Book Review: The Great Dechurching, by Jim Davis & Michael Graham


Jim Davis and Michael Graham with Ryan Burge, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Where are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back. Zondervan, 2023. 272 pages.


In The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis and Michael Graham waste no time getting our attention. “We are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country,” with forty million people who used to attend church at least once a month now going less than once a year (3). They describe these as the “dechurched” (xxii).

Davis and Graham want to get them back to church, and they have a lot of suggestions to make that happen. But this is not another book touting the latest evangelistic program or attractional model. A choice must be made. Either the church can continue to pursue influence through political power and cultural relevance. Or it can embrace its biblical identity as elect exiles in a culture that has left Christianity behind.

Fundamentally, Davis and Graham argue that the task requires spiritual formation that addresses the questions of a post-modern age, theologically faithful evangelism that holds out the truth, goodness, and beauty of Christ, and prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit. In other words, healthy churches, not successful churches, are the need of the hour.


Working with Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe, two political scientists who specialize in religion and politics, the book is their analysis of and response to a multi-phased nationwide survey of America adults, including focused surveys of the dechurched across all traditions and evangelicals specifically. Their goal was to determine the scope of the problem, identify reasons for the mass departure, and propose appropriate strategies for bringing people back. Suffice it to say, it’s beyond the expertise of this reviewer to critique their study design or quantitative analysis. But Davis and Graham are not writing as sociologists. They write as pastors and church leaders, and from that perspective they have much to offer.

Their work is divided into four parts. Part one explains the methodology, describes the dechurched broadly, and considers what’s at stake. Part two presents and analyzes the data, describing five different profiles of the dechurched. These are the cultural Christians, the dechurched mainstream evangelicals, the exvangelicals, the dechurched BIPOC community, and the dechurched mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. Having painted a bleak picture, part three considers how to engage the dechurched and prevent it in the future by taking seriously the reasons they left. Particular attention is paid to the stages of life most at risk, the adolescent and young adult years. Finally, part four concludes with lessons for the church going forward.


My main critique of this book is in part one. First, as a non-specialist in reading and analyzing sociological surveys, I was left with many questions. With so many different groups offering so many different reasons for leaving church, I couldn’t help but wonder if the phenomenon of “dechurching” was one coherent thing or the correlation and collation of a lot of different things. That would seem to call into question any large conclusions that could be drawn. Thankfully, their focus narrowed as the book progressed to mainly addressing the issue within the evangelical tradition.

My larger concern was their discussion of what’s at stake (Chapter 1). They helpfully consider the relational, religious, and cultural consequences of a dechurched country. “In a generation, the children of the dechurched will be the unchurched, changing the nature of spirituality in America significantly (33).” It’s a good insight. But what’s missing at the beginning is a discussion of what’s at stake spiritually. Davis and Graham argue up front that “we want to see our friends, family, and people in our communities return to church so we can build better cities around the kind of human flourishing that derives from a robust gospel” (20).

No! Our concern isn’t ultimately the toll on families, or the financial pressure on denominations, or the decreasing resources available for charitable endeavors. Those things are important and worthy, but if that’s our emphasis we’ve made Christianity the utilitarian means to a secular end and turned our message into a prosperity gospel for society writ large. We all want a better, healthier nation. But that’s not our ultimate concern. Our ultimate concern is that apart from the gospel people are going to hell. And while church membership or attendance is no guarantee of salvation, it’s the church that preaches the good news that the dechurched so desperately need to hear.

Thankfully, Davis and Graham don’t disagree. This point is made convincingly at the end of Chapter 11 in a section entitled “The Gospel is Good News.” This is what’s ultimately at stake, and it should have been front-loaded, not buried deep in their argument.


Despite those criticisms, this is a book worth reading. It’s tempting to skip over the details and data in part two. The statistics were often mind-numbing, and the charts were not always clear, but the analysis yielded a number of insights.

For one thing, moving is one of the most dangerous things a churchgoer can do (61), and pastors would do well to put in place a clear membership process as well as systems to help their members find a church in their new location.

For another, the close alignment of evangelical churches with the Republican party has driven away many who may share our theology but not our politics (72–75). But the data also reveals that in many cases, the dechurched were probably never Christians in the first place, even if they professed belief in some of the doctrines of historic Christianity. As they astutely note toward the end of the book, “Churches may have been full in the twentieth century, but that doesn’t mean they were full of Christians” (219).

In fact, the chapter on cultural Christians felt like one long apologetic for my book on conversion. The dechurching of many lies at the feet of churches that chose shallow religious entertainment and mechanistic approaches to conversion over robust discipleship and a gospel that calls people to become disciples of the Lord Jesus. And while I don’t agree with their optimism about the utility of “belonging before believing” (28, 50–51), they are certainly correct that “God frequently uses the ordinary means [of grace] combined with Spirit-filled community as a means to draw people to himself” (51). Cultural Christians who attend church are in a better position to become Christians than those who don’t.

Without doubt, the most helpful sections are parts three and four. Davis and Graham understand our hope is in the Lord, not in techniques and methods. They also acknowledge that much is not under our control (120). And so in part three, they focus on those matters we can address. And it largely boils down to healthy churches with a culture of discipleship and evangelism.

They note that we need to help people connect their convictions with their lives (122) and invite them to church (123). But it’s not just their discipleship we need to address; it’s also ours. The contradictions, double standards, and hypocrisy that mark too many churches must be addressed too (128). We need engaged parents who listen to their children’s questions and model genuine discipleship, not just political engagement. And we need disciple-making churches that offer more than just events and experiences (Chapter 10).

As they perceptively ask, “If church leaders are simply working to give attenders the best experience with the least amount of sacrifice, then why would they do anything more than drop in virtually when they have time?” (126) And we need to meet the dechurched where they are, engaging and sometimes affirming their critiques, especially when it comes to abuses or failures of leadership (176–177), while also gently correcting and critiquing the reasons they left in the first place (Chapter 11). This is where the data of part two is put to useful work, as they address six specific issues the dechurched identified as reasons they’ve stopped attending.

But it wasn’t until part four that I was convinced that other pastors should read this book. Davis and Graham make the case that we are in a crisis of spiritual formation because of the culture in which we live (185). Their response is to call for a robust understanding of the gospel, rather than the privatized salvation from hell that many of us were raised on (191–192), and a rejection of political allegiances (on the left or the right) that result in “scoring goals on ourselves” (196). But most importantly, they call us to embrace our identity as exiles, giving up the comfort and illusion of cultural power in exchange for the advance of the gospel through weakness and dependence upon the Lord (Chapter 14).


In 2004, Mark Dever explained that his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church was not a full-blown ecclesiology, but a “timely prescription” for an unhealthy church (17, 28). That prescription for health recommended remedies like a right understanding of the gospel that would lead to right understandings of conversion and evangelism. It called for a biblical understanding of a culture of discipling, and the importance of membership and the gathering of the local church. In 2023, Davis and Graham have taken a deep dive in describing the illness that Dever was trying to address. It turns out the prescription hasn’t changed.

While I would have loved to have heard more about the role of Word ministry in addressing the disease and would have preferred that the stakes more clearly explained the reality of hell, it turns out that the prescription for the disease hasn’t changed. The solution to the great dechurching of America isn’t better techniques or a different gospel. It’s healthy churches. Or as Davis and Graham put it, “The way forward is not by creating something completely new, but by returning to something very old” (236).

Michael Lawrence

Michael Lawrence is the senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon.

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