It was published last August and aimed primarily at pastors and other church leaders. But “The Great Dechurching” didn’t prove to be light entertainment for clergy who may have selected it as a book for the beach. Rather, it must have felt like a riptide pulling them out to sea in shark-infested waters. 

Here are a few of the more jarring conclusions—formed from statistics of the past and a recent survey of 1,043 American adults—that were presented by authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham and Eastern Illinois University political scientist Dr. Ryan Burge:  

“About 15 percent of American adults living today (around 40 million people) have effectively stopped going to church, and most of this dechurching has happened in the past twenty-five years.”

“For the first time in eight decades, more adults in the United States don’t attend church than attend church.”

“More people have left the church in the last twenty-five years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening and Billy Graham crusades combined.”

Shocked by these points, I wondered if Centre County congregations have been experiencing such dramatic losses. And if so, how are local church leaders responding? Will it be a merry Christmas in our county’s sanctuaries or a bit of “Bah, Humbug”?

As for the numerical realities, it seems that our area’s religious congregations have been spared from the full brunt of the national dechurching. In consulting the website of The Association of Religion Data Archives (co-directed by Penn State professor Roger Finke) I found statistics that indicate a more modest reduction in local religious affiliation.  

Even after accounting for the apples vs. oranges effect in survey methods (for example, ARDA’s “adherents” differs from the book authors’ focus on once-per-month worshippers) I noted a much less dramatic drop in Centre County. In the 1990 U.S. census, our county totalled a population of 123,786 and ARDA reported 49,110 congregational adherents, thus 39.7% of the population. By comparison, the 2020 population was 158,172 with 53,659 religious adherents, a figure of 33.9%.  Perhaps folks who operate at a higher pay grade could suggest why our area’s religious affiliations dropped “only” 5.8% in 30 years. My best conjecture is that Centre County’s small and medium-sized churches offer more relational connectedness and stability than the less-personal megachurches of the South and West. 

But even at this lesser rate of loss, our county’s religious bodies took a moderate hit that could well increase in the future. So I decided to scratch below the surface by talking jointly with one of our most senior pastors, Dan Nold from Calvary Church, and one of our newest, Nicholas Boonstra from Blue Course Community Church. Here are edited portions of our conversation.

Both of you are familiar with the book entitled, “The Great Dechurching.” Although it seems that there is less of a downward trend here in Centre County, are you seeing some of what the authors reported from their national surveys?

Boonstra: The book gives two broad categories for those who have left the church: the “casually dechurched” and the “dechurched casualties.” As for those casualties, I’ve seen churches hurt people and harm them. There are abusive churches and systems that do harm people, so I want to validate that. But not all churches are the same. As for the casually dechurched, I meet people who say, “Hey, I moved to a new area and I didn’t get plugged in. And eventually I just got disconnected altogether.” I see State College as a prime setting for that. A lot of people are moving here for grad school or a job or whatever, and it seems so temporary that they might decide it’s easier to stay connected with a home church that they came from. Maybe they’ll watch services online a few times and then get more and more disconnected. The data says that people who are casually de-churched will respond to a personal invitation.  So it has been encouraging for some of the people in our congregation — meeting people at the park or wherever, giving them an invitation to our activities and seeing some of them get plugged in. 

Nold: Yeah, I did a cohort with the guys who wrote the book, and they made a big deal about that. The number one reason given for why people quit going to church was “I moved to a different place and never got reconnected.” To me, that speaks to a casual commitment which I think is a big part of the problem of the church in America today. I say to the church — to Calvary — every once in a while, “Let’s be honest, the church in America is sick right now.” That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, but you can’t come to the cure without being real. You don’t get to the place of true change without the desperation of knowing that “Hey, something’s broken and I can’t fix it on my own.”  

During COVID, I started saying to Calvary, “We’re not a church of two to three thousand. We’re a church of two to three hundred with a really large fan base. So we started talking about players on the field versus fans in the stands. Not that God loves one more than the other, but what is he calling us to be? I think we’ve developed a nation full of churchgoers who are fans in the stands, and we’ve hoped they’ll become players on the field. I think that worked to some extent in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, but I don’t think it’s going to work in the next couple of decades.  

Is it true that today’s churches sometimes block people’s view of Jesus? And is that why churches—here or around the country—are losing members? 

Boonstra: There could be a lot of stumbling blocks. Like the way Christians treat one another. There’s a lot of finger pointing. There’s a lot of, “My church is doing it right. Every other one is unfaithful to Jesus.” And if we’re erecting markers of our own faithfulness, our own self-righteousness, then we’ve failed. I think there’s a lot of that, and the political area is one of them. 

Nold:  My thoughts are similar to what Nick just said. My starting point is Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where he said, “Let them be one as you and I are one, let them be one and then the world will know that the Father sent the Son.” Unity brings a compelling vision to the people in our communities of the power and grace and reality of the church. Although it’s not like we were doing great before, in the last three or four years we divided over everything. Your political label became more important than your gospel label. We divided over masks — whether or not you wore a mask became a dividing point in the church. And we divided over race. Sometimes the division was strong, and we said bad things about each other. I was called a coward more times in the last three years than I was in the first 55 years of my life. 

You were called a coward. Why was that? 

Nold: Usually the coward part came from disagreements over COVID. Some people who left Calvary talked about “faith over fear.” I knew of a church that during COVID preached a “faith over fear” sermon series — and that meant no masks — while people I knew there had pre-existing conditions like heart disease that made them susceptible. While folks were being encouraged to exercise faith over fear, the church had an armed security guard stationed at the door during the service just in case somebody tried to break in. To me, it was like, “Faith for this, but not for that.”

Boonstra: And they put their seat belts on in the car. 

Nold:  Yeah, seat belts on in the car, stop at the stoplight. So it was faith over fear in the things that I don’t want to be fearful of. Anyway, the real point of all this is that it was so easy for us to divide over so many things. 

Boonstra:  Another observation is that the “dechurching” conversation is centered on the American church, but globally there has been growth in the church. We’re not the center of the world. 

Where is the greatest growth happening with the church globally?

Nold: I haven’t looked this year, but in general it’s the Global South. That’s where the church is growing the fastest throughout the world. And if things are still the same in ‘23 as in ’22, the greatest growth is in Iran. Primarily led by women, no facilities, great persecution, but the fastest growing church in the world. 

By percentage? Certainly not by sheer numbers… 

Nold:  Yes, by percentage. But that’s huge. If you count the people who say they go to church, the largest church in the world is probably still America, but that’s a sick church. The one that’s growing by leaps and bounds is Iran, closely followed by Afghanistan, closely followed by Nepal.

And the moral of the story then is… 

Nold:  I don’t know. 

I thought you were going to say something about persecution. 

Nold: That’s where we always go. And I do think persecution is part of it. I preached recently about the Beatitudes under the title, “Gritty Blessings.” There is a blessing that comes from persecution — a greater light shines — but I’m not so certain that it’s the persecution that brings the light out as much as it is the journey of uncertainty. And I think that’s what the American church is 100% adverse to. We do not want uncertainty. We want certainty, comfort, control.

Boonstra: The uncertainty is a trigger for faith. 

Nold: Right, exactly. 

Boonstra: I think comfort can breed complacency. So yeah, I don’t think we should pray for persecution, but persecution can be a tool which God uses. We see this with the life of Paul, how much he was praising God for his weakness because in his weakness he found strength in the Lord.

We’re not yet experiencing physical persecution in this country, but certainly there’s uncertainty from the economy and international conflicts. If we have uncertainty, why is there still a decrease in America’s churches? 

Nold: We’re not willing to embrace the uncertainty. I think we’re still aiming for comfort and control, and if the church isn’t going to help me control my life and bring me comfort, then I’m not going to go. We’ve opted for changing the world through politics. Instead of entering into an uncertain journey, I’m just going to cast a vote. 

Boonstra:  Instead of being dependent on the Lord, we’re trying to be independent, we’re asserting ourselves politically. This has always been a temptation for the church — enmeshment with the politics of the world. And so we are going to assert ourselves, we’re going to claim dominance. The fear of uncertainty becomes an impetus for “We’ll claim back the power.” I would say that’s abdicating gospel witness.

Nold:  We can’t just be the group of people gathered on Sunday morning, but we need to be actually loving our neighbors. It’s easy to discount a marketing campaign for Jesus, but it’s hard to discount a neighbor who loves you and sacrifices for you and prays for you. I think those two things — the love that we have for each other and the love we have for the community — are critical. So I think we’re having a difficult time because we haven’t done a great job of loving each other or loving our community.

Boonstra: I think he’s hitting it right on the head. People need to know that you love them. It comes down to having genuine relationships and being patient enough to hear someone’s story. Many believers are poorly discipled, so when there’s an attack on Christianity they’re responding with fear. They’re responding in hostility and anger. But if you are confident in your faith, it allows you to be patient. You can hear somebody’s story, hear where they’re coming from, hear the valid objections that they have against the church and apologize for those things. So that person is going to be able to say, “Christians love me. Maybe I don’t believe what they believe, but they still care…”

With Christmas 2023 approaching, what should the churches focus on? 

Boonstra:  There’s opportunities to be reaching out and loving people, not as a project but just to show love to an individual. “You’re new to the area. You need community. We want to be that community for you.” Obviously, we’d like them to know the love of Christ if they don’t know him already, but they need to know they’re loved. This is how we serve a God who loves us. And that’s the story of Christmas, right? We serve a God who gave up power and privilege, who came in a lowly manger. It’s Christ coming from on high and entering into our pain.  

Nold:  I think part of my answer would really depend on whether I am talking to the “nones”— people who never had any connection to the church — or the “dones”— people who are done with the church but maybe not done with Jesus. I guess I would say to the dones that you don’t have to be in my church or any church on Sunday morning at nine o’clock in order to be a good Christian. You need Christian community, you need to gather with somebody, but it doesn’t have to look like it’s always looked. Maybe Jesus has you as a forerunner to something new that he wants to do in his church, in your neighborhood, in your community. Be on mission, loving your neighbor and doing the things that are the core components of being a follower of Jesus. At the same time, if you’re on your own because you were offended, realize that it’s part of the core commitment for an apprentice of Jesus that you love other followers of Jesus. So then you’ve got some stuff to work on during your journey. 

As for the nones, I would say I’m less concerned about you connecting to a church and more concerned about what you think about Jesus. And I want you to know Jesus. I think Jesus is the most amazing person who ever lived and who still lives, and he’s worthy of my life and he’s worthy of your life. So look for Jesus, even more than looking for a church. At Christmas time, I think that’s part of the value of it is this focus on Jesus. So find people who know him and talk to them about Jesus.

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