Why did you leave the church?
Why did you decide not to go back to a church, any church?
These and other questions are among those we have been asking for many years through a variety of research projects. Why do people leave the church and not return? We have specifically asked those questions of the formerly churched who were active in a church for at least two consecutive years, but did not return for at least two more years.
Here are the ten most common responses:
- “I got out of the habit.” They had no major impetus that prompted them to leave. They became less and less active in the church until they were inactive.
- “I left after I graduated from high school.” Many of them went to college and did not attend church during those years. Others simply left church after getting out of their parents’ home.
- “I decided I didn’t like the institutional church.” We are hearing that reason a lot. But we can’t get a consistent answer on why they are anti-institutional. And we hear a number of different definitions of “institutions.”
- “I was hurt at the church.” For certain, there are a lot of wounded former church members out there. The local church can be pretty mean. It can be painful for a church member who gets on the wrong side of a church bully or a petty argument.
- “I just couldn’t find a church to meet my needs.” This person is the classic church hopper and shopper. They practice consumer and preferential Christianity with vigor. But, alas, when none of the 28 churches they visited met their needs, they decided to stop trying altogether.
- “I had a need and the church didn’t meet it.” This reason is related to number five with some specificity. The former church member is referring to a specific incident where the church was not there for him or her. Just two weeks ago, I spoke to someone who did not feel the church was there sufficiently after the death of her mother.
- “I never felt connected in the church.” Almost every church member who offers this reason did not get involved with a group in the church. Such is the reason I am obnoxiously redundant about connecting members to groups.
- “I did not give to the church.” Of course, we really didn’t hear that statement from a former church member. But I have encouraged pastors to ask the person who has visibility to giving records to find out if the now inactive church member was a giver. Most of the time, the answer is no. One pastor asked the question about four families who left the church in a specific year. The total giving of the four families was zero.
- “I left when Pastor John left.” A number of the formerly churched were loyal primarily to a specific pastor. So, when that pastor left the church, they became inactive.
- “We moved and never went back to church.” This issue is worthy of a future study. How many of the formerly churched relocated and never connected with a church? Why did they take this path?
These are ten of the most common reasons the churched became the formerly churched. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Posted on April 3, 2019
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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That top 10 list is the shallow version of folks’ ‘why’. Most local churches have lost their way. When 95% of staff time, energy, dollar resources go into the one hour ‘event’ on Sunday, and when even most pastors and church members agree that our faith ‘isn’t about Sunday morning’– you have a serious disconnect.
When fewer than 2% of our youth stay in church after high school/college—you have a serious disconnect.
When you define worship as ‘singing some songs together’— you have a serious disconnect.
When the most important Question of the Day is how do we get more people to come to church— you have a serious disconnect.
When it’s more important to be a ‘good’ church member than it is to be a follower of the Master and making disciples— you have a serious disconnect.
When churches try to defend all their usual practices that are failing week after week and when pastors burnout because they have impossible expectations of themselves and place on them—you have a serious disconnect.
99.99% of the local churches simply try to rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic—that’s a waste.
Until local churches are willing to die and fall into the ground (and do what the Master has asked rather than what it takes to do the same old thing— you will only have nice rows on the sky deck.
Until people and church leaders seriously are willing to hear the voice of the Lord, and obey, instead of doing whatever they think it takes to keep the operation running— you have a serious disconnect.
No thanks, been there, done that, tried that repeatedly, it’s a new day. Time to wake up and listen to the Master.
Excellent thoughts Chris! I agree 100%. What if churches started asking the question, “What would please God most?” What is He asking me to do? What if churches started actively loving each other and really connecting with each other and listening to Jesus?
My heart goes out to those who have wandered away and I struggle to find a way to connect them to a local Christian gathering. But this dilemma is not new. Jesus spoke of the forces that people face in the parable of the sower, Matthew 13:3-23. As I read your list and reflect on the people I’ve talked with, I hear in their reflections the perils faced by the seeds.
1 John 2:19.
No amount of compassion, striving to fulfill “needs,” or reprogramming to suit the “relevance” du jour will turn a goat into a sheep. We don’t have a style, programming or methodology problem. We have a Gospel problem. This is simply the expected result following decades of the aggrandizement, promotion, and the bestowing of celebrity status on culturally popular baptism mills. Denominationally we have been gleefully quick to pronounce the rich young rulers of the world saved and we are reaping the fruit we planted….tireless hours of hand wringing over the perils and stresses of goat herding. Nothing shocking here. Heartbreaking, but not shocking.
1. Hurt at church
3. Church don’t accept LBGTQ or racial minorities
4. Church is too rigid, has too “rigid” rules.
5. Kids grew up
6. Don’t see the need
Is your complaint against the Church or God’s word that does not adapt to peoples expectations.
LGBTQ is not the same thing as racial minorities. And no churches should not be accepting of sinful behavior.
Thanks. Saved me from saying the same thing!
I have heard “it to be too much change all at once” to add to the list.
I really understand. I left the church I was raised in and loved after 30 years because it wanted to change to fast and mimic the world around us I wondered for several years but God led me to a church that still loved Him and not the world. God is good !
Looking at the post today, as pastors should we think of doing some kind of exit interview and if so what would that look like?
It is all in 1. How we view church (an opportunity to be encouraged, an opportunity to encourage and serve) and 2. How we view God and His Word (not forsaking the assembly of the brethren).
In this dark and dying world, Christians need each other…we need to stay strong together, and encourage each other in our walk with Him. While no church is perfect (ours certainly isn’t), the Lord has provided a structure where His people can be challenged, encouraged and supported….the local church.
Well said, Samuel.
Christians may need each other, but I have never seen a group of Christians from across denominations come together. There seem to be no events similar to Jewish Federation events where professionals even In cities can meet each other. Churches and denominations are too insular. Why is it still so hard to connect with other Christians?
Never is a limiting word. There are places, especially in rural areas in Southern Virginia (where I minister) where there are intentional groups that cross denominational lines. We meet in a group that has, Christian, UCC, UMC, PCUSA, Baptist, Episcopal, COGIC, and Holiness whose sole purpose is to bring clergy together to cross denominational and racial lines. Not perfect but it works.
Another group in our city works together to address homelessness and poverty, 26 members in 18 denominations participate.
I think the issue is a matter of trust and being open-eyed about the difficulties that will arise. The clergy group has had conflict between clergy but has committed to stay in community, even when we hurt each other.
Focus is probably the most important aspect of the equation. That and the assurance that pastors are not fishing for new members (I was told some churches in our area are reluctant to participate because, in years past, pastors have “stolen” members from other churches.). The complications of everyday life (secular life) get amplified in church. But, we have found success by setting the bar low (in a manner of speaking) and keeping the focus narrow: (1) creating community for pastors in one group and (2) working to alleviate poverty as opposed to throwing money at the person who drops by once a year for assistance as opposed to need. Having a common goal and common purpose helps; not perfect but helps.
Les speaks of pastors getting together to support each other, I know the pastors in my small town have done the same. My first thought went back to Promise Keepers which brought men from the whole spectrum of Christianity together. There are many different seminars across the nation open to all denominations. There are ministries such as Youth for Christ, Navigators, the Christian Motorcycle Association that accept people based on their allegiance to Christ and His Body, not denominations.
This, in essence, is why and how the movement towards nondenominational Scriptural churches is a joy. These churches, except those that paint a false face, are ipso facto mixings of people of Christ from many different areas of the Body.
Another group which does this well is the Gideons.
Falling prey to #10 is a strong temptation to many, especially for those of us that struggle with a bit of social anxiety. I’ve been through this many times due to job moves.
Simply put, finding a new church in a new area is a miserable experience.
There is a ton of variation and despite trying to do a bit of vetting via Google and knowing denominational preferences, when you walk in those front doors you just never know what you are going to find. Some churches ignore you while others make you stand up and be interrogated. Some you walk into a rock concert that literally hurts your ears while others are a huge sanctuary filled with 15 old people and you get stuck for an hour after church as old ladies try to pawn off their granddaughters on you. Sometimes they press you so hard for your contact info that it would be rude to say no and then call you fifteen times when the truth is you knew you wouldn’t come back five minutes into the service.
It can be really hard to get up Sunday morning and throw yourself into that cauldron yet again. I have also noticed that the push towards nondenominational churches makes it more difficult to know what to expect when you walk in.
Good points, Raymond.
After decades of church and para-church ministry and countless conversations with the non-attenders and nominally churched, I’d like to suggest a different underlying reason. When Jesus started to teach some challenging things, some of the fringe followers left and He asked His closest followers if they also wanted to leave. Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter didn’t leave because there was something so substantial, so life-altering was going on in his life with Jesus it was inconceivable to him to leave. Seems like many I talk with have stopped attending church because it’s superficial, relatively trite, relationally-tolerable but without anything that makes it markedly different than many other “affinity groups” they are a part of. Many churches seem to mimic the world around them in the hope of drawing unchurched people into the church and, as a result, fail to provide for current attenders a sufficient proclamation of the ongoing, life-altering proclamation of God’s Word that would capture their hearts and minds.
Let’s be honest about the attitude concerning a number of these reasons. Selfish. Our Lord is calling us to love not to be loved. He is calling us to serve not be served. There are many people who think the church exists to serve them rather than serving the church. My recommended solution is teaching meaningful membership.
Charles, if you are responding specifically to my comments, I am not sure that you picked up on what I sought to call attention to. I don’t think it was selfishness that led Peter (and the others) to not walk away from Jesus. It was substance, life-changing truth, something they knew they could not find anywhere else. That realization was compelling to them; but I don’t think it was fundamentally selfish. Certainly there are many who walk away from church life because they do live lives of self-centeredness. But as I mentioned in my earlier comment, I think that some walk away, not fundamentally from selfishness, but because there is nothing markedly “other Kingdom” about church. Those I speak with are not looking for something that selfishly serves them; they are looking for something worth giving their whole lives to. And much of church life strikes them as trite and shallow.
How about “Unregenerate people ultimately feel they don’t fit it with regenerate ones”?
The Church is not about me or you. These people need the Truth. The Church is imperfect. Because “we” are imperfect. This is about Him, Holy creator and Savior. Who will tell thes people the Truth? It’s way overdue.
Have them read (Know What You Believe) by Paul Little
Wayne, I beg to differ. The church is about me, in that I am a member of the church and I desire to be used by God. Both among my friends, coworkers, and as a volunteer in my church. The first five years at my present church I volunteered for practically every ministry area. I finally decided if they had no use for me other than the tithe I’d find another body of believers, to be of value in. Last year a new pastor to the church took me up on leading an early morning small group. Being appreciated, trusted, makes all the difference, for anyone.
I agree with Wayne. It is all about Jesus our risen Lord and Savior. It is great to desire to be used and to be significant, but humbly for the glory of God alone. We love him and need to serve him out of our gratitude. We are build for worship and good works but the attitude of gratitude must be what creates the sweetest fruit from our lives.
The church is al about the almighty God, not about us.
About his Son who paid for our sin on the cross and the Holy Spirit who awakens us from our spiriual death an lead us back to God over the bridge that Jesus build when he died in our place on the cross.
I’ve been in your same shoes. Instead of getting mad at the people and the church it would have been better spending more time in prayer and fasting and asking God where your skills could be better utilized. Maybe he wanted you to lend your talents to a local non-profit or to guide you into launching your own non-profit or business venture. Maybe God simply wanted to spend more time with you personally in this season. Rejection hurts, but God is the ultimate healer and always has what’s best for you in his heart. You have to ask, seek, and trust him though. He will quite often close doors like this so that you would turn to him and ask where the open door is. It took me a long while to figure that out, but once I did, it has made things a little easier.
I promise I am not exaggerating. What about when you figure out that none of the churches around are really about Jesus?
And again, I know that sounds like an exaggeration; and it took me a long time to come to terms with it.
My only solution was to go to seminary and then plant a church all about Jesus. But not everyone has the ability to do that.
I, too, would like to plant a church because of seeing so many problems with the local congregations, but being a conservative white female really limits those who would sponsor me 🙂
Just so you know, that’s about as false as a statement can get! You would be picked by far more sponsors to plant a church because you are a “conservative white female.” You can do it if you are genuine, truly determined to press through, and have the Lord Jesus backing you up! You can do it!!!!
Yes, Curtis, your statement does sound like an exaggeration, and it also sounds more than a little arrogant.
Your response is a ad hominem logical fallacy. Insulting me doesnt prove me wrong. I will listen to anyone who will logically come to my area and prove me wrong. You are actually demonstrating the problem. We are not allowed to criticize churches. Once we do, we are insulted and told the problem is with us. Are we just supposed to show up on Sunday, shut up, sit down and pretend like nothing is wrong with what is going on?
I know how you feel. Most churches are pretty horrible. There is a huge famine in the land.
Unwanted. No matter what I offered to do I just was not wanted by the “powers that be.” My talents that I used in the secular world were not wanted. Not having a family and being under 35 did not help things either. I could attend and donate money but nothing more. I wasn’t trying to work my way into the “inner circle” or the cliques, just be allowed on a committee after attending there for a few years and donating money.
Moving is very difficult because you may (not) find a church or even denomination that wants you. Only those who have moved and been unwanted understand this. Going into a church where you are a total stranger is really difficult no matter how many times people tell you how friendly other Christians are.
So sorry, Mark.
Wrong reply Thom but here what I see from being a member of several churches in different states as I moved with job changes. It is the “Old Church” people who want to keep their position in church and any new person who joins is not asked to help to even be a part of a small job at first. Found out that to be a part of a church in SBC I
a person must come with position and social status. If not maybe after several years they will start to let a person be a part of some committee that is not a one where the mission of church can be changed. The standard for people who keep all the church committees in rotation with all “old church” members. Then you start to see as I have seen good people with talents in service soon leave and some will ask why others will say “well they just never fit in”. I could relate more but until the church sees that God adds to the body those whom he wants and for a reason to GROW the church and we are to use their gifts for that purpose.
Yes, Richard, I do agree with you! If we need to grow the church, first, we need to identify the gift of a person and train him/her and after a year put them in a leadership position if church needed. On the other hand, it is also necessary to have some background check, if a new member involves in financial matters. Mentoring, shepherding, and lay leadership training by the pastor for the future new leaders is also most important for the future mission of the church. However, leadership within old members is not a good practice for the growth of the church.
Rev. Dr. Israel Anchan
What happened to the gift of discernment? With no clergy, the followers of Jesus get by fine. With staff, huge budgets and overhead I guess you need all that social/political/religion stuff. An Ekklesia model will grow and be dynamic anywhere the Holy Spirit leads. When neighbors care for each other we build relationships. We don’t need religion we need one word Paul says Gal5:14
Move west. It is different. We have so few workers.
Mark, I can empathize, being in a similar situation myself. It seems the attitude that Paul had, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some,” (ESV, 1 Co 9:22) is vacant in many churches.
Our church is on the path to death and it was Thom’s book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church that gave me some hope that it could be revitalized. Over the past several years I have been speaking into the wind concerning the problem. Like you, my efforts to help grow the church have been rebuffed by the leadership; despite having planted a church in the past that is still alive today and being a believer for over 40 years.
To bring it full circle, there is an 11th reason why the formerly churched leave their churches.
11. “The Gift God has given me does not fit their 4-5 predefined church programs.” Therefore, I have no use other than opening my wallet.
Sadly, your statement is true. It isn’t about following Jesus instructions anymore, but about following the tradition of the elders. Same old problem Jesus confronted in the time He walked this earth. I too tried to encourage them to follow Jesus, His whole council. They just don’t want to hear it. They want to do what is right in their own eyes. They think they can do it better than God! The reality is God knows best, not man. God has given us instruction in His Word on how HE wants HIS church to operate, I found it frustrating to encounter over and over and over again the ignoring of Gods council. I just could not follow them in it. I chose to follow Jesus instead. I am heartbroken at the condition of the church in our nation. I did not leave lightly. I wept bitterly.
We didn’t leave the church, the church left us. Not interested in
Seniors. Big entertainment and music that is difficult for us old people to appreciate. Maybe, compromise with some of the old hymns? Pastors not interested in their congregations, they never come out to meet the people. Are they not responsible for their ‘flocks”? Seems like they just want our money. Where is the love and caring? The church has lost their way. So sad, still looking for a church.
I can relate! I am a seminary grad and my husband has been on staff several places. I have nonprofit management experience and used to work at Nasa so I’m not a dummy :-). I play the piano very well. I just don’t fit the mold I guess. I worked on any issues that have ever been brought up to me. So I now work behind the scenes on my own personal Ministries. I would have loved to have been part of a bigger picture but I guess God has a different plan. I still attend church because I do feel like it is the biblical thing to do. I do love corporate worship. And having people that can pray for me when I need it. So I can’t imagine not going to church at all but it does hurt to not be used in the corporate body.
I attended a mega church for 35 years.I joined numerous small groups and serving groups, over that time period. In the end my wife and I had no real Christian friends or community. We finally left that church and haven’t gone to another. Where are the real Christians?