they have found deeper healing and transformation through the ministry of parachurch groups than they ever experienced in conventional church.
As he explains:
“When deep life change happen outside the church, it can make you second guess the church’s vital role and….drop out altogether.”
These are all well and good – and I can see where he is coming from with all the groups and categories that he describes, but I can’t help but feel he has maybe missed some.
Reflecting on the friends that I have seen leave the church over the last twenty years, most of them have gone because they have been damaged in some way or demotivated and tired out by the practice of church life.
For those that have been damaged, often it is because of things that, on the surface, seem quite trivial, or that could be put right with some grace, understanding and forgiveness.
One family of close friends stopped coming to church because they had three children under five and found it difficult to get to church on time for the start of the Sunday morning service.  They frequently came in late – and the reaction of other church members meant that after a while they just didn’t come to church if they were going to be late – and then they just stopped coming.
Another friend was damaged whilst working for a Christian based organisation attached to the church, and the bitterness that resulted took root, ending up with him and his wife becoming very critical of the church and its workings, and eventually they just stopped coming.
I can also, unfortunately, give examples of people who have left church because they got demotivated or tired.
One couple I can think of now, were very active in the church but wanted more in worship than the church could offer them at the time – so demotivated and tired of trying to bring change from the inside of the church, they left to find more passionate worship at another church, but ended up after a while going no-where – even more demotivated and disillusioned they stopped going to church all-together.
However, I think Jethani’s conclusions still hold even for these additional groups:
When the church loses sight of this and begins seeing people as a means of bolstering the institution, it breeds cynicism. The faithful begin to feel like cogs in a machine, a means of production, human commodities. They don’t feel valued for who they are, but for what they can do, give, or contribute. And to be fair, this confusion between means and ends can happen in both large and small churches, in a megachurch or a house church.
The call then is too investigate anew our ecclesiology—both on the level of theory and practice. What do we really believe about the church? What is the proper role for structures and programs? What do we believe about God’s intention for his people and the role of spiritual leadership? And do our beliefs align with the structures we create and sustain?
Ultimately,  church is not about the institution, services, structures or programmes – its about Jesus and his people, living and loving in community together.
We need to keep that in focus – and be willing to consider changing what we do and how we do it in order to ensure that disciples can be disciples living and loving in Christ on a day-to-day basis – not just on Sundays!
For me, I see no reason why churches can’t just add to or change what they do to cater for peoples needs.  We need to listen to the voices of the de-churched rather than insist that they fit in with the way we do things, whether they like it or not.
I know this is a difficult subject for most small churches to come to terms with – but maybe looking to the experiences of the organic, and dare I suggest it, Emergent church movements might allow new ways to do church that will minister to the needs of those at the edge, and reduce the number of faithful people who get disillusioned and leave church all-together.
Maybe the time is coming when, as Neil Cole puts it in his new book, Church 3.0, we need to upgrade the operating system of our churches to become more open and flexible in the way we minister, to ensure that we maintain healthy disciples now, who are focussed on making new disciples for the future.  As he explains:
….we need to replace old ways of thinking about God’s church with new ones that can release the health, growth and reproduction meant to be characteristic of the church.
So, Skye, thank you for your articles.  I found them very thought provoking and they have motivated me afresh to reflect on the way I do church.  Maybe if we all did the same, we might be able to head off the next set of friends who become disillusioned, demotivated and ultimately de-churched.

One thought on “Thinking about the ‘De-Churched’

  1. Thanks, Martin. Good analysis and commentary on Skye’s categories. I am only beginning to understand what different people mean by the term "de-churched". I have always used the term to describe those seekers/pre-believers who never get the chance to really know Jesus because they had a bad experience with the church – e.g., they were bored as teens, the church preached moralism instead of the gospel, they experienced judgment instead of grace, etc.Skye’s categories seem to indicate that the de-churched are believers who’ve left the church. I think I may be misusing the term… Thanks for the good article. BTW, I’m adding you to my blogroll. Keep up the writing, and keep making it all about Jesus. Peace.

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