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The Great Dechurching: Jim Davis & Michael Aitcheson

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
The Truth Network Radio
August 23, 2023 5:15 am

The Great Dechurching: Jim Davis & Michael Aitcheson

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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August 23, 2023 5:15 am

The statistics on the exodus from the church are reason for all of us to be concerned. What do we need to know? Jim Davis, author of The Great Dechurching, and church planter Michael Aitcheson talk about who's leaving, why, and what needs to happen.

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Living in the Light
Anne Graham Lotz
Living in the Light
Anne Graham Lotz

About 40 million people live in our country who used to go to church and don't anymore, used to go regularly and don't, and most of that has happened in the last 25 years.

That's the alarming part. What was so hopeful is the vast majority of de-churched evangelicals, not only willing to return, but believe they will return. Welcome to Family Life Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.

You can find us at or on the Family Life app. This is Family Life Today. If I was on an airplane or something and somebody said, hey, so what do you do for a living? And I said, pastor, 30, 35 years ago, it was usually a positive response. Like, oh, that's interesting.

You know, what's your church like, blah, blah, blah. I'm not kidding. Probably in the last 7 to 10 years, I shouldn't say this, but I'm sometimes embarrassed to say it. Because of their reaction? It's negative. It's like, why would you do that?

Who would do that? Yeah. All I hear is people running right from the church because of people like you. It's negative.

I mean, it's 100% negative. The culture has changed. It has changed. And guess what? We've got two more pastors in the room today.

This is going to be a great day. Well, I can relate to what you said. I'll tell people in the pastor, and it's like, well, that's one way to live your life, or you couldn't find a better job. Okay, I guess that's a good fallback. They don't say like, wow, you're a loser. You couldn't think of anything else.

That's pretty much what you hear. Now, Christians respond differently, of course, but that's not the majority of who I interact with now. Hey, by the way, I can introduce you guys, but you know, you're used to introducing yourself. Go ahead and tell our audience who you are. Michael, you introduced Jim. Jim, you introduced Michael. I would love that. I want to hear what this looks like.

Make sure you tell them I'm a spiritual entrepreneur. My name is Michael Aitchison, and I want to introduce my dear friend, brother, and colleague, Jim Davis of Orlando Grace Church and the As in Heaven podcast. Well, it's hard to follow Michael Aitchison.

Yeah, I don't think you can top that. You can put him anywhere. This is Michael Aitchison, aka Big Mike from his Kentucky football playing days. He is the planter and pastor of Christ United Fellowship Church in Orlando, Florida, a multi-ethnic PCA church here, and dear friend, father, you have a whole family of girls.

Yes, yes, and you've got to tribe yourself. And by the way, I tell Jim this all the time, so it's no secret. If he ran for any office, he's got my vote automatically for the best hair I have seen. You know what?

Us ball brothers, we envy hair. Well that used to be my goal, was to go into politics, and then I became a Christian. Whoa, whoa, wait, that doesn't mean you can't go into politics.

No, but my aspirations in politics were 100% about me, and God revealed that, and it just was not what I wanted to do anymore. How did you guys connect? That's a good question. When did we first meet? I mean, we're both pastors in Orlando, both went to Reform Theological Seminary, had lots of good friends. And by the way, both speak for the Family Life Weekend, remember? We do. You and your wives.

Around the country. And so it didn't take long for us to be in the same room, and man, I'm around Mike Aitchison in a room. I'm like, I want to know you. I know we're going to be friends.

Well the feeling is mutual. I heard about Jim. There was this new pastor coming to town by another senior pastor who was broadcasting it, and he threw a lunch for him at first presence, and I said, well I got to meet this guy at first presence throwing a lunch for another pastor.

That doesn't happen all the time. And he came in, and I was like, oh, he's got my vote. Then we went out to, we went to First Watch on Virginia and Mills, and we just clicked.

Then we went on vacation together, and it just sort of... Our wives are good friends. Wow, and so what's this podcast? As in Heaven. So the podcast we host together is As in Heaven.

It's a season on a topic. Unlike a lot of podcasts, you're a golfer, so there's podcasts out there that are like... How do you know I'm a golfer? I've never seen you hit a ball ever. I know you. I know you're a golfer.

I've heard. But you can have a podcast that's like episode 437 on golf. We didn't want to do that. We wanted to have a narrative arc kind of drawing from the true crime genre, a season on a topic, record mostly the whole thing before we release it. So we have had three seasons now. We started this just for our local churches, and season one was ministry in Orlando, and then season two, we produced a narrative arc that was a Christian conversation on race and justice. And then season three, which started in early May, is on de-churching.

Which is what we're going to talk about today. The book is coming out. We've read the manuscript, Anne and I, and I'll give you the title, The Great De-Churching. By the way, did you guys come up with that title?

It was a team effort. I think it was my idea. So we anecdotally, early on, we've since proved this and we can talk about this, anecdotally felt like we are in the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country. And so of course we think of major religious shifts and we think of the Great Awakening. Now it's going the other direction. So we came up with the title. The Great De-Churching. I host the podcast with Mike.

Mike Graham and I are the ones who co-authored the book. The subtitle is Who's Leaving? Why Are They Going?

And what will it take to bring them back? So I'm thinking every parent that's listening, they're going to want to hear what we talk about. Because as parents, I get a little worried and scared when I hear some of the data that's coming out on de-churching.

Yeah, so definitely give us the data. But first of all, you've got to define de-church. Some of us don't know what that means. De-churching means for our technical purposes, someone who used to go to church at least once a month and now goes less than once a year.

We knew that this was happening in Orlando. I had the opportunity to speak at a fundraiser for a large Christian ministry. And I was asked to give a 10-minute talk on de-churching. And I was opening for, let's say, a very well-known pastor that everyone listening would know. I did my 10-minute thing.

He did an amazing talk. And at the end, I had a line of people to talk to me. And they were handing me business cards and wondering what they can do to be involved. And I look over and I see this other pastor having coffee by himself.

And he's the famous guy. But what hit me, I started to see tears in people's eyes. And I realized in my little 10-minute talk, it wasn't that it was really good. It was that I'm talking about these people's kids and grandkids. And their heart was just connecting. That's when it really hit me. This is a stewardship that we really need to continue to follow. Yeah. And there are parents right now leaning in to their podcast or in their car, wherever they are.

And they're saying, help us. You guys both have kids. How old are your kids? My kids are 12, 9, 7, and 4, all girls. My kids are 15, 13, 12, and 8, boy, boy, girl, boy. So this matters to you as dads.

It does. We want our kids to hold on to the faith and stay in church. And we're not so naive as to think that one day this couldn't be us looking at our children or grandchildren having departed the church. I mean, were you feeling that as you were doing the research?

Absolutely. Like, you're dads and pastors. I can tell you, from this research, we've begun to make major changes in our youth ministries. Because A, of what we're finding, B, these are my kids. So I might be the most motivated person in my church to see our youth ministry flourish.

That's awesome. So we got to get to what you're doing in the youth ministry, but I want to know, what are you finding? Originally, with season three coming on the podcast, we didn't want it to just be anecdotal. Angela was taking an apologetic class with Justin Holcomb, who you've had on the show. And she wanted to do a research paper on de-churching, and he said, that'd be amazing. There's just no data out there. You can't do a research paper because there's nothing to research. We knew that we wanted to do a podcast on this, but we didn't want it to just be our finger in the air. We wanted to do research.

We could not find any research that passed academic muster. So we commissioned the largest and most comprehensive nationwide academic peer-reviewed study, Dr. Brian Burge and Paul Joop, they're PhD sociologists. We commissioned them to do this nationwide study initially to prove or disprove this thesis. We are currently in the largest and fastest shift in religious history of a country, and we proved it. We are in the largest, fastest shift by a factor of 1.25. The previous largest shift, most people don't know this, was post-Civil War, with the country growing people returning to church, people starting to go to church who had not gone before. So the shift we're in now in terms of numbers now is greater than the first and second Great Awakening and that shift all combined. So the percentages are slightly larger than numbers, obviously, because we're larger are way larger. And so we proved it.

Then we did two more consecutive studies to understand, as you said, why they're leaving, where they're going and what it would take to bring them back. This is staggering. I mean, it's almost like an epidemic. We've been through a pandemic.

It's like, here we are. It doesn't sound as impressive when we've been through a pandemic, but an epidemic is still a big deal. Even though it's isolated to our country, it is changing not just our churches and our families, but the very fabric of our society and the way we interact with institutions. And did COVID have anything to do with that?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the stain of COVID is on every institution, if you will. No less true for the church. And in many ways, we feel like COVID shined a light on something that was already taking place. In fact, going back to Jim's reference about things we figured was happening anecdotally, some of the soft research we did before starting CUF indicated that there was a problem. CUF is your church?

Christ United Fellowship. Of course, we know some stats about how unchurched Orlando was and where it was spiritually compared to other cities in the US, but we had no idea that we were starting a church amidst the biggest de-churching phenomenon in history. Once COVID came, it became easier for people to just do perhaps what they'd already been pondering. And in fact, people in conversation, honest folks have said to me, hey, it just became easy for me to wake up, stay in my bed, watch church, and then jump in my pool. And they're still doing it.

And I think I've talked to a lot of parents whose kids are in their 20s, 30s. They're so discouraged because that's exactly what happened. They had this rhythm of going to church, but then when COVID hit, and what they'll say is they never went back.

Yeah. So I think you can go back to the 1990s is probably the largest impetus of de-churching and we can go back there. But when you get to COVID, this is another really big one. And we've categorized, we've divided our research out in different ways, but two of the big categories we've developed are the casually de-churched and the de-church casualties. So COVID increased both. It greatly increased the casually de-churched. So those are the people that de-churched without really meaning to, they didn't have a plan to. Maybe they moved to a new city, they got busy, they developed new rhythms, they made friends that don't go to church. They continue to do that and said, well, maybe one day I'll come back, but I'm not going to church. So with three to 24 months of not going to church, people got new rhythms and many of them just didn't come back. So the casually de-churching just grew exponentially. But then the de-church casualties, these are pain points, people left because of a reason. And the last three years has been very hard, whether they were abuse issues or political issues or racial issues or whatever it is, it has caused enough stress in our churches. Some churches responded very well, some did not. And some created internal issues and pain points that increased this de-church casualty category. And yet the truth is, you guys know better than anybody, the pandemic isn't to blame.

It was a factor, probably as you tell us, a big factor. But were there indications before the pandemic even started that this is starting to happen? There's a wave starting to happen in our country when it comes to de-church? Well, I'll go back to the 1990s. So church levels, although decreasing, were doing so slowly and steadily throughout the 20th century.

But there are a few factors, again, Ryan Burge has done some great research on this. But in the 1990s, the biggest one is the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Previously, during the Cold War, which you two would know a little bit more about than one of us. I'm just saying, you're experts in our history, we're wise, we're mature, we've lived a little more history.

That's right. So in the Cold War, to be American was to be Christian. And it was in the Cold War, I think it was in the 50s, when we added in God we trust to our money, when we added under God to our pledge. There was a concerted effort on the part of our government, I'm not saying it was bad, it was just war, this Cold War against Christian America and evil atheist communism. And so once that war was not there anymore, people begin to feel the freedom to be American, but not Christian.

We could talk a lot about that. The rise of the religious right, then there began to be a backlash to that political polarization. And then of course, the internet, which people discount the rise of the internet in the 90s, because they think, oh, I didn't have, you know, internet, I dial up or whatever.

But internet starting in 1994, was in the early stages of internet cafes, and people wanting to hear a different voice than what they had grown up hearing could now access that. So those would be some of the major factors in every research that you see, you'll see a spike in what we now call the nuns and a rapid decrease in Christians. And the de-churching happened quicker in mainlining Catholic circles, and really the evangelical circles are just catching up to it now.

And just for our listener who has never heard of the word nun, define that. Someone who has no religious affiliation would not claim that on a census. So you know, every person I think is saying, why? Why are people leaving in such epidemic numbers? You've mentioned a couple reasons, but is it just, I don't believe anymore? Because a lot of times you think that's it, they don't believe. And yet when I look at your research and others, like that's a part of it, it seems to be a small part of it. Am I right?

Yeah. So there are some that leave because they don't believe. But there are a lot of other internal factors. So let me say the most alarming part and then let me say the most helpful part of the research. The most alarming part, as I said, largest and fastest, but let me give a number to that. About 40 million people live in our country who used to go to church and don't anymore, used to go regularly and don't. And most of that has happened in the last 25 years, 40 million, 40 million people. This is a shift that will continue to change so much about our country. And if you've lived in Europe, you can see, I want to qualify this because their religion has been connected to the state and ours has not. So that changes our outcomes in major ways, but you can get a glimpse of what a society looks like where church is generally not a value outside of where you get married and baptized and buried in Southern Europe at least. So that's the alarming part. What was so hopeful is the vast majority of de-churched evangelicals, not only willing to return, but believe they will return.

So that's a really big deal. The orthodoxy scores among the evangelical de-churched are higher than those who go to church still. So if you ask them about the Trinity and Jesus's divinity and the inspiration of the Bible, de-churched evangelicals are going to have a higher value between 61 and 68 percent depending on the doctrine than their counterparts who still go to church. And that includes all parts of all kinds of church, mainline, Roman Catholic Church, evangelical everybody. So what we're really seeing is they still believe in God. They're still praying to Jesus.

They're even still reading their Bible and they believe they will go back to church one day, but they have chosen for whatever reason to not go to church now. You guys don't know why they're not like it doesn't make sense to me. Hey, you're the expert.

You got to know the reason. We've taken all the nationwide research and we've had a machine take these and really began to gather data where there are patterns. And so we do break up five different de-churching profiles. People who would de-church for very different reasons. Those profiles include the cultural Christian, the mainstream evangelical, the ex-vangelical, BIPOC black indigenous people of color. And then we lumped the mainline in Roman Catholic because their data was so similar. I'm of the opinion now, if you understand why people are de-churching both external and internal factors, whether they're casually or casualty, in about five questions, if you know what you're looking at, you can nail down where this person is and what their main animating concerns are or pain points and have a ramp to have the kind of conversation with them to push them back to church. Some are going to be much easier than others depending on why, but the reasons they're leaving abound and I would be remiss if I didn't also say, Jesus told us that there would be weed and wheat. So this shouldn't shock us that some of this is revealing what was already true. So while I have this really hopeful data for a lot of these de-church evangelicals, we also have to acknowledge there are some people who now have the freedom to not go to church and they're choosing not to because they are not Christian. That also is something we need to take into consideration. This is so important, not just to our country and as pastors, to our families, because every parent listening right now is like, I think they're going, what are those five questions that I should ask my son or daughter that would help me understand why they are where they are and help them come back?

Did you just say, there's five questions or do you like have, there's some things you should ask to get to the heart of this. Yeah, I would want to know what they de-churched away from, why they de-churched, I would want to know are they casually or casualty because if they are, this is a cool story, so there's a church called The Crossing, an APC church in Missouri who they did a great deal, the people there did a great deal to help fund all this research that was extremely expensive. And so as a thank you, we gave them the executive summary very early on and they began to say, all right, this is clear, the lowest hanging fruit are people who have casually de-churched from an evangelical church. They digitally targeted them, they coached their people on how to identify these people, have them in your home, then invited them to church.

I think they started this just about six months ago. They now have hundreds of new people at church who were de-churched and are now worshiping in church. So that would be the first step is identifying the low hanging fruit, have those people in your home, be an active listener. There's a lot to listening that we get into in the book and invite them. There are these sociological categories that have long existed of belief, belong, and behave. Among the casually de-churched who come from an evangelical church, what they're missing are really following this belong category. They would, they have the belief in the behavior, but they would be the first to say, I lack the belonging if you ask them the right question and all we're doing is redirecting them to what they're desiring because they're designed to be a part of a community of believers and not to be isolated in their spirituality. Jim, right before you said the belong, believe, behave, you know, when I started a church in 1990, we talked about that very thing and it was like, they need to believe first, then we need to get them collected to belong and then their life's going to change and it sort of matched the culture. Somewhere about 10 years in, like probably 2000, we realized, and I know you guys are pastors, talk about this strategy stuff all the time. We started realizing they're not going to believe unless they belong and so belong need to be first. We're in that culture now, aren't we? They want to find a community because we actually created a church where you could come sit in the back row, never talk to anybody and leave and then people are like, the unchurch want that?

Yep. They're afraid of church people. They don't want to be around them. They just want to come. They want to listen.

It's all intellectual and then they want to have the freedom to come back. It became a different world. It's like I'm in a church and nobody said hi to me. Nobody reached out to me.

Nobody gave me an opportunity to connect. I'm not going back to that church to write. It's belong first, but you got to help me here because so many people we've talked to said one of the big reasons they've de-churched is the community that they belong to hurt them or they were hypocrites or they saw inconsistencies and they left. So there's that double-edged side of, I want to belong and I'm made that way. God made me to belong, but when I did belong to the church people, Mike, have you heard those stories?

Yeah, I'm just running through the index of experiences. We gained members at CUF because no one spoke to the folks when they visited other churches. They were completely overlooked and they said, I said, well, why'd you come? He said, well, when we visited you, we couldn't get people off of us.

We went to a different place and eight weeks passed and no one said a word to us. And so there's definitely a concern to feel accepted, to belong in a place that you can have a partner community. But then there's also core concerns and people have come to our church, believers and nonbelievers investigating Jesus, some just coming because they want to see how the beautiful implications of the gospel.

Is it good? Does it create community? Does it have an impact in society, et cetera? And when they express their concerns about the things taking place in the broader society, they were dismissed, shut down and, or just outright told that, well, maybe that secular progressive stuff that you concerned about. Well, even if it is, the Bible still has an answer to correct whatever that secular progressive stuff may be. And so then people found that it is possible to really be Orthodox in your belief and have a community where there are people that don't look like me, may not believe the same things as me politically, and we can wrestle through issues together with the scripture. We found that to be critical in the belonging category. And that's to say nothing of, you know, Jim referenced this earlier, as we've been looking at the de-churching, there's a subset among African-Americans and, you know, BIPOC population.

I think it's 1.25 million, 8% of the entire de-church. Yes. And what's fascinating is we'd never introduced race as a category to the machine learning.

It was so overwhelming. It created a category that was 0% white. Yeah. Well, I think it was New York Times that had released an article way back years ago about this silent exodus of African-Americans and people of color exiting predominantly white institutions. And these were folks who were committed culturally, you know, coming out of the promise keeper movement, committed culturally to go across the line and to pursue reconciliation. But what happened was when their core concerns started to emerge in society, they were overlooked from the pulpit. And the gospel has an answer for these concerns. And so that helped precipitate a de-churching phenomenon among the black population that we just articulated. However, many of them are still spiritual. Among the young demographic in particular, they're pursuing other avenues that may address their concerns, but don't have the eternal and lasting answers to their concerns. So that's part of what's going on with the belonging category, particularly for African-Americans. And I will extend that out to even non-African-Americans because there are people who care about these things in general. The core concern may not be as acute for maybe a non-person of color, but they still care, how does the gospel impact the way I deal with my neighbor? And if I'm not hearing that, then I'm wondering, well, what is this whole idea of love God and love people or love your neighbor?

How does Jesus make this real just beyond my immediate circle? Yeah. And I would guess you guys agree that's what our kids are asking too.

Absolutely. Our generation is asking that very question, whether they're a part of a family that goes to church or not. And tomorrow we have to talk about what I think a lot of listeners that are leaning in right now, like, I'm a mom and dad, I'm seeing this in my home. I'm feeling it in myself.

What do I do? You guys think you can answer that? Man, I'd love to. I'd love to take crack at it. All right.

Give it a shot. There's so many things we're trying to do anyway. How does the gospel of Jesus Christ actually impact your everyday life? How does it affect the way we talk to one another, treat one another, care for one another, or think about the other person when they just cut us off in traffic? Maybe that's happening right now.

Well, we've got to lean into these kinds of questions with integrity, because I don't want to be a squishy, flimsy Christian. I want the gospel to change everything about me. How about you? I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Anne Wilson with Jim Davis and Michael Acheson on Family Life Today.

Jim Davis has written a book called The Great Decherching, Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back, a very important book and a very timely book. You could pick up a copy at, or you could give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again that number is 800, F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today.

August is such a unique time. We're winding down the summer, we're getting ready for going back to school, and we here at Family Life want to be part of the solution in your family's life. It's a unique time for us because when you give anytime this month, we want to help you as a parent. When you go online and give at as our thank you to you, we want to send you two specific resources.

One is the Art of Parenting online video course, and two is a card game to help you get to know your family better and go a little bit deeper in the context of fun. Again that's, or you can give us a call at 800, F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. Or feel free to drop your donation in the mail.

Our address is Family Life 100 Lakehart Drive, Orlando, Florida 32832. Now tomorrow Dave and Ann Wilson are back with Jim Davis and Michael Acheson. They're going to talk about the importance of creating a gospel centered environment right in the middle of your home. That's coming up tomorrow. We hope you'll join us. On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a donor supported production of Family Life, a crew ministry helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-27 05:39:03 / 2023-08-27 05:51:39 / 13

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