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.
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