Most people who stopped attending evangelical churches in recent years are not “nones” or exvangelicals.
In fact, many still self-identify as born-again Christians with perfectly orthodox Christian beliefs, according to Jim Davis and Michael Graham’s newly released The Great Dechurching. These Christians believe in the Trinity, the atonement, and the reality of Jesus as their personal Savior.
They just don’t go to church.
It might be easy to imagine that the millions of dechurched individuals are an aberration whose evangelical identities are somehow suspect. Surely, they don’t really understand what the Christian faith is all about, we might think.
But what if evangelicalism itself is partly to blame? What if the problem with dechurched evangelicals is not their faulty understanding of faith, but rather evangelical theology’s own lack of emphasis on the church?
Relative to other forms of Christianity, evangelicals have historically maintained a rather low view of the church, compared to their high view of a believer’s individual relationship with God.
While Catholics for centuries insisted on “no salvation outside the church,” evangelicals have traditionally insisted that a person’s salvation has nothing to do with church affiliation or church sacrament. While some Protestants, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, have reserved a role for the sacrament of baptism in salvation, many evangelicals have eschewed this sacramental theology.
American evangelicalism was born in eighteenth-century outdoor revivals, which denounced unconverted ministers and called people to experience the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation outside of church walls. The Anglican evangelist George Whitefield ministered to thousands in the open air and had little connection to any established denomination.
Whitefield was not alone. Although the evangelists of the First Great Awakening were often ordained ministers (as Whitefield was), their individualistic message of personal salvation transcended and defied denominational boundaries—emphasizing a personal relationship with God that was unmediated by church or creed.
Similarly, in the nineteenth century, revivalist preaching continued to be delivered by itinerant evangelists, some of whom openly scorned the dictates of their denominations or had a tenuous relationship with the established church.
Barton W. Stone, the pastor of Cane Ridge Presbyterian Church—where the Second Great Awakening started—left his Presbyterian denomination after the revival. He struck out on his own, determined to recover New Testament Christianity without the burden of denominational oversight or accepted creed.
Charles Finney, the most famous revivalist of the Second Great Awakening, moved from church to church in a series of pastorates that crossed denominational lines to find a church that would be a good fit for his “new measures” and Arminian theology.
But at least the nineteenth-century revivalists regularly attended a local church, despite their discomfort with denominational constraints. That was not the case with many American evangelical leaders in the twentieth century.
Some realized they could often reach the lost more effectively through parachurch ministries than through the local church.
The most famous of these parachurch ministers was Billy Graham, whose international preaching ministry transcended denominational lines. Graham encouraged his audience to join a local church, but his own membership was at a church in Dallas—nearly a thousand miles from his home in Montreat, North Carolina.
He frequently attended other churches, especially the Presbyterian congregation where his wife, Ruth Bell, was a member, but he rarely visited the one in Dallas where he was a member for 54 years.
“If I belonged to a Baptist church in the neighborhood [in North Carolina], they would continually be asking me to work in church affairs,” Graham explained. “When I’m at home I attend my wife’s Presbyterian church and naturally they don’t ask me to do anything.”
Other evangelical parachurch leaders of that era expressed even less interest in attending and actively serving at a local church.
Pat Robertson, the television broadcaster who founded Regent University and the Christian Coalition, was an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Yet he almost never attended church during the heyday of his career in the 1980s and early 1990s. “It is boring,” he once told a reporter, when asked why he didn’t attend the Baptist congregation where he was a member. “I didn’t enjoy going there.”
Robertson strongly believed in the importance of Christian devotion—he read the Bible for an hour every day and spent lots of time in prayer. But church attendance, in his view, was optional.
Today, some evangelicals are placing a renewed emphasis on the significance of church. Pastors like David Platt and Mark Dever, for instance, insist that every believer is responsible to become an active member in a local church.
Evangelicals are once again reading classic texts on the value of Christian community, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and writing new books on the subject, such as Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman’s Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential.
As going to church becomes more countercultural and less convenient in our frenetically-paced world, these messages are more needed than ever. As Bonnie Kristian explains, many believers lack a fundamental commitment to church—a conviction that “routine participation in communal Christian life is the primary location of our worship and discipleship.”
But to get people to return to the pews, evangelicals need to rediscover a compelling theology of church—to establish a uniquely evangelical answer to the question, “Why church?”
The church’s reason for existence cannot be merely evangelism, since parachurch ministries and missionary teams are often more effective at that. It cannot be simply to preach God’s word, since some of the best evangelical preaching has often occurred at unaffiliated revival services and parachurch ministry conferences.
If the church is the bride of Christ—whom Jesus redeemed with his blood—we know it is vital. But why?
An evangelical answer is that the church exists as a local expression of the family of God and it’s Jesus’ plan for training his disciples to love one another and become more like him.
Love can’t be practiced effectively in solitude. We can pray and read the Bible alone. But we can’t practice loving other people if we’re not in relationship with them.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13 to an entire congregation—not to a single Christian individual living in isolation. There were times in Paul’s life when he was isolated from the community of believers and unable to worship with others, like when he was in prison. But even in isolation, he prayed fervently for other disciples and longed to be reunited with them.
One cannot read the first few chapters of 1 Thessalonians without realizing that Paul was a man who intensely longed to be with other believers—to pray with them and to share their joys and sorrows in their walks with the Lord.
As evangelicals have rightly noted, God’s Spirit and gift of salvation are not defined by church walls. But without an embodied community of believers, we’re limited in our ability to learn how to love other followers of Jesus. We’re hindered in our capacity to experience the unity with other Christians that Jesus prayed for just before his crucifixion. And we’re less likely to experience the blessings that come with being part of a local expression of Jesus’ Bride.
Early American evangelicalism may have been a reaction against unconverted ministers and spiritually dead churches, but it should never have become a movement against church itself. And maybe now, amid a “Great Dechurching,” we can rediscover a robust evangelical theology of the church.
Daniel K. Williams is a historian working at Ashland University and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.