In recent years many people have left organized religion because of issues with the institutional nature of mainstream religious structures. In this project, The Dechurching of America, we are looking for stories to help us understand how institutional religion in the United States is creating its own discontents. We want to put these stories together so we can help academics and practitioners understand this trend in the religious landscape and find a way to provide more religious spaces for people who feel that traditional religion has cast them aside.
While everyone’s story is unique, there are some common trends that emerge among the dechurched. Some, like Erica a 30-year-old graphic designer, have reasons that stem from intensely personal experiences. After being ostracized from several communities because of her sexuality, she stated,
I didn’t lose faith in God, but I did lose faith in the church. I’m back now, but I still don’t fully trust it.
Other people find the institutional structure to be stifling and draining. They have experienced church as an insular place disconnected from the outside world and closed off to new ideas. As Chris, a 29-year-old who searched for a church home for years put it,
At the last church I went to before here, they just seemed to put up more and more walls and barriers so that it got to the point that to just have a simple meal in the church with some friends or a Bible study group had to go through like three committees. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.
For people like Chris, the church has lost relevance. Religious organizations are like all other large bureaucracies filled with authority figures handing down rules and laws with little input from everyday people. Many of the dechurched leave because they desire to escape this structure and find a place where they can be a part of the conversation in a meaningful way.
Some people never come back to church, even though they maintain a belief in God. However, we also recognize that many of these people do come back to organized religion if they find the right kind of community. Often, those who do come back view these worship groups as the only viable option in a sea of religious organizations they find to be otherwise dissatisfying. Mark, a 53-year-old IT administrator, explains this dynamic by telling us that he
…didn’t come back to church. I came to this community. If this congregation didn’t exist, it’s not like there’s anywhere else for me to go. I mean, every other church I’ve been to just judges me constantly. That doesn’t happen here. I’m valued here, even if people don’t always agree with me.