Skip to main content

Jessica was a biracial (white and Hispanic) graduate student in her late 20’s pursuing her degree in social work. As we sat in my office talking about how things were going during her first semester her eyes started to well up. She was doing her best to hold back a flood of tears. She said “I didn’t come to this school for the religious stuff. I came here because I knew I could get a good education. I mean, I guess my family was Christian but we never went to church or anything. I’ve always just considered myself more spiritual than religious. Being here is doing something to me though. It’s weird and confusing but I think I need to start exploring my faith more. I don’t really understand what’s happening to me but I think God is trying to tell me something.”

Jessica is what the Pew Research Center and other religion scholars call the “nones.”1 These are folks who do not identify with any particular religious orientation. Instead, they consider themselves “spiritual” or may believe in a “higher power.” However, they are not involved with any organized religious group and are unaffiliated with a faith community. Currently, these individuals make up about 30% of the US population. However, researchers are beginning to sound the alarm on the decrease in religious involvement among Americans. In fact, Pew suggests that by 2070 less than half of the US population will be Christian. Moreover, only 30 percent2 of Americans regularly attend religious services. Together these data suggest that our society is growing increasingly unfamiliar with, and disconnected from, the Christian faith tradition.

At the same time our country is seeing a decline in religious involvement, institutions of higher education are bracing themselves for what is being called the “enrollment cliff.”3 The downward trends in higher education enrollment have already begun, and many Christian universities are feeling the blow in devastating ways. There are many theories and explanations for the decline in both religiosity and higher education enrolment that I won’t dive into here. However, Christian educators should seek to understand the current trends so we can respond appropriately.

Although the statistical forecast looks grim, I believe there is reason to be hopeful (and maybe even excited) about the role Christian higher education can play in introducing the “nones” to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus. We have the chance to experience a revival unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Not only can we revive our institutions and rediscover our unique purpose in the world, but we are also well-positioned to make an impact on the Kingdom of God because of our unique positionality. We can contribute to a revival of the Christian faith tradition in ways that churches can’t. The real question is, are we ready and willing to do what it takes? I believe that one major key to revival is our ability to understand and connect with students like Jessica. We need to know what’s leading people towards a separation from faith (sometimes called deconstruction) and distance from religious organizations (called dechurching). We must welcome them into our institutions, introduce our faith to them in a relevant way, and link them to the ongoing spiritual care and support a local church can provide.

Deconstructing Faith and Dechurching

There are many theologians, scholars, thinkers, and pundits writing about deconstructing faith and dechurching. If you do a Google search of these terms you’re likely to come across books by pastors, videos by opinionated YouTubers, and a host of blogs and podcasts. However, the actual research literature on these topics is sparse. In fact, I had an exceedingly difficult time locating high-quality sociological or behavioral science research on these topics. Nonetheless, there are some common definitions and ways of understanding these concepts that are noteworthy.

First, deconstruction of faith is not a new phenomenon. In fact, over 40 years ago Fowler4 developed his seven stages of spiritual development which include the “individuative-reflective stage”. In this stage, people often look outside their own learned beliefs and begin to ask questions and identify contradictions. This can be a very painful stage as old ideas are challenged and possibly rejected. However, faith can be strengthened during this stage as beliefs become more explicitly and personally held rather than an unexamined belief based on what they’ve been taught. Today we call this “deconstructing faith;” the experience that some people (particularly younger people) have when they question their childhood faith, religious institutions, and religious leaders. The term “exvangelical” has emerged to describe those who were raised in the Evangelical Christian tradition but have since rejected it, turning to other Christian traditions, other religions, or leaving the faith altogether.

Dechurching is a distinct, yet interconnected phenomenon. This captures folks who have left the institution of the church but have not necessarily left their faith. This group is well captured in the Pew Research data5 that reveals a decline in organizational religious involvement among those who identify as Christian. We find “dechurching” trends across the nation and across demographic profiles. For example, although African Americans continue to be the most religious group in the nation with 46% attending church at least once a week, recent data indicates that rates of organized religious involvement among this group have fallen and are likely to continue to fall6.

What does all this have to do with Christian higher education? The reality is that we are increasingly likely to have students at our institutions and in our classrooms who identify with one or both of these experiences. You may have already started to see this happen. In days past, one could assume that the students who chose to attend a Christian university did so because they were Christian and wanted to grow in their faith while pursuing their vocation. We could have assumed in the past that most of our students were church involved in some capacity and had at least some familiarity with the Gospel message and the Christian tradition. However, data suggests that this is no longer the case and it will likely become increasingly rare to have students with a Christian background at our universities. Consequently, Christian universities will either continue to shrink and die or we will prepare for revival and find ways to attract and welcome the “nones.”


  1. Pew Research Center, January, 2024, “Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They Are and What They Believe”
  2. Pew Research Center, March 2023, “How the Pandemic Has Affected Attendance at U.S. Religious Services”
  3. Copley, Paul, and Edward Douthett. “The enrollment cliff, mega-universities, COVID-19, and the changing landscape of US colleges.” The CPA Journal 90, no. 9 (2020): 22-27.
  4. Fowler, James W., and Robin W. Levin. “Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 15, no. 1 (1984).
  5. Protestants, Evangelical. “Religious landscape study.” Pew Research Center: Washington, DC, USA (2015).
  6. Pew Research Center, Feb. 16, 2021, “Faith Among Black Americans”

Krystal Hays

Dr. Krystal Hays is the Director of the Doctor of Social Work program and an Associate Professor of Social Work at California Baptist University. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with experience providing psychotherapy, and engaging in capacity building, in community mental health settings. As a social work researcher Dr. Hays focuses on reducing the burden of depression and other mental illnesses and improving mental health treatment outcomes for African Americans.


  • Joseph Wallace says:

    Dr. Hays, thank you. Well articulated, and very much on target…As others have written here recently, the church and the Christian school of higher learning has largely brought this dilemma on ourselves–with an overkill of “let’s just blend in”, which does not say much for our true understanding of the Kingdom growth model Christ gave us.

  • Phillip Cary says:

    This strikes me as a particularly fruitful challenge for the humanities–the disciplines that spend the most time studying old books. Fewer and fewer people are going to be well-versed in this kind of study, as majoring in the humanities comes to be increasingly regarded (mistakenly) as a poor career move. The church has a vested interest in learning how to read old books, including the Bible but also other great teachers of the Christian tradition. It seems to me that Christian institutions of higher education have a real opportunity here to become centers of this kind of learning. This will also benefit the church, if it results in calling us back from using marketing strategies to grow the church and turning us back to serious engagement with Scripture and tradition, which is essential to sound preaching and worship.

  • Susan Layton says:

    I’d encourage you to check out the As in Heaven podcast, starting May 2, 2023. In this podcast they discuss the book, The Great Dechurching by Michael Graham and Jim Davis. They report on extensive research done on this topic, with very constructive ideas for how the church can respond. It is excellent.