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Like every other church in the US apparently, the congregation I serve has lost people in the past couple years. It’s hard to decipher exactly whether it was covid or culture wars. Probably both.

A loss of elasticity?

We’ve frequently heard that in the pandemic, churches lost their breadth or elasticity. I think we’d all agree that white, American, Protestant churches have become “nichier,” more homogeneous. 

Somewhere in the tsunami of writings, musings, and observations about covid church life, I recall a writer who posited five varieties of people in these churches. My memory, with some help from my imagination, came up with these labels:

  • Ones are fundamentalists, although some might try to pass themselves off as evangelicals.
  • Twos are actual evangelicals, conservative but with a few of their sharp edges knocked off.
  • Threes are “new” evangelicals. They’re more open. They see, maybe even have been wounded by, some of the evangelical angularities. I’d guess a good amount of Reformed Journal readers would land in this category.
  • Fours are mainline/old line Christians, more tolerant, mellower.
  • Fives are free spirits, wayfarers, skeptics, mystics, “Christian adjacent.” Probably pluralists, wary of identifying too closely with the church. 

While these labels are more theological and churchy, no doubt they also indicate something political.

As I recall, the claim was that once, not so long ago, white, American, Protestant churches could span three, possibly four, categories. For example, an evangelical congregation might have a few ones, lots of twos, some threes, and even a handful of fours. I think the congregation I serve could have once been said to have spanned twos to fives.

Covid and culture wars, however, have caused churches to be able to bridge across only two categories. In some cases, even that is too far. Only one category can hold together. 

My Missing Fives

Looking at my own church, this makes sense to me. We’ve lost many of our twos. Their departure causes me to concur with the observation that “evangelical” is increasingly a political or sociological term, and not really a theological descriptor anymore. In other words, very few of our departers were arguing about the Bible as they departed. Instead, they felt like their side of covid and the culture wars weren’t being supported.  

What helped me was that this claim drew my attention to our departing fives. Their departure has gone nearly unnoticed. But our handful thinned out. Why?

Fatigue, disenchantment, ambivalence, and embarrassment — these are my guesses about why they leave. When gathering for worship was halted because of covid, they discovered that they really didn’t miss it. Or when it began again, they just didn’t have the oomph to return. They may not have any particular issues with their congregation, but they’re tired of saying “Yes, I go to church, but …” or “I’m not that kind of believer…” A few may feel like the church didn’t take covid seriously enough, or maybe they are disappointed by what they believed was a tepid response to Black Lives Matter. But by and large, I don’t think their dissatisfaction is so focused. Somewhere along the line, it just wasn’t worth it anymore. 

They’re gone? How would we know?

Typically when people leave a church there is sadness and second-guessing, some consternation, gossip, theorizing, resentment, and often a little relief.

When fives slip away it takes a while for anyone to notice. That’s somewhat because they were never especially regular in attendance. Likely they never stayed for coffee or served on a committee. As a congregation, we’ve been trained to give them space, not to intrude. They depart quietly. They don’t vent or try to take others with them or to poison the well. Although it is unfair to act like most departers of any category do those things. Still, fives leave with no drama.

When people finally note their absence, there is more of a shrug. “Whatever. Never did really get them anyway.” Certainly there’s not the emotion of when a more typical person leaves. “They’re gone? How would we know?” I wonder, however, if the church could do better. Owes them more? 

I don’t really like to say that. I grow weary of the church always being the fall-guy, the one to blame for everyone’s issues and disgruntlement. Still, when I consider all the energy and attention the church gives to this-or-that group; all the books and conferences on how to reach such-and-so people; how the church must do better; rarely do I hear concern for the slipping away of these stealth folk on the left. Not much sorrow, not much attention to this slow, steady leak.

What to do? I’m not sure. Maybe simply noticing is a place to begin. Obviously, high pressure and pleas are not what these people want. Although, don’t we all like a little attention now and then?  I’m not convinced there are enough people and that they have enough energy and commitment to hold together a “five-specific” congregation. Some urban areas may be the exception.

For now, maybe it’s enough to notice and to care. But I do wonder, could we be as concerned about losing fives as we are about twos? Should we be?



Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

12 Comments

  • Nate Deward says:

    I’m here for the stock art choices. Vintage SMVW. 🙂

  • Interesting musings. Good food for thought. Thank you and have a blessed Lent.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As usual, insightful. Am I really a “four”? That big, bland group in there? Good boring mainline church people? Never one of the cool kids but never a bad kid either? Religious and maybe somewhat spiritual? Content with all the miserable pittances of denominational religion? Absurdly loyal to institutions?

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Perhaps instead of a bell-curve depiction, the 1 – 5 scale could show a progression (?)
    Four-and-five status an ideal to attain?
    Just for me, maybe: a recovering Baptist (40 years now fundy-free), wandering the Reformed wilderness, recently towards Anglican-tinged green pastures and still waters, ultimately then to a Christian nirvana?
    :?)

  • David Hoekema says:

    Not sure these categories have places for us all. One of the terms I apply to myself (and to some fellow parishioners) is “born-again ecumenist.” Maybe on the scale from 1 to 5 that’s an E? Or the square root of -1?

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for your categorization of different Christians and Christian adjacent people. I am amongst those who are categorized as a five (skeptic) or even a “six.” I’ve slipped from a “four” with a smidge of “two,” to that of a doubter. I have a difficult time understanding how some of the more educated folk among Christians (such as those on this website) haven’t also slipped from Christian faith to that of a truer understanding of reality. How many religions are there that have huge followings (like Christianity) that claim to have the truly God inspired Scriptures (like Christianity) therefore have a claim to the one true understanding of God, and know the secret to having a true relationship to God (like Christianity) and who claim a total commitment to such a God (like Christians).

    Like Christians, adherents of other religions, claim that the so-called miracles of their religion are absolutely true, necessary, and believable. Whereas the miracles of other religions are just bazar figments of their made up religion. Just last week a friend told me how unbelievable the miracle of Joseph Smith’s formulation of the Book of Mormon was. And I asked is that any more unbelievable than the idea of God coming to earth as a human baby to save the world? Of course, Muslims would say such an idea is blasphemous, as well as a Mormon scripture. But all religions claim the truth and validity of their own religion and Scriptures (just like Christians). And just like Christianity, there are untold theologians and Scriptural experts who teach in the ivory lined halls of their seminaries or such equivalent to our seminaries (such as Calvin and Western seminaries). And just as there are varieties among Christians, there are also varieties within specific other religions from conservative to liberal. Just as total life commitment to God is the bedrock of Christianity, so also this is true for nearly every other religion.

    So, as our pastors (male or female) call its members to a total commitment to their own God, so those members are sitting there and wondering which God will make a true difference in their life or in the lives of those around them. A “one,” “three” or a “six,” we all have choices to make. And we all know the right choice. Thanks, Steve, for your input.

  • Susan Hoekema says:

    Like David Hoekema, I never identified myself as “mainline” much less a “five.” I am a born and breed Calvinist. But I just left the CRC and moved my papers to a Presbyterian church. I grew weary of fighting the unending political battles in the CRC and feel that my spirit will find healing in a church that focused on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks everyone for weighing in. I appreciate the conversation. While five categories may be a bit of a blunt instrument for categorizing ourselves and individuals, I think it is probably more helpful to consider our congregation or churches we’re familiar with, and then wonder how has their span decreased, who have they likely lost from their flanks?

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Sometimes the only Christian thing to do is leave the church. I need a number. I guess I do better when two or three gather together.

  • Harold Gazan says:

    Hi Steve,

    Both Nancy and I resonated with your thoughtful, insightful essay. We also agree with your observation, “Why is the church always the fall guy?” Thank you.
    Harold

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