Saturday, April 17, 2010


This article appears on Christianity Today's blogsite from its column OUT OF UR. To read more go to:

Who Are the De-Churched? (Part 1)

Some are leaving the church because they've received a false gospel. Others are leaving because they've found the real one.

In days gone by, missional efforts were focused on presenting and demonstrating the love of Christ to non-Christians. But in the 1980s a new term was coined to describe the growing number of North Americans without any significant church background. They were called the unchurched. Untold numbers of books were written about them. Ministry conferences discussed them. Church leaders orchestrated worship services to attract them.

The shift from “evangelizing non-Christians” to “reaching the unchurched” was perceived as benign at the time, but it represented an important shift in our understanding of mission. The church was no longer just a means by which Christ’s mission would advance in the world, it was also the end of that mission. The goal wasn’t simply to introduce the unchurched to Christ, but—as the term reveals—to engage them in a relationship with the institutional church. This paved the way for the ubiquitous (but flawed) belief today that “mission” is synonymous with “church growth.” (Another post for another day.)

Well, another new term is on the rise and gaining attention among evangelicals in North America. Those without a past relationship to the church are called unchurched, but there are many with significant past church involvement who are exiting. They are the de-churched

Jethani describes them:

As I’ve traveled and encountered de-churched Christians, including some friends, I’ve found they tend to fall into three categories. (These are generalizations, as all categories are, but they may prove helpful.)

1. The Relationally De-Churched

These Christians have come to recognize that human beings are the vessels of God’s Spirit and not organizations. They may have first engaged the institutional church because they longed for meaningful relationships with other followers of Christ. They may have joined a small group or found a tight network of friends through whom they lived out the “one another” commands in Scripture.

But over time it dawned on them—This small group is really my church. These are the people I am living out the gospel with. Why do we need the big institution? Ironically, a number of house churches have started as megachurch-spawned small groups—a trend even documented by Time magazine back in 2006 and currently seen in the “Organic Church” movement.

Ultimately the relationally de-churched leave the institution because the programs proved less effective at fostering faith and love than relationships with actual people. And the authenticity they crave and experience in their small group eclipses the relative shallowness of the wider church. Let’s face it—authenticity becomes more difficult the larger a group becomes. But it’s worth noting that these folks haven’t abandoned the church theologically, they’ve just redefined it apart from the 501c3 organization we culturally identity as a “church.”

2. The Missionally De-Churched

“If the church were doing the work God appointed it to do, there would be no parachurch organizations.” Have you heard that one before? It’s a popular defense I heard many times while serving with a campus ministry in college—and there is some truth to it despite the self-righteous cheekiness.

If the relationally de-churched abandon the institutional church because they desire authenticity, the missionally de-churched leave because they are die-hard activists. They are driven to see the world impacted by the gospel whether via evangelism, compassion, justice, or other facet of God’s restorative work. They may become frustrated that the institutional church spends enormous amounts of energy and resources maintaining itself rather than advancing the mission.

I’ve had a few friends deeply involved in such parachurch groups confess that “even though we don’t take communion or baptize, in every other regard the ministry functions as my church.”

3. The Transformationally De-Churched

Last spring we published an issue of Leadership Journal which included an article by John Burke, pastor of Gateway Church in Austin. Gateway is comprised of many recovering addicts, and as a result the church has incorporated a lot of recovery group values into its community—rigorous honesty, acceptance, dependency on God, and grace. But Gateway is an exception. Many churches give these values lip-service, but few are able to instill them into the culture.

In that same issue of Leadership, Matt Russell wrote about the year he spent interviewing de-churched people in his community. He wrote:

Most people left church not because they had a deep theological problem with something like the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ. They left because people in the church have the tendency to be small and mean and couldn’t deal honestly with their own sins or the sin of others. As one man put it, “People in the church were more invested in the process of being right than in the process of being honest.”

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