Christianity's faith shift.

I know the big news around the internet is the most recent Pew Study, showing the decline in church attendance. It makes me a little crazy, honestly, because instead of responding with “what is this telling us that we need to consider?” so much of the emphasis I have seen is on “how do we take this information and change how we do church and get them back somehow?”

Plus, it doesn’t take a study to tell us what is so apparent in our own lives and the lives around us. Think of your own experience and how many people you know now who are in the midst of significant faith shifts, who no longer go to church after years of faithful service, who are shedding religion and finding freedom?

The numbers keep growing, and I think it’s only going to pick up speed.

I have been thinking a lot about applying the faith evolution model that is in Faith Shift and we’ve been walking through this past week to the wider system of Christianity.

Just for fun, I thought I’d walk it out, processing each one briefly. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, too.

Fusing – Much of contemporary Christianity was built upon a system of conformity, certainty, and affiliation. The homogeneity of our churches, importance of dogma and doctrine, and placing belief above all else worked for a long time. This last machination of Christianity has Fusing nailed.  Even though things are changing, there are still new churches being planted and old churches deeply embedded (and an entire meta structure of books and conferences) with the values of Fusing. It still works.

Shifting – But the world is changing. There’s a longing for something deeper, more mysterious, more free. Phyllis Tickle talks about us being in the middle of the second Reformation, and the discomfort we are experiencing in this 500 year shift is related to the tilt. Issues of sexuality are more complex and out in the open. Social media and the access to information that people have now is influencing our culture in a significant way.  Easy answers and controlling authorities just won’t fly anymore. I personally think that we are still in the fairly early stages of Shifting.  It’s still pretty manageable. Churches are still getting away with a lot of what they’ve always gotten away with.  While a chunk of people aren’t going anymore, many many still are.

Returning – Oh, there’s all kinds of spiritual bypasses going on in Christianity’s faith shift.  The desire for liturgical practices and evangelicals transitioning to mainline denominations, the same material being churned out with a little different twist so that it appeals to the “dones”, the “how can we keep making this thing work?” questions that so many pastors and leaders who are still in are asking.  The reality of what will happen if an entire industry begins to cave in has many up at night, trying to figure out a way to stay afloat and the money keep flowing.

Unraveling – While it’s so clear that Christianity is shifting and parts of it are beginning to unravel, I think we’re only at the beginning of this process. Even though there’s all this churn and fear and change and volumes being written on it, I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface on what’s coming. The desire for autonomy, authenticity, and uncertainty is going to take a while to truly drive us. It will take many years for this to truly pick up speed to the point where we feel it beyond just churches closing. Over time, it’s going to be a rough, painful ride of loss. Beliefs, structures, relationships, identity–so much is on the line. I love it because I think what will happen over time will be so healing and good for Christianity. What once seemed important won’t be anymore, and in the end, the shedding process will hopefully uncover a more true sense of what Christianity was always supposed to be, more deeply aligned with what Jesus intended in the first place.  However, the loss is going to be tough, the questions great, the realities incredibly disorienting.

Severing –  I think Christianity will lose a lot of people to Severing over its transition. It’s already started, with the growing number of atheists and agnostics and Spiritual But Not Religious folks and now the new popular terms, “Dones” and “Nones”, which mean different things to different people   It will feel so threatening, to lose that many folks along the way, but in the end, I think it will be helpful, too. So much that we added to Christianity needs to die, truly, in order for something new to arise.

Rebuilding – I can’t wait to see what emerges (I’ll be dead by then so I won’t get to, ha ha) but I do believe that freedom, mystery, and diversity awaits on a much wider scale.  A stripped down, scaled down, simpler version of Christianity with truer roots to justice and mercy and peacemaking and the tangible ways of Jesus will hopefully eventually come to life.  Of course, we see glimpses of it now and I am glad for that, but it will take a far more drastic and painful Unraveling to get us to a new place corporately.  The bottom line for me: I think Christianity is far from over but it will look radically different over time.

This is so much more of a conversation than one little blog post can encapsulate, but it’s been swirling around in my head for a while now and I wanted to get it out there for others to process with me, too.

What are some of your thoughts about Christianity’s Faith Shift?


Two other quick things:

  • SheLoves Magazine’s June column is up. It’s called Permission Advocate–sometimes we need one, and sometimes we can be one for others.
  • Whew, I know it’s been a lot here this past week, but I’ve got one last post tomorrow (Friday) before a longer-than-previous-years summer blog break, which will be through September 1st. I’ll miss connecting here, but I’m looking forward to a longer season of not thinking in blog 🙂


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • I think it’s all true. Part of me finds this all so very hopeful and another part wants to hunker down until the storm has passed. The most difficult thing for me will be to let go of what I love of church now so that something better can emerge. Another difficult thing is to withstand the vitriol from Christians who want to go back to some other era that mostly exists in their minds. The Mennonite Church of which I am a part will be focusing on sexuality this summer at our conference. No one knows what will happen. The denomination may split. I am trying to stay focused on the fact that this is part of the tension that needs to happen in this reformation. So with God’s help, let’s get ready for the ‘rummage sale’ (P Tickle). There’s work to be done to remain faithful followers of Christ.

    • Attending district conferences over the past several years in MCUSA, I’ve repeatedly heard a mournful refrain that if people leave, they will be missed and it is going to hurt. Intellectually I have no problem with people going off somewhere else, but at some level I have the same kinds of feelings of being hurt, personally. As though I and “mine” have failed some important popularity test, as well as a persistent, nagging doubt that, at some level, perhaps the “leavers” are right, and I’m missing something critical. Plus, I feel “judged”. I have a vote on behalf of my congregation, and I feel I need to represent them on this. That’s something of a relief, so I don’t have to resolve all my other conflicting feelings. I know how you feel.

  • I just finished Faith Shift. I read it slowly, kept going back to re-read sections. I plan to re-read the whole book again. I am an older woman – turned 65 last week, so I am now officially a senior citizen 🙂 Yet, Faith Shift resonated so MUCH with me. Everyone concentrates on the younger generation’s move away from church, but I would love to see a study of us older people. A lot of us ‘stay’ in church simply because we’ve so ingrained ourselves that this is what you ‘do’ on a Sunday morning. But I KNOW that a lot of seniors are ‘checked out’ during that hour of church. I know this. We go because our friends are there, our social life is there, and that’s it. But, then there are many of us who really have left the church. My husband and I are taking a sabbatical from church this summer. In the fall we will re-evaluate.

    • Linda Hall, there are a whole bunch of us out here. 🙂 Been through this and finding hoping in the other side.

    • Linda,
      My situation is similar to yours — I’m 65, been an Evangelical Christian my whole life, but am recently estranged from the church. Having done biblical studies at the graduate level I gradually came to doubt may of the certainties of my life-long faith, and it’s come to a “faith crisis” in recent years. I even published a book about it recently: Between Faith and Doubt: An Evolving Faith Journey, which is my story sort of in “mid-Journey.” I just finished Brian McLaren’s new book (Faith after Doubt) and look forward to reading Escobar’s Faith Shift. Thanks for your comments; its good to know that its never too late for us (seniors) to go through this painful but necessary process.

  • I like this description of the process, and I was more than a little disappointed to realize that I too won’t live to see the end stages of it. I go to church mostly for my kids, but I wouldn’t say I am “done” with religion. The church is people, and I have my people in my life who are about faith, hope and love as a church should be. They just aren’t in my Sunday morning services. And after 11 years of trying many different churches for short and long stretches, and for the right and the wrong reasons, I am coming to believe that more and more of the Church is not at church. I fit in just fine with Christians, but if all the Christians in my life knew the whole of what I believe (and don’t anymore), I think I would have far fewer Christians in my life.

  • You have pretty well covered the bases. We are probably seeing only the beginning of a mass exodus from (institutional) “church”. However, many of us have and are departing from that “religious”/political/social organization, but have not departed from Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus il part of some of those groups. I’ve seen news stories that tell of someone whose photo was pulled without their permission from some source and used as part of an advertisement for some product or service they do not endorse. Maybe that’s the way Jesus and lots of the rest of us think when we see Jesus name attached to some of these organizations. They may put Jesus’ name on their sign but we didn’t find him in the building or in the organization.

  • I like to think about what the church will look like in the twenty-second century (85 years from now) in North America. After technology has shaped the world and the institutional church dies away, what will we create? What will God do? Maybe we should all be working for something we will never see fully, embodied communities of love, contemplative spirituality and hospitality to pass on to our children and their children and their children. Wouldn’t it be something if in the twenty-second century the institutional structures have all died off and Christianity is known by being an expression of love, compassion, humility, simplicity, hospitality and grace embodied in relational community. This is what I hope for for future generations in the world. Maybe God is waiting for us to long for this and make it our deepest hope in life. Just think if there were even 50 to 100 people in lots of local communities around the country being the body of Christ together and engaging the world in a particular place rather than going to church buildings.

  • I think you’re right on in your analysis, Kathy. And I agree that the process is both necessary and is likely to have a good result. I also agree it will take many years, and that it’s going on already.

    I’ve staked myself out in denominational Progressive Christianity in the hopes I can there, and also among others, prod, support, stimulate, etc. in the directions you mention. I personally feel even most of Progressive Christianity is not clear on discovering Jesus and how to understand Scripture, take consistent stands, etc…. not much beyond the beginnings of shifting yet.

    Here’s a great stand-out sentence from your post that I especially love:

    “A stripped down, scaled down, simpler version of Christianity with truer roots to justice and mercy and peacemaking and the tangible ways of Jesus will hopefully eventually come to life.” Well said!

  • This article is symptomatic of the incredible confusion surrounding how one ought to connect data with normative conclusions or plans of action. I cannot speak to what constitutes correct practical theology, but I can speak to the misuse or misunderstanding of data or a lack of context.

    PEW is an excellent source, and their poll numbers are in line with their previous polls and many other reputable pollsters who all confirm that there is a real rise of unaffiliated persons in the US (and a few other developed countries). But notice the author conflates The Church and “contemporary Christianity” with the global church. Since I am (I am assuming) of a similar ethnicity as the author, I think I can say without being accused of ethnocentrism that, despite claims to the contrary, the US is not the center of the world. Is it odd to me that opponents of American Exceptionalism cannot seem to escape the same binary as its advocates. I would encourage readers to consider intellectual diversity as being more important than ethnic diversity. The reason this is so important is that denominations cross nation-state boundaries and it could not be any clearer that “contemporary Christianity” is not undergoing a crisis. As a result, denominational political theologies are being altered significantly by populations in countries where both the population and the churches are growing rapidly (see Phil Jenkins’ excellent book The New Faces of Christianity–it is somewhat dated but still relevant). An excellent example is what is happening to the United Methodist Church, a denomination that is already moving rightward and may split in the near future. (A split would almost certainly have happened if non-Americans were given a “one-person/one-vote” level of representation. That the UMC’s newest members are overwhelmingly African and being denied that representation is an irony that would be “South Park-worthy” is it were not so pathetic).

    Second, and more a propos to the specific of the article, one can even argue that US “contemporary Christianity” is not experiencing a crisis, only a portion of it. The author and many of those making comments make the same mistake of not looking closely at what other Pew data (and data from almost any demographer) show. The unaffiliated are overwhelmingly coming from “moderate” or mainline churches, not conservative/fundamentalist churches. Sociologists debated for years whether or not “strong church” theory was correct. This large change in affiliation appears to end that debate for now: it is clearly correct. So the quickest formula for conservative churches to lose their youth is to follow their mainline counterparts into their “postmodern” cul de sac (which is actually quite modern) as the latter fade into the night.

  • Spot on, Kathy. My take is that Christianity doesn’t need reform (saying, “In light of the decline, how can we be more attractive to draw them back?”). What is needed is for Christianity to be redefined. Modern, institutional churches are barking up the wrong tree and, with some exceptions, always have been. I’m exploring a new, historically-grounded spirituality in my new book and what it might look like. Some things I suggest is to take away the “us vs. them” mentality, open up communities to anyone who wants to rally around only Jesus’ love ethic (even many atheists follow that), and put doctrine back where it belongs–not in church statement of faiths, but as secondary to love and part of a friendly conversation (put heresy-hunters on notice). The only heresy is harming other people. In short, building community based on love and making the world a better place. Once one gets a vision for this, they realize modern churches are spiritually harmful at worst and optional at best. The exciting thing is how a study of the history of the earliest Jesus Movement confirms this and many of the points you are making. Keep up the good work.

  • I just ordered your book Fatih Shift, and started reading the first chapter. And saw myself in that list of symptoms, which makes me feel a lot better. I too have felt like screaming while at church, and listening to the jargon and the complacency. I go through being angry, frustrated, confused and back to angry. I’ve left my church. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t like not going to church. I mind being bothered by the music I always enjoyed (Christian rock). Where will I tithe? What will I *do*? And I’m so upset with “Christians” who are self-centered, selfish, and willfully ignorant. Yeah, and don’t bother telling me that there are hypocrites everywhere. I’m concerned with the ones in my former church. We’re supposed to care about people. Huh.

    • i appreciate you taking time to share and glad that the book is resonating with you. anger is a good thing in this process, hard but good, and it does seem like this is one big huge grief process somehow. know you are not alone…

      • I’ve almost finished the book and it’s very helpful. I’m also researching church history, to find out what was believed before the 20th century. That’s an eye opener. Thanks for your kindness.


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