by the numbers
Is it surprising that 73% of Americans claim to be Christian?
Or, more surprising that half of that 73% are now officially "dechurched"?
According to recent Barna study, 38% of people identifying themselves as Christians go to church and 34% don't. By dechurched, I don't mean un-churched - as in, "can't find a church I like" or "don't feel like going this morning."
Dechurched people are formerly churched people who are in exile because of things they've experienced in the church or Christian community. These are people who still believe in God. Some still wish they had Christian community; just not in it's current form.
Dechurched people were once incredibly committed to their former faith community. Beyond that, they were willing to do whatever it took to make their church whole; they were anything but free-loaders. But, instead of Christlikeness, they found a church that many dechurched people characterize as, "hypocritical, judgmental, exclusive, mean."
meet the dones
Different from the Nones who have abandoned faith, "the Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years — often as lay leaders — they no longer attend. Whether because they're dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they've decided they are better off without organized religion," writes Joshua Packard in Christianity Today.
The dechurched Dones were once deeply engaged members. According to Packard, the vast majority had spent years in the church and in ministry positions. They weren't marginal attenders. They knew their church had issues and they were invested in being part of the solution.
Leaving church is usually a long, difficult struggle for believers who are becoming dechurched. It isn't something they take lightly. The cost is high. Community. Friends. Purpose. Belonging. All of these are on the line. And all are lost with departure.
The Pew Report on American's Changing Religious Landscape (below, right) shows that in the past decade, Protestant churches (all denominations combined) have lost more than 5-million members, while the Catholic church (a single denomination) has lost 3-million members. These losses take into account offsets by new members, but are not weighted against the 10% growth in the nation's population - making these loses even more significant.
The Dones aren't people who have quit believing in God.
But they have quit believing in church.
When the Dones leave churches, churches defend themselves against critique by writing-off these people off as "sinners, wayward, troublesome, ungodly." In this way, the church feels free not only from blame but from the troubling challenges these believers raised and labored to make right. By villifying the dechurched, churches create a facade of sanctity.
Such institutions - those regularly dechurching members - forsake their mission in order to perpetuate a myth of self-preservation.
The irony, of course, is that in making the mission all about self-preservation, such institutions cease to make a difference in the world, they lose their way and secure their decline.
With so many churches caught in a death-spiral of self-preservation and member exodus, church participation is at an all time low in the U.S.
Even more worrisome is that these statistics likely do not tell the whole story. Those of us who have been on the inside of churches know the tendency of institutions to inflate numbers, to puff up appearances.
Leaders are reticent to present declining numbers year after year for fear that their members will leave what appears to be a sinking ship. So, when asked about attendance, leaders round up. Often, way up.
"Less than 20 percent of Americans regularly attend church — half of what the pollsters report," writes By Kelly Shattuck (April 2018) in a ChurchLeaders' article on attendance.
Shattuck points to several studies including The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion report that reveals that the actual number of people worshipping each week is closer to 52-million or 7.7%) rather than the pollster-reported 40% or 132-million.
Frankly, the Dones are missing.
And they account for half of American Christianity.
the Church as we know it
is in a death spiral
In aviation, a death spiral is the downward, corkscrew-motion of a disabled aircraft that signals that a plane is is unrecoverably headed for a crash (wikipedia).
Many are working to save today's churches from crashing and burning. Books are written and sold on the premise that there are things that can be done. And, certainly there are. However, those whose identity is wrapped in self-serving ambition and ego remain an impediment to recovery. It's not uncommon for leaders with large egos to be willing to fight to the death preserving the church that's tied to their identity, even if that means taking that church into an unrecoverable death spiral.
The greatest challenge is that those holding the church back aren't those reading the books on church development but those reading memoirs. Trusting new ways, new leaders, and a future that looks remarkably different than the past is often at odds with those seeking to preserve an identity linked with the past, with ther past, with their ego and identity.
One such leader said repeatedly and publicly, "give me the church or give me death." Unlike Patrick Henry's 1775 speech where he rallied patriots with, "Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death," which meant he was willing to surrender his life to save his country - many of today's religious leaders are saying that if they can't have the church on their terms, they'd rather the church close then go on without them. Thus, the repeated failure of succession observed in so many churches (see North Heights and Crystal Cathedral below).
When an individual's identity is so tightly bound with an institution, sharing that institution with new leadership or new ways will be perceived as a death for these individuals. Understandably (but not excusably) these people will defend what they feel is "theirs" at any cost.
Even if the cost is dechurching more people than they church.
Even if it means harming more people than they help.
Today, 56-million adults not belonging to any faith tradition outnumber both Catholics and mainline Protestants, says Pew; with a third of millennials - those born between 1981 and 1996 - claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Now faith is assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things unseen.
Fewer and fewer Americans identify with mainline Protestantism,
according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study (above, right).
Declining faster than the Catholic church, the total number of mainline Protestant adults (includes multiple denominations) has decreased by more than 5-million in the last decade; that's a drop of nearly 10% of all members, meanwhile the population grew by 11%.
On top of that, every year more than 4000 churches close their doors compared to just over 1000 new church starts, says the Francis A. Schaeffer Leadership Institute (acknowledging that numbers vary by survey). The Institute's reseach reveals that most leave because they're disillusioned or are victims of spiritual, emotional or physical abuse.
Nearly half of those raised in Protestant churches have left the churches of their upbringing. And, for every member who joins today's churches, two leave.
Among Millennials, only one in three are connected with a church. Statistically, that is nearly the reverse of their grandparents' generation, where three out of four were church members.
"It's our money. We built it. We make the rules!" yelled one church member at next-generation believers who were trying to restore health to a dying church. When the next-generation relentlessly thwarted their efforts to build a church that made a difference in the world, when they were met with open hostility, the next-generation left.
The "control factor" is reason enough for next-generation believers to loose heart in the church. Younger believers interpret elders' need to control nearly all aspects of the church - finances, staff, mission, lay leadership, structure and destiny - not only as self-centered, but as everything other than God-centered, Christ-centered and mission-centered.
Lifeway Research surveyed 734 former senior pastors from four Protestant denominations. 56% of those who left before retirement spoke of resident-leaders who fomented ongoing conflict, resident-leaders who wanted their way at all costs. Regrettably for the church, 54% of pastors said that in the process of dealing with these bullying leaders, they experienced personal attacks.
"We will destroy you, your reputation, your career, your family," is how one resident-leader put it to a pastor who was engaged in leading the congregation into a life of service and mission. When the pastor told the resident-leader, "I serve God and not threats," the resident-leader launched such a vicious attack as to utterly destroy the pastor, the pastor's career, the pastor's reputation. Sadly, this is not an isolated story - and speaks to the decline of American protestant churches.
While older generations die out at a hastening speed, few from the next-generation are interested in taking their seat in the pew or assuming a role in an institution knee-deep in brokenness; an institution that has broken faith with them. And, say some, with God.
While an increasing number of the next-generation lack faith in God (30%), others have vacated churches because they lack faith in a place where appearances and belonging seem to mean more than living to change the world for good.
Next-generation believers want more than membership in an organization, they want their faith to make a difference; a mission often at odds with churches focused on appearances and self-preservation.
While an inability to welcome diverse voices into the conversation and into leadership has sent younger members out into the highways and byways, older members try to coax them into joining; exactly what the next generation isn't seeking.
Protestant Dones aren't looking back.
The vast exodus of the next-generation is happening under a cloak of virtual silence. They're leaving with a goodbye or farewell. They're following God elsewhere. Anywhere. Else. For them, the church has become antithetical to following Jesus. Simply irrelevant.
It's not that they have ceased believing in God.
But, in many cases, they have stopped believing in church.
After the Exodus, God's people worshipped God as King, saying “The LORD shall reign forever and ever,” Exodus 15:16-18. "Yet God is my king ...who did divide the sea," sings Asaph in Psalm 74.
But 500 years later, in the time of Samuel, the people wanted to appear special before their neighbors (to become the more popular church, if you will) and so demanded a man-king, someone who could give them stature and popularity.
Three times God warns the Israelites through Samuel about the evil of demanding a king (1 Samuel 8:6, 10:17-19, 12:6-18). "GIve us a king!" was not only idolatry and vanity, but more trouble than people knew.
Warning God's people about the high cost of having a king, Samuel says, he'll rule you, take your sons and daughters to perform favors, he'll make unjust assignments and play favorites, he will take a tenth of your belongings for himself and rule for his own selfish desires. "When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day,” 1 Samuel 8:18.
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other (great churches) with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles,”
1 Samuel 8:19-20.
In 2017, Benny Hinn comes under investigation by the IRS. Benny Hinn, a preacher of the prosperity gospel; which is the unbiblical teaching that if you give enough money to the church (or to Benny Hinn Ministries) you can get what you want from God, namely unlimited health, healing and wealth. This past year, more than 40 IRS agents descended on the televangelist's offices, investigating Title 26; tax evasion and general fraud. For the time being, Hinn carries on. On his website, Hinn practices the modern rendition of medieval indulgences, telling followers that God will forgive your debts if you give; a promise flanked by "donate" buttons.
In 2013, Mars Hill Church, the church home of leader Mark Driscoll, was the third-fastest growing mega-church in the country with 14 branches in five states and 13,000 in weekly attendance. By January 2015 the church closed its doors amidst scandals of power gone awry, claims of abusive behaviors, mysogyny, a culture of fear and intimidation, and questionable investment schemes including using member tithes to purchase massive amounts of Driscoll's books in order to boost his standing onto the NYT's Bestseller list, and the unpardonable sin of using needy orphans in Ethiopia to raise money to pay off Driscoll’s WoodWay Mansion. Too many Mars Hill leaders sadly followed their king over the cliff. (read more at Christianity Today).
In 2012, Creflo Dollar, leader of the Atlanta megachurch World Changers Church International, was arrested after abusing his 15-year-old daughter, with his 19-year-old daughter as a witness. Punching, choking and hitting were followed by a 911-call. And jail time. Out on bail, Dollar preached the following Sunday, dismissing the battery with the assertion that the real culprit was “the devil,” who was trying to discredit him. Creflo’s followers not only accept his explanation that his daughters are liars, but believe they owe Dollar more - more money. The proof? In 2015, the congregation bought the preacher a $60 million luxury Gulfstream G650 airplane to further his prosperity gospel; which equates being Christian with being wealthy. Dollar not only appears to have control issues in his personal life, but is not above leveraging the name of God to get his followers to support his extravagant lifestyle. Dollar says that "sowing a seed" by sending money his way is required to receive God's blessing.
In 2011, Without Walls Central Church, the Lakeland Florida church home of leaders Paula and Randy White, founded in 2004 and once boasting 22,000 members, closed amidst scandals of fraud, infidelity, drugs and racketeering. In 2007, the IRS began investigating the church for misuse of funds and tax-exempt status. Lavish lifestyles, Bentleys, million-dollar homes, luxury suits and porcelain smiles smacked of misuse of church funds. While their church has since been demolished and the property sold off, leaving angry givers feeling defrauded, the Whites have each landed well. Divorced, both lead different churches. As President Trump's spiritual adviser, Paula White's religious principles include a familiar re-up on the middle ages practice of selling indulgences in order to obtain God's favor.
"Right now I want you to click on that button," Paula urges in a video on her website in which she encourages her followers to donate in order to get blessings from God. The buying of God's favor comes with a threat attached for those who don't send money. “If God doesn’t divinely step in and intervene, I don’t know what you’re going to face—he does,” says White, talking about the cost of not sending money. Without Walls may have been demolished, but the Whites lead on. (read more at Charisma News)
In 2006, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, then the largest mega-church in American with 14,000 members, was home to Ted Haggard's ministries. Visiting the Bush White House and serving as president for the National Association of Evangelicals, he was highly esteemed. An outspoken critic of homosexuality, Haggard was later caught using crystal meth and having various sexual relationships, including with male prostitutes. Haggard resigned in 2006. New Life Church rebounded and continues to contribute to its community.
In the 2000's, Oral Roberts University, until quite recently a hotbed of disfunction and on the brink of bankruptcy, was saved by $200 million in donations from Hobby Lobby's successor Mart Green, who serves as board chair for ORU. Shuttering the dentistry and law school in the mid-80's, Oral Roberts, in addition to various questionable schemes (like the City of Faith medical center which closed in 1991), diverted $7-million from the ORU endowment for a Beverly Hills home; meanwhile his son, Richard, spent decades helping himself to school funds (before being ousted) to maintain a lavish lifestyle. Richard's former-wife Patti, admits that the jet-setting lifestyle struck her as more than odd, acknowledging in her book, Ashes to Gold, that the celebrity Christian culture was pure idolatry.
In the 1980's, fire and brimstone televangelist Jimmy Swaggart faced several sexual scandals. Making a tearful televised confession in 1988, he was able to keep his $1-million-a-year, 10,000-employee empire afloat. Then he lost a couple lawsuits, faced an IRS tax lien, and was again caught with his pants down in 1991.
In the 1970's, the PTL (Praise The Lord) Club, the religious television program hosted by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker collected millions of dollars in contributions to their PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry. They built a fundamentalist amusement park called Heritage USA in South Carolina, while behind the scenes drug addiction, sexual and financial scandals brewed, and the couple's lavish Rolls-Royce lifestyle came under scrutiny. Jim was sentenced to 45-years in prison. Tammy remarried a man who was later sentenced to federal prison.
american catholic church
The American Catholic Church is hemorrhaging more members than any other Christian denomination, having lost 3-million people in the past decade. For every person who joins the Catholic church, six leave. According to a recent study by the Pew Institue, almost 13% of all Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.” (To learn more, check out the American's Changing Religious Landscape study at left).
Of those who have left the Catholic church, 3 out of 4 say they don't ever see themselves as returning. The Pew Survey asked why, and former Catholics said their primary issues surrounded divorce, same-sex marriage and sinful behavior, and finding an openness for non-traditional family structures.
Of continuing concern is a church that has promoted one set of values for members while its leaders practiced another; particularly regarding admonitions for sexual purity. Going on three decades now, the Catholic Church has been rocked by sex abuse scandals among its leadership.
Accused of protecting itself rather than the victims of child sexual abuse, more than 4000 priests have been acused of crimes, according to a report compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (below).
In the Catholic Church, the rampant nature of child abuse by priests was brought to national attenion first in 1985, and later, in a 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning series by the Boston Globe (check out teh stunning, Academy Award winning movie, SPOTLIGHT).
What was revealed by the Boston Globe was not only the far-reaching and rampant nature of child sexual abuse, but the reassignment of offender-priests and the organized cover-up by dioceses and high-ranking Catholic leaders.
According to Donald Cozzens, "by the end of the mid-1990s, it was estimated that ...more than half a billion dollars had been paid in jury awards, settlements and legal fees." This figure grew to about one billion dollars by 2002.
In response to sex abuse claims, not just churches but entire dioceses declared bankruptcy as penalties were paid out and members fled the ranks.
In 2004, the Archdiocese of Portland (Oregon) paid out $53-million before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Also in 2004, the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, paid $48 million to survivors as part of its bankruptcy filing. Similarly, the Diocese of Tucson paid out miillions and filed for bankruptcy.
In 2006, the Diocese of Davenport filed for bankruptcy.
In 2007, after the Diocese of San Diego filed for Chapter 11 protection, it ultimately paid out $198 million.
In 2008, the Diocese of Fairbanks and the Diocese of Wilmington filed for bankruptcy.
In 2011, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced that it would be filing for bankruptcy while it moved $57-million funds out of the disocese to prevent payment to victims; with Vatican approval.
In 2015, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapoli as well as the Diocese of Duluth filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.