Churchless and Secular (RJS)

Churchless and Secular (RJS) October 30, 2014

ChurchMy world … and welcome to it. (HT James Thurber)

I’m not churchless or secular, but by far the majority of my friends, peers, and coworkers are. Although my university community is not yet the norm for the country as a whole, it may reflect a growing trend. Churchless is an increasing phenomenon in the US.

Dave Kinnaman and the Barna Group have published the results of a series of surveys in a new book Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. The surveys themselves lead to some interesting insights. Cathy Lynn Grossman at The Religion News Service reports:

If you’re dismayed that one in five Americans (20 percent) are “nones” — people who claim no particular religious identity — brace yourself.

How does 38 percent sound?

That’s what religion researcher David Kinnaman calculates when he adds “the unchurched, the never-churched and the skeptics” to the nones.

He calls his new category “churchless,” the same title Kinnaman has given his new book. By his count, roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”

If asked, the “churchless” would likely check the “Christian” box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.

You can read the full story here: Secularism grows as more U.S. Christians turn ‘churchless’. A summary of the survey results can be found here: Five Trends Among the Unchurched.  Many of the unchurchless were at one time regular attenders – in childhood or as adults – but for a quarter church was never part of their regular experience. This latter group is likely to grow.

This is a story that has been picked up and linked in a number of different places – from atheist sites like to, oh, well, here. Neither the optimism expressed on the atheist sites nor the handwringing of Christian sites (I hope not here) really catch the significance of the results.

Kinnaman divides people into four groups – the actively churched (about 49% of the US population), the minimally churched (about 8% of the population), the dechurched (about one third of the population) and the purely unchurched (about 10% of the population).  It is hard to call the US a secular country when about half of the population is actively churched (i.e. attend church regularly usually once a month or more), but the trend – the growth in the churchless population is worth some thought.

Nearly half of the unchurched attribute their lack of church attendance to an absence of value.” This perceived lack of value can express it self in a variety of ways or reasons. Church attendance can be viewed as tiresome, boring, irrelevant, unnecessary. Many don’t see church – any church – as a place of meaningful community. It is a group sharing the same space at a public event – not a place of belonging.

In chapter 8 Kinnaman looks at six reasons that the unchurched drop out – these begin with the perspectives expressed by young adults (You Lost Me), but the same reasons persist for all age groups.

Churches seem restrictive and overprotective

Christianity as practiced is too shallow

Churches seem antagonistic to science

This is a big one in my environment, crossing all age group boundaries.

Churches are judgmental and rigid about sexuality

An even bigger concern again crossing all age group boundaries in my environment.  This can range from the view of women (complementarianism does not go over well) to even touchier issues involving sexual identity.

The exclusivity of Christianity

Churches are unfriendly to those who doubt.

Churches are not a safe place to wrestle with questions and doubts. When what little belonging one might feel is placed at risk the safest approach is to detach and find answers elsewhere. This is intensified among young adults when the stage of life makes moves common and a move to unchurched means not searching out a new church rather than leaving a current church.

These are issues that are magnified by the life situation of young adults, but are not unique to young adults. They need to be addressed across the board – not in specially designed youth oriented outreach.

There is more in the book reporting the results, but this is enough for a useful discussion.

What do you see as the biggest driving force for becoming “dechurched?”

What value should belonging to a church offer to a Christian?

Why should a non-christian care?

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  • scotmcknight

    Exacerbating the problem of the unchurched, or provoking the phenomenon itself, is church as passive presence. I would not call it entertainment (that’s too pejorative to be descriptive) nor is it just consumerist (same problem). It is the creation of a culture where people actually can enter a church building and sit and “participate” and “listen” and “worship” and “learn” but then leave without any kind of “social” contact. This permits “leaving” without really leaving.

    Many megachurches create this kind of culture, but so do many moderate sized churches. But many megachurches also create a strong small group culture in the center of a megachurch. These groups create the necessity of “social” contact on a Sunday morning, or at least create a greater likelihood.

    When church is defined as koinonia, or fellowship, then passive presence is no longer possible. When that is no longer possible, the “unchurched” will decrease.

  • I don’t have any data to back this notion, but I suspect that the drift to unchurched began in the secularized mainline many years ago when young people discovered that the church was teaching what their higher education had already taught them and their secular organizations already believed; the question became, “Why waste time, energy, and money simply reinforcing what we already believe?”

    Although the trend toward becoming unchurched is also afflicting the evangelical churches, the trend is, I think, not as pronounced. I know a number of unchurched evangelical adults, but most of the ones I know have not compromised their belief structure. They participate in study and prayer groups, undertake mission activities, etc., but without the Sunday morning and institutional commitments.

    This observation may fit with what Scot posted while I was writing this.

    I believe that people are still looking for authentic encounter with God and with meaningful teaching and learning. I believe that they still want some sort of faith fellowship. I believe that they still want to connect to some sort of effective mission. But the old forms–even in the latest worship song costumes–feel a bit like dated dinosaurs to them. And they experience them as more draining than energizing.

  • It seems to me we can expect to see an increasing number of people who continue to identify as Christian, but who choose not to attend church services. In addition to the reasons mentioned in the post, there is no longer any cultural pressure to attend church, such as to be perceived to be a person of integrity, or to maintain social standing. In fact, regularly attending church may often negatively impact social standing and credility these days, as the negative perceptions of church-going grow. Non-churchgoers may often form conclusions about a churchgoer’s political and social values and beliefs, for example, soley based upon the fact that they go to church.
    In any event, I wonder if we shouldn’t expect to see the Christianity of the future (Protestant at least) increasingly separated from the practice of attending church.

  • I think in most churches, families could sit in private booths that obscured everything but the “stage” in front of them, and it would change their church experience very little.

  • But Scot, this gets into the twins of sacramentology and the ecclesiology it builds. How many churches prioritize the sacrament of one another all that highly? What does the meeting structure say? What does the architecture say? When even “communion” requires very little interaction with others, or when the best teaching requires no discussion, or when raising a loud shout to the Lord doesn’t need the congregation, just a mic . . . one another-ing has become an optional inefficiency. The Body has become optional. People pick up on it based on what is actually done. What’s said does not matter over time.

  • Even the remaining churchgoers are rejecting orthodoxy and embrace Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

    The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted […] Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.

    Christian Smith (2005) On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith.

    Such a shift suits me; I’m glad to see a deistic emphasis of “emphasis on behavior over belief.”

    This emphasis on behavior over belief […] they are consistent with the ideas of deism […] the United States was unique because all religious beliefs were respected. People were more concerned with “moral conduct rather than dogma.”

    David Voelker (1993) Who is Nature’s God? The Hanover Historical Review.

    America is going the right direction of dropping dogma. Quit fretting, and ride the wave.

  • So far, technology in the church has served to do something very much like that. One of the changing dynamics in the larger culture is how more and more human interaction is being mediated through technology. I see more and more people sitting at tables not looking at each other, but at their phones. I see this as an opportunity for the Church to be a beacon for the value and practice of interactive humanity, face to face, in the flesh. If anyone *should* know the value of gathering that way around a table, it’s us. But the Church is not really well equipped to take this opportunity right now, and it all comes down to priority and preference for polished sermons and high-church rituals. This is so sad. We really have a chance shine for our value (God’s value!) of the human being, individual and communal. I hope we see it soon.

  • “Nearly half of the unchurched attribute their lack of church attendance to an absence of value.”

    What a devastating observation! And quite the indictment of the modern “church”

  • RJS4DQ


    I think this is an important point. Mega and moderate size churches can create a varied and strong “small group” structure – an interacting web of groups of different sorts (service, study, fellowship, worship, performance, mentoring …) – such that passive presence is not the norm. Both mega and moderate churches can create a culture where passive presence is the norm. When passive presence is the norm it is much harder to find value and much easier to walk away.

    Even smallish churches can show these features, although here I think the problems can be somewhat different.

    A commenter on this blog awhile back pointed me to a classic article in the field of sociology that put forward the importance of a network of weak interactions for a strong community structure. To quote from the conclusion “weak ties, often denounced as generative of alienation, are here seen as indispensable to individual’s opportunities and to their integration into communities; strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation.” Certainly thinking on these issues has evolved since 1973 – but this paper remains a classic because it hit on an important idea.

    I think, perhaps, any church will thrive much better when it cultivates webs of weak interactions that bring each individual into contact with a variety of others in a meaningful way – with others who are not “just like me,” or with several different groups of people each of which are alike in different ways. The problem with a small group – mass meeting structure is that almost all interactions are either strong ties with people just like me or largely non-existent interactions – nods of acquaintance. This is not a structure that builds strong, resilient community.

    It becomes easy to move from churched to dechurched when church is a passive experience, strong ties with small groups can be found elsewhere and do not require the whole community.

  • R Vogel

    This, I think, is an important point. I would fall into the unchurched population. I grew up attending a regular church. When I relocated across the country I never found another and 20+ years later here I am. Do I feel I have missed anything? Not really. I am a 40+ yr old professional, and I honestly could not tell you how many of my friends or peers attend church because it’s just not something that gets talked about. It just isn’t an important part of any of our lives. I would assume most don’t go with any regularity. I’m actually a little amused that someone who attend church once a month is considered ‘churched.’

    My son was born a couple of years ago and my wife wanted to find a church, since we were both brought up in one. We went to quite a few over a period of several months. But the reality is there was nothing there to really convince us to give up a couple of hours of our Sunday for. I guess I could do it as a chore, but to what end? I work 50 to 60 hours per week and get 2 days to spend with my family – wasting 2 hours sitting in a pew plus travel & getting ready time to sing a few bad sappy songs and listen to somebody preach at me things I have no ability to even respond to is not really something I’m interested in. Instead I have chosen to volunteer at organizations in my area doing things to help people in my area. When my son gets old enough, I will bring him with me. Church is simply irrelevant to me and the vast majority if my social circle. I have no idea how it could do anything to change that.

  • D. Foster

    R. Vogel took the words right out of my mouth. My wife and I are devout Christians who grew up in church. Today, it’s so irrelevant for us we cease going anymore and I don’t feel I’m missing out on anything except the sacraments.

    This bothers me though. I’m deeply conflicted. I go in wanting it to matter to me but it just doesn’t. And the Church I attend now is almost the epitome of the kind of Church I would have wanted 5 years ago.

    It was only after having the best of the best that I realized, “I don’t believe in this.” Not that I don’t believe in God or Jesus or the Body, but “Church.” And there’s nothing I can imagine a church tweaking that would make me find it important enough to participate in comparison to numerous other things in my already congested life.

  • Richard Green

    I am a church member but attend very rarely. I like the church ritual but don’t want to talk to anyone there, probably a personal failing. I have found church to be a poor place to have religious discussions, as my views veer towards ‘originality’.

    On the positive side, I always read RJS’s blog, and sometimes read through the comments. This is maybe a strange way of being ‘churched’, but I hope it is better than nothing, and I want RJS to know there is something in her work, sincere and thoughtful, that keeps me hanging on in there.

  • Dan Arnold

    From my personal experience, the churches I’ve been to have been pretty rigid about gatekeeping. Oh, virtually anyone can come. But to truly belong, a particular set of beliefs are required. If you don’t adhere to those beliefs or, heaven forbid, you walk away from them, especially inerrancy and a biblicist hermeneutic, and you will definitely be on the outside looking in. They are more interested in trying to “fix” people; to make those who are different be like those on the inside. There is very little acceptance of people where they are at.

    Maybe I have too high an expectation for the church. I believe that God has always been about creating a people who can reflect his image. I understand the local church as being a colony of the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, I would like to be able to invite people to walk with me and my church family as we seek to live out an alternative way of life that is marked by the Gospel, one that reflects the rule of God in his love and grace. This love doesn’t give up on people easily or push them away. It seeks the best for one another and is emotionally genuine. To me, that is relevant (an overused term in Christian circles if there ever was one!) to almost everyone, churched or unchurched. But it’s hard! And to tell you truth, I’m not really very good at it.

    Shalom uvrecha

  • jenny

    For me as a woman, I would like to see a woman- priest talking about God.
    Women and men perceive God quite differently.
    A man- priest pretends that he is God representative – “alter Deo” – for both men and women…
    I like to ask a man priest: how does he experience God or evil during pregnancy ?
    Men-priests talk about God from their male experience only.

    Would men like to hear exclusively about God, from a woman prospective ?

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I basically agree that putting behavior over dogma, belief, etc. is important. I watch Pope Francis, who rather than issuing decrees, goes out and washes people’s feet or meets with them. This is fundamental to the ways that we as Christians and as churched people need to add value and worth to participation in the church.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • I too have admired Pope Francis’ simplicity and public conduct.

  • chris

    Could there be a level of passive presence in the small group experience as well? While certainly there is a deeper level of relationship what I observe is it still remains largely ineffective in influencing the Christ conforming change God created the church to facilitate (as an instrument of the HS). This evidences that relationships in small groups still reside at a superficial level because you must open up about the sin in your life to really allow the small group to help you grow more into Christ (don’t know many groups like this). This then begs the question, what is “churched”? Is being churched regularly attending group meetings/worship or is it actually trying to look more like Jesus (individually and collectively)? I believe in the latter, but it won’t bring in more young people. However, for those looking change and belonging in their life, it will be much more significant. I think young people are looking for this and while many will be too scared to enter into it, those few who do will experience the church in a better way.

  • Yonah

    I agree with Alexander Schmemann and his friend Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that secularism is to be put wholly aside for the Christian (and Jewish) tradition to actually function. If the ratio of Christian identity is two hours on Sunday to the rest of life, then of course it will all collapse. If one is unwilling to be critical, even indicting, of the rest (the culture as it’s functioning), there of course is no need for that 2 hours and what it represents (should represent) as a counter cultural community/identity.

  • FireInSpace

    Well, when there is the internet right there for you to learn about everything something like the bible and a preacher don’t seem so convincing. As literacy and critical thinking skills increase in the population, fewer and fewer people will proclaim a belief in ancient fairytales.

  • FireInSpace

    One can hope so.

  • Al Cruise

    I disagree with most of this. People are leaving because of the current gatekeepers, big a small, and in most of the denominations . Unfortunately it’s those same gatekeepers trying to address the problem. Look what just happened in Seattle. Spiritually, most of those who are leaving, have moved far beyond the gatekeepers.

  • Al Cruise

    Pope Francis may be an exception to this. For the record I am not Catholic. However I could see him drawing disenfranchised evangelicals to the Catholic Church. In some areas that is already happening, especially with the youth.

  • I was a regular church attender and a fundamentalist for over 30 years. Many of the things referenced in this post were factors for me including: church being too shallow; antagonistic to science; judgmental and rigid about sexuality. But after spending a significant amount of time in service as a teacher, church committee member and leader, choir singer, worship leader and vacation-time preacher, something else began to eat at me.

    The Gospel’s inability to *really* change someone. I did see temporary improvement in people who either became “saved” or who re-committed themselves, but in the end it was just as effective as any other self-help process. People never really change who they are. It was also revealing to see a study of thousands ( ) of people about human sexuality (masturbation, heavy petting, oral sex, intercourse) which found that there is no difference between the secular population vs. Christians or other religious people. In other words, even though religion forbids lust, fornication, adultery, etc., all humans engage in those activities to the same degree. In fact, protestants are even more likely to view porn.

    Even so, I didn’t stop attending church until years after I took an intellectual journey that started when my oldest son declared he was an atheist in 2007. With my son’s declaration, I was now asking myself more hard questions, which included: why should Christianity be immune to review and scrutiny after I did so with many “cults” in the past? If something is true, it is true, and it should stand up to critical review and scrutiny.

    For me, in the end, Christianity did not and thus I no longer attend church. In fact, 3 of my 5 kids (now young adults) came to the same conclusion on their own.

  • Acintyabedhabedhadasa

    Never mind churches–think of the poor Freemasons, whose lodges are in danger of closing their doors due to a general lack of interest among young men. The question we need to be asking is, “Why aren’t you a Mason?”

    Is it because you think they worship the devil, free criminals, and/or conspire with world Zionism?

    Are the dinners not delicious enough?

    Do you find the rituals boring, or object to their violent language?

    Is it because of the Old Charges and Landmarks, or their attitude towards Prince Hall Masonry?


  • ElrondPA

    The Protestant perspective is that the leader of a church is not a priest–God’s representative–but a pastor–one who cares for the flock, but is a fellow pilgrim. Each of us is a priest (1 Peter 2:9, Rev. 1:6) not needing someone else to mediate between us and God (aside from the Mediator Christ Jesus, 1 Timothy 2:5).

    There are liberal churches that have women pastors. As a whole, men vote with their feet, and such churches tend to have congregations that are heavily female. Perhaps it’s in part the “only Nixon could go to China” idea. Christianity teaches the importance of attitudes that are sometimes stereotyped as “feminine”–love, compassion, patience, gentleness, mercy. If taught by a woman, a man is tempted to tune it out. If taught by a man, the message may be easier for a typical man to hear and respond to.

  • I would suggest that it represents a way that the academic community and the wider American community are moving in opposite directions, and how the academic community is in fact instilling false values in their students.

  • Martin Hutton

    “Not that I don’t believe in God or Jesus or the Body…”


  • Coffee Summerall

    Barna Group is doing an excellent job highlighting this trend. Another excellent book is _Church Refugees_, published by Group, a qualitative survey of devout Christians who’ve walked away from church in order to preserve their faith, not leave it.

    You asked: “What’s the largest driving force behind becoming unchurched?”
    #1: The pastor’s belief that God agrees with every bit of his personal theology.
    #2: The pastor’s sin-sniffing is greater than his compassion and kindness.

    Value a church brings? Once you’ve learned the basics of morality and the Gospel, then it’s friendship, care, and hospitality.

    Why should non-Christians care? (What do you mean by that question?) Most of my non-Christian friends feel it would be hypocritical to attend a church. They know what Christians believe and they aren’t interested.