Ministering to the Dechurched : Michael Graham
How can we most effectively minister to those who have left the church? In this week’s conversation on FrontStage BackStage, host Jason Daye is joined by Michael Graham. Michael is the program director at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics and served as the Executive Pastor at Orlando Grace Church. His most recent book is entitled The Great Dechurching. Together, Michael and Jason look at some of the revelations that come from a comprehensive research study into those who have left the church. Michael also shares some incredibly hopeful opportunities for every local church when it comes to reaching those who have left.
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- Audio links to this week’s episode – easily share with the ministry leaders in your church
- Additional resource links from this week’s conversation – so you and your team can easily find what is mentioned or referenced
- Ministry Leaders Growth Guide – key insights and concepts from this week’s conversation as well as engaging questions for you and your team to consider and process
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Additional Resource Links
www.dechurching.com – Visit Michael’s website to explore a diverse range of valuable resources and in-depth content that can enrich your knowledge, deepen your understanding, and enhance your spiritual journey.
The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? – This book gives the church in America its first-ever deep dive into the dechurched phenomenon. You’ll learn about the dechurched through a detailed sketch of demographics, size, core concerns, church off-ramps, historical roots, and the gravity of what is at stake. Then you’ll explore what can be done to slow the bleed, engage the pertinent issues winsomely and wisely, and hopefully re-church some of the dechurched.
The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics – Helping Christians share the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings.
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Ministry Leaders Growth Guide
Key Insights and Concepts
- Ministry leaders must have an accurate understanding of the current realities of “dechurching,” defined as a shift from regular church attendance to less than once a year, to make meaningful ministry decisions about engaging people with the gospel.
- Research around dechurching provides valuable insights into the dynamics of faith in contemporary society.
- With approximately 40 million dechurched adults in the US, research studies unveil a handful of diverse profiles highlighting significant differences in doctrinal beliefs, departure timelines, demographics, and reasons for leaving.
- The granularity of data allows for the identification of distinct groups, such as cultural Christians, mainstream evangelicals, exvangelicals, and BIPOC, each reflecting unique motivations and characteristics.
- The revelation that 0% of exvangelicals are willing to return to evangelical churches emphasizes the need for understanding and addressing the unique concerns of this group, despite their retention of certain Christian beliefs.
- The call for increased relational intimacy based on the identified profiles highlights the importance of tailored approaches for encouraging individuals to return to church, recognizing that one size does not fit all.
- Recognizing that most people leave churches for mundane reasons like rhythm and habit disruption offers hope, presenting opportunities for re-engagement, especially among those who left for non-doctrinal reasons.
- Pastors and communities are encouraged to have strategic plans for individuals moving to or from their area, recognizing that transitions pose unique challenges for people and providing support during these times is crucial for church engagement.
- Relational wisdom is a crucial aspect of pastoral care, requiring intentional development in six key awareness areas: God, self, others, perception, emotions, and culture.
- Institutional growth is essential alongside individual development, focusing on foundational aspects that emphasize the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel in local churches.
- The 21st-century challenge involves not only affirming the truth of Jesus but also emphasizing His goodness and the beautiful vision He offers people and the world.
- Christ-followers are encouraged to embrace the idea that losing top-down power in culture and society doesn’t diminish their impact, as historical Christian influence wasn’t always at the apex of power.
- During an election cycle, pastors are called to promote patience, understanding, and a posture of believing the best in others, recognizing generational differences and societal challenges.
Questions for Reflection
- As I reflect on my life and ministry, how am I doing in the six crucial areas of relational wisdom – God awareness, self-awareness, others-awareness, perception awareness, emotional awareness, and cultural awareness?
- How can we actively guide individuals in our church to deepen their awareness in the six crucial areas of relational wisdom – God awareness, self-awareness, others-awareness, perception awareness, emotional awareness, and cultural awareness?
- How is our local church emphasizing the truth of the gospel? The goodness of the gospel? The beauty of the gospel? Are we over emphasizing any of these? Under emphasizing any of these?
- What steps can I take to contribute to the foundational and philosophical growth of our local church, emphasizing the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel simultaneously?
- How effectively am I currently communicating the Gospel story, and in what ways can I make it more comprehensive and compelling for our congregation?
- In what specific ways is our local church presenting the transformative and redemptive nature of Jesus? What improvements can our church make to present the transformative and redemptive nature of Jesus more powerfully?
- What are my honest thoughts about the Church losing top-down influence and power in culture?
- What steps can I take to ensure our church is actively engaged in culture, even if it means operating from the margins rather than the seat of power?
- How can I encourage our church leadership to explore resources like dechurching.com to assess our strengths and areas for improvement in preventing dechurching?
- How have I and our ministry leaders been preparing for an upcoming election cycle? What challenges might this present to our ministry? How can we best honor God and disciple our people during these times of tension?
- In what ways can I promote patience, understanding, and a positive posture among our congregation during an election cycle without dictating political views?
- How can I address generational differences and societal challenges to ensure a healthy church environment during politically charged times while respecting diverse perspectives?
- How can I effectively dispel misconceptions about dechurching within our congregation, ensuring a nuanced understanding of why people may leave?
- What practical steps can I take to encourage patient communication between generations in the church, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to be heard and understood?
- How might our church, and myself personally, foster emotional resilience and maintain a calm, non-anxious presence, particularly during challenging times, to facilitate constructive dialogue and understanding?
How can we most effectively minister to those who have left the church?
In this episode, I’m joined by Michael Graham. Michael is the program director at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics and served as the Executive Pastor at Orlando Grace Church. His most recent book is entitled The Great Dechurching. Together, Michael and I look at some of the revelations that come from a comprehensive research study into those who have left the church. Michael also shares some incredibly hopeful opportunities for every local church when it comes to reaching those who have left. Are you ready? Let’s go.
Hello, friends, and welcome to another insightful episode of FrontStage BackStage. I’m your host Jason Daye. Every single week, I have the distinct privilege to sit down with a trusted ministry leader. And we dive into a topic all in an effort to help you and pastors and ministry leaders just like you embrace a healthy, sustainable rhythm for both your life and ministry. We are proud to be a part of the Pastor Serve Network. And not only do we have a conversation every week, but our team creates an entire toolkit to help you and the ministry team at your local church really dig more deeply into the conversation that we have. And you can find that toolkit with all of its resources, including the Ministry Leaders Growth Guide with questions for reflection for you and your team, at PastorServe.org/network. So be sure to check that out. Now at Pastor Serve we have a heart for walking alongside pastors and ministry leaders, and our team of trusted and experienced coaches across the country would love to offer you a complimentary coaching session. And you can learn more about those details and find out how you can get your complimentary coaching session at PastorServe.org/freesession. So please check that resource out as well. Now, if you’re following us or watching on YouTube, please take a moment to give us a thumbs up and drop your name and the name of your church in the comments below. We love getting to know our audience better. And we’ll be praying for you and for your ministry. And whether you’re joining us on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform, please be sure to subscribe or to follow. You do not want to miss out on any of these great conversations. I’m excited about today’s guest, I’m excited about today’s topic and conversation. At this time I’d like to welcome Michael Graham to the show. Michael, welcome to FrontStage BackStage.
Thank you so much for having me, Jason. It’s good to be here.
Super, super excited. We’re going to dive into a topic today, Michael, that I imagine most of our audience has at least heard of and has some familiarity with. And that is the topic of dechurching. The dechurched, as we say. You and your colleague, Jim Davis, wrote an incredible book, did a ton of research, and had a research team working alongside you, called The Great Dechurching. But just so, Michael, we are all talking and thinking about the same thing, right? Can you describe what you mean by the word ‘dechurched’?
Yeah, so for the purpose of our study, we’re talking about a word that’s not in the dictionary. Two unknown pastors writing a book about a subject that isn’t even in the dictionary. But yeah, so for the purpose of how we defined dechurching for our study, we’re talking about people who used to go to church on at least a monthly or greater basis, who now go less than once per year. So basically, not at all. So interestingly enough, if somebody went for Christmas and Easter only, or just Christmas, or just Easter, we actually didn’t count them as being dechurched, even though, I mean, in reality, they are. But we wanted to have a very conservative definition and not be accused of stacking the deck or stuffing the ballot so to speak. So, in terms of adult United States Americans who fit that category of used to go to a house of worship at least once a month and now less than once per year, basically, not at all. You’re talking about 40 million US adults, that’s basically one in six US adults is dechurched.
Wow, that’s a big stat, obviously. And especially when, like you said, it’s a very conservative definition. I mean, like you’re not trying to inflate the number to get people riled up or anything. This is like really, really, really dechurched. So what was the impetus, Michael, for you guys to say, Okay, we’re gonna invest time, energy, and resources into a big research study on this particular topic?
Yeah, so we got interested in this, probably, I first got interested in what’s going on with dechurched people while doing church planting. And then, you know, some 15 years later, interested, again, as I ran across some data from Barna. I’m in the Central Florida area in Orlando and saw some data that basically said, almost half of our city was dechurched. And so I wasn’t sure, it wasn’t clear what definition they were using, and these different kinds of things. But you know, in talking about that among our elders at our church. I was an executive pastor at Orlando Grace Church for a decade before I took my role at the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. And so we were talking about this among our elders of like, okay, well, if half of our city is dechurched, what does that mean for us? And who are these people? And why did they leave? And what does it look like for us to minister effectively to them? And so we really didn’t have good answers besides like, just kind of licking our finger and putting it up in the air, you know, which isn’t helpful. You know, that’s just anic-data, that’s not real, it’s not hard information. And it’s not actionable either. And so, we decided that we wanted to go on a journey to kind of digest all of the literature on who are these dechurched people. And what we discovered was, there have been some smaller studies on this, but the sample sizes weren’t big enough, and the most recent of them was 2014. And it just wasn’t actionable information, basically mid to post-pandemic. And so, you know, we started thinking about this in 2018. And then the pandemic hit. And so during the pandemic, I’m like, Jim, we’re gonna need a lot of information. You know, kind of any data that’s kind of existed before the pandemic is, in some ways, no longer as helpful as it was before. And we need new information. And we need actionable information. And so we went on this journey, basically, because we had this podcast that we wrote and led called As In Heaven. And what we did on that podcast was basically do a deep dive on a really challenging subject that has some intractable, challenging problem, that probably doesn’t have a solution but where we can make some progress and there’s some low-hanging fruit. So we just felt like, oh, man, this is the perfect subject to do an entire season on. And so we never intended to write a book, we just did all this research and raised the $100,000 we needed to get the data for the purpose of just putting together an excellent podcast season. But what happened was, in the process of just kind of talking through some of the insights that we were learning for the podcast, a number of publishers got wind of this and started approaching us like, Hey, hold on, don’t just do audio for this subject. This needs to be in writing too, because there’s so many people who don’t really do the podcast medium. So we’re like, Well, okay, but we’re two random pastors in Central Florida of like a medium-sized church. Anyways, so, they talked us through that and said, hey, you know, you guys have something, you can’t just keep this, don’t keep your light under a bushel kind of thing. So we ended up writing the book, and Zondervan was really helpful in that process. And so was Ryan Berge. So we worked with quantitative sociologist, Ryan Berge, and another social scientist, Paul Juppe, who did the survey design.
Excellent. Yeah. And the book just unpacks all this research that you did, and obviously, you guys invested a lot, as we said, in this. As you look at the research, as the research came back, you recognize that this idea of the dechurched, that it wasn’t like some monolithic group of people. That there were differences that were these different profiles of dechurched people, we can’t just look at all dechurched people in the same way. And this is important when we’re thinking of, as pastors and ministry leaders, who the dechurched are, it’s not just one big label that we slap on people. So, Michael, can you share what did the research uncover about some of the different profiles of dechurched people?
Yeah, we go into infinitely more detail than what we’ll be able to cover here. But basically, people had significant differences in their doctrinal beliefs. They had significant differences on when they left. They had significant differences demographically, in terms of age, ethnicity, income, and education. And they had significant differences in why they left, their willingness to return, and under what conditions they would be willing to return. And so basically, these profiles are based on people who had very common answer choices, on kind of those seven things that I just unpacked there. So of the 40 million people who left houses of worship in America, 15 million of those people left from evangelical contexts. And then about 20 million people left from mainline Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox contexts. And so we have the most granular data because our phase three part of the study was focused only on people who left evangelical churches, we developed four profiles of people who left evangelical churches. And so the first of those is a group called cultural Christians. The second group is called mainstream evangelicals, the third group we call ex-vangelicals, and the fourth group we called BIPOC. The cultural Christians were about half the group, almost 8 million people, they have very low what we call orthodoxy scores. So this is like Nicene Creed level Christianity, of the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, Jesus’s perfect life, penal substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and the reliability of the Bible. Only 1% of this group said that Jesus was the Son of God. So this group, they kind of left primarily because they were doing well for themselves in kind of the American dream. And the habits and rhythms of the American dream just got them out of the habit of going to church, they were probably never Christians in kind of the born-again sense to begin with when you kind of drill down to their beliefs. The second group, the mainstream evangelicals, these people honestly look no different than people who go to church still today. In fact, their orthodoxy scores were a hair higher than people who still go to church. 98% of them say that Jesus is the Son of God. They left very recently, basically, right around the time of COVID, on average. The second, third, and fourth groups, so mainstream, exvangelicals, and BIPOC, they’re all about two and a half million people each. And so the cultural Christians were primarily looking for relational connectivity, the mainstream evangelicals were looking for relational connectivity plus more of a healthy church. So basically a church that’s going to emphasize the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel all at the same time. About half of the cultural Christians are willing to return to an evangelical church today. 100% of the mainstream evangelicals are willing to return to an evangelical church today. This is in contrast with the third group, the exvangelicals, we call them exvangelicals because 0% of this group are willing to return to an evangelical church today. So we talked about in the book, we kind of outline that if you zoom out even further than these profiles, like to the highest altitude, you kind of have people who left the church casually and you have other people who left the church as casualties. About three-quarters, about 75% of the people who left houses of worship, look like they left casually. In other words, the habits and rhythms of American life just got them out of the habit of going to church. It wasn’t like they necessarily had some huge pain point with the church, or maybe even had huge differences. It’s just more pedestrian things like they moved, or attending was inconvenient, or there was some kind of family change, like divorce, remarriage, the birth of a child, and these different kinds of things. But going back to the exvangelical, that third group, 0% of them were willing to return to an Evangelical Church. Interestingly enough, though, 97% of them still believe that Jesus is the Son of God. And there were a number of other things that were still intact, that you would kind of hope from people where you’d say, oh, man, there’s actually something still there in terms of a set of beliefs. And what’s interesting, though, about the exvangelicals is that 79% of them are willing to go to a different Christian tradition. And only 21% are unwilling to go to any tradition, they’re just completely done with church. So there’s some real opportunities there for that group, to minister to them, kind of outside the evangelical tradition that’s there. So far, the first, second, and third groups look very white in terms of ethnicity and race, with the first group being, I believe, 98% white, the second group being 91%, white, and the third group being 82% white. Interestingly enough, when we developed these profiles, we didn’t make these profiles, what we did is we used a machine learning algorithm. And that’s just a fancy way to say, you feed something that has lots of computational power, a certain set of things that you want to see, hey, machine learning algorithm, show me clusters of people that have very common answer choices on the things that I outlined at the beginning. So seven kind of things. So it spit out these things, one of the things that we didn’t allow it to see, in terms of spitting out these profiles is we didn’t allow it to see race or ethnicity. But what’s interesting is largely still sorted on those things, even though it didn’t have the ability to sort on those things. And so the BIPOC group was 100%, non-white. And that’s why we called it you know, BIPOC, which stands for black, indigenous, and persons of color. And so this group was 68% male and 76% African American. Meaning when you put those two things together, you’re talking about a group of about two and a half million people, over a million of them, over 50% of them are African American males. What’s interesting about this group is a number of things. They were by far the highest income and highest educated of all the different profiles that we looked at. And their pain points were a mixture of casual and casualty-type reasons. So the exvangelicals, they were almost entirely dechurch casualties. The BIPOC is a mixture of casually dechurched and dechurch casualties. So at the highest altitude, those are some of the very, very basic sketches of those particular profiles. But again, we go into much more detail in The Great Dechurching book.
Yeah, yeah. It’s fascinating as we kind of, like you said, you didn’t create profiles. You asked a lot of questions and then saw where there are correlations across responses to these questions and it creates these groupings of people with similar responses. And it’s interesting because then we can step back and look at when it comes to our own context as a local church. We can look at what things might be closely related to our community, the community in which we find ourselves. And then how does that correlate with the findings from your studies? And so the study provides tools for us in local ministry to perhaps reengage some who are dechurched. What have you found in even looking at local churches who have taken this data already and have said, Okay, what can we glean from this? And how can it impact how we are serving in our community? How we are living out God’s mission? What are some of the things that you have seen coming out of this study that have impacted ministry in a positive way?
Yeah, so in terms of just straight-up brass tacks of things that you should know and thinking again here on being the most actionable things. The first thing is, read the book. You really do need to understand the profiles. And a couple basic questions when you’re just interacting with people where you live, work, and play. We’ll help you kind of glean, okay, which kind of profile we’re looking at here. The BIPOC group, these folks left in the late 90s. The mainstream evangelical folks left about two to four years ago. So there’s huge differences in how various different groups are motivated, what they’re looking for, what kind of animating concerns they have, and what things are going to speak to them. So having greater clarity on just like, oh, well, this person kind of seems like they fit this profile. Or maybe these two. A little bit of this one and a little bit of that one. Those things are super helpful. So that will give you a sense of knowing basically, what level of relational intimacy needs to be there before you kind of press in with them and encourage them to kind of return to church. We talk about how basically, there’s three levels of relational intimacy that you want to see there, depending on the particular profile. So one level is just the person who just needs a nudge to return to church, mainstream evangelicals, they just need a nudge, like something as simple as like a water cooler moment. Or, Hey, I’m doing this thing at church, or this thing is happening at church, I’m speaking at this thing, or I’m leading this thing. Like, would you come with me to this and can we grab lunch? You know, can we go to your favorite restaurant after or just a text or a phone call, a personal invite is just that first nudge level. So that’s basically the mainstream Evangelical group of people, then the cultural Christians and the bipoc group largely fit in the second bucket, which is basically people who need to be at your dinner table. You know, maybe that’s literally or maybe that’s metaphorically, but just that these are people that you need to be breaking bread with them and having that level of relationship before. There’s just things kind of broken down and opportunities to share Well, yeah, maybe there’s some pain there, maybe there’s some friction, a little bit church hurt, and I don’t know, stuff to that end. So there’s the dinner table level, so nudge then dinner table. And then there’s a third bucket of people who probably are never going to return to church. But you don’t know that. And we in the Holy Spirit is also… you know, 100% of any group can tell you that they’re never going to go back to church. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to do that. The Holy Spirit’s a great baseball player who bats 1000, he does exactly what he wants. And he always accomplishes his ends. And so we don’t want to give up on people. And we don’t want to just think, oh, because you’re this profile that seems less likely, that it’s hopeless. My advice to people is this. If you’re listening to this, I want you to ask yourself a simple question. Who is it that God is consistently putting right in front of me? Whoever those people are, that’s somebody that God wants you to invest in. And so my encouragement to you is just when you’re looking at people who God’s putting right in front of you who are dechurched, get educated on some of these different categories, arm yourself with some basic information. And then I think, really, it’s important for us to take relational risk. I just want to demystify that. Going into this whole study, if your media diet leaned a little bit left, here was the story that was being told about all these people who are leaving church. If your media diet leaned a little bit left, the story was basically that churches have caused this dechurching themselves, primarily because they’ve made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes on racism, misogyny, political syncretism, clergy scandal, clergy abuse, and these different kinds of things. Now, if your media diet leaned a little bit right, the story that had been told there is well, all these people have left churches because of secular progressivism, because of the sexual revolution, and these kinds of things. Now, with 40 million people who are leaving houses of worship, can you find several million people who fit either of those stories? Yes. Yes, you can. However, I think that the story that we want to say is that most people have left for really boring reasons. The left story and the right story, well, those are really interesting stories and those are stories that will get you clicks, and build an audience. But the real story is that so many people left for extremely boring reasons of just rhythm and habit and moving and just the rhythms of life. And the good news is the boring news. The boring news gives us a lot of hope. And it gives us a lot of hope because if people left church for really kind of boring reasons and reasons of rhythm and habit, well, over half the people who left evangelical churches are willing to return right now. Even people who really don’t look like they’re Christians in terms of their beliefs on paper. And so, a couple other things I would say is, if you’re listening to this and you’re a pastor, you have arrivals and departures in terms of people who are coming to your city and leaving your city. And what I want to say is moving is an emergency, somebody is at the most risk when they’re either coming to your city or when they’re going. And so, I want you to really think about what is our plan and what is our strategy for people who are moving to our city. And then when people are leaving your city and going to a different community, make sure you have a system in place of kind of systematically following up with them until they find a good place to land, local church-wise. I think I’ve always appreciated when pastors have done that for us when we’ve been on the arrival side, and there’s been a pastor who’s been on the departure side, who’s kind of helped with that process, shepherded that all the way to completion. It’s like, okay, well, if I’ve appreciated that when another pastor has done that for me, well, I can be that guy, I can be that person. And maybe you’re listening to this and you’re not clergy, or pastor, or anything like that. Well, it’s like, if you have a friend in the church who’s moving, well, guess what you can help them. You can look in the area where they’re moving. And you can start listening to churches, to sermons and digesting websites, and kind of writing up what you hear or what you’ve heard. We’ve all moved before. Move is a four-letter word. And you’re just trying to think about, Okay, I gotta sell my house, I gotta maybe buy a house or rent one, what are we doing for the kids in school, and these different kinds of things. I don’t know this new place yet. And it’s like, you could have a really, really high value for church, it could be the most important thing to you. But you have to remember, you’ve got all these other logistics that are time-constrained. And you’ve got to figure those things out. And so, you know, it’s so nice to be a friend to somebody and come alongside and help do some of the additional due diligence that that other person might not have the time to do because they have to get all these other different pieces sorted. And when you’re in boxes, it’s hard, you know, it’s like, oh, man, I’m gonna spend my evening with six hours of sermons or whatever. So, I think just from just kind of a nuts and bolts standpoint, those are some of the big things. What I want to say is, more than anything else, just relational wisdom is important. And relational wisdom is not something that as pastors, we can just assume that the people in our church have and possess. And so we spent a whole chapter talking about how there’s six important awarenesses that kind of make up relational wisdom. Those would be God awareness, self-awareness, others-awareness, awareness of how other people are experiencing you, emotional awareness, and cultural awareness. And those are things that I think you really have to pastor people into. And, you know, look, we all have the people in our church who are just kind of peculiar, odd, and relationally just off. I’m not just talking about those people who are just off. I think the average person in an Evangelical Church possesses a very average amount of relational wisdom. Their ability to read the room, read a conversation, and be kind of six-for-six on those various awarenesses. I think a lot of low-hanging fruit there. And it’s good news, it’s good news if we have upside and we have room to grow. Particularly among evangelicals, if there’s room to grow in relation to wisdom, well that’s good news. It means we’ve got areas for improvement. So I think that there’s some real opportunities just in terms of how we relate to people, that’s on the individual side. I want to say two things on the institutional side of things, because this whole conversation on dechurching doesn’t really go anywhere if just a handful of us do better as individuals. Now, we don’t make any progress unless we grow as individuals, but it needs to be individuals plus institutions at the same time growing in our competency on this matter. So, two things I want to say about institutions. The first of those things is foundational and philosophical. And that is this. We need to be building local churches that emphasize the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ, all at the same time. If you kind of look at church history, and you zoom out to like, again, this is like, I’m reaching almost stereotypical levels here in terms of painting in a very broad brush. So bear with me on that. But it’s like, when you have, knowing, loving, and doing. Truth, goodness, and beauty. The individual Christian life, the sum total of the things that are true, and then our experiences in internal community and our experiences in community outside. Our relationships in the secular world. That triangle that’s there, we have to be three for three on these things. And you can look at, okay, all right, reform types trend towards being strong on the mind, in theology, and in the head. And then you have maybe charismatic or Pentecostal movements who have focused significantly on the heart, and the emotions, and the individual Christian life, and our experiences as individual Christians. And then you have other movements like Roman Catholic or mainline Protestants, whose focus has been on action and what are we doing both internally in our community, but especially in culture and society? And so, each one of those things is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Obviously, certainly we don’t have anything apart from the atonement itself. But the gospel does have implications for us as individuals and it does have implications for society as well. And so, I think that one of the common denominators, and just kind of looking at the various different concerns that dechurched people had, is they’re just looking for a healthy local church. And they’re looking for a local church that is going to not just care about the eternality of their souls, but they’re looking for a local church that’s, you know, the questions are less ‘Is Jesus true’? Yes, certainly, some people are asking those things. But I think that was probably more of the main question of the 20th century. I think the bigger question that we’re seeing in the 21st century, is ‘Is Jesus good’? And does he have a beautiful vision for the world? And I think he does. You know, I think that the Jesus path is the path ethically. And when we get off his path, ethically, I don’t think that that’s a path that leads to human flourishing. And it’s not just because we’ve been given rules on things like sexuality and these different kinds of things. It’s good for us to follow those rules. But it’s also important for us to remember if we don’t follow those rules, it doesn’t lead us toward a path of human flourishing. So Jesus is good, and it is good for us to hold to a traditional sexual ethic and these different kinds of things. But the Jesus path is also a beautiful path. And we have the kingdom, and what is the extent of the Atonement? Is it just my personal salvation and my sin gets put on on Jesus and His righteousness gets put on me? That’s certainly a minimum part of the gospel. But that’s not it, we also have that atonement that’s bringing redemption as far as the curse is found. And so there’s so much hope that comes in having not just a new heart, we have a new heart, but also a new record and a new world. And so, there’s so much hope that’s in that. And I think that, you know, so many people will resonate with the idea that redemption isn’t just about me, or isn’t just about somebody else. But it’s actually redemption that’s being brought to all of creation. And so I think that just the emphasizing of the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel all at the same time, will help people really wrap their minds around, man, this is a powerful story. And I think so much of what evangelicals have failed to do in particular, is I don’t think that they’ve told their Gospel story in a comprehensive way. And in a way that has been as compelling as what is there in the text. And so, I want to say that. The second thing I want to say is that it’s okay for evangelicals, if you’re listening to this and you’re Evangelical, it’s okay to lose top-down power in culture and society. Mainly if you look throughout church history, the people who have been followers of the way, Christians, have not, by and large in church history, been at the apex of the power pyramid in culture and society. And so you can go all the way from the early church to the Middle Ages through the Protestant Reformation. And really, seeing Christians more in the seat of power has been a very recent development. And it’s maybe been a development that has gone well in certain things, but maybe it’s gone sideways in a number of different ways. And I think we’re starting to see some of that here even this past decade. And so, it’s okay for us if we lose some level of cultural power and influence, and it’s okay if the work becomes harder in the sense of having to really not just proclaim but proclaim and demonstrate these things in more tangible ways. So it’s okay if we have to do these things more from the margins of society than the seat of power. That doesn’t mean that you don’t vote or you don’t have thoughts on policy. It doesn’t mean that we abdicate the public square and these different kinds of things. No, we go and we enter all of those things, and we seek to bring redemption, and we seek to bring human flourishing to all of those things. But the Gospel isn’t, I’m going to put you at the seat of power before the second coming. Is there going to be an ebb and flow to those things? Will those things look different in different cultures, societies, and people groups? Yes. So, we have to navigate all of those things. And be careful to put our citizenship with Christ’s kingdom always first. Everything else in terms of the things that we’re stewarding, time, talent, treasure, stewarding institutions, stewarding cultures. Those things are subservient to the only thing that should have primacy, which is our citizenship as Kingdom citizens adopted into Jesus’s family. So, on the subject of institutions, Jim and I built a second resource besides The Great Dechurching. So I haven’t even told you about this, Jason, this is actually pretty cool. We built a website, this is gonna be super hard to remember, it’s dechurching.com. So we built a site, dechurching.com, primarily for pastors and deacons, elders, whatever the name that you have for different church leaders in your particular tradition. But basically, it has a free 20-point audit on things that a local church can do that are all factors that relate to and deeply impact either on a positive preventative, or a negative, oh, we’re putting people at risk way as it pertains to just dechurching. And so you can go to dechurching.com and take that free 20-point audit of here’s 20 areas that impact dechurching and kind of see where you’re at. If you decide that there’s some areas that you want to have growth and have some rails to run on, we have a paid resource there that basically has worksheets that work you through each of those 20 areas. But I think the big value really is in that audit. And I think churches should go through that audit and kind of take a look in the mirror and say, Okay, how are we doing with those things? Look, it’s like one of those audits that nobody’s gonna pass. You know, even our own church, Jim and I at Orlando Grace, there’s at least three of those 20 items that we’re kind of actively working on right now. Some of those items are really basic, like, oh, we can take care of this today. And then other areas just require significant changes in kind of philosophy of ministry, or a mindset shift, or creating new structures and systems to make sure that we’re kind of looking after people better as they’re moving, or putting together more coherent strategies on the arrival side of things. So those are the things I want to say just in terms of kind of low-hanging, highly actionable fruit, rails to run on with what can be done about all this.
Yeah, I love that, Michael. It gives us a lot of hope and a few things to kind of jump in on. One, I love that resource. And we’ll have links to that in the toolkit for this episode. So, I definitely encourage you guys to do that audit. And then there are several things that you talked about that at the local church level we can really embrace. I loved your comments about people moving and we saw a lot of movement during the pandemic. And movement within the pandemic was even crazier because it was even harder to kind of get plugged in, right? So I think as you said, low-hanging fruit is a huge opportunity. There are great resources out there that help you identify people moving into your community and reach out to them. So I love that. And then the relational wisdom piece and really working through that as a staff. Working through that and how you incorporate that into the formation of your people in your local church and just raising that awareness. What does that look like in our community? So super helpful things. One thing that kind of stood out to me, and I wanted to just touch on this as we’re kind of wrapping up here, but you talked about the power piece, and kind of being in the seat of power. And there’s obviously been a lot of conversation around that for really the last decade, and it’s just ramped up over the last probably five or six years. And kind of Christianity losing its position here in America and that sort of a thing. And so you have people that are really concerned about that, talking about that, and then at the same time you have the great dechurching going on. And so there’s a lot of conversation about a correlation between, hey, we’re losing power and as we’re losing power, people are walking away from the church. I know that you talk a lot about, and I think dedicate an entire chapter in the book to embracing exile. This idea of when we’re not in power, and what does that look like in terms of flourishing. And we look across history, but also just even geographically across the world right now. And we see a lot of church flourishing, and the flourishing of people, flourishing of the gospel in places where the church doesn’t have a lot of power. And we see this, it’s a beautiful thing, and we celebrate it. Michael, can you dig a little more into this idea of the great dechurching, this idea of a feeling of loss of power of the church in the US? What are some misconceptions that people are making when they look at these two things together? What are some realities that through the research and through the work that you guys are doing you’ve seen evidence within this? Talk about that a little bit. Because I know people are kind of running with that conversation. So help us out with that a little Michael?
Yeah, so the first thing is, I would encourage everybody to be patient and understanding with each other in an election cycle and embrace a posture of trying to believe the best in other people. You know, it’s not my job as a pastor to tell people how to vote. But it is my job to think about, Well, how should I think about these things? And there’s big generational differences, I think, that are occurring. And I think that’s creating some challenges. I think we need to learn from the last two election cycles as well. And maybe turn down the heat a little bit in terms of how we relate to each other. I fully suspect that this is going to be a very challenging and likely contentious election cycle where people very much struggle with how other people are landing on those things. So I think a couple misconceptions would be first, as I mentioned earlier, those whose media diet might lean a little bit right, the story there being one that people were primarily leaving because of secular progressivism. The dechurching that occurred in the 80s and 90s definitely looked like people leaving the church for more secular left reasons than later on. But what we learned in the second phase of our study was that people are dechurching on the secular right at twice the rate right now as people who are dechurching in a more progressive direction. And so this is me being descriptive here. I’m politically independent, so I don’t have super strong feelings about all this, kind of everything looks like a mess to me. But it is important to understand that there is a wing of America that’s growing fairly rapidly. That is an analog or kind of a photo negative of the secular left. You know, there’s a secular version of progressivism that exists on the right. And there are many people kind of being siphoned off our churches into that particular group’s vision for the good life. And so I think that’s something that pastors need to be cognizant of. We have to be multi-directional leaders. And so, obviously, there are problems in the secular left direction and there are also problems in the secular right direction. And so I think that’s something that’s important to be cognizant about. Again, those aren’t political statements, we don’t want to lose people to non-gospel things regardless of what avenue those things are coming at us. So that was something that was very surprising to us and probably a misconception that’s worth dispelling. Yeah, so I think if you’re maybe younger and you’re listening to this, let’s say you’re under 40 and you’re listening to this. Be patient with those who are in a different generation than you throughout all of this. It doesn’t hurt you to hear other people’s perspectives. And sometimes that’s all people want is just to have the opportunity to be heard, understood, and listened to. And maybe the shoe’s on the other foot. Maybe you’re listening to this and you’re above 40, and maybe you’re having similar struggles. Make sure that communication is actually transacted. Make sure actual hearing is taking place. And I think one of the things that people have struggled with in the social media era is algorithms have kind of hurt how elastic the rubber bands of our souls end up being. And it used to be before, I grew up outside and offline, I’m 41. So, I kind of straddle the Gen-X and Millennial thing. But growing up outside and offline felt like the kind of cul-de-sac childhood that maybe the boomers and the Gen-Xers had. Ride your bike for four to six hours, play basketball, and your sign to come home was when the streetlights turned on. And so I know that. I’m familiar with that kind of nostalgia in American life. But then, I had to become a digital native because of my age and when I entered the workforce after school. And so what I want to say is, those that have grown up on Wi-Fi, online, kind of ubiquitous, right in the bloodstream, so to speak, is having a media diet that’s very digitally mediated, and algorithmically organized, has hurt how elastic we’re able to be. In other words, a different way to put it is this. I have an elder at our church, who always says, Mike, the ability to handle dissonance is a sign of relational, emotional, and spiritual maturity. The ability to handle dissonance is a sign of relational, emotional, and spiritual maturity. And so I think it’s important for us to be around other people with whom we disagree. But we just need to go about our disagreements in a Christian way. And ideally, believe the best in each other until it doesn’t make sense for us to believe the best anymore. So obviously, there’s a point in which believing the best can turn into some naivety and somebody might be in danger, legitimately, of going down a path that doesn’t lead them to the Jesus path. Okay, so speak into those things, but let’s go about all of that with a level of relational wisdom about how we go about those things. And let’s try to stay in the pocket, emotionally, as we relate to each other and be calm. Because when people get out of the kind of window of tolerance emotionally, well what happens in their brains? When we’re living in a cortisol state and doing life out of our amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, where all reason and all rationality occurs, well, the prefrontal cortex gets bypassed. And so in many ways, if you’re going to pastor people in an election cycle, they have to be calm first. And so Jim and I talk about, we didn’t talk about this in the book, and maybe we’ll write on this, but this idea of pre-pastoring. You have to pre-pastor your people. If they’re not calm, emotionally, you cannot persuade them. Your sermons will not land and the Bible won’t take root because their ability to process reason and rationality, and their ability to be persuaded has been cut off in their brains. And I think that’s a lot of what happened during the pandemic era of 2020, 2021, and maybe even some of 2022 is people were living in this cortisol state out of their amygdalas, the prefrontal cortex is being bypassed, and the ability to persuade was almost nothing. Now, I don’t think we’re in as bad of a place now at the societal level as that. But I think that we can easily get there pretty fast if people come and get whipped up into a fervor from kind of their media and information diets. So I think we as pastors have to lead the way in being a calm and non-anxious presence. We’ve got to pre-pastor our people and get them in a place where they’re even in a position where they’re willing to be persuaded and hear what we’re saying from the text and the application of that text. So those are just some of the things that I want to say. And just finally, if we lose all power in culture and society, you know what? It’s okay. I’ll tell you one quick story. I cut my teeth on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ in Europe, in Italy. This is a people group of 60 million people, and of whom you would say that there are 40 or 50 gospel-centered churches in the entire country, whose total membership between all of those churches is about 2000 people. Okay, this would be like having, for the state of California, 20 churches for the whole state and like 1000 gospel-centered Christians. And you know what? We saw so many people respond to the gospel in that country. And the situation was far more dire than anything that we’ve seen here in this country. And you know what? We planted a healthy church there. And that church now 20 years later, is still there. It’s fully led by multiple Italian-only leaders. And by American standards, it’s a large church. And so, what I want to say is, regardless of what happens in terms of cultural power and influence, and again, I’m not saying give up on any of those things, I’m just saying, let’s steward that with wisdom. But all of those things to say is if we lose all of those places and all that positionality, it’s going to be okay. Christ has His Church, His church is the plan A for His kingdom. And he’s going to follow through on that. And you know what? Zoom out. And if you ever get depressed about what God’s doing maybe in America, just look at what he’s doing in the Global East, in the Global South, and you’ll just be immediately encouraged about what God is doing in his world. And so we can look to our brothers and sisters elsewhere to be a source of encouragement to us. And so, hopefully, some of those things will help give us a little bit of a mindset shift and be a real source of hope and encouragement to us so that we don’t grow weary in doing good works.
I love that, Michael, it’s a great word and great encouragement. And as we’re moving into an election cycle here in the US, I think, what you share are things that we really want to kind of affirm, prepare ourselves for, lean into, and check our own hearts as pastors and ministry leaders and our own minds as we are seeking to honor them. Brother, I’m so grateful for the work that you and Jim did in The Great Dechurching. Excellent resource. Incredible research, super, super helpful on a very practical level for local churches. I really encourage those watching and listening long-term to check out that resource. And we’ll have links to the book, we’ll have links to the audit, that 20-point audit that Michael talked about, in the toolkit for this particular episode. You can find that PastorServe.org/network and it will give you an opportunity to dig more deeply into this conversation, lots of resources in there, so be sure to check that out. Michael, again, it’s been an absolute privilege to have you with us on FrontStage BackStage. Appreciate all that you’re doing there in Central Florida and how you’re encouraging the church at large. So thank you, brother.
Thank you so much, Jason. It’s been a pleasure.
Awesome. God bless you.
Now, before you go, I want to remind you of an incredible free resource that our team puts together every single week to help you and your team dig more deeply and maximize the conversation that we just had. This is the weekly toolkit that we provide. And we understand that it’s one thing to listen or watch an episode, but it’s something entirely different to actually take what you’ve heard, what you’ve watched, what you’ve seen, and apply it to your life and to your ministry. You see, FrontStage BackStage is more than just a podcast or YouTube show about ministry leadership, we are a complete resource to help train you and your entire ministry team as you seek to grow and develop in life in ministry. Every single week, we provide a weekly toolkit which has all types of tools in it to help you do just that. Now you can find this at PastorServe.org/network. That’s PastorServe.org/network. And there you will find all of our shows, all of our episodes and all of our weekly toolkits. Now inside the toolkit are several tools including video links and audio links for you to share with your team. There are resource links to different resources and tools that were mentioned in the conversation, and several other tools, but the greatest thing is the ministry leaders growth guide. Our team pulls key insights and concepts from every conversation with our amazing guests. And then we also create engaging questions for you and your team to consider and process, providing space for you to reflect on how that episode’s topic relates to your unique context, at your local church, in your ministry and in your life. Now you can use these questions in your regular staff meetings to guide your conversation as you invest in the growth of your ministry leaders. You can find the weekly toolkit at PastorServe.org/network We encourage you to check out that free resource. Until next time, I’m Jason Daye encouraging you to love well, live well, and lead well. God bless.
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