The decline in Americans describing themselves as evangelicals is larger than most evangelicals imagine. Do evangelical churches have a plan to address this?
Several polling firms have detected a decline in the share of Americans who describe themselves as white evangelicals. The Pew Research Center found a two-percentage-point drop from 2007 to 2012. But when the center expanded the study to cover 2006 to 2016, it found a six-percentage-point drop in the share of the population that identify as white evangelicals, from 23 percent in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016.
An ABC/Washington Post poll found a still larger decline of eight percentage points. More troubling is Pew’s data indicates just eight percent of young Americans aged 18-29 say they are white evangelicals (26 percent of those aged 65 or older are white evangelical Protestants). The younger the population, the more steep the decline.
This population is becoming a tribe. They’re called “ex-vangelicals” or “exvies.” They’ve left the faith because they feel evangelicalism is formulaic, privatized, politicized, and/or guilty of moral failures they see in the wider world. They’ve uncoupled.
Uncoupled is the key word. In a paper published in 2017, Paul Djupe, Jacob Neiheisel and Anand Sokhey found that people stop attending church when they lose social attachments to their congregations. The social world they live in feels increasingly at odds with the so-called spiritual world they hear about in church. They “uncouple.”
Sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the word “uncoupling” thirty years ago. She studied divorce and discovered it’s rarely due to a momentous event such as an affair or loss of a child. More often than not, it’s a slow drift away from one another, an “uncoupling.”
Ten years ago, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life surveyed 35,000 Americans and discovered that those who are now unaffiliated with their faith said they had “just gradually drifted away.” They uncoupled. Now several polling firms are detecting this uncoupling is accelerating, happening faster than most evangelicals imagine.
Does the evangelical church have a plan to address this? I don’t know. I do know more of the same is not an effective plan. Planting more churches that mainly appeal to just eight percent of young Americans is hardly an effective plan. It’s insanity—doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.
I run Clapham Institute. We have a plan. It begins with recognizing our decline, working with young leaders like the sons of Issachar who “understood the times, so they knew what to do” (II Chr.12:32). Does this describe you?
If yes, we have a short course for you on March 23rd. We’ll overview two millennia of church history. We’ll discover how the church for 18 centuries changed the world in significant ways. We’ll also discover why we’re seeing two centuries of decline in cultural impact. But here’s the best part. We’ll discover a way forward.
You can register at: http://www.claphaminstitute.org. Main page, upper right, click DONATE. The fee is $20. Once registered, I’ll email the pre-course reading. By taking this course (9:00am-12 noon), you’ll discover why our exile is similar to the Babylonian exile. You’ll see how our plan is based on what the sons of Judah did in Babylon. Will our plan prove effective? Depends. We must draw young believers who recognize our current exile (or, as we like to say, “smell the Babylonian bacon”).
Our plan is bold. It reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech at the Somme. He lauds the man “who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Clapham has a plan for those who dare greatly. If you are one of those souls, join us on Saturday morning, March 23rd.
 These statistics are taken from “Flocks away” which appeared in the February 28, 2019 edition of the Economist.
 Diane Vaughan, Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (Vintage, 1990).
I will be interested in hearing what your ideas are for this problem. I see this movement as a result of young people who were brought up in the church, becoming independent and realizing that they do not die if they miss a church service. Services which do not challenge people’s faith and seek to solve problems people face are a waste of time and we who continue to go to church often accept poor sermons and services because we see our friends there and would miss the weekly coffee klatch.
I am grateful that you are tackling this reality with your morning together. For the last generation, the church has been trying to offer “new wine but in the same old wineskins”. No, it doesn’t work, and I believe that looking at this group as a tribe in itself and how to get the tribe back into the fold is a huge mistake from the get-go. In my thinking as I read the scriptures, the problem is that we as followers of Jesus still think in and operate in very old wineskins: our presuppositions and experience of “church” starts with two very faulty and unexamined assumptions–the first being that people still think “we go to church”, instead of “we ARE the Church”; and the other is “if we build it, (or, offer it, etc.), they will come”. Neither of these reflects a Biblical way of living in the world. Christ followers are his body, immersed in God’s world which he has charged us with stewarding. The secular/sacred dualism is still very much alive and well in the Church. What if we saw our mission as living in the world as Jesus people who want to reach out with the love of Jesus, right in our immediate neighborhood, our workplace, our recreational places, etc., etc. (to all ages)? In other words, think outside the program and building box, to just be yourself where God has placed you, in the world, sharing the message of Jesus as you go about your everyday life. We are all in a very real sense “missionaries”, and we are to be in the world as worldly Christians. But, again, another totally unexamined concept of church life is the concept of “missions”. It’s so ridiculous and again in a very old wineskin. Oh, and that subject leads us right into another unexamined area–money and wealth management. When the Body of Christ gathers, the purpose is to encourage discipleship to kingdom thinking as we follow our King Jesus, yet the current Church expression does so little of that. The business model and professionalization of church, often with so much patriarchy and hierarchy have led to the opposite of kingdom thinking and living, and the 80/20 rule where 80% are watching 20% do all the work is played out every week. We must rethink the wineskin totally. Do we really believe we ARE the Church and can we get outside our sacrosanct, totally unexamined presuppositions to offer the world a real relationship with the risen Christ? This is so much more than reaching Millenniels. Their leaving in droves is just them being more honest than my Baby-boomer generation was. Their reality is so much more integrated than my generation, and the Christian Cruise Ship mentality is not only boring but has led to a lot of cultural irrelevance and misrepresentations of the gospel, and it is the Millennials who have led the way on waking up the Church.
I’ve walked out of six evangelical churches that I had been attending, for a number of reasons: anti-intellectualism; insistence on Biblical inerrancy (despite the intense doublethink this requires); intolerance of any dissent; obsession with abortion, homosexuality, and evolution; magical thinking that physical and emotional problems could be instantly cured by prayer; and much more. I have had pastors cut off communication with me, sometimes after insulting me.
On top of that now, we have American Evangelicals in bed with the most corrupt, ignorant, spiteful President in history.
I honestly don’t know if a “plan” will save you all. Perhaps, deep, public repentance would do it, but I’m not holding my breath.