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.