Winsome Conviction Project logo


Jim Davis, pastor and co-author of the recent book, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back, comes on the podcast to talk about the current and fastest religious shift going on in America. Tim and Rick speak with Jim about a comprehensive study he help conduct looking at people who are leaving churches and the reasons why they are leaving. They discuss characteristics of people who are “dechurching,” including misconceptions on why people are leaving, as well as cultural factors and hinge points which have contributed to this phenomenon.


Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer, and I'm a professor at Biola University, in the Biblical studies and Theology Department. I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, along with a good friend and colleague of mine, Tim Muehlhoff.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hi, Rick. Great to be with you again. Hey, Rick, we've heard this thing that has been in the background of a mass exodus of people from the church. It's kind of like we've heard this on so many different levels. We've even had some colleagues here at Biola University that have written on this topic. So a brand new book has come out by Jim Davis, called Dechurching: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?

Rick Langer: Yeah, The Great Dechurching, which is even more disturbing. Yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: The Great Dechurching. Yeah, I just saw that. Yeah, I missed that. I missed it. It was written with Michael Graham. Jim and his wife, Angela, are co-speakers at Family Life Marriage Conferences. They've been on the team since 2015. Jim's a pastor in Orlando. He's obviously a sharp thinker, author. So we have been very concerned about this in Christian higher education. And we thought when we saw this book come out that Jim has really done a good job with his co-author of even initiating a study on this topic.

Rick Langer: Yeah. And a part of why we think about this relative to Winsome Conviction is that even in our own personal experience with people we have known, we've seen people leaving the church. And one of the primary reasons that we're given, and this is our anecdotes now, not Jim's statistics, we'll get to those in a minute, but one of the big reasons was just the animosity, the acrimony, the sense of divisiveness and polarization that they found within the church body, not just to the outside world, but to fellow members of the congregation. So this seems to be ... I don't know, we'll find out-

Tim Muehlhoff: We'll find out.

Rick Langer: ... but this one of those things that's-

Tim Muehlhoff: That's certainly been our experience in the last three and a half years we've been doing the Winsome Conviction project, working with pastors and churches.

Rick Langer: There's a lot of that [inaudible 00:02:02] existential experience.

Tim Muehlhoff: There's a lot of that. So Jim has roughly 20 minutes to identify this and fix it, Rick. So we are very much looking forward ... and if we have any time at the end, we'll do global warming. So Jim, welcome to the podcast. First, thank you for the work that you've done in this area. It really is concerning to us who teach at Christian universities. So first, welcome.

Jim Davis: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Tim Muehlhoff: No, it's our pleasure. And maybe we should just start by focusing on the title of your book. Maybe take for a second and for our listeners, define dechurching.

Jim Davis: Yeah, we were very particular with this term, because for our study, we defined it as somebody who used to go to church at least on a monthly basis, and now who goes less than once per year. And we use dechurching because as we thought, and we found out, just because they're not going to church does not mean that they're not a Christian. So dechurching seemed like the best word. And we called it the Great Dechurching to play off the Great Awakenings, because we are in the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country.

Rick Langer: And in that sense, you're saying the demographic magnitude of the dechurching is comparable to the demographic magnitude of the First, Second, Third Great Awakenings?

Jim Davis: Larger. Larger. So if we go by numbers, 40 million adults-

Rick Langer: Okay. You're supposed to give us good news here, Jim [inaudible 00:03:32]-

Jim Davis: There is good news, there is, but sometimes you got to take a hard look in the mirror before [inaudible 00:03:37] what's good.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right, absolutely. Absolutely.

Rick Langer: All right, fine.

Tim Muehlhoff: So quickly for our listeners, we do throw around this term deconversion, which dechurching, if I'm understanding you correctly, Jim, is different from this. And we actually know some very public figures that have deconverted, which they would no longer self-identify as a Christian. Dechurching is different than that, per se.

Jim Davis: Yeah. Anecdotally, Orlando, according to a Barna study, was the sixth-largest, sixth-most dechurched population in the United States. And that's our context. So really, this was birthed out of our own context. But we were very particular with the word dechurched, because we knew the majority of people we interacted with who don't go to church, used to. Some seemed to be Christian, some didn't. Some were fine going to church on Christmas and Easter, some never wanted to go back. So the problem with deconversion, or as we engage, exvangelical, is it lacks a certain definition and can be very confusing when we try to apply that to 40 million adult Americans.

Tim Muehlhoff: So why don't you tell us just real quick about the study that you guys commissioned? And then why don't you tell us a little bit about ... you've already mentioned this, about what's happened in the last 25 years. So why don't you tell us a little bit about the study, and then tell us some of the salient observations that came from that?

Jim Davis: Yeah, so the study we commissioned, Doctors Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe, they are social scientists, to do what became the largest or most comprehensive study on dechurching in America. And they did it with over 7,000 participants, over 600 data points. And what we wanted to do initially was prove or disprove this thesis: we are currently in the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country. And in phase one, we proved it. And so we learned by percentages, the previous largest shift was actually the 25 years post-Civil War. Our shift is 25% greater, going the opposite direction. And then if you want to go by numbers, of course there's more people today, but by numbers, it is larger than the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, and all the Billy Graham crusades combined.

So over the past 25 years ... We can get to the why later, but I hear you asking the what ... we began to see this begin in earnest. Ryan Burge wrote the book, The Nones. And he notes that the percentage of people who identified with no religious affiliation or nothing in particular, it grew by a percentage point slowly and steadily through the '70s and '70s. I think it grew by two points, if I remember correctly. But then in the '90s, it began to grow by like two points a year. And so something happened in the '90s that really began this. And we began to see people dechurching from mainline and Roman Catholic churches, first, people dechurching largely from the secular left. But if you fast-forward now, the exodus is very much happening in evangelical churches. And it's happening on the secular right, actually, at twice the pace of the secular left.

Tim Muehlhoff: Can we go to the nones real quick, because I've heard this mentioned all the time, that people who now self-identify as nones, no religious affiliation, most of them came from religious homes. Have you heard that?

Jim Davis: Ryan Burge would be the expert on that. My hunch is that that would be the case, my hunch is. We were very particular in identifying our audience as people who did go to church regularly and don't now, but we didn't cross-reference all the nones with that, which I would imagine Ryan would have a really good answer. But looking at our study, I would definitely guess the vast majority of those increasingly identifying as nones did come from a churched background.

Tim Muehlhoff: You mentioned in your book five different types of those that are dechurching. Can you quickly describe each one? I thought this was really interesting, to break them down into slightly different categories.

Jim Davis: Yeah, this was really interesting to me, because this isn't two pastors putting their finger in the air or just kind of combing the data themselves. We used machine learning AI algorithms to identify common answers, because we knew we weren't looking at one monolithic group. There definitely were different camps within this 40 million people. And so the AI was able to identify these categories. And some of them made a lot of sense, some of them were surprising, but in very quick terms-

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, Jim?

Jim Davis: Yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: We don't use AI. You're talking to two professors, brother. We do not bring AI into this podcast, okay?

Jim Davis: Okay, a machine did this.

Tim Muehlhoff: We're going to edit that out right now.

Rick Langer: A careful strategy that was deployed for this purpose-

Tim Muehlhoff: Because we're probably going to get-

Jim Davis: We used-

Tim Muehlhoff: Go ahead.

Jim Davis: We used the most reliable methods of the day.

Tim Muehlhoff: Good, better. I feel better about that.

Rick Langer: That's what we like to hear. Feeling better now. Go ahead.

Participant: Thank you.

Jim Davis: So in very broad strokes, 5 million of the 40 million did not come from Christian faiths, as we surveyed all faiths in America. 20 million were Roman Catholic and mainline dechurched. And we grouped them together because they look almost identical in what they believe, why they left. The only differences, as you would expect, Roman Catholic dechurched people were more influenced by scandal in the church. So we had three consecutive studies.

Phase three, we just looked at evangelicals. And four groups became very clear. About 15 million of the 40 million are evangelical, have dechurched from evangelical churches. The largest group is what we call cultural Christians. It's about 8 million people. They retain a positive feeling toward the church, they might go on Christmas or Easter, but their orthodoxy scores were crazy low. Only 1% of them believed that Jesus is the Son of God. So the cultural Christian is largely the person who they don't have any pain point, but they probably were never a Christian to begin with.

Then you have the mainstream dechurched evangelical, which looks just very similar to the cultural Christian, largely white group, dechurched more recently, with one major difference. 98% of them would say Jesus is the Son of God. 100% of this group, which is about 2.5 million people, said they're willing to return to an evangelical church. So this is probably the lowest-hanging fruit, no major pain point.

Then you have the exvangelicals, which is one of those confusing terms, but the way we use it, they dechurched from an evangelical church with a very specific pain point. And they are done with evangelicalism. They still retain a relatively high orthodoxy score. It seems like most of these people are still Christians and even willing to come back to something other than an evangelical church, but they have a real pain point.

And then lastly was this group, BIPOC dechurched from evangelical churches; again, 2.5 million people. And what's interesting is we did not allow our good methods of the day to see race. Race was not something that the algorithm saw. And this group is 0% white and it's a fascinating group. It's the most educated group, the highest income by far, but again, low orthodoxy scores. So many of them probably weren't Christians to begin with, and most of these people dechurched over 10 years ago.

Rick Langer: I mean, it's interesting, as I didn't write down all the details, but it seems like almost two-thirds of this group of dechurched evangelicals were people who were probably had low orthodoxy to begin with, were-

Jim Davis: Yeah. Of the 15 million, we're probably looking at probably about 5 million true Christians, and the other 10 probably aren't.

Rick Langer: Yeah, okay, which is still just is interesting to think about, as you look at these numbers.

Tim Muehlhoff: Jim, do you think ... so with this going on in the background ... And whenever I speak in churches and mention some of the facts that you just discussed, they are shocked. It's like Casablanca, "I am shocked to find gambling in this institution." But they have not heard any of this. They have not heard the term dechurched, deconversion. And it blows them away. So is your experience that the church is kind of unaware that this is happening, this massive dechurching shift? And if so, why? Why is the church unaware that this is happening?

Jim Davis: You know, it is interesting. I think there's certain church leaders, and I would put y'all in this category, that you can see that it's happening. We can see something big is happening, but we don't know what it is. And so our goal in this project was to start a conversation. This one book doesn't fix the problem, but we want to start a conversation and have people with different skill sets and experiences and giftings to be able to build on this, kind of like when my kids were little and they had a LEGO table. We want to build on that LEGO table.

But studies like this are expensive. The reason books like this don't get written is because our study cost $100,000. Well, we're never going to make our money back on that. So it was a collaboration of churches coming together to fund this study so that we could do this, because it's just not financially viable if you're just looking at the numbers. So I do think your average church leader, most of the church leaders I see are like, "You know what? That makes sense. I'm so glad to have data behind it." But your average church person is pretty shocked that things are changing, changing this fast, and changing in the ways that they are changing.

Rick Langer: One thing I was curious about, I saw ... Just talk to us a little bit about the role of higher education in people dechurching or not dechurching.

Jim Davis: So this was fascinating. Absolutely, the more educated an evangelical is, the more likely they are to remain in church. Only 3% of evangelicals with master's degrees had dechurched. So that kind of goes after the standard boogeyman line of higher education, specifically higher secular education, taking our children away from us. There's something going on there. And the inverse is true too. Dechurching is largely a lower income, lower education phenomenon that also goes after the boogeyman of like, "Well, once you learn and you get to a point in your education, you don't need that religious stuff anymore." That's just not what we're seeing.

Rick Langer: And I had seen some of those statistics in there, and I found that quite striking in terms of how much it pushes back against our stereotypes of you get educated, you get rich and you abandon your God. And in this cultural context and moment, whatever the long-term historic truth of that may or may not be, I was really struck by ... I mean, that's just way different than I would've expected.

Jim Davis: It was way different than all of us expected.

Tim Muehlhoff: By the way, Jim, you just gave an advertisement for Biola University. We'll send you royalties.

Rick Langer: But to clarify that it didn't matter if these master's degrees were from a Christian university or a secular.

Jim Davis: Yeah, no. Right.

Rick Langer: The point is higher education made people's faith ... their church commitment more ... Well, they correlate. We don't know the causation, but it correlates.

Jim Davis: Well, and I would obviously say I have a very high value for Christian education at every level. Between my wife, me and my kids, we are very invested financially in Christian education. But what I do want to say is education, wherever it's happening, is not the problem.

Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, Jim, this is so good for what we're trying to do, because at a certain level, we get pushback. And the pushback is this, "You have a person on your podcast, you are exposing people to an alternative perspective. And better not to give them the platform, better not to give them the microphone," because one dad said to me, "How will you asleep at night by exposing your students to the work of Nietzsche or having them read the Quran or something like that, and they walk away from the faith?" So their fear is you expose them to divergent views, these students are so brittle, they will crack. And what this is suggesting, and you are throwing your hat into the ring, no, we need to do more of that to help them think and process and get that intellectual toolkit ready to go as they look at different perspectives.

Jim Davis: Oh, I absolutely agree. I mean, I don't know the person you're talking about, but I understand the type of person. And as Christians, we aren't meant to live in fear of the sin outside the walls, always worried about if it's going to take our children away, although at some level there's a place for that. What we want to do is build them up to send them out into the world. My kids go to Christian classical school and read Greek mythology. And we're able to pick it apart and look at what is there to learn, where do we disagree? Why? And ultimately, I think that kind of educational engagement builds up believers.

Tim Muehlhoff: How can that happen at the church level, like people who don't go to even, let's say, a university or pursue a higher degree, a graduate degree? What kind of ways could we institute this in the church to promote perspective-taking? And I'm thinking of pastors right now who have said, "Hey, I tried to do this and it absolutely backfired. I invited a person who is pro-choice" ... I'm thinking of a person who brought in a mom and a Buddhist monk, and it took him years to recover. His church kind of rebelled against it. As a pastor, now put on your pastor hat, how do we bring this into the church?

Jim Davis: That's a really good question. I mean, I think a large part of it is knowing your people and where they are in their discipleship journey, because there's certain conversations that five years ago, it was wiser to have in small groups than it was from a stage. And that's different in our church at this point. Actually, our podcast that we have with The Gospel Coalition started as just a local church podcast, because I knew I wanted our people to engage with other people, leaders in Orlando who were doing good ministry, but I knew I could never bring them in at that point in time. So we created a podcast. So it is an opt-in thing. It's not forced upon them. I'm not quote, unquote, "bringing it into the church." So I think a lot of it is wisdom and knowing the season and the maturity of the church that you're pastoring now.

Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, that's good. And by the way, thanks for the invitation you gave us to your pod ... Oh, wait. No, that's okay. That's okay. We're bigger than that, Jim.

Jim Davis: We'll make that happen someday.

Tim Muehlhoff: We're bigger than that, Jim.

Rick Langer: So let me ask the why question. We've talked a little bit about the demographic of the shift and the fact that dechurching ... and some of who these people are. What are the things you found about why? Obviously it wasn't education, but what was it? What are the things that kind of pushed people out?

Jim Davis: So this is what has been so interesting, and I think because of the data and the findings has garnered attention politically from The New York Times on one side, to The Ben Shapiro Show on the other, because we think of the average dechurched person as someone who is left, angry, hurt. They don't have faith anymore. And while certainly those people are there and we don't want to minimize their pain, the number one reason for dechurching in America is, "I moved." 30 million of the 40 million people left without any kind of pain point.

So as to why, we divide these two groups up into the casually dechurched versus the church casualties. That's a very high level. They break up even more. But just beginning to understand, oh, there are two very different types of people leaving. And then we really ... as to why this all started, the 1990s were a real inflection point. And using very broad strokes, there are four things in particular that contributed. The first was the fall of the Soviet Union, which people don't realize how important that was to increasing dechurching, because before the fall of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to be American was synonymous to be Christian.

I think all of us here are old enough to remember a time where if somebody said, "I'm no longer a Christian," it wouldn't have been crazy for somebody to say, "Well, are you a communist?" And it was end of the Eisenhower administration that we got "Under God" in our pledge and "In God We Trust" on our money. And so once the Soviet Union fell, there was a space to be what you actually were. And again, the early dechurchers probably weren't Christians. So there was a freedom. Then you combine that with the rise of the internet, 1994. There are internet cafes by '97. Even though it wasn't in many homes, it was in libraries and schools. And there was a safe place, a socially safe place, a comfortable place, to pursue other worldviews.

Then you do have the rise of the religious right. And I'm probably not going to say names, but we know what we're talking about. And there were a number of people who probably weren't Christians and they said, "Hey, if that's what Christianity is, I want no part of it." And then I think it's intriguing that just after the close of the decade, you have 9/11. And in just 10 years, our enemies go from being godless communists to being religious fundamentalists. And so there were people saying, "See, that's what religious fundamentalism does, and I want no part of it." So that began it, again, largely on the secular left, largely mainline Roman Catholic, largely people who probably weren't believers to begin with, but that's what opened this box.

Tim Muehlhoff: And that's what's so good about your book, is we've gotten to this reading habit of like, "I don't need to know that background information. Just get me to the application points that I can do for a church or a Christian organization." But to know what historians call hinge moments, that these moments really did get us to the present moment ... We do a lot of Foucault in my graduate program ... was the archeology of knowledge. I love that. His term is that that knowledge has different layers of how we got to the present moment.

So for us, and I hope this isn't too geeky for us as academics, that's really important to know how we got to this cultural moment of how a majority of people can't articulate necessarily why they think what they think. But all these things were playing little shifts in their thinking and gave them the freedom to adopt a perspective. So thanks so much for doing that hard work to bring us in.

Rick Langer: One further question on this, just with the moving, did COVID had an analogous impact to moving, so to speak, where people were kind of forcibly removed, so to speak, from church, kind of?

Jim Davis: It depends on the state. Your experience and my experience are going to be very different. We stopped meeting for two and a half, three months. And that was not most Californians' situation. But there's no question, COVID radically increased the casually dechurched, specifically in the mainstream dechurched evangelical.

Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, that's really good. And God bless pastors, Jim. What has happened to them in the last couple years has just been amazing. And we need to just have a hug your pastor day for sticking in there, based on that Christianity Today survey that said, roughly, what was it, 43% of US pastors said, "I would leave today if I could swing it financially." We just-

Jim Davis: I had my moment.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, I bet you did. I bet you did, man.

Jim Davis: I'm thankful that I'm still here, but I had my moment.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, you know what? We're thankful you're still here. And again, we would encourage listeners to check out your book with Michael Graham, The Great Dechurching: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? Please make sure to check that out and do a deep dive. We're just giving you an introduction. We would like to invite you back sometime in the future, Jim, to talk specifically about dechurching as it relates to The Winsome Conviction Project, because we have some anecdotal evidence that may be the way we're treating each other as Christians and talking to those outside the Christian community is having an impact. But we'd like to talk to you about even the role of the internet with making dechurching so public for people to see. So sometime in the future, would you come back and join us, Jim?

Jim Davis: Oh, I'd love to. I mean, I think our data definitely speaks to that. And I don't know if you're familiar with the The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism, but that was written by Michael Graham, my co-author, and our then-youth director, Skyler Flowers. And so there's a lot of intersecting projects here that would be really fun to talk about.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's great. Well, we'll make sure to have you back, Jim. Thank you.

Jim Davis: Thank you.

Rick Langer: And thank you for joining us for the Winsome Conviction podcast. We'd love to have you subscribe at your favorite source, Apple Podcasts or Google Play, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. And check us out at website. And we really appreciate your listening and your support. Thanks so much for joining us.