It’s no secret that the evangelical church in America has developed a lousy reputation in the last few years—and with good reason.
Whether it’s systemic failures to address clergy sex abuse, a persistent and unholy alliance with right-wing political ideologies, or the ever-present specter of the evangelical industrial complex churning out the same theologically thoughtless content that has been merely rebranded and repackaged over and again, there’s a lot to complain about.
If you’re like me, these realities, which stand in stark contrast to the teachings from the Bible I was raised to value by the very same leaders who seem to so often betray them, have caused something of a crisis of identity.
For my part, I still believe a large swath of the theology that was passed down to me by evangelical theologians and institutions. And I still value many of the things that the evangelical tradition has historically spotlighted. I’m an evangelical, through and through. There isn’t really any other way to describe my particular set of convictions and values. I just don’t necessarily like being called one.
Maybe you feel the same way. And perhaps you attend an evangelical church that you love. You know it isn’t perfect. In fact, you can specifically name all the ways in which it isn’t perfect. Some aspects of it even make you cringe. But you know that there are enough people there who genuinely love Jesus and who want to cultivate a Jesus-centered community that you’re willing to overlook its various foibles and even some of its sins.
You might still be working through some of that—what you might call your deconstruction and reconstruction process. And you’re doing it within the context of an embodied church community, which is a good thing.
It’s just that you aren’t terribly enthusiastic about inviting your friends and neighbors to join that church community with you.
Maybe you fear that they won’t be able to understand the shortcomings of your church, or the evangelical tradition in general, and will be turned off from Jesus. Or maybe you’re afraid they will swallow some of the sideways aspects of the tradition whole and become part of perpetuating some of our least desirable characteristics.
Whatever the reason, maybe inviting your friends to church seems fraught. But you should do it anyway.
Here are at least three reasons why.
1. Religious Affiliation in America Is in Free Fall.
In their book, “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?,” Jim Davis and Michael Graham delve into an extensive body of recent research about current trends in church attendance and religious affiliation in America.
The short story is that in every age category, religious affiliation is in a state of decline.
Their study included an initial survey of more than a thousand Americans and explored the extent of what they called the “dechurching” trend, which they defined as a person going from attending church at least once a month to now less than once a year. The survey revealed that about 16% of Americans had dechurched—that is, about 40 million people.
This number is significant, as it is “the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of the United States.”
“For a long time, the church declined and no one really cared,” Ryan Burge, who helped compile the statistical analysis for the study, told Religion News Service. “And now people are seeing the decline and saying, ‘Wow, this is really becoming a problem now.’ We have reached an inflection point where people are talking about religion in a more thoughtful, nuanced, statistically driven way.”
This statistical reality doesn’t come out of the clear blue sky. Lifeway Research has previously reported that since 2019, the number of churches that close annually is outpacing the number of new churches that are planted.
“The erosion of the religious foundation of 40 million people will have widespread reverberations,” write Graham and Davis. “The greatest concern is that many fewer people will have the opportunity to organically hear the gospel in local churches on a given Sunday morning.”
“But there’ll be social effects as well. One study notes that religiously affiliated nonprofits make up 40 percent of the social safety net in America. Dechurching is likely to deplete resources for these efforts,” they continue. “The relationships and sense of community that churches provide will be diminished as fewer people gather regularly to worship. The net result of dechurching could be diminished human flourishing, connectivity, cohesiveness, and overall shalom.”
All this in addition to the fact that your friends and neighbors need Jesus on an individual level. We can’t just do nothing.
You might not be happy with the church these days. But it’s where people go to meet the embodied presence of Jesus. And the alternative of it not being there is way worse.
2. Your Friends Probably Have Less Religious Baggage Than You.
Even granting statistics about the decline of the American church and the deleterious effect that decline will have on society, you might still feel squeamish about enthusiastically inviting your neighbors and acquaintances into the very institution you feel has done you harm. (Even if you’ve switched congregations, that feeling may still be present.)
That’s understandable. But I have good news. According to the research, most people actually aren’t as jaded as you are.
In “The Great Dechurching,” what researchers found when they surveyed over 4,000 dechurched Americans about why they stopped affiliating with organized religion is that most of them did so for the most mundane of reasons.
To be sure, a statistically significant number of people dechurched because of their negative experiences within evangelicalism, whether abuse, politics, or any other host of traumas. However, what was even more statistically significant was the group of people who “casually dechurched.”
What that means is that for most people who attended church at one point in their life but no longer do, the reasons they disaffiliated likely included the fact that they moved to another city, attending church wasn’t convenient, or they otherwise decided to prioritize other things in their lives.
Furthermore, a disproportionate number of these dechurched individuals expressed openness to returning to church and organized religion if, say, they were invited by a friend or coworker. They don’t associate negative emotions or experiences with the evangelical church. In fact, they have fond memories of it, whether it was from attending VBS as a kid, going to youth group as a high school student, or participating in worship services and small group studies as an adult.
In other words, they actually might be a lot more excited about church than you are. So invite them. They just might and have their lives transformed by Jesus. The data supports that possibility.
Additionally, their newfound love for Jesus and his church just might help you heal from all the very legitimate wounds that made you cynical in the first place.
3. The Problems the Church Faces Won’t Be Solved by Abandoning the Mission.
Listen. Much of what I’ve been arguing has been deeply pragmatic. (I guess I really am still an evangelical after all.) But the heart of the matter is this: Jesus’ parting commandment to his followers was one of mission.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
From the time that Jesus gave us the Great Commission to this present moment, the process of evangelism and discipleship was always intended to be carried out in the context of the body of believers—the church. As the third century theologian Cyprian once said, “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother.”
Obviously, Cyprian had no concept of the 501(c)3 organizations that serve as tangible, local expressions of the global church in America today. But they do just that. And insofar as we are committed to our own local expression of the global church, we are obligated to work in tandem with that spiritual community to advance the mission of the gospel.
The church in America has problems—and serious ones at that. But we aren’t the first to grapple with that reality, and we certainly won’t be the last. True expressions of the church have weathered institutional entanglements with empires, godless crusades, inquisitions, reformations, and numerous reimaginations of how best to carry out our collective calling.
This isn’t in any way to minimize any of the evils that have been perpetrated in the name of Jesus. But it is to say that if we didn’t invent the idea of the church, we don’t get to be the ones who decide that it is no longer the way to carry forth the mission—or, God forbid, that the mission just doesn’t matter anymore.
The American evangelical church is in need of reimagination. That much is certain. But putting the mission on hold will not contribute to the healing of all that ails us. In fact, it will do the opposite.
The message that we preach is one of grace: the idea that you don’t have to get your act together before you can come to God. In fact, it is only when we come to Jesus that our lives are transformed. The same is true on a collective level. We become more of who we were meant to be when we take the next step of faithfulness in what God has called us to do.
So invite a friend to church, even if you’re still processing how you feel about it.