De-churched

The De-Churched: Why They Left

They left church behind. Now they outnumber those who’ve stayed.

Why have they turned their backs on a community of believers? What is it about today’s church that keeps them away?

Over the last year, while working on a major documentary film that examines America’s state of faith and the condition of the church, I’ve talked with hundreds of people. Many of these are de-churched. They’re done with the organized church. In some cases, they’re wounded. In other cases, they’re simply disinterested.

Last week I interviewed Tony, a father of four young children, who left his church a year ago. He no longer attends any church. Or small group. Or Bible study. He hasn’t abandoned his faith in Jesus. He’s just done with what Jesus’ church has become.

In some ways, he knows too much.  He spent 10 years in professional ministry, some of it in a couple of America’s well-known large churches. “I’m over the concerts and speeches and the contrived effort to call a gathering of 3,000 people a family,” he said.

“What I value now is proximity,” he wrote in his blog. “The only leaders I care to hear are those willing to know me and be known. Not in some official capacity over Starbucks with their church credit card in hand. But with a friend, a person living honestly in their own right with no agenda or ‘line’ to keep–but possessing the strength of character to have their own voice, doubts and convictions.”

Tony worries about the hidden curriculum of pastoral leaders who intentionally keep a professional distance from their church members, who avoid forming real relationships. Tony fears the unintended take-away: maybe that’s how God operates too. Unwilling to know and be known.

Tony is like a lot of de-churched people. He simply doesn’t find value in participating in church as we know it. “I’m detoxing and looking for what remains that is real, that is love, and that is true.”

My interview with Tony was sobering. And disturbing. But also encouraging. Because what Tony yearns for . . . is something the church of Jesus can be. If we choose to. He’s not looking for perfection or polish or pious professionalism. He’s looking for real people who are willing to admit they don’t have it all together, but realize we’re all in this together. Humbly, fumbly, looking to follow the One who is perfect.

We need Tony–and the millions like him.

39 Responses to “The De-Churched: Why They Left”

  1. My heart goes out to Tony and all the Tony’s of the world. But, could someone please dig a little deeper into the reason that SOME leaders take a defensive posture when dealing with the sheep? You may find some deep wounds on that side of the alter as well!

    • There is the problem that “the pastor” is put up on a pedestal and is seen as the solver of all problems.

      If you get rid of “the pastor” concept and embrace the priesthood of all believers you are more likely to find someone who has been there, done that and no one person is the fount of all wisdom, which is unscriptual anyway.

  2. Tony needs to give up the big or mega churches and head to a smaller church. You know, the average church in America with about 100 people. Certainly smaller churches have their own problems too, but generally not the ones Tony is concerned with.

    • My family has tried Mega churches and small churches. Small churches are no better.. hard to get accepted into those cliques.

    • @ Bill A.
      No, the smaller churches are not good, either. Try being a never-married woman who is age 40+ who desires marriage. Walk into most 100-300 member churches they are only filled with 75 year old, white haired old couples.

      Most churches, large or small, ignore never married, divorced, childless, and widowers, even though the USA is now comprised of 44% adult singles. They blather on and on about marriage and parenting in every other sermon.

      Also I went to a smaller church (250 members) and was hurt terribly by the attitudes and comments of a few people there.

  3. Amen! I was raised in church and like Tony spent time in senior leadership within a church and his use of the term “detox” is exactly what I am doing presently. I have found another church that I like, but I am not active beyond the Wednesday class that the pastor leads and occasional functions.
    When one has not walked in another person’s shoes, the last thing that person needs to hear is all the usual pat advice which does more to make the opinion giver feel like they’ve done their job versus really listening and just walking beside the person as they’re on their journey. All of us are not bitter haters, but are real people with souls that have been badly wounded at the hands of some very mean, zealous people. Particularly when it comes to leadership, people are all too willing to sit back and have the leader do it all and then want to question why you did what you did. I have been ambushed in church on Sunday morning by people driven by their own agendas. I have been patient beyond a fault with people who had no consideration for me as a person or for my time. I have endured disrespect from people who felt I deserved no respect simply for being a woman, African-American, educated, or whatever else their hangup was with me. I have had people (fellow leaders) undermine my work because things weren’t being done their way. Is this in every church? No, but having spent my entire life in church, you will find elements of it just about every where you go. I’m convinced it’s part of the human condition. But knowing that doesn’t soften the pain. I know there is no perfect church and when I left the last church I was at, I did so after six months of soul-searching. What makes the difference in churches is in how much is tolerated and how the detractors are dealt with. Too often, we cater to those with the loudest mouths and biggest pocketbooks and the smallest spiritual bank accounts. It’s time we turned the tables and stopped giving in to these people. Take your churches back! Don’t keep letting them shoot the wounded and alienate those looking for a church. Time and space does not allow for me to go into all the various scenarios I have seen play out that really must hurt the heart of God. Have I given up on church? No, but I am taking a break and detoxing. What the future holds for me is unseen. Will I go back into leadership within an institutional church? Only God knows. Right now I’m enjoying the pastor’s class where I currently attend because he too has been on a journey (and he’s paid a price for it, but I believe he has people on his side that keep advocating for him) and his class isn’t about making sure everyone dots their I’s and crosses their t’s theologically, but about exploring and questioning. So, yes, as Todd has said, we do need to listen to these stories and don’t be in a hurry to give a pat answer. Learn to listen non-defensively and objectively and set about changing things where you are. Don’t worry about me or Tony. We know Jesus and will be alright. We need all of you though, to do some soul-searching with us and see what in your environment can be changed or improved. It might be nothing more than an attitude adjustment. Or it might mean reevaulating programs and leadership structures and church polity. I can’t speak for Tony, but if everyone would just do that—reexamine their own house—that would be a move in the right direction. You see, saying the dechurched are bitter or whatever other descriptor might be used to dismiss us, is too easy. The harder thing is to stop, listen and consider. Don’t defend unless there is something legitimately worth defending and for that which cannot be defended, commit to doing your part to change it.

  4. Unfortunately for Tony (and the many millions like him), there is an accepted formula for church meetings, which is basically “sitting + singing + sermon” – an expert delivering a monologue to a passive audience. Big churches and small churches all follow the same formula, even if some look more “contemporary” or “relevant”. It’s not the model of the original church meetings, and it’s not a model which cuts it anymore.

    Thom, I love your blog! I’m blogging about similar topics over at churchinacircle.com. I’m very interested in the work you guys have been doing, and the creativity you are bringing to today’s church. Thank you!

    - Kathleen

  5. I am theologcal educator in UK working in field of youth work and also recently ordained into Church of England (episcopal) church. David Kinnaman of Barna Groups You Lost Me tells some very similar stories from young people. We wrote in the Faith of Generation Y that church needs to go back to being authentic church doing what she was called to do – sometimes feel we have lost our way.

  6. As I read this topic, I too am distraught. I often wonder if, at times, everyone of us has been guilty of picking up and holding on to an offense, and that has defeated us in who we are as the Christian church.
    As I read through the New Testament, Jesus seemed more concerned with teaching in the synagogue, showing God’s power among the people and loving those He came into contact with – all the while honestly addressing the sin nature so evident in all of us.
    As we become more cavalier in our country about NOT going to church, I cannot help but think of those I know in desperate countries whose faith is illegal and how much joy they may receive in the simple freedom given to us in our constitution to not be monitored or restricted in our Christianity.

  7. Tony needs to look inward if he wants relationships in the church he should seek other members that is work to get to know the regular church member not expect the Pastor to go out of their way for him.

    • You sound like a legalist. A shepard goes after those who are out there lost. It is a calling and many are called few are chosen, because most of them are taught a system and the system is all wrong. When God calls a man/women he also gives them a Shepard’s Heart. Ezek. 34 , good to read. It is not a Profession it is a calling. You donot become a Pastor/Shepard like you do an Attorney. That’s the world’s way. And we are not to mimic the world.Romans 12:1

      • No not a legalist but a realist if you want a relationship you need to do your part you don’t need a system you need Heart

      • If you think that the Pastor’s duty is to take care of every problem and every wish, you are wrong, I originaly a member of my current Church I was active within the church and spent time with certain members.I became critical of other ventures and ministry teams,if not done up to our expectations it was not done right.I left the church and wandered around with other churches and finaly went back to this church except with a new attitude. I came back with love and understanding that I was not perfect I was an inperfect sinner and looked at my fellow members and relalized that they welcomed me originaly and now with love . I am now active and more aware of the different ministries of the church and the people involved.I realize that it is my responsibility to be other church member’s Angel. We are all called to spread the word. Your attitude is one reason that Organized Churches fail so many people we are asked to take care of each other, many current Christians want somebody else to do the work.

  8. Yes, we need Tony back in the flock but more than we Jesus. It is not about us in anyway, it is about Jesus and him alone. Tony needs to be humble and somehow walking away from one Church and simply staying away strikes me as a bit arrogant. If he had a deep longing and yearning to walk closer to the Lord, why instead didn’t he go on the mission field? Correspond and share with other leaders to help him through? Tony is either hidding something or has been completly blinded to why the Church is crucial and staying away is dangerous.

    • Tony talked about these things in the interview. In his new life in the business world, he sees himself in the mission field–with many more opportunities to talk authentically about Jesus with the people he meets.

  9. Thom, thank you for stepping in for Tony but it baffles meto think that he was not talking authentically before about Jesus. What ever held him back for all those years? I believe himself and again, Tony must have been focusing on the wrong things. Oh, butt now in “his new life” working in the secular world he is suddenly able and he sees himself in a mission field with many more opportunities….and temptations. No accountability. No mentorship. Just him and his blogging. He is simply a bad example of how a Christian, especially a leader, has to deal with the realities within a community of faith and with fears. I wonder how his wife is dealing with the changes.

    • The tone of your posting suggests you haven’t had the deep experience Tony has had. You claim to be baffled then go right to judging: ( Tony must have been focusing on the wrong things…. No accountability no mentorship ) Where is your love for those that don’t fit the in mold you you are in? Do you not think the paths of people serve the purpose of God? These questions came to me as I read your postings so I shared them in your quest for answers about Tony

    • BL,
      One of the biggest problems with the “church” is that it assumes that the” church” is the only way, that the” church” (Little c)is the Church (big C of the bible). That one must be committed to an institutional assembly in order to be committed to Christ. Just isn’t true. No one comes to the father but by way of the son. . . Not by way of the church.
      . . .
      You see????
      A person of Christ, in Christ has accountability whether in or out of a crowd assembly ,church,. among friends, foes or strangers.. Accountability to Christ. . .
      The same goes for mentor-ship … There is no other who can justifiably require accountability or better mentor anyone Than Christ.

      We should realize that not only can a person attend church and not be a Christian but one can be a Christian and not attend church. …

      Who are any of us to judge the actions of another. especially given our limited perspective.

      Not all that is done for the Lord is done inside the organized church. If truth be Known I suspect that much more is accomplished outside the hollowed walls of the local sanctuaries than inside.

      The word “Christian” is a verb that way too often is used as a noun..

  10. 2commoncents, we each have our own particular experiences. No one experiences the exact same thing, so no I haven’t had the experience Tony has had nor do I, or either one of us, know the full extent of his experience. Yes, I am baffled, or surprise, if that word suites you best, and no, I am not the one judging. It is a simple fact that one of the main things we benefit from being part of a Christian community is accountability as well as the opportunity encouragement or advise. I say this because Thom’s post states that Tony does not attend any church, bible study or small group. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t say we don’t come to crossroads and we need to step back. I’ve done so myself. But with fear, with deep searching, I would never use the word detoxing but rather, renewing, refreshing, removing all that I carried and leaving it at the foot of the cross. Truly I wish Tony would reflect return to his calling with a strengthened love for Jesus and the lost.

  11. as a retired united methodist pastor I know where Tony is coming from. My wife and I still have a lot of issues to deal with after suffering 20 years of abuse from “well meaning” christians who are quick to offer cheap advise and criticism.

    • As a recovering united Methodist pastor, I was willing to follow Tony’s advice and be real, known and vulnerable. But I ran into the religious spirit and was fired by my bishop for it. Pastors are people too and they won’t be real and vulnerable as long as they know that it will cost them their calling/career. As John Eldredge says, the religious spirit has a strangle hold on churchianity today.

      • Yes, I think we have Boobert. We have been doing the wrong things for so long they are deemed to be right. As Frank Viola said in his book that the evangelical pastor is nothing more than a reformed catholic priest. Having been involved in both sides of the comment, I can see that is the case. He also says that the biggest barrier to the priesthood of all believers is the paid pastor as he keeps the believers dependant on him and out of ministry.

        I was having a discussion with the so called pastor of a new church in town about what the leadership’s role is. I said that in Ephesians 4 the purpose of the five ministries is to equip the saints for ministry…not to find a platform for theirs.

        Unfortunately, most churches are in business to give one, or occasionally two a platform for their ministry. That is what I call a dead end street.

  12. We as Americans have the oppurtunity to worship as we please. Thus we can choose to go to church to [Just re-enforce our knowledge of christain living} because we all know the way God wants us to live, and to just make the week end or begin for the Good Samaritain in all of us to help our wonderful existance here on earth….Thank You Jesus for or failing forgivness!!!!!!

  13. Thom,
    I love what you share here, and the concepts of LifeTree Cafe, which I always forward to my hubby, who is a pastor.

    Tony’s story is one I have seen often, and it is tragic and disheartening. I feel real and genuine sadness for him, and his four children.

    That said, I also can understand the desire, even the need to ‘detox’ from church and from Christians … but, I do not have that privilege, because it is the salary from the church which pays our mortgage. It is the church, and Christians who have the ability to hire, and to fire, my husband, for legitimate, or not-so-legitimate reasons … perhaps that makes it difficult to be “a friend, a person living honestly in their own right with no agenda or ‘line’ to keep–but possessing the strength of character to have their own voice, doubts and convictions.”

    I work in Special Needs, but being paid to do so does not detract from my sincere love and care of those who I attend to and help to make their daily lives better.

    Just another voice in the wilderness,
    Carole

    • Carole, I can’t help but be disturbed by your post. The “I’m a paid clergy, therefore I can’t take a chance on speaking truth/being real” mentality is disturbing to say the least. To me, and I can only speak for myself, the fact that MOST today in Pastorates are there for the $$$$$ (a living wage, not necessarily big money)…….and THAT is what stops them from speaking truth or being real for fear of losing their “job”, I do not understand as a Christian. Is being a pastor (a shepherd of God’s people) a calling or a vocation? Big difference. If it comes down to one having to “zip their lips” for fear of MAN, then such a person has to ask themself WHO they are truly serving——-God, man, themselves?

      My family was “out of church” from 2005-2013. We were VERY involved in various ministries. Why did we leave organized “church”? We found that most pastors today do not care what Jesus REALLY says. They want to do church as THEY see fit. The “machine” is moving in a certain direction and NO ONE will stop that movement, even God Himself. The issue that caught us was divorce/remarriage. We started SEEING/studying what The Lord said on this issue and then started seeing HOW the Church IGNORES the Words of our Lord (each pastor doing what is right in his own sight—-hence all the DIFFERENT teachings and practices on the issue). We started asking questions. Very dangerous thing to do if you don’t want to rock the boat and just want to do “church” as usual. We were told by our “pastor”, “maybe you better find a church that believes like you do.”……..so we tried to find a church that taught what Jesus says regarding remarriage being adultery. My husband called many, many churches, talked to many, many pastors………then he gave up. The shocking thing that was often heard is: “I know Jesus taught this, but God is a forgiving God.” Or: “surely you don’t expect……….?”

      Yes, surely we came to the conclusion that on REALLY hard topics—-topics that REALLY affect many people and will HURT if you touch that issue……..pastors remain silent……or at the very most, touch LIGHTLY on those things. Sad……because Jesus and Paul both teach in the Word of God that those who practice such things will NOT inherit the kingdom of God——yet today we have a “church” FILLED with those who are practicing the things Jesus taught will prohibit them from inheriting the kingdom of God (Mt. 7:21-23). Instead, they are being led astray by “pastors” who are more concerned about a paycheck then preparing people for their eternal destination.

      Thankfully, at the end of last year, I was connected to a wonderful, small fellowship lead by Godly men. It is not a typical American “church”. It is comprised mostly of Indian (Asian) believers. It is far DIFFERENT than what I have been exposed to in American Christianity. Humility abounds. The “pastor” does not want to be called pastor (or by any title as he says he is merely a servant, as we all are called to be). He actually interacts and KNOWS the people……and prays for them by name. The born again experience is ESSENTIAL. Prayer is BIG. Reverence is BIG. Love towards each other is BIG. Fellowship is BIG. Repentance is BIG. No ministry for this, ministry for that. Prayer, teaching, fellowship, outreach to the lost. Simplicity…….as it should be.

      This SIMPLICITY and Genuineness and hunger for God’s Truths is why many are leaving the organized churches today.

  14. When I read comments like many of these, I get the impression that there was an eleventh commandment “thou shalt not leave organised religion.”

    For those who think Tony has done the wrong thing and that Tony is the problem not the church, for your information, millions are leaving organised religion for an expression of the true church. I believe the word is ‘authentic.’

    When you defend organised religion you are defending something that is not of God. Jesus said he would build HIS church, not ours or THE church.

    Just because a building has a name outside that says so and so church does not make it a church and I have a feeling that those leaving are not leaving the church, they are leaving an apostate religion to find the true church.

    That sort of concept is difficult for people that are rusted onto apostate religion, but unless God builds the house it is all in vain.

    Who wants to flog a dead horse.

  15. This is thought-provoking. In regards to Tony, and those like him:

    How can churches grow beyond __ (40, 100, 1,000) and remain connectional communities? This is a question every growing church is wrestling with.

    At what point is the believer “mature” enough to keep themselves plugged in? How can the church be responsible for ensuring the “Tony’s” of the world develop relationships with people that would miss them when they’re not there?

    I certainly don’t have nice, neat answers for these. Those are just two questions that come to mind.

    • Good questions Joe. I was in a church in the UK for 10 years where I and nearly everyone else would not miss a meeting because it was so vibrant. No paid pastor, no pulpit, no platform, no programme, and no preaching.

      When we came together, the Holy Spirit did what he did and we went along with it. As a result people were saved, baptised in water and the Spirit. The gifts were always operational, and praise was EXCEPTIONAL. I remember singing one chorus for an hour there was such an anointing on it.

      The meetings themselves could go for up to six hours.

      Wild horses would not keep us away and during the week we attended meetings or were in and out of each others homes all the time.

      • Amen marksman, Ive never had the pleasure to attend such meetings, but as I study more and more, I see the “Church” should operate this way, My Lord, look what so many are missing, and the cost is high, I long for this in my heart for myself and all.

  16. God never intended the church to be an institution. God never intended there to be a clergy/laity divide. God’s church is a family of brothers and sisters in love with Jesus and one another going out to be Jesus’ love to the world.

  17. I’ve been hurt too by the church but I never left it. If you can’t love the bride, how can you say you love Jesus? To all who have been hurt, there’s only one way out of it – forgiveness. Get over yourselves or in bible speak – die to yourself.

  18. Ed, that is judgemental and what this article is alluding to and it basically gives approval for the church to keep repeating their dismal responses. Apart from the fact that most people leaving have not been hurt by the church. They are leaving because in their thinking there has to be more than this to the Kingdom of God. In other words, the church is not allowing them to be full on for God.

  19. Although Tony had different circumstances, his reason for leaving church is similar to mine. When it comes right down to it, going to church is just not value-added. There is no value in it. I don’t need a human institution to have a relationship with God and he is right about pastors not being all that honest. The fact that the institutions life blood is money and the church is the pastors livelihood, it has and does corrupt the theology. This is where the dishonesty comes and the push to keep people coming and giving and push to be members. They want Christians dependent on the church and not just Christ alone. They don’t want people to know you can be a Christian apart from the church. I am proof you can. That property, building and pastors wages are expensive. I get what they preach from the ‘Horses’ mouth (my bible) and without the opinion and the sometime corrupted interpretations. I’ve been out and away from church 3 years now and still talk to God daily and read my bible often (always up and down with that). As of now I have no desire to go back.

    • Ryan, commendations for what you have just said and the courage to say it. Whilst there will always be an apostate church, all over the web people are seeing the light and appraising institutionalised religion for what it is, so aptly described by you.

      I was asked by my ex pastors wife the other day what I was doing for church. I said nothing as I am autistic and autistic people are not into boring. My church was an active relationship with my father (God) and anyone else I might meet anywhere.

      Sad to say, there are thousands of false pastors out there and they don’t realise it. The denomination helps them to avoid the obvious as they are good servants to it so they are “anointed” and approved…by the denomination. That means you don’t need God’s approval and anointing.

      Just a little anecdote for you. In another forum someone said you can’t expect a pastor to teach and preach and not pay him for the privilege.

      I asked where it said in scripture you paid a pastor to teach and preach. The response was “I think…” No scripture. In other words, there are none.

  20. Maybe it’s because we have been lied to for generations.

  21. I should learn to keep my mouth shut but the other week I was resting in God’s presence and got a revelation from him as a result. He reminded me that he said in his word that he would build his church. Not, he might build his church or perhaps he would build his church if the situation allows it.

    He said I WILL build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

    I can just see it now in graph form. The church that is not the church has a line that has been constant through the years and runs along the top of the graph. Suddenly, it starts to fall.

    Down at the bottom of the graph is the church that God is going to build and slowly but determinedly the graph is starting to rise and at some point it crosses the apostate church’s graph line.

    The apostate church graph line ends up at the bottom and the true church (His church) ends up at the top.

    So how do I pray for the church now? With excitement and anticipation “Build your church Lord” and let me know it when I see it and be part of it.

    This means I can repel all boarders who tell me I should go to church.

  22. Something big is going to happen soon with the church. I’m not sure what it will be, but I’m sure it’s coming! My family just became dechurched as well. Not because we don’t love Jesus, we do! But more and more we’re feeling like the church isn’t the best place to find Him. We’re new to this and still figuring things out. I would love to hear your take.

    http://ayearwithoutchurch.wordpress.com/

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