Book Review

The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?

by Jim Davis and Michael Graham and Ryan Burge
The Great Dechurching

The Great Dechurching, by Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan P. Burge, delves into the intricate landscape of religious transformations and the evolving dynamics of organized faith. The authors, with keen eyes for sociological trends, provide a thought-provoking analysis of the declining influence of traditional churches in contemporary society.

The book sets the stage with a comprehensive exploration of the historical significance of religious institutions and their role in shaping cultures. It traces the roots of organized religion and its impact on individuals and communities throughout the centuries. The narrative is well-researched and seamlessly weaves together historical context, statistical data, and anecdotal evidence to create a compelling narrative.

Despite the conservative belief that America has always been a Christian nation, historians of American religion have long noted that the colonies did not exude universal piety. Historians generally agree that no more than 10–20 percent of colonialists actually belonged to a church. There was, however, a religious revolution in U.S. history that saw millions of Americans attending church regularly.

From 1870 to 1895, church attendance more than doubled, from 13.5 million people to 32.7 million, as the general population grew from 38.6 million to 69.6 million people. The net result was a 12 percent increase in churchgoers. Because this growth happened in the short span of only twenty-five years, it became the largest religious shift in the history of our country until now. What we have witnessed in the last twenty-five years is a religious shift about 1.25 times larger but going in the opposite direction. In that time, about 40 million people have stopped attending 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.

Why are people dechurching at an alarming rate?

The authors give three main reasons for the current dechurching movement in the United States.

First, during America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union (1945–1991), the terms American and Christian were often used synonymously in our struggle against a nation that posed an existential threat to America’s way of life. Being an American during this time fundamentally meant being a Christian. A person’s Christian faith was assumed, and so not being a Christian was considered unAmerican.

Second, the American church got very comfortable with right-wing politics over the past few decades. Jerry Falwell, Sr. founded a political organization and movement called the Moral Majority that successfully linked, in the minds of everyday Americans, Christian virtues to right-wing policies.

This cultural phenomenon was strengthened by Pat Robertson’s challenge of George H. W. Bush in the 1988 Republican presidential primary. During his campaigning, Robertson repeatedly called for the country to police its morals, speaking out against gay rights, feminism, abortion rights and anything else he thought might be likely to draw God’s wrath.1 Pat Robertson was also instrumental in the “white flight” of conservatives from the Democratic party to the Republican party.

Along with fellow conservative Christians like Jerry Falwell, Robertson defined a brand of morals-focused religious conservatism that became part of the identity of the Republican Party until the bombastic divorcee Donald Trump took over.

Zachary B. Wolf, “How Pat Robertson helped create the modern GOP”

The morals-fueled engine of patriotic Republican Christians gained more steam when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich launched the “Republican Revolution” in the mid-90s, winning political positions of power for Republicans across the country.

The national stage has been set for Republican policies to be the defining characteristics of what it means to be a Christian in America. And many believers have had enough.

Third, the increasing access to the internet has fueled dechurching by the mere accessibility of information. Prior to the wide use of the internet, people were limited to the information they could obtain from their social circles, the news personalities they chose to follow, or other sources of information that they specifically sought out. The internet made it much more likely to stumble upon a differing political or spiritual philosophy by accident.

For the first time, people could easily and regularly engage a wide range of worldviews very different from their own and collaborate in communities with others questioning their faith without the risk of social and familial opposition.

These three major factors have been working together to lead people out of the church. The third reason—increased accessibility to information through the internet—is a good thing on its own. But if a person’s experience of Christianity is that it’s the default life choice and that it’s a far-right political platform, is it any wonder that person might leave after discovering another path less polluted with right-wing politics and conservative patriotism?

Dechurched evangelicals: what the data show

There are those who become disenfranchised with the church because it is too synchronized with right-wing politics and those who become disenfranchised with the church because it is not synchronized enough. This is supported in our research, as 28 percent of the dechurched evangelicals we surveyed believe that the United States should be declared a Christian nation and that the success of the United States is part of God’s plan for the world. Let that sink in a bit. More than one-quarter of the dechurched evangelicals in our survey believe the United States should be declared a Christian nation and no longer attend church. Among this group of people, the United States is viewed as enjoying special favor with God similar to Israel in the Old Testament. Many believe the US Constitution is divinely inspired, on par with the Bible itself. According to a Pew Research study in 2021, nearly one in five Americans believes the Constitution to be a divinely inspired document. It does not seem like a stretch to conclude that this group has a higher commitment to God’s work in the political realm than God’s work in his church.

Cultural Christians

Cultural Christians, as they are called in the book, represent a startling 52% of survey respondents. The authors note that few of them show much evidence that they are actually believers. Only one percent of cultural Christians in the survey believed that Jesus is the Son of God. Belief in heaven is very low (53%), as well as belief in a literal hell (40%)—the lowest of any group in the survey. This group typically begins to leave the church during the age range of 18–25 when they start to develop lives of their own, complete with social and financial expectations that don’t include religion.

Cultural Christians stood out in the survey as a bit of an enigma. 59 percent sympathized with the January 6 Capitol rioters, 54% believe racial problems in the US are rare, 55% believe that the US military should support Vladimir Putin in his war with Ukraine, they score low on ethical matters (discrimination, abortion, pornography, substance abuse, lying, stealing, greed), and they have an elevated prosperity gospel score, indicating that this group does not understand key gospel concepts.

We aren’t sure if there is a populist, authoritarian, or intolerant strain here. However, if any of those factors were true, we would expect to see greater frustration with American institutions. The best we can figure is that cultural Christians have close relational ties with flyover and Rust Belt America while also caring less about the underdog on the world stage than others.

Race and ethnicity among cultural Christians

The survey around which this book revolves compiled its data with the help of an algorithm, yet the authors intentionally hid racial and ethnic identifiers from the algorithm. Nevertheless, patterns emerged.

Among the four evangelical subgroups that emerged, 98 percent of cultural Christians were white, 91 percent of dechurched mainstream evangelicals were white, 82 percent of exvangelicals were white, and 0 percent of dechurched BIPOC were white.

Reasons for hope

There are reasons to hope for cultural Christians to return to church. Half of them, according to the survey, are actively willing to return, and only 3 percent would never return. The authors point to social factors as the reasons for leaving and returning; this group wants to connect. Some may only need a nudge, but others might need years of invitations. The vast majority of dechurched cultural Christians need a “dinner table” approach; they need committed friendships that invest time, energy, and meals into their lives.

The authors make another great point here: people can belong and connect within our churches before they believe and profess faith. This may be exactly what cultural Christians need. The very makeup of the faith has certain rituals like baptism and the Lord’s Supper that move us from the forecourt into the inner court once we publicly profess our faith. We don’t want to see Christianity lose its forecourt where people belong even if they lack belief.

Upon reflection, the substantial cracks in their spiritual foundations should be more of an indictment of the doctrinally shallow expressions of evangelicalism than of the people themselves. They likely grew up in churches that didn’t prioritize discipleship; maybe legalism prevented true spiritual growth. Whatever the reason, it’s not a stretch to suggest that this group may not have ever met the real Jesus. As the largest of the survey groups, that presents an incredible evangelism opportunity!

Dechurched mainstream evangelicals

Another group identified as dechurched mainstream evangelicals (DME) tended to drop out of church during the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly due to lifestyle reasons, which are listed in the table below. The average DME from the survey is 40 years old. As a group, they trend center-right politically and do not support the January 6 riot (34%) or Russia’s war in Ukraine (27%). They have high confidence levels in marriage (63%) and police (54%), but they do not trust newspapers (30%), cable news (30%), big tech (29%), Congress (28%), or Wall Street (25%).

The authors note that, interestingly, dechurched mainstream evangelicals, when compared to churched mainstream evangelicals (CME), have a higher overall prosperity gospel score than those who are churched (59% versus 43%). They are also more likely than their churched counterparts to believe that we are currently in the end times (70% versus 58%).

Four avenues of return

For hundreds of thousands of dechurched evangelical Christians, all they need is a personal invitation to a decent church community.

The book describes four on-ramps for returning—channels indicated by DME people that could bring them back into a church community:

The most important thing to know about dechurched mainstream evangelicals is that 100 percent of those in our study are actively willing to return to an evangelical church.


Exvangelicals, on the other hand, are a group that has had enough of church and will not be convinved to return.

There isn’t one exvangelical in our survey who is actively willing to return to an evangelical church.

Exvangelicals, as defined for the purposes of the book, have permanently exited evangelicalism. The authors describe exvangelicals as dechurched casualties. From data in the authors’ survey, their average birth year is 1969, and the average time of dechurching was 2003.

The book makes an important distinction about this group—that there are many self-described exvangelicals who range from churched Christians who eschew evangelical expressions of Christianity to those who have completely left the faith. But exvangelicals still retain their faith; they pray, read the Bible, and believe in Jesus, but they have been hurt too badly by the evangelical church.

Politically, exvangelicals are center-left, but this group has the highest percentage of independents (55%) of any group in the survey. They are disinterested in both the Republican and Democratic parties. They are also the most critical of socialism, democratic socialism, Marxism, and communism Exvangelicals tend to have the lowest education and income of all five groups. They have dangerously high levels of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, averaging only 16 out of 100 on well-being concerning suicidal thoughts.

Isolation and loneliness are serious concerns to address when ministering to exvangelicals.

Despite their unwillingness to return to evangelicalism, exvangelicals are the second-most orthodox group, affirming most of the core Christian beliefs. However, it seems from the data that both religious and secular institutions are failing this group. Exvangelicals have very low confidence levels in American institutions, because their lives haven’t followed what the authors call statistically proven paths to success in America: graduating from high school, working full-time, and marrying before having kids. When institutional failures hit exvangelicals disproportionately harder than others, relationships become severely strained and lives get disrupted even more. Who is to say that those character weaknesses might not have otherwise surfaced if they’d had better relational and monetary safety nets?

This study reveals that exvangelicals have fallen through the cracks, not only in American society, but within evangelicalism too. They left their churches because they already felt left behind there relationally, socially, politically, and in many other ways.


Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) surfaced in the authors’ study as a distinct group, despite the fact that racial indicators were hidden from the algorithm. The fact that this completely non-white group emerged from the data clearly shows that racial/ethnic makeup has a profound correlation with attitudes, influences, beliefs, behaviors, and sense of belonging.

This group skews male, with 68% identifying as such and 32% as female. Their average age at the study’s time was 52, indicating their birth year was around 1971. Interestingly, they have the highest level of education and, along with another group—the cultural Christians—also boast the highest income among the five subgroups studied. Notably, they left the church on average 25 years ago, around 1998.

Geographically, this group is heavily concentrated in the Southeast, with nearly 38% residing there. Interestingly, for those residing outside this region, their distribution largely mirrors the migration patterns of African Americans following the Great Migration, which saw many descendants of enslaved people move out of the South in search of better opportunities.

This group is the most unrooted, with 54% having moved within the last year. As if that isn’t enough, this non-white group lives and works in primarily white spaces, which usually requires what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness”:

One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.

The BIPOC group showed some surprising preferences in the survey. Though they had a low Christian Nationalism score, 55% believed that moving a conservative agenda was worth any price of supporting Trump. 57% sympathized with the January 6 Capitol rioters, 52% believed that the US military should support Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, and half of the dechurched BIPOC group believed that racial problems in the US are rare, isolated situations.

Doctrinally, the BIPOC group scored relatively low on core tenets of the Christian faith. Only 13% believe that Jesus is the Son of God, 52% believe in heaven, and 50% believe in hell. And they do not exhibit religious behaviors like prayer, fasting, and Bible reading.

Some good news: 65% of BIPOC are willing to return to an evangelical church, and only 5% would never return. Ultimately, this group needs to feel a sense of belonging. They want to connect with friends, so good friendships can likely draw them back into church. This group also needs strong discipleship and doctrinal teaching within the churches that they return to.

We must love our neighbors of all colors and backgrounds. If you are a member of the dominant culture, then this will require cultural humility on your part if you want to prioritize gospel mission above cultural preferences.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics

The last group in the study is a combined group of mainline Protestants and Catholics. Dechurched Catholics and dechurched mainline Protestants share many similarities in doctrinal beliefs, like the Sonship of Jesus Christ, his divinity and humanity, and the Trinity.

Dechurched Catholics had the largest presence in the Northeast U.S. of any group. This group was also less supportive of Donald Trump than any other group, by an average of 8 percent. Mainline Protestants and Catholics share deep disdain for racism, misogyny, the January 6 Capitol riots, and Christian nationalism.

The top reason for this segment leaving the church is because of a move, but time and money priorities, fitting in with the congregation, and church member politics also topped the list. 10 percent of this segment even said they left because they began to doubt God’s existence.

According to The Great Dechurching, both mainline and Catholic groups had a lower view of the Bible than any other group. The authors note that there appears to be an opportunity to use the historic creeds and confessions to instill a greater confidence in the Bible.

The missed generational handoff

Eventually, in a manner not dissimilar from a pandemic spike, dechurching will have to slow down because there won’t be enough people who are still churched to maintain the spike.

The authors begin the second half of the book by offering hope for the dechurched. They provide some insights for engaging the dechurched and giving them reasons to return to a faith community.

The study found that the years around the transition from high school to early professional life are the most susceptible to dechurching. This is when people tend to leave the faith—the high school years, the four years after high school (usually in college), and the early years of becoming established in a new career or vocation.

Among 18- to 22-year-olds who are going to college, just 27 percent describe their religion as nothing in particular. That number is 37 percent among those who are not attending college. The share of atheists and agnostics is the same between college- and non-college-attending young people, as well. Thus, there’s little evidence in the data that education is driving secularization. Other forces are at play that social science has not yet been fully able to determine.

One of the book’s strengths lies in its ability to navigate complex subjects with clarity. The authors tackle the multifaceted reasons behind the phenomenon of dechurching, examining factors such as changing social norms, technological advancements, and shifts in individual spirituality. Through a balanced exploration of these factors, readers gain a nuanced understanding of the forces at play in reshaping religious landscapes.

The authors do not shy away from addressing the challenges faced by traditional churches in adapting to a rapidly changing world. Drawing on interviews, case studies, and relevant research, the book provides insights into the struggles of established religious institutions to connect with a modern audience. It raises important questions about the relevance of religious dogma in an era marked by increased individualism and a desire for personalized spiritual experiences.

The Great Dechurching also highlights the rise of alternative spiritual communities and explores how individuals are finding new ways to connect with their spirituality outside traditional religious structures. The authors’ exploration of these alternative paths is illuminating, offering readers a glimpse into the diverse expressions of faith and the search for meaning in contemporary society.

While the book presents a compelling analysis of the dechurching phenomenon, it would have benefited from a more in-depth exploration of potential solutions or adaptations for traditional religious institutions. The narrative tends to focus on the challenges rather than actively proposing strategies for renewal and relevance.

The Great Dechurching is a well-researched and thought-provoking exploration of the changing landscape of organized religion. It successfully navigates the complexities of societal shifts, individual spirituality, and the challenges faced by traditional churches. Whether you are a scholar of religious studies or a casual reader interested in societal trends, this book offers valuable insights into the ongoing transformation of faith in the modern world.

The widespread commodification of church as a spiritual good and service has led millions to ask what they can get from a church instead of what they can provide when, counterintuitively, it is in our provision for the church that we actually receive so many blessings.

  1. Wolf, Zachary B. “How Pat Robertson Helped Create the Modern GOP | CNN Politics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 June 2023, 

Sign up for Simon & Schuster's Book Club Newsletter and receive a free eBook!

Sign up