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, is back on the podcast to speak with Tim and Rick about some of the reasons why people are leaving churches. They talk about the role incivility, poor communication, “clustering,” and online habits play in the process of dechurching. They also reflect on the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the body life of the Church and consider whether there are areas in contemporary church life and education that ought to be reconsidered.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name's Rick Langer. I'm a professor here at Biola in the Biblical Studies and Theology department. I also work at the Office of Faith and Learning, and one of my favorite things is being also one of the co-directors and podcast host at the Winsome Conviction podcast with a good friend of mine, Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, it's great to be here with you at Biola University. Hey, long before being a professor at Biola University, both you and I had a background with Cru: Campus Crusade for Christ. And my wife and I were on staff with Cru almost 30 years. And I remember being at NC State University doing this great conference there, and these two MCs got up, and they were just known as Rhett and Link. And they were brilliant. I mean, I think both of them were engineering majors, but they were drop-dead funny. Rick, I have never laughed more in my life with the opening skit they did, and then their introduction of me, I just laughed like crazy. So I always kept my eye on them, because they didn't want to use their degrees, per se. They wanted to do comedy. And today, Rhett-
Rick Langer: Engineering is such a good start for that right now.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, I mean, what was I doing doing theater? I should have gone engineering.
Rick Langer: Seriously.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, now they have over 130 million YouTube followers. If you just do a quick Google search of Rhett and Link, they're on Jimmy Fallon, they're everywhere. And they have publicly... And I encourage people to listen and not just quickly judge them, but each one has left the church and have ultimately left the faith. And they each took an hour to explain the reasonings and what it costs them to leave the faith. Let me just say, parenthetically, it is heartbreaking to watch the comments of Christians just flat out going after them without an ounce of empathy.
So this phenomenon of what our guest is going to call de-churching, but some have called de-conversion, there's a difference between the two, we need to meet it with compassion and understanding and then meet it with our arguments and things like that.
But man, I think we're off to the wrong foot with these two guys. And we need input. And so we'd like to bring back a guest that we had in the past, and if you've not listened to our interview with Jim Davis, who is a pastor from Orlando, he's a speaker, him and his wife Angela with Family Life Marriage Conferences, and he's also an author of a thought-provoking book with Michael Graham called The Great De-Churching: Who's Leaving, Why are They Going, and What Will it Take to Bring Them back?
So we decided to bring Jim back because we want to talk to him specifically about civility, the role it's playing in people, leading de-churching, and even the role of the internet, because Rhett and Link, 130 million followers. We're just so bummed to see them break our record.
Rick Langer: On their first day.
Tim Muehlhoff: Their first day. So hey Jim Davis, thank you so much for agreeing to come back to our humble podcast.
Jim Davis: Great to be here.
Rick Langer: We don't have 130 million viewers, but maybe you can help us solve that.
Tim Muehlhoff: We're looking to you, Jim, to break. This is going to be the big break right here, Jim.
Jim Davis: Oh, I'm going to let y'all down.
Tim Muehlhoff: But Jim, welcome back to our podcast. Would you just very quickly bring yourself to speed to this term, de-churching, and then we'd like to talk a little bit about the role communication is playing and even the role of the internet.
Jim Davis: So we define a de-church person as somebody who used to go to church on at least monthly basis and now goes less than once per year. And certainly some of those people like Rhett and Link or Josh Harris have de-converted as well. But this is a broader category of people who used to go to church and don't now, and that's the group we wanted to understand.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, and thanks for bringing up Josh Harris. I mean, that's another one. And then again, my goodness, we could do a Google search on worship leaders and de-conversion, and sadly, we're going to have a pretty long list.
Rick Langer: Yeah, there's a lot of people.
Tim Muehlhoff: And this is all fair game for our students, our parishioners just to click and hear. I mean, I can't express enough how our articulate Rhett and Link are in explaining the reasons that led them to choose to leave when their spouses didn't leave, and what it caused in their marriage and their friendships, and they lost their community.
I was moved deeply while listening to these two individuals, but they mentioned there's a multitude of reasons. I don't want to simplify a whole hour for each of them, but part of it was this incivility that they were sick of, of how Christians talk to each other and attack each other. And sadly, that got proven, how Christians went right at them saying, "You're going to rot in hell for leading people astray." So it kind of proved their point of this incivility.
So talk to us a little bit about, in the research that you've done, what do you think the role of incivility among Christians... And again, you're a pastor. What role is this playing, if any, in de-churching? Or we could even go to de-conversion, which Rhett and Link didn't just leave the church, they left the faith.
Jim Davis: Yeah, I mean, we have de-converted people and we also have this group of ex-evangelicals that have left very intentionally, but they probably still are Christians. So both of them cited lack of love, joy, gentleness, kindness and generosity in the church and in their parents. So we know where that... Was talking about the fruit of the spirit. Inability to listen, inability to engage with other viewpoint, typical critical attitudes or actions, not consistently embodying the fruit of the spirit. And many cited just, "I didn't feel much love in the congregation."
So we tried to get as specific as we can without opening up another a hundred questions about, well, what does it mean that you didn't feel loved in the congregation? But there was a lot of that in the responses that we received, really depending on which group of de-churched people they fell into.
Tim Muehlhoff: So there's a concept in family communication, in marital research. Have you heard of the term divorce clustering?
Jim Davis: I don't think I have.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. So it's an interesting concept that if a friend of yours divorces, it increases your chance of divorce by nearly 40%. Why? Because it normalizes divorce. I used to think divorce was, I don't know, this crazy dangerous, unsecured... I don't know how I'd ever get divorced, but I watched Chuck through it. And yeah, it was bad. It was not good, but he got through it, and now he's dating somebody else. So divorce clustering is it normalizes it. I've often wondered, do you think when you listen to Rhett, Link, Josh Harris, former worship pastors, do you think there's something like de-church clustering or de-conversion clustering that could happen via the internet?
Jim Davis: Oh, I have to imagine that's the case. And I mean, this is where Ryan Burge would say what we're looking at isn't just a belief issue, it's a sociological issue, and things like that would absolutely come into play. And it makes sense, if that's where I'm kind of not sure about my faith and I don't have a sure foundation, then I'm going to guess one of two things will happen. I might be enticed to listen and see and maybe normalize what I'm feeling, but the other side are the mean Christians you're talking about. Maybe they're insecure in their departures, maybe they're struggling in their own faith and that's how they lash out, because most mature Christians I see look at these people and say, "Man, that's really sad. It's really sad. I want to pray for them. I wish them the best. I'd love for them to come back." But I think the clustering I would imagine would happen on either side, whether joining or attacking.
Tim Muehlhoff: Jim, you mentioned something very quickly that those of us who study apologetics, we're kind of into this language, but I think for some of our listeners, it would be really good for you to break down quickly the difference between an intellectual doubt and a sociological doubt. What's the difference between the two? Because when we think of apologetics, we tend to think the intellectual doubting, but I love that you mentioned the sociological drift that we're now seeing. Can you just for our listeners explain the difference between the two?
Jim Davis: Yeah, so I will. Ryan Burge is your man for this. He's the best part of the team for this. But when people are de-churching, a lot of them maintain their faith. I mean, if you listen to the last episode, we talked about that. And so the issue is not a belief issue, it's a belong issue. So in sociology, you have the categories of belief belong and behave. And so millions and millions and millions of these de-churched people, they seem to have the belief and the behave outside of going to church. But it's the belonging that's the issue. It's not a belief issue.
For other people, it is a real belief issue. Maybe it's more of a passive pedestrian unbelief that kind of just slowly walked away. Maybe there was a pain point or a crisis. But when we talk about de-churching, we're not lumping everybody into the belief category, because that just wouldn't be faithful to the sociological data that we have.
Rick Langer: On that issue of pain points, I'm just curious. This hits the sociological versus philosophical issue as well. The pain points that you're talking about that led people to become de-churched, how many of those pain points are what you might call human being's faults, and how many of the pain points are God's fault? In other words, priests who are abusing kids. I'm going to blame that on the human being, not on God, so to speak. So these pain points, how much of these are fellow human and particularly fellow Christian-caused?
Jim Davis: That's a really good question. I don't think that we had those categories. I don't know that we've looked at it for a percentage, but I know both of them are very prevalent. So you have people who left because of scandal in our church, scandal in the broader church, hypocrisy. But you have people who left because of suffering, which could well fall into that category. I'm blaming God for what I'm experiencing.
And we have that data. I mean, we have so much data. There's so many things that we, even after we wrote the book, people ask questions, good questions like that one, and we're like, "Oh, we didn't think to run that and we need to." And it would take about five minutes for Burge to do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I love what you're saying, Jim. When you're talking to a person, let's not make assumptions right out of the gate. Let's gather enough information and compassionately do that. See, that's what killed me about Rhett and Link. And by the way, they were both. It was intellectual and sociological. Intellectually, they both felt that an embracing of Darwinian evolution meant they couldn't believe in the Bible anymore. Okay? Now, I can imagine the debater in me wanting to jump in right now and debate that and forget listening, right? I want to tackle that point. But then it was also suffering and sociological reasons why they just felt like they couldn't stay. So we need to step back long enough and be disciplined enough and walk in the power of the spirit to let them just talk so that you're gathering the context of what has moved them and how they arrived at this present moment, not just jump in when you hear one thing that crosses an intellectual line and you want to debate right now.
Jim Davis: Well, I couldn't agree more. I mean, part of the reason we developed these categories is because we wanted people to understand who they're looking at, because they're very different types of de-churched people. In order to minister them effectively and to know who you're looking at, not only do you need these categories, we need to ask good questions and be in their lives and listen with curiosity.
And one of the things that we kind of flesh out a little bit, in the 20th century, there was an emphasis in the evangelical church on what's true, what's true scientifically. You see in our apologetic methods and our sermons and our tracks, and I had nine years with Campus Crusade on staff. I'm very thankful for all those things, because the gospel in the Bible is true, but it's also good and beautiful. And I don't think it's surprising that when we emphasize what's true, maybe at the expense of good and beautiful, that today people aren't just questioning the truth of the Gospel Bible, but the goodness, the ethics of it.
And so we want to, in our listening, have a mind of this person does need truth, but also needs the good and the beauty of Jesus.
Rick Langer: And maybe that brings me back to a thing that you'd mentioned earlier about this description of what people are seeing in church. And it's kind of like, oh, we've had our fruit of the spirit surgically removed, it got harvested and sold on the commodity market or something. What do you make of that as a pastor? In other words, as a pastor, how do you say, "If my people are lacking the fruit of the spirit, what do I do as an intervention? How do I help treat that?"
Because I mean, I'm sure you could get them to memorize first Corinthians. I mean, Galatians 5.
Jim Davis: Galatians.
Rick Langer: 25, 26, but I doubt that would work. What is it that you would do to say we're short on our gentleness, kindness, compassion, humility, what do we do?
Jim Davis: I mean, you're getting to the heart of 2020 and '21, 2021 over here, because we saw a lot of it. And as a pastor, it makes you sad. It makes me anxious. It makes me lose some sleep. But I think as we zoom out, part of what we're seeing in de-churching is a purification, at some level. So some people don't have the fruit of the spirit because they're not Christians and they need the gospel and I need to kind of have an eye. Oh, okay. It's hard to have the fruit of the spirit if you don't have the spirit.
But then others I want to have grace for... Is it Ross Douthat who said in the New York Times that in 2020 and 2021, we had 10 years of conversations crammed into two years? And it was more than a lot of people could handle. And so I want to recognize, okay, this is a lot on y'all.
In the counseling world, you have the window of tolerance where you want to be alert and calm, and we're on one end of that window. You are alert, but not calm at all. And on the other side, you are calm, but you're not alert. And so recognizing in terms of anger and engagement, there could be some psychological and emotional issues going on here too.
So I want to have grace and just know everybody's been through a whole lot, and there is fear. And so I want to bring the pastoral ministry. Change is loss, whether it's change in your church or change in your culture or your country. And we're experiencing a lot of that on all levels. Change is loss. And in our losses, we need Jesus. And so my trust is I will try to do that and if the person has the Holy Spirit, trust that as we remind him it's true about the gospel and minister to him where he needs to in his fears or her fears, that the Spirit will do the Spirit's work.
Tim Muehlhoff: Jim, at these family-like marriage conferences, we say crazy things to the people who attend, like, "When insulted, maybe you should bless instead of insulting again." And if we don't give them the means to do that, what's the source of that? We're not saying, "Hey, just suck it up and white-knuckle." A blessing for an insult is just flat not going to work. And I just feel like we're increasingly meeting Christians who don't have an ability to tap into the Spirit's power precisely when they feel defensive, angry, hurt. And we've got to start getting back to spiritual discipline, education of how do you tap into the Holy Spirit when you precisely need that type of power?
Jim Davis: Well, I couldn't agree more. I mean, it's a discipleship issue. There's absolutely a discipleship part of this. And I think you have the symptom, and then the diagnosis. And symptom, when your church members are arguing with each other on social media, you're like, "Okay, something's gone bad wrong here." It's like, what if my wife and I went on the stage and we argued in front of the whole church, on the stage in church?
It's like, no, we will disagree. But Jesus told us how we do this. Believing the best in the other person. We go to them first. We might need to engage somebody else, but there's a way that Jesus and His spirit wants us to disagree so that we would be drawn closer to him and to each other. But man, 2020 and 2021 just got crazy.
Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, that is well said. Go ahead, Rick.
Rick Langer: So one of the things that intrigues me when we think of... You mentioned that moving, COVID were significant issues in de-churching. And I'm like, "Well, gee, that's not really a sociological..." I mean, it's kind of a sociological problem with America in the sense that we move a lot, but no one's doing something wrong per se. It just is they moved and then reattached. Likewise with COVID, people in our little turf in California at least, were disconnected from their church for a year or 18 months and they didn't reconnect.
But I wonder if part of why evangelicals were prone to not reconnecting was because of kind of a faulty theology of the church, a faulty ecclesiology? And so, what are your thoughts on that? What are the things that we're doing when we educate people about the church that we might need to reconsider?
Jim Davis: Man, I put something about this in probably every other sermon I preach.
Rick Langer: All right, then.
Jim Davis: I mean, Paul had no concept of a privatized individual Christianity. It's nowhere in his thinking, as best I can see in reading his letters. We were called into and baptized into a church, into a body. In Romans chapter 12, when Paul starts giving us this fire hydrant of to-do's, he's talking about us being members of the body. The body needs us, and we need the body, and that we have gifts that we can discern from being in the body, and we will be sanctified from being in the body. I think embodied worship is built into the Christian life. And if you put me on an island all by myself, I am not going to do well spiritually, even if I have my Bible.
Rick Langer: That's so good.
Jim Davis: We are made to be a part of the body.
Rick Langer: That is so good.
Jim Davis: So I have lots of thoughts on this, but when I lived overseas, I was a missionary for five years and we would occasionally get to go into an army or an air force base, and it was interesting being thousands of miles from home. But you enter that base and you're on US soil. It's not a technicality. You're like, "Oh, there's Taco Bell, there's Pizza Hut here."
Rick Langer: Now we know we're in the United States!
Jim Davis: The police sirens make the right sounds. This is America. I can use dollars. Even though we're somehow far from home, we are here and we feel it. And that's what corporate worship is. And so it's just so built into Christianity that we actually cut our live stream not long after COVID. And we [inaudible 00:20:56] to put the sermons up and everything, but it was a part of the discipleship. We want you to have access to good stuff, but we don't want to give anybody the illusion that what is happening online is in any way the same thing as the embodied worship that we were made for.
Tim Muehlhoff: So an add to that conflict, there's something called contact theory, which when you have literal contact with people, it helps soften stereotypes, biases.
Jim Davis: Absolutely.
Tim Muehlhoff: And resentment. And COVID did a number on the faculty of Biola. I mean, we were all separated doing our Zoom classes, and we just had our first faculty retreat maybe in four years. And there's a faculty member that you sort of have gotten an attitude towards, and doggone it if you aren't laughing with them in the dinner line, thinking about which dessert you want.
And there's something about proximity and vice versa, that separation is maybe what the scriptures are saying is the schemes of the devil, to get us separated from each other and not wearing the armor of God as a unit moving forward. Boy, that's really good.
Jim Davis: Well, I mean, I think you're exactly right. And we see all these studies now done on working from home. Cultures within organizations, wherever they are, are eroding, because when you're not around each other, it's harder to believe the best. It's harder to extend charity, it's easier to believe the worst.
So yeah, I mean, we see that in the whole world, and that's a hundred percent true in the church. But even somebody might say, "I'm a Christian, but I find my fellowship with this Bible study or at my gym or something." Well, I'm glad you have that fellowship, but that's a very homogenous group of people. And you're not being stretched to love people the way that Jesus wants you to love people. And you're stunting your spiritual growth by just surrounding yourself by like-minded people.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, that's really good.
Rick Langer: Yeah, and I think that is one of the interesting things with the body. Just that thematic concept, that metaphor for understanding the church is just so fundamentally built around unity and diversity. If you were to look at a kidney and a liver and a gallbladder and a stomach, they're all in close proximity and your body, but you'd never confuse them. It's not like you need that little scorecard to figure out which one's this liver thing?
And I think that the magnitude of the diversity of the body is a really good thing to be thinking you would see as you walked into the church, that there'd be people that are that different as the organs are from one another within the body. I mean, that's just what Paul literally describes in first Corinthians 12, and that should be kind of our expectation. So yeah, hanging out with a bunch of kidneys isn't really probably a good plan for body health.
Jim Davis: And briefly, I'll just say in my former church, there was a woman who came in. She came to Christ, she was in the church, and she came with material needs, mental needs, emotional needs. And she was in our homes a lot. We pray with her, talk with her, do her laundry for years. I mean, we did everything we could for her, and then she took her life.
And I remember at her funeral, the pastor there said, "Amanda taught us how to love." And it just hit me. Yes, because we were in some ways forced. I mean, it's like I wouldn't choose to just, if it's up to me, hang out with somebody who has all these needs and is so challenging, but as a part of the body of Christ we do. And we all grew so much because of the blessing of having her in our lives for two years.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I know you got your degree from a Reformed seminary, right? Is that true?
Jim Davis: I did.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I have half an MA in Biblical Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary, and my favorite Calvin quote was, "We should serve communion every time the doors are open. Try to keep a bad attitude towards a person when you have that wafer in your mouth representing his body and that grape juice representing his blood. Now keep a better attitude towards that person to your left or right."
And I thought, boy, there's some wisdom in taking communion as a congregation, where you realize my sins needed that body to be broken. And now I'm judging the sins of another person saying, "I'm not going to forgive you."
Jim Davis: And see, look at that. You're just modeling someone with whom you have theological disagreement and appreciating something else that he brings to the table.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, I loved my time at Reformed. I loved those guys. They were amazing and allowed me to coexist with them. And I often think back to it now that we're doing the Winsome Conviction project, honestly, Dr. Richard Pratt, Mike Lotto. We had some unbelievable lunches together where they... And honestly, Jim, they could crush me intellectually. Honestly. They could crush me with their knowledge, but allowed me to exist and work it out.
And my favorite Mike Lotto story is we're talking outside one time, and this was in Orlando, and a guy runs by without a shirt on, and he's ripped. I mean, his abdominal muscles spell mom. And he runs by, and Mike does not miss a beat and says to me, completely deadpan, he goes, "I could have looked like that, but I gave myself to the life of the mind."
Jim Davis: I love that guy.
Tim Muehlhoff: He didn't miss a beat!
Jim Davis: I love that guy.
Tim Muehlhoff: They were amazing. So I loved my time there and learned a lot about civil conversations, honestly, from those guys.
Jim Davis: That's great.
Rick Langer: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Jim. It's been delightful to have these conversations with you about... So a really important issue, a thing that on one sense is kind of hard when we look at de-churching, but also I appreciate the optimistic tone that you also hit with looking at the fact that many of these folks are already and willing to come back if they can find a place where they have healthy relationships and healthy institution, life of the church. It isn't a message that these folks have turned away from church and have never come back. Is there anything you want to add on that before we give a wrap on this?
Jim Davis: Well, I think there was one church in Missouri who gave us the lion's share of the money for this study, so we gave them the executive summary. They saw what you just said, and they created initiatives, both digital and personal, to engage that type of the church person. And in four months, they had hundreds of new people in their church. And in my personal ministry, I've been amazed at when I identify a de-churched mainstream evangelical or a Christian who just isn't going to church, about a hundred percent of the time when I invite them, they come. And it's not just about putting butts in seats and money in coffers. The children of the de-churched will likely be unchurched. So we have a generational opportunity here to make a really significant impact.
Rick Langer: That's great. That's a word well said. And that's a great note to close on. So Jim, thanks again for all you've shared. Thank you for the work that you did as well in terms of just the informational conducts you've given us for understanding what's going on in our moment. And we're really grateful for the service you continue to give to your church as well. So thanks so much for being with us.
Jim Davis: Well, thanks for having me, and thanks for what y'all do.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, we appreciate it. Hey, thanks for listening to the Winsome Conviction Podcast, your support we do not take for granted, and you can find us anywhere you find your most favorite podcasts. So thank you, and you can check us out at winsomeconviction.com for our resources, blogs, podcast. We just really want to give you the resources to engage in civil, enriching conversations. Thank you.