Traverse City is "Dechurched," so now what?2
Last week I was made aware of the most recent Barna release of "Church Attendance Trends Across the Country." The trends reported are based on a sample size of over 76,000 telephone and online interviews done over a seven year period, ending in April 2016. Based on this sample, Barna breaks down the most churched cities, most unchurched cities, and most dechurched cities in America. Believe it or not, one tiny little town in Northern Michigan made it onto one of these lists. Can you guess? According to Barna's polling, Traverse City is the # 14 most dechurched area in the country.
In case you are wondering what the difference is between unchurched and dechurched, here is how Barna defined it:
- Unchurched Person = someone who has not attended a church service in the past six months, not including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral.
- Dechurched Person = someone who was formerly either very, somewhat or minimally active churchgoer, but who has not attended a church service in the past six months, excluding a special event such as a wedding or a funeral.
I think it is generally helpful to think of the difference in terms of being "Pre-Christian" or "Post-Christian." An unchurched area is a place that is largely "Pre-Christian." It has many people who are not familiar with the Christian gospel or been associated with the Christian church. The early church was preaching and teaching Christian faith in a pre-Christian world. A Dechurched area, on the other hand, is a place that is largely "post-Christian." They are places with a lot of people who have had association with Christianity or the Christian church, and have since rejected it. Much of Europe, and increasingly the United States can be considered post-Christian.
If this poll is at all accurate in its placement of Traverse City as a highly dechurched city, there are some important implications for how we think about and engage our call to bear witness to the Gospel. Dechurched people tend to be much less open to Christian efforts at evangelism, precisely because they have already "been there and done that." C.S. Lewis described the difference between communicating faith in a pre-Christian (unchurched) and post-Christian (dechurched) environment as "the differences between courting a divorcee and a virgin...A Divorcee won't easily fall for sweet nothings from a suiter --she's heard them all before--and has a basic distrust of romance." In other words, people who are dechurched tend to be more skeptical about Christianity precisely because they have a "negative history" with it. Often those who have left the church carry bad feelings and old wounds. Perhaps they left the church after a nasty church split or scandal. Perhaps they witnessed shameful hypocrisy by Christians. Perhaps they were the victim of heavy-handed and legalistic leadership. Or perhaps they just stopped believing. Whatever the reason, dechurched are people who have already considered Christianity and rejected it or lost interest, and thus will be less open to re-engaging. Effective Christian witness to them will require us to convince them that the faith they already rejected deserves a second look. Most often, that will require convincing them that that the “Christianity” they rejected is not actually biblical Christianity, but some perversion of it. This is much more difficult than sharing faith with an unchurched person, who typically doesn’t have that negative history.
How does this change the way we seek to share our faith? Let me briefly suggest two ways. First, we must begin by listening. Dechurched people are not generally going to respond well to our pre-packaged "gospel" presentations. They have heard it all before. Instead, we must listen and seek to understand the back story, the reason for the person’s departure from the church in the first place. We must ask, listen, and seek to understand where they are and what they believe now. Without that knowledge, and without giving them that respect, we will most likely not succeed in our efforts.
Second, living out the “righteousness” of the kingdom becomes very important in a dechurched area. We must continue to speak gospel truth, no doubt, but our lives must reflect that Gospel truth. Evangelical Christians are excellent at preaching the word, writing books, doing evangelistic campaigns, etc. But we have not always been as good at living out the practical righteousness that God calls us to in order to be "salt and light" in this world (Matt 5). Our lives do not as consistently elicit the question of 1 Peter 3:15, “what is the reason for the hope you have within you?” as we would hope. As the late Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones said, the world needs Christians who are committed to faithfully and consistently “live the Christian life.” If we did, it would be one of the best means of evangelism that the church has. As the world sees the church living in genuine community, and committed “doing good to everyone” (Gal 6), it will be a powerfully attractive force to the truth of the Gospel.