Book Review: “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?”

Review by: Phillip Brown

Jim Davis and Michael Graham with Ryan P. Burge, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?.: Zondervan Reflective, 2023. Pp. xv + 241. Paper, CAD $36.99. ISBN 978-0-310-14743-5.

     The problem of the decline in North American church membership is a phenomenon which has been addressed by sociologists of religion and historians for a number of years. Rodney Stark in the United States, and Reginald Bibby as well as Clarke and Macdonald in Canada have all thoroughly investigated this issue. But in spite of their observations, explanations as to why so many have left the church, especially over the last few decades, seems as elusive as ever. 

     Davis et al. introduce their work stressing the change in the “spiritual landscape” (xix) over the last thirty years in their city of Orlando, Florida. They suggest that the trends which they have observed locally are representative of national trends as well. They also laid out their study design in the book’s introduction. Working with political scientist and statistician Dr. Ryan Burge, Davis and Graham conducted their research in three phases. The first phase was simply to collect data to prove the thesis that America is currently in the middle of the greatest religious shift in the nation’s history. They note the data collected proved this to be truth without a doubt. During this phase they also defined a ‘dechurched’ person as someone who “used to go to church at least once per month but now goes less than once a year” (xxii). Davis et al’s. central thesis seems to be that there is indeed a great falling away from the church in American, that there are numerous reasons why, and that with careful effort many can be brought back into the fold. Phase 2 of their research consisted of comparing the similarities and differences between the dechurched and the churched, regardless of tradition/denomination. Phase 3 of their work was all about those different groups, specifically those who came from evangelical streams. They had made a point of over sampling the target group. This was with the aim of having a large enough sample size such that a machine learning algorithm could process and sort the data in to meaningful groups of decurched people. In their interpretation of things, four different groups of dechurched people emerged from the data: cultural Christians, dechurched mainstream evangelicals, exevangelicals, and Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC). 

     The book proceeds in the following manner. They divide the book into four broad parts. Part 1 consists of two chapters. In chapter 1 they lay out their central data point, that 40 million American adults who used to go to church no longer do (3).  They carry about a brief historical analysis of some of the changes in church attendance over the last century and broadly lay the blame for the drop in numbers on the end of the cold war, politically conservative Christians, and the internet. They also discuss some of their broader concerns about the fallout from this great dechurching in light of some of the data which they had collected. In chapter 2, Davis et al. highlight some of the top reasons for why people are leaving the church. Then they briefly look at some of the circumstances that those people may be going through which have led to them walking away from the church. Part 2 consists of five chapters. Throughout these chapters (cptrs 3-7) Davis et al. create fictional profiles based on data collected about the above mentioned four groups. For each profile they develop a character representing, generally, the kinds of circumstances that a member of a given group might be in and what seems to have led to them leaving the church. After telling the reader about each character they breakdown their situation and discuss their reasons for leaving the church and what might bring them back. Part 3, consisting of chapters 8-11, discusses engaging those who have left the church. They discuss belief, belong, and behaviour, relational considerations when engaging the dechurched, and generational issues with a focus on parents and their ability to discuss faith with their children. They also directly address the dechurched, specifically with regards to some of the reasons they gave for leaving the church. Part 4, titled “Lessons for the Church”, is essentially pastoral. Throughout the last four chapters of the book, Davis and Graham draw on their personal experience as pastors and share thoughts on the broader issue of ‘the great dechurching’ and how the church, and especially church leaders, might be able to respond to the problem.

     This book is difficult to recommend. While the data presented is fascinating and insightful, and much of their pastoral advice may be sound, some of the authors’ commentary is questionable. One specific point which stands out above all is their political bias. While political factors were observed as reasons for dechurching and as such were necessary to discuss, at many points the authors made political instead of objective claims as regards the evidence. For example, implying that conservative Christians were in part to blame to the acceleration of dechurching in the 1990s (6) and criticizing pro-life pastors for being political while not discussing the same problem on the other side of the political spectrum (167). This sort of politicizing rhetoric appeared somewhat frequently. In my view, political commentary should always be avoided as it contaminates the objective assessment of the data and has the potential to confuse the reader. One clear example is their general category of BIPOC people. BIPOC is a political category, not a sociological category. Much more, using that term could be seen as being divisive and is potentially harmful to their purpose and to the group in question, see (“Better than BIPOC”, Deo 2023). The authors’ argue that they did not program their machine learning algorithm to see ethnicity, yet from the data emerged a distinctly racialized group. It is questionable whether or not that particular group stood out more than other potentially identifiable groups. Other examples of political bias displayed in the book can be given. In short, while their attempt to be objective may have been genuine, the authors’ bias certainly seemed to creep in. This resulted in a book which, while useful from a data perspective, is not as pastorally and academically sound as it otherwise could have been.   

Works cited

     Deo, Meera E. “Better than BIPOC.” Minnesota Journal of Law & Equality, vol. 41, no. 1, 2023, pp. 71-132.