Over the past decade, an increasing number of Jesus’s followers have stopped attending or participating in established churches. This phenomenon is particularly evident among Christians under the age of 30. As this dechurching trend continues,1 pastors’ and other church leaders’ efforts to reverse it have been frustratingly unsuccessful.
The Covid pandemic seems to get most of the blame. During the pandemic, Christians either were compelled to participate virtually through livestreaming via online platforms such as Zoom or to meet outdoors where everyone could be socially distant and watch the worship service on a large screen.
With the subsiding of the pandemic, parishioners began making a return to in-person gatherings, but many have not yet come back. They’ve either dropped out completely or chosen simply to watch or listen to a church service on their electronic devices—computers, television screens, or smartphones.
While I still teach a class at my home church, I often speak in other churches, and I have yet to visit a church where in-person attendance has returned to pre-pandemic levels. In some cases, in-person attendance has risen to barely above half that level.
Reasons people offer for preferring to watch or listen to a church service are the obvious ones—virtually all related to convenience. They don’t have to commute. They don’t have to get dressed or get their kids dressed. They can eat and/or take care of their children and pets during the service times.
The convenience factor becomes even more significant when the service is recorded and posted online. Christians can watch or listen when it best suits them, not necessarily at the scheduled meeting time. They can also pause the recording at any time to take care of household duties or answer their phone. They can even listen to the service while driving to work or the store.
The Passivity Factor
From my personal observations and conversations, I’ve come to think that one of the biggest reasons—if not the biggest—for Christians’ departure from church participation is not so much the availability of livestreaming and recorded services, but rather the lack of the very thing churches seek: participation. Many church services and meetings in America have become predominantly passive experiences, with some small opportunities for social interaction.
Nearly all the action occurs up front. A pastor or elder opens the meeting in prayer. A worship team performs several worship songs and choruses. Someone makes announcements and prays. In some cases, offering plates are passed. A pastor (or visiting speaker) presents a sermon, and the meeting closes with prayer, and perhaps one more song.
Some churches do involve their congregation in liturgical practices—participatory prayer, responsive readings, recitation of creeds, and the sacrament of communion and/or baptism. Many churches wisely involve their parishioners in ministry to the poor and disadvantaged. Nearly all host potlucks and events for kids and encourage small groups for fellowship, and all these things are good. However, they typically provide little opportunity for open discussion of questions that challenge our faith, questions about biblical truth claims, and/or questions frequently raised by non-Christian skeptics. There’s little or no opportunity to engage in dialogue that can equip us to be effective witnesses to our world.
What I most often hear from young people is that church feels like a waste of time. While a few enjoy singing, most don’t. They say the sermon messages tend to repeat what they’ve already been told. They may or may not engage briefly in chitchat, and then they leave, feeling that their time could have been better spent. These young adults see neither growth nor ministry value in what they’ve given their time to, and they can’t think of any non-Christian friends or associates they’d feel comfortable inviting to attend with them.
Many pastors I know readily acknowledge that their church services, even Bible study groups, are predominantly passive. Nevertheless, they hope that by attracting passive Christians and making the services comfortable for them, they can gently encourage these folks to become active Christians. “At least these Christians,” they say, “are committed enough in their faith to attend church, unlike the others.”
I can’t help but question this approach because a significant number of dechurched Christians I know are trying to obey God’s command in Hebrews 10:25 by continuing to meet together. They meet up with friends, sometimes including strangers, too, at coffee places, cafés, outdoor spaces, homes, or in online chat groups to discuss and debate theology. They actively participate in social media, where they post or respond to posts on issues and questions that challenge or support Christianity and/or belief in the Bible. They get together to watch debates between Christians and atheists on YouTube (or other streaming platforms), intermittently stopping the recording to discuss key points or consider better responses than the ones being offered.
The Engagement Factor
Dechurched Christians I meet most often tell me they want dialogue, not monologue. They want open discussion, even constructive (as opposed to heated) debate. They want to be participants, not spectators. They want to see Christianity tested by the best challenges from skeptics and shown strong. They want to be equipped and mentored for a variety of ministry opportunities and endeavors.
In my many years as a Christian apologist, I’ve spoken in several hundred churches across America and in other parts of the world. Along the way I’ve made some observations that I’d like to share with pastors and other church leaders. Churches that offer an extended Q&A session after the Sunday message, a session in which the questions are not screened or preselected, are successful in attracting newcomers and returners. Most are growing by adding adult converts to their congregations. People come to the church first to observe this “unusual” interaction, this openness to questions, even challenging ones. They come back when they see that questions and questioners are treated with gentleness, thoughtfulness, honesty, and respect.
At the church where I teach, “open forum” events are part of the annual church schedule. Every few months, an entire two-hour time slot is devoted to Q&A. We have four rules: (1) Only one question per person per turn. Questioners who want to raise more than one question go to the back of the line after each question is addressed; (2) Questioners may offer comments and present points of disagreement, but these comments cannot turn into lectures; (3) No profane language or cursing is allowed; and (4) Most importantly, no “softball” questions are allowed. Meanwhile, coffee and snacks are available.
The Hospitality Factor
In my reading of the New Testament epistles, I note a strong emphasis on hospitality, not just to be practiced by those with a special gift for it, but for all believers. The gift of evangelism (Ephesians 4:11) refers to a church elder who is gifted to train and equip Christians to do evangelism. All Christians, without exception, are called to engage in hospitality and evangelism.
Hospitality and evangelism go hand in hand. In my experience, the churches that are most successful in bringing adults to faith in Jesus Christ—and keeping them—are those that combine Q&A, dialogue, and discussion with abundant, gracious hospitality.
Most people think offering hospitality means providing people with food and drink, and it often does. However, while meeting people’s physical needs is important, meeting their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs may be equally important or, in some cases, even more so. Compassionate, wise, and encouraging listeners offer the kind of hospitality people long for. Who is drawn to events where people speak but don’t listen? It’s through compassionate, attentive, encouraging listening that Christians can gain trust and make an impact. There’s no better way to discern what holds a person back from faith in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures.
The Courage Factor
I readily acknowledge that inviting questioners to challenge our faith takes courage. Nevertheless, through exposing our faith to questions and challenges, our faith becomes stronger. At the same time, we become better equipped to respond to future questions and challenges. In 1 Corinthians 16:13–14, Paul offers this clear and succinct exhortation:
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be people of courage. Do everything in love.
Courage comes from recognizing that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are never alone. The Holy Spirit permanently indwells us and is available always to assist us in our ministry to others. Whenever I’m about to participate in a Q&A session or engage in conversation with a non-Christian, I ask the Holy Spirit to provide the wisdom, grace, humility, and compassion to speak whatever words are needed.
As Christ’s followers, there’s another sense in which we’re not alone. We are connected with other believers. Being people of courage does not mean venturing into situations where we’re set up for failure. Pastors often tell me they can’t invite public, unscreened Q&A because they know they’re not adequately prepared to answer some of the questions and/or challenges likely to come up. While they may not be, other people in their congregations might be. If not, “I’m willing to do some research and get back to you” is a reasonable and appropriate response. Another option may be to bring in a scholar with relevant background and training via Zoom or another link. (Several Reasons to Believe scholars make themselves available for such occasions.)
Even when a panel of experts is fielding questions, there may be questions for which no one in the group has a ready answer. Here again, the same response is appropriate: “If you’ll give us a week to do the needed research, we’ll be glad to get back to you.” In fact, at times it may be encouraging to the questioner to invite him or her to participate in the research.
New Testament Vitality
Prior to Christ’s coming, synagogue gatherings were substantially participatory. During the week, the synagogue served as a kind of community center. On the day of worship, Jews and interested Greeks met together in a rectangular room with step-style seating on three or all four sides, facing each other. They rejoiced as Scripture scrolls were brought into the center of the room and then listened intently as various individuals (chosen by the person in charge of the place) read substantial portions of Scripture. (Bibles were not yet available).
When the apostles reached out beyond Jerusalem to people unfamiliar with Jesus’s life and teachings, death and resurrection, they went to synagogues. There, they recited and explained how familiar Old Testament events and prophecies had been fulfilled by Jesus. They answered questions and engaged in dialogue and debate.
Early Christian church services were anything but passive. They equipped believers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to withstand a massive effort to snuff out their faith. In the face of severe oppression, the body of believers grew and became a mighty force that continues to spread the Good News “to the uttermost parts.”
I’m convinced God wants to stir up his church. He’s calling all of us to adventurous faith,2 moving us to reconsider how we “do church.” It’s time to apply creativity and courage in ways that will enliven our gatherings, make them less entertaining and more engaging. His call holds potential to attract the unchurched, bring back the dechurched, and help the church fulfill its kingdom-advancing mission on Earth.
- In this article I’m not addressing deconversion, a process in which a person gives up the Christian faith for another religion or none at all.
- Hugh Ross with Kathy Ross, Always Be Ready: A Call to Adventurous Faith (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018).