We’ve touched on the topic previously, but we want to commend to readers the upcoming book, The Great Dechurching. Set to hit the shelves on August 22, we managed to put our hands on an early release of the book, and it’s a worthy read.
Written in part by Ryan Burge, whose work with faith-related data we enjoy and appreciate, the book examines the reasons behind one of the great trends in the history of Christianity, which is the remarkable exodus of members from the mainline churches over the past 20 years.
Just how big is this exodus? Over the past 25 years, it’s about 40 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population. In other words, it’s every bit as significant as the three Great Awakenings. And it’s bigger than all of them combined, but it’s pointed in the other direction, and it’s moving faster than the Great Awakenings ever did.
Nor is the trend slowing down. While most evidence shows that attrition rates are not as high as during the pandemic, they remain much higher than even a few years ago. Nor are the mainlines recovering from the pandemic.
So what do Burge and his co-authors find about the reasons people are leaving churches?
Two things. One is that many, like the team here at Anglican Watch, have left due to abuse and corruption in the church.
The role of corruption
Indeed, persons in that group can often cite a very specific time or event where the faith just drained out of them. In those cases, victims of abuse often no longer consider themselves to be Christian.
As for churches themselves, many in this space act like spiritual NGOs. They are places to get the warm and fuzzies, to volunteer, to socialize, and possibly to learn how (in the words of one Missouri Synod friend of ours) to be a good person. But beyond that, there’s little in the way of an ethical reference point, and remaining church members typically see no need to examine their own role in church corruption.
These situations are indeed tragic, and are a stunning indictment of how broken many mainline denominations have become. Even worse, for many it’s a case of same ‘ole, same ‘ole, with judicatories treating corruption as something beneath their dignity and not worth addressing.
For the record, we see this time and again in dioceses and parishes throughout the Episcopal Church. No blood, no foul is far too often the name of the game, and woe unto anyone who objects to other forms of abuse.
Indeed, we know of only a couple of bishops who may — we emphasize may — understand the need to end corruption in the church. Those bishops do not include Michael Curry and Todd Ousley, both of whom should be positive role models but are not.
The role of banal reasons
The second reason is even more troubling and accounts for a larger cohort of persons who have left the church. That reason is that mainline Christianity increasingly doesn’t align with the goals of 21st century culture.
We live in a work-centric society, in which one’s value is measured by their success at work. Thus, many feel driven to work long hours, avoid taking vacations, and be productive.
In that context, persons of faith often fall by the wayside simply because they get busy. Working 60- or 70-hour weeks, much of life is already accounted for, leaving very little room for church.
Thus, when things get busy at work, another baby comes along, or someone gets married, people take a break from church attendance.
Typically, they plan to return, but a year or two later, days are busier than ever. Like the metaphoric frog in a pot of water on the stove, they only realize what’s happened when it’s too late to do anything about it.
To be clear, we don’t believe that this emphasis on work is healthy. Yes, there are some who are hardwired to be over-acheivers, but many get pulled into this role unwittingly.
That said, we’re even more troubled by the flip side of this proposition, which is that churches are often utterly indifferent when a parishioner quits attending.
Any well-run non-profit typically reaches out quickly when a member disengages. There may be problems at home, stresses at work, or simply the need to disengage for a while.
But organizations that depend on volunteers and want to remain viable are sensitive and proactive to these issues. That may include calling or emailing the member, dropping by, or reaching out to friends or family to find out what’s going on.
Yet even among the very few church members who reach out after a parishioner leaves, our experience is that it is unheard of for them to try to fix the situation if there are allegations of bullying, abuse or misconduct. Yes, they might apologize or tell the person who’s left that they are praying for them, but forget about anything meaningful.
It simply isn’t going to happen.
That’s a damning indictment of mainline churches, and especially the Episcopal Church. The latter loves to talk within seminaries about family systems, but what kind of healthy family sits silent when a family member goes missing?
The role of shunning
There’s also an issue behind the flight from Christianity that Anglican Watch has documented extensively, which is the role of shunning in the church.
To be clear, we don’t have hard numbers on this. But we’ve seen it countless times.
Indeed, several years ago, we published an article on the late Episcopal Cafe about shunning within the church. We did it without attribution, but with the cooperation of our editor. We did this so that people would focus on the issue, versus the personalities involved.
The article garnered a huge number of comments—one of the highest in the history of the publication. Dozens of people recounted how they disagreed with their rector, only to find themselves disinvited from some role in the church. Or being treated as persona non grata altogether.
This weaponization of faith is remarkably ugly. It also underscores the high percentage of narcissists among clergy who believe they should be able to retaliate at will against anyone who commits lèse-majesté.
And it makes clear that the much-vaunted representative democracy of the Episcopal Church typically is anything but, with vestries and standing committees nothing more than rubber-stamp groups of sycophants, insiders, empaths, and enablers.
Meanwhile, this conduct smacks of a profoundly destructive 1970s-type clericalism.
Far too many clergy live in a time-warp where they can say and do whatever they want with impunity, while being paid by an organization so flush with cash no one needs worry about the fallout from shunning.
Of course, that sort of behavior wasn’t helpful in the 1970s. But church attendance was sufficiently normative that clergy could get away with this nonsense.
Today, the church needs to fight for every member if it’s going to survive. The church also needs to understand that those it abuses and mistreats can and do share their experiences.
And people hurt by the church should share their experiences. Not only is disclosure the only path towards organizational health, but it also supports personal health.
As to those who object to public discussion of corruption in the church, we say: once you behave badly, you’re fair game. If you’re that worried about your reputation, you should have behaved better in the first place.
And don’t even think about pulling the whole domestic terrorist thing. It doesn’t work, and those sorts of games simply accelerate the death of the church.
The Atlantic also covers the book and offers additional insight into the reasons behind the Great Dechurching. (Gotta love the photo, which includes a Book of Common Prayer on the floor.)
There’s also an earlier work on this topic that’s worth reading, Church Refugees. The book is widely available and there’s a related site at https://dechurched.net. The site also includes an excellent, if slightly outdated, list of resources at https://dechurched.net/resources/.
The Great Dechurching also is available in advance at numerous outlets, including Barnes and Noble.
Church members being what they are, many will see coverage of The Great Dechurching, clutch their pearls and say, “Not something I need to read.”
But the very opposite is true. Those who have already left the church may gain added insight by reading the book, but for many, this will be a case of confirmation bias.
Those most likely to benefit from the book are bishops, priests, and deacons. The book may also be helpful to lay leaders who view criticism of the church as “absolutely out of line,” even as millions depart organized religion. Or who view those who have left the church in dualistic, us-versus-them terms.
It’s also worth noting that Burge is an American Baptist minister and friendly towards the Episcopal Church — despite his reports that the denomination as we know it is fast reaching end of life.