Ten Reasons the Formerly Churched Left Their Churches

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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. “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.
  7. “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.
  8. “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.
  9. “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.
  10. “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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  • Concerning #8, “I did not give to the church.” Many of us have had unwelcome situations where it seemed everyone in power at the church knew exactly how much everyone gave. So we just went to all cash giving. So if we ever left the church, the pastor would be completely wrong if they had stated that we had never given money to the church.

  • Lots of talk. To get to the heart of the matter believers need to know that their so-called perfect Bible is vastly imperfect. Where it has not been altered it has been mis-translated either intentionally or not. Where phony books like Esther have been inserted to useless books like Song of Solomon – also possibly phony. Now if your Bible is so corrupted what does that say about the whole of Protestant Christianity ? Not saying the Catholic church is any better but do you think the enemies of Yahweh would stop after they’ve muddied up the Scriptures ? No way.

    Over time they corrupted the divinity schools, broke the Protestant churches into many sects and denominations, promoted books written (or supposedly written by) scholarly devout Christians and sold millions of them to obeying deceived sheep, not realizing these books were hearsay and full of lies. Then back in time the idea started that a “leader” trained in one of these divinity schools who thought he had some “calling” is put in charge and becomes the pastor of a church somewhere.
    And all churches now have a Pastor and no doubt he has a wife and children. He is compromised and is too young to know what he’s gotten into, tho he thinks he does.

    So from the beginning the system is screwed up. The knowledge that Peter and Paul knew is pretty much unknown today – it’s been removed from scripture or totally jumbled that it makes no sense . . . and church people get together and yack about it in church or on forums like this thinking truth may come to them one day or they can figure it all out. Please don’t get me started about “Christian” TV and radio.

    I don’t go to church because there’s nothing of substance or fulfilling and I can’t afford to go to church. Churches themselves are TAKERS . . . they need money money money. It’s a constant money grab even with their tax exempt status. And this tax exempt status is the perhaps the main key to the emptiness of Christian churches.

    There are many things known (or not) that pastors dare never to say. Nor would the elders say themselves say for fear their tax free card would be taken away. The knowledge that believers knew 2000 years ago has been taken and that knowledge was the foundation of the early church. With the foundation all crumbled in pieces nothing of substance can be built. You may say Jesus is our foundation. Isn’t that what all churches say ? Look at where it’s got them. They are mostly just social clubs where the strong stay strong and the weak stay weak. Many of your recognized leaders of Christianity are in league with Satan.

    Christ (Yahweh) said: “I know my sheep and they know me.” He knows those who are His and we know Him (tho in this world we are blinded from knowing) . . . for reasons unknown to us at this time.

    • Christopher says on

      Didn’t know God was so inept at preserving His word. Good thing you’re here to let Him know.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      How do you know Christ said “I know my sheep and they know me” if the Bible has been corrupted?

  • A major reason for leaving is not feeling wanted or needed. It is sometimes, especially in struggling small churches, that a small group of individuals consider the church to be “their church” instead of Christ’s church. Decisions are made and individuals chosen because of a desire to maintain the “status quo”. Any change is resisted. There is a lack of love and the church becomes sterile and uninviting. It is stuck in the past.
    It concerns personal preferences (selfishness), always done it our way (pride) and we only want individuals to worship with us that are like us (unloving). Denominational isolation is an amazing case of man-made principles instead of God-based ideals.
    My prayer is that we can, as local churches, focus not on “bringing in new church members,” but on “going out” and making disciples.
    The world needs the hope we have in Jesus Christ and the salvation He brings.

  • Denise Floyd says on

    All of the above are definitely valid reasons but another reason I see is when politics start creeping into prayer requests. And conversations with friends turn political and let you know you’re on the outside. I come to church to get away from politics and focus on Jesus who isn’t Republican or Democrat.

  • Thom,
    Do you have any numbers on people who left a church/got out of church because they were hurt by stigma? I’m thinking specifically about people struggling with substance abuse, mental health issues, divorce, and/or unwed or underage parents. This type of data would be helpful for a ministry venture I’m working on.


  • Why would people want to commit to participating in something that is not at all unlike the world in which they already live? When the church loses it’s distinctiveness,it ceases to be the church and becomes just another event. This is the fallout from our attempts to make the church pallitable to the world.

  • Struggling in my current church because there is no sense of urgency about anything. We’ve become more and more insular and we acknowledge that but seem to be working toward possibly developing a plan at some point in the future to perhaps maybe start thinking about ways to encourage the congregation maybe develop more of an outreaching focus. We’d like to find a way to do this with minimal effort and expense and minimal change to what we’re now doing. We might think about ways to connect with our community at some point in the future if we can buy an off the shelf program that will support us in this but only if it allows us to think about changing more than actually changing. We’d like to love our neighbor but only if they will just come through our doors, not if we have to go looking for them. My husband and I are considering our options because we are very unhappy. I can’t imagine we would become former church members and stop attending anywhere. But I seem to be surrounded in my life by people who have become former church members because they couldn’t reconcile the pain they felt for lost people around them with the lack of concern for lost people they saw in their local churches.

  • Judith Gotwald says on

    The local church can be mean? The hierarchical Church can be mean on steroids. Abuse of power in the Church is not mentioned in this study but is prevalent, mirroring secular headlines. In the Church it’s hush-hush. Perhaps the blanket “I was hurt” covers it.

    Sometimes abuse is in little ways—every day decisions that elevate the Church at the expense of the parishioner. Sometimes in sexual ways that are making headlines after decades of secrecy. Sometimes in jockeying for power and control of assets. Until recently, there was little fear of repercussion; separation of church and state has a dark side.

    Today’s Christians face many societal powers in our lives we cannot control or avoid. The Church is one we can avoid. We exercise our power by staying away. Sometimes it’s just easier. Sometimes we hope someone will notice. We are not likely to admit the real reasons in a survey. Meanwhile, in staying away, we discover there are ways we can live more influential lives with Christian values outside the Church. #Brian Onken is on the right track.

    • Even if half the people who left told the truth in the survey, nothing would change. The preacher will probably never be told to make the sermon more relevant to the young, teach a faith formation class to the teens, help the ultra-educated with ethical issues, or have a dinner with the young professionals and answer questions. The older people will probably never be told to stop running people off and that gossiping and bearing false witness are sins. The leadership will likely not make themselves available for a Q&A session or explain their thinking. So why fill out the survey in the first place?

      • Mark S. says on

        James, many pastors strive to do all those things! Maybe you need a new church to attend. I love answering questions. My answers may not be what people want to hear, but there it is.

  • Two of my Top 5 core values are authenticity and service.

    In most churches I’ve attended the authenticity was low. It becomes difficult to connect when people aren’t willingly to share who they really are.

    In my experience most churches and their members focus resources in serving themselves with some emphasis on staff pet projects. Churches ask their members to tithe, yet most churches fail to move even 10% out into their communities. Instead, the tithe supports brick and mortar, staff, and services for its membership. In essence the tithe becomes dues to a social club and members want a say in how these funds are spent.

    Trends? I see more small home churches springing up where there is authenticity, connection, and a focus to go out into the world to serve and spread the Gospel. I believe people are crying out for authenticity and opportunities to serve beyond themselves.

  • As I minister to the aging Baby Boomers, I frequently hear the first answer. They just got out of the habit.Considering the life style changes, I am focusing upon the current needs of the aging Baby Boomers. Leaving a legacy of faith is proving to be a hot button. I believe many see grandparenting as a “Do-over.” My aim is to get them involved in groups in the church.

  • Tyler Hartford says on

    I think we are living in an Post-Christendom age where church is no longer the center of community. Throw in that there are no longer benefits of being a Christian in many settings… so we see a pulling away of those who have not experienced church as a community formed through Christ, and those who are left are struggling with finding ways to be the church beyond Sunday morning…. especially in the form of an authentic and caring community.

    • Or another way to put it. We are living in Post-Christendom places, where the Lord is decreasing His empowerment of quasichristian nationalism, by which churches were driven for so long to love this world and things in this world. Churches which read the Word of God of the New Testament, grow in such an environment, as foolishnesses become national religion; churches which claim the Lord and do otherwise, lose relevance and die. It has happened before.

  • We have begun a church plant and have drawn a number of “formerly churched”. Most say they have been hurt, usually by a pastor, but EVERY ONE seem to have emotional issues and a misunderstanding of what it means to live our lives for Jesus rather than being self focused.