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.

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church near Dallas, explains the de-churched phenomenon in this short video:

Essentially, Chandler attributes the exodus of young people to the proclamation (explicitly or implicitly) of a false gospel of "moralistic deism." This understanding of the Christian life says that if you obey God's rules he will bless you with what you desire. This represents a form of the prosperity gospel which saturates the Texas soil where Chandler pastors, but it's also popular beyond the Deep South. (How many teens have been told that abstinence will be rewarded by God with great sex within marriage?)

The problem arises when God's blessing doesn't come—or doesn't come in the form we want. Divorce, illness, poor grades, failed relationship—virtually any hardship has the potential to destroy one's faith in Christ and the church that represents him. So, according to Chandler, people walk away. They enter the ranks of the de-churched.

I think Chandler is right—but only half.

There is another group within the de-churched population that has not held to a false gospel of morality, and they haven't walked away from faith in Christ. These Christians have simply lost confidence in the institutional structures and programmatic trappings of the church. For them the institutional church is not an aid in their faith and mission. Rather it's become a drain on time, resources, and energy. It feels like a black hole with a gravitation pull so strong that not even the light of the gospel can escape its organizational appetite.

March 16, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 41 comments


May 09, 2013  5:48am

Dear SKC, I agree. Women in the work force – especially those who are high ranking – are tired of being treated with disrespect in their conservative churches. I just had a discussion about this with another conservative Christian woman. Her dilemma: Drop out of the church entirely? Or go to a liberal church? She chose the latter option, saying "I can deal with liberalism, but I can't deal with rudeness." I can't say I blame her. Barna Group reports that women are dropping out of the church (at this time) at a higher rate than men.

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December 21, 2012  5:10pm

Church= the man made box where Christian women are institutionally mocked and socially/ legally persecuted by social conservative 'Orthodox' heretics worshiping themselves. The bride of Christ prefers the company of Jesus, where my faith ever belonged, TYVM. Standing outside the Church for 18yrs and counting. My Pope can intellectualize ripping the cross off my neck, but none may touch my faith. I confess I stole a saints heart in Ireland.

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October 08, 2012  4:01pm

I am pastoring a small plant in a marginalised area. Every single person who has joined us is deeply passionate about the gospel and living it out and seeing lives changed by God. And their stories - my goodness. Lives that used to be a porn actor, a person jailed as a child for being twisted up in the murder of their mum, abused women told by churches to stay with their husbands, drug addicts, prostitutes, drug dealers....the list goes on. All now Godly people coming together in our little church because all the other churches they had gone to and opened up to deemed them not holy enough to be part of the church. This was commonly at a time well beyond them being in these lives or searching. They were shunned because their testimony was way too offensive to the institutional norm. Now, us bunch of misfits pool our non existent resources and really open up and invite others to join us as we struggle with all the same stuff everyone else does - just no longer alone or in silence. And as a church body, as a complete family of misfits, we are shunned by the other middle class institutionals that we seek to partner with to have our poor marginalised area impacted by the gospel and love of God. We are not clean enough or holy enough or neat enough. Incredible how Christians generally appear to have become more holier, more righteous than the homeless rabbi who got murdered that we claim is Lord. I believe he would be asked to leave most of our churches...and THAT is scary. Great article - thanks.

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Anthony E. Robinson

May 28, 2012  6:47am

I became a child of God,(christian),at 13yrs.old of age. In my early twenties I was very involved in a young and growing church. I am 55yrs.old now and I very rarely attend church services anymore. I have read the Bible from beginning to end, and I have no doubt that I am a child of God, and I know I am going to heaven after death. I believe the biggest problem with most churches is that they start out with good sincere and honest intentions, but because of traditional beliefs and poor teaching the people suffer tremendously. I believe that because most Pastors and sunday school teachers don't really know and understand what the true gospel is they can't give what they don't have. The true gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness was preached and taught by the Apostle Paul, because he had the most complete revelation from God concerning salvation and the will of God. As it is written in St.John Ch.1,v.17, for the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. I believe that far to many Pastors and religious leaders are still preaching and teaching the law instead of grace. What I am saying is the real true gospel is found not in preaching and teaching as if we were under the old covenant law of Moses, but the real true gospel that sets people free is found in the new covenant and the preaching of grace. Until the church wakes up to the reality of what Christ has done by establishing a new covenant by his grace people will continue to suffer and leave the fake phoney trappings of institutional religious practices.

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November 21, 2011  5:48am

You know a migrating bird just wakes up one day and flies south. Is it the wind, the temperature, or a sudden impluse? Who knows? We do know this, we love Jesus and it's time to fly! How appropriate is the title "Out of Ur". Faith is a pilgrimage at this time - and like Abraham - we're called to leave.

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November 14, 2011  3:26pm

I find this post very intriguing as I hadn't thought about those who leave that church as being "de-churched." The idea in itself is interesting and I like what Matt Chandler said. As a college student I know many people who have grown up in the church all their lives only to stop when they are out of high school. It is growing problem as more and more young people leave the church. They have decided that they don't need that "institutional" church, and much of that could be because of the church itself. Matt Chandler talked about the rules and regulations, and though they are necessary, they aren't usually explained well. Human pride plays a major part in this idea of being de-churched. We always believe it is about us and what we can get from the church. Unfortunately, we lose track of the fact that the church is the body of Christ and we should be unified. I don't know exactly what to do to reverse the tides, but we must try to reach out to those that have gone astray.

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December 15, 2010  6:51pm

The first group of people I don't consider them "de-churched" as the true Church is a body of believers. I'm a former Pastor of a non-denominational church and the more it grew - the more it fell away from it's true purpose. Even when I attempted to bring that particular body back to true New Testament Chruch - the more tcertain leaders and members instilled what they were used to. I don't consider myself de-churched because I'm related by the Blood of Jesus. Relationships can never change -it's fellowship that changes. I'm presently envolved in a bible beliving group - we come together and study, pray for each other, keep each other accountable and make our faith public in word and deed. I've never been more motivated and free at the same time. People like myself don't leave the body we just leave "business stores".

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Glenda Farmer

May 26, 2010  1:53am

De-churched/ unchurched - don't we love boxes and categories. Thought we would start our own church on Tuesdays for people who don't or won't go to church. Interesting reaction from church goers. Oh well - not the sort of thing that 'normal' people do apparently.

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Barb Orlowski

May 07, 2010  2:57pm

So my doctoral research took me in an interesting direction which resonates with so many people. People wounded in the church by church leaders. Would they return to a church?–is the drama of the story. And if they recovered–How did they recover?? See what you think. My book is called: Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finading a Place of Wholeness. Book Information can be found on my website: www.churchexiters.com. You can email me at: info@churchexiters.com Barb Orlowski

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Timothy Wright

April 16, 2010  4:22pm

Leaving Church and leaving Jesus are two distinct issues. If people leave Jesus when they stand before Jesus, blaming the church won't cut it. I understand becoming frustrated and heart by people in churches, but Jesus never hurt them. Its real simple, the thief, comes to steal,kill and destroy, not Jesus. Tim

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