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The Late Great Planet Church

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It’s not exactly news, but there are fewer people attending church now than before the pandemic. What we’re finding out now is just how big of a drop it was. According to a survey by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, the percentage of people ages 39 to 57 who attended a worship service during the week, either in person or online, fell to 28% in 2023. That is down from 41% in 2020.

That. Is. A. Big. Drop.

So what happened?

It can’t be explained solely by the rise of the nones. The post-pandemic reality is that many who were churched, who were anything but a “none,” simply didn’t return to their community of faith.

And it can’t be explained by ideological divides that led people to leave their church during the heated height of all things COVID. There certainly were a number of people who left their church for another congregation due to positions on vaccines, masking, meeting in person and more, but that would account for migratory patterns, not a 13-point overall plunge.

So what did happen?

Did they simply get out of the habit of attending when many churches were closed to in-person gatherings?

Did they enter a stage of life in which it became more difficult?

Did they become disillusioned with churches in general due to the ideological rancor that was often exhibited?

Were they already drifting away from the church beforehand, and the pandemic allowed them to “quiet quit?”

Did their church’s stance (or lack of one) on various social and racial issues push them out of the door?

Did they become disillusioned by high-profile leaders falling into moral disarray?

Were churches simply not challenging enough to arrest their attention, as argued by Jim David and Michael Graham in “The Great Dechurching”? Or, as Jake Meador writes in The Atlantic:

Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.

Daniel K. Williams, writing for Christianity Today, suggests that the deeper issue is a weak ecclesiology at the heart of most Christian’s theology, particularly evangelical theology, something I’ve written on and lamented for many years (see my Christ Among the Dragons). As Williams puts it:

What if the problem with dechurched evangelicals is not their faulty understanding of faith, but rather evangelical theology’s own lack of emphasis on the church? Relative to other forms of Christianity, evangelicals have historically maintained a rather low view of the church, compared to their high view of a believer’s individual relationship with God.