More than 1 in 10 Americans—around 40 million of us—stopped attending church in the last 25 years.
New research using cell phone location data suggests weekly church attendance (defined as 36 weeks of the 47 studied) is at just 3 percent. And even where church attendance has rebounded since pandemic shutdowns, congregational involvement still lags.
A shift of this scale is impossible to ignore, but it’s certainly possible to misunderstand.
What if there’s an explanation we’ve overlooked, asked author and Mere Orthodoxy editor Jake Meador at The Atlantic last week—a reason apart from the usual headline-making factors like church corruption, abuse, and theological differences?
Drawing on The Great Dechurching, a forthcoming book from pastors Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan P. Burge, Meador argues that “the defining problem driving out most people who leave is … just how American life works in the 21st century.”
Everyone is busy. Job hours are long and unpredictable. Finances are precarious. The kids have soccer. The baby’s not sleeping through the night. The grandparents need more help around the house. A friend is visiting. I’m tired.
“Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life,” Meador summarizes, so we’re “lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.” Forever in the red on time and energy, we don’t spare any of our resources for church.
If that’s true, a church’s first impulse might be to make membership easier, to demand less of overbusy congregants so they’ll still show up. But maybe “the problem isn’t that churches are asking too much of their members,” Meador proposes, “but that they aren’t asking nearly enough.”
It’s a provocative idea, and on Instagram and the network formerly known as Twitter, Atlantic readers were duly provoked. Though the article acknowledged the role of “religious abuse and more general moral corruption” in dechurching, social media comments highlighted these factors again and again, often in connection to evangelicals’ politics, insisting Meador was missing this more fundamental point.
“Child abuse? Cover-ups? Multi-billion-dollar organizations that pay no taxes? Lies, racism and hypocrisy?” said one Instagram reply with hundreds of likes. “Nah … you’re right … we’re just ‘too busy.’”
If Meador and his less-generous readers (and, likely, nonreaders) are talking past each other, perhaps it’s because Meador assumes a conviction that not everyone shares: that for all its difficulties—practical, relational, and ethical—church is necessary and good.
I share this conviction too. But if I set it aside, I can see why Meador’s argument would fail to persuade not only those who hate the church for its sins but also those who feel little to nothing about church at all.
Meador’s vision of “asking more,” it’s important to note, is overwhelmingly relational. It’s less about doing more than about being more to each other—rejecting the standard American life, atomized and in thrall to workism from kindergarten on. He argues that the church could become a thicker “community marked by sincere love,” a stronger “safety net in the harsh American economy,” and a consistent reminder that humans are more than the many entries in our calendars.
Yet even this proposal of an increased demand from our local church “may seem like a tough sell in an era of dechurching,” Meador admits. “If people are already leaving—especially if they are leaving because they feel too busy and burned out to attend church regularly—why would they want to be part of a church that asks so much of them?”
His answer is that Christians need, as always, to be transformed (Rom. 12:1–2). In our context, he argues, we should become the sort of people who reject a too-busy life in which church is just another item on our to-do list—one frequently left unchecked: “We could be a witness to another way of life outside conventionally American measures of success. Churches could model better, truer sorts of communities, ones in which the hungry are fed, the weak are lifted up, and the proud are cast down.”
We certainly could, and I agree with him in principle. But this logic works in practice only if we’re already committed to the notion that attending church is necessary and good, that it’s worth sticking around—including when we don’t particularly feel like staying.
Without that foundational assumption, we probably won’t be willing to say yes even if our church were to start asking more of us. Why take the kids out of soccer to make time for small group unless small group matters so much more? We won’t be disposed to do more with church and, crucially, to do less outside church unless we’re already deeply committed to the unique importance of church.
And I don’t think most professing American Christians are. Four days after the Atlantic article, The Wall Street Journal published an examination of middle-aged Americans’ disproportionate decline in church attendance over the last three years. Its data supports Meador’s argument, but its interviews evince this assumption gap I’ve described.
“When you got faith, you got faith,” one interviewee, Marlon Eddins, told the Journal. “I just don’t think going every Sunday makes you who you are.”
But that’s just it: For Christians, going every Sunday significantly does make you who you are. Extenuating circumstances aside, routine participation in communal Christian life is the primary location of our worship and discipleship. It shapes our personalities, our social lives, our attention, and our desires.
And if you don’t think about church this way—if it’s merely an optional gathering that can be regularly skipped in favor of nice weather or a ball game on TV, as polling shows it is for many Americans—then when your church asks for more, your answer will likely be a tired “nah,” if you bother to reply at all.
There’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem here: If church doesn’t ask enough of you to inspire real commitment, you won’t think it’s that important. But if you don’t think church is that important, it can’t realistically ask enough of you to make you really commit.
Perhaps, following Meador, the church should simply ask more of us anyway and leave the rest up to God who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). And maybe, whatever happens, there are two reasons to hope.
First, if you’re disappointed over the church’s failures, it means you have some investment in the church. The fact that those commenters on Meador’s post are angry means at least they aren’t indifferent. And second, even when we are indifferent, apathetic, or overscheduled—even when we’re very mediocre followers of Jesus, seeds choked with worries in thorny American ground (Matt. 13:22)—God can still make us grow.
Bonnie Kristian is editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.