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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  • I finally realized I was running from God, but my “leaving church” was a process that occurred over a period of 20 years. After leaving a missionary position, I didn’t want to attend where I was expected to play that role. People expect the missionary stories and/or put missionaries on a pedestal. I couldn’t find a way to be just an ordinary person. So… church hopping, never getting involved, etc.

  • Perhaps a church based on a clinical pastoral education model would suit more people. An issues is discussed between all and then a real-life practice, afterwards discussion on results. Too much emphasis on the pastor as know-it-all and little involvement isn’t that appealing anymore.

  • The divided, denominated, mixed up covenants, social/political/corporate organization of the American “Church” needs to meet the needs of the people (widows, orphans, homeless) and quit trying to support buildings, programs and entertainment for the ‘Fans” on gameday and care for the “least of these” Counting noses and collecting the cash one day a week is not the Ekklesia of Jesus. It convenient religion church.
    Followers of Jesus need to reject man’s rules, reverends, titles, tithes, relics of tradition, and the world ways of entertainment. Meet in your homes, public places, rented spaces, sidewalks and parking lots. Restore the Ekklesia of Jesus. Obey Galatians 5:14-15 all the rest is religion! “Come out of Babylon my people”

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Paul also said till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.

  • Most of these reasons are very self-centered. Whatever happened to servanthood and self-denial? These seem to be foreign concepts to the modern church.

    • Agreed. Servanthood and self-denial are taught in few churches today. But a church which denies access to its new members to all roles in which they can actively help in the collective work of Christ the Lord, is denying them servanthood and self-denial.

  • A L Moseley says on

    I read most of the comments and was replying to them until it got old having to retype my info every time. So, will just post one summary time. I agree with most of the comments here. Been in many of those situations. I have been hurt, unused, used, sensed doctrinal problems, etc. Got out of habit in college and even after travel. All that said, I never totally gave up because I felt it a Biblical admonition to not forsake the assembling… So, I kept looking and praying. It is hard tho. I can’t imagine going through this without a strong commitment to God’s word and still pushing through. Have a very strong faith and still don’t often like to put up with what I have to put up with sometimes to obey what I feel like is the Lord’s calling to assemble. My church experience has been one of learning the word, but having very little pastoring. Often pastors will relegate visiting and prayer to the small groups. That’s fine if the small group leaders would take that on. I had great teaching and am solid on doctrine, but when I went to college, no one followed up with me from a church I attended for 18 years and which my parents served well. Then at my college congregation I had a breakdown and tho my pastor met with me (surprisingly based on other pastoral experiences), once I moved there was no accountability. Tried some churches where I moved to but I was such an outsider nothing clicked and I was not visited or invited back in most situations. Then switched colleges and got involved in my former church where I grew up. Not too bad but didn’t they have the drive for community outreach I would have liked so we often as college students did stuff on our own. Many students left to go somewhere else . Then I got married and followed my husband to some churches where he was on staff and was treated horribly at times and were asked to leave. Then we got in a big church where we could blend in but had good small group leaders that kept checking on us and eventually we were asked to help. Then we helped start a church. Parents died and a little bit of food and maybe a card for me but nothing for my husband. That said, the church our parents went to was a fabulous little country church that really took care of our widowed parents. Then we had marital issues and very little support, care, or accountability. We switched churches to help with a ministry more along our callings and because our kids asked to leave. It was an out reach church with not much in reach. But before we got plugged in the pastor left and things changed for the worst. Followed someone who invited us to help with said ministry to another congregation and stayed for awhile. The pastor really ministered to us through some family issues. Our small group leader helped out. Then we got a new pastor who was young and working on his doctorate with little kids in tow. Not a good fit but this congregation was so desperate they chose him. He was not helpful with our family issues. I felt like the Lord told me to go to the Elders of our church and have them and want me with oil and pray as I had tried everything else and nothing was working . To their defense they honored my request though they really wanted me to go in a different direction . One Elder checked on me about a week later and after that no one . Later, we had a run in with a young couple because they reported us to CPS after hearing a story from our foster daughter that was incorrect. We went to the pastor and asked if we could have a meeting. We asked why Matthew 18 was not administered instead of calling CPS and they basically stuck up for the couple saying they were doing what they thought they should do and they weren’t really in the wrong. We could have accepted that but we asked for them to be reprimanded for lying and they were not. We wanted to reconcile with that couple but they dug in their feet and the older staff would not rebuke them and it was very uncomfortable to be in the church with them from there on out . About that same time my foster daughter wanted to go to a different congregation where she had friends because there were a lot of cliques in this youth group. I was already involved there in a ladies group during the week and they had been asking me to come to that same congregation so on her birthday I said yes let’s go. It was much closer and I felt much more supported and loved and so did she. So we kept going. I was never checked on after going to the former congregation for years. She wasn’t checked on. Then her little brother wanted to come with us and then my other son. My husband was on the praise team so he stayed behind and my older son who was established in the youth group there stayed as well. I had two Foster babies in tow and it was very difficult to get everyone ready in the morning since my husband went so early and took the older kids and it was very helpful to have a lady from this new church come by help me get them ready and load us up and take us. It was also only 5 minutes away and the other church was about 15 minutes away and it started much later so it was very convenient for my schedule. But to be fair, there were people that would come get my youth for youth group activities at that former congregation. I don’t know if it was because my husband didn’t come with me or because I had so many kids but they never asked me to get involved other than playing the piano once for a small group. I was there two years. And felt to go back into Ministry after all those years. So my husband and I finally took a leap of faith and went West thinking that we could serve after being told by several people out there just get here and we’ll put you to work. That congregation I left never checked on me. Although the lady that led the small group kept in touch. I would come back for certain things and they would act like oh where have you been. So that was a little bit hurtful that nobody cared enough to check on me after 2 years. So then we get out west. We had spent many Summers here on mission trips. Now that we’re here I haven’t been asked to do anyting but play the piano as a fill-in or maybe fill in for a teacher. My husband was asked to leave music as a fill-in and preach once or twice . It’s like they have who they know and don’t want to give newcomers a chance or something I can’t pinpoint it. Other than just God shutting doors. I can hardly stand the worship services here because they’re like a fellowship time. People talk, people joke during the offering prayer, the music is kind of random and not done well. I I am a music Major and could help but instead they want to let a teenager help to give him experience for the future who by the way it’s going to be an engineering major not a minister at least in the traditional sense. I appreciate them wanting to raise up people to serve but there’s no sense of Excellence at all. And again we’re having family issues and when I’ve gone to the pastor he says a quick prayer and then it’s over with no accountability no checking on us even though we are hundreds of miles away from what we know. So I started looking at other congregations for my children. I didn’t want them to think that you can just throw a service together and call it worship. And besides yes the coffee is bad . I don’t know if it’s a small town or we’re Outsiders or what but wherever we have visited we have felt that way. We finally settled in and what we thought was the best in this town at least coffee wise and I think music wise. Again all these churches have had good solid Bible teaching but very little pastoral care. We love the music here but I have called the pastor on more than one occasion to meet and he has not called me back. He preaches on serving but when I want to meet with him about where to serve I haven’t heard from him. I have talked to the music minister and he is open but the practice times are times I can’t really come. The small groups are pretty big so it’s hard to get much one-on-one time with small group leaders as well. So all this to say, if I didn’t have my own drive to stay in a congregation, I wouldn’t have. I talked with another lady here with the same experience. She’s tried several places in town and no one called her or talked to her even after she had been visiting in a church for 6 months. I invited her to the little church we helped when we first got here and though she agrees with me her kids do like it so they have stayed. My husband has stayed as well to try and help but he’s been there a year and nothing has changed that I can see other than one thing in the bylaws that I stood firm about. We both want to start our own house Church. But we’re white conservative women as I stated above on another comment. After serving this church the best I could summer after summer and when I first got here, I thought somebody might miss me but no one checked on me either when I started attending other places. I just don’t get it. And they wonder why they don’t grow. So because of my belief I will keep going to church but man it’s hard where I live now. Things could be done so much better in all of these cases but no one wants to hear. And I have been on the other side are you hear complaints all the time and it’s tough so I get that but when people aren’t coming to your church you would think that you would want to make some changes and be open to growth.

  • Jan Young says on

    We left our church after 15 years because it was allowing a progressive liberal group of people to become more and more involved in ministry, especially the music. their agenda was obvious. This surfaced after the 2016 elections and people started posting on facebook about their activities toward progressive causes. The long term pastor that allowed it due to long term friendships in the church retired. We stayed in hopes the new pastor would turn the church back toward a Biblical stand but he did not. He was young and continued the movement in that direction so we decided not to stay and fight it. We did not stop going to church but I can say I am very skeptical now and am no longer willing to take for granted the ministry leaders are on board with taking a stand for Biblical truth. It will take a while for me to join another church and feel secure that I can trust the leadership. My husband and I both feel deceived.

  • Joseph r godleski says on

    No I left a church that was spiraling downwards the congregation had a 90 yr old plus church building that held 450 people only now. between 30 and 60 people now attend with a church role of 150 members most lived out of state were home bound or lived in a nursing home or assisted living facility the members held too many sentimental attachments to the church they dragged their feet on what to do a church school built in the 1950 Was on the grounds. Also that use to bring in rental income has been empty a few yrs and a church with a yearly expense of between 100k and. 200k they are. Living on borrowed time and the churches bank savings they don’t have much longer to last this is why I no longer attend. Holy trinity in garfield nj
    And the people drag their feet on what to do to fix it

    • Jan Young says on

      We left our church after 15 years because it was allowing a progressive liberal group of people to become more and more involved in ministry, especially the music. their agenda was obvious. This surfaced after the 2016 elections and people started posting on facebook about their activities toward progressive causes. The long term pastor that allowed it due to long term friendships in the church retired. We stayed in hopes the new pastor would turn the church back toward a Biblical stand but he did not. He was young and continued the movement in that direction so we decided not to stay and fight it. We did not stop going to church but I can say I am very skeptical now and am no longer willing to take for granted the ministry leaders are on board with taking a stand for Biblical truth. It will take a while for me to join another church and feel secure that I can trust the leadership. My husband and I both feel deceived.

  • Michael L Simons says on

    They are being disobedient to Hebrew 10:25

    not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.!

    • Nonsense! I gather together with any number of believers throughout the week. This verse doesn’t mean I’m supposed to be at someplace at 10 am on Sunday in one club or else….

      (sorry for a touch of disgust on your well intended blog Thom, but this type of cudgel is used so often and is why so many of us have ‘left the building’. Poor use of scripture to ‘prove’ some agenda driven point.. and don’t get me started on the ‘unregenerate folks don’t like being around regenerate folk’ smugness that is used to blythely continue and point the finger at ‘those people’., you know, the ones who are just ‘shopping for themselves’ or self centered consumers)

      THESE are the reasons so many are walking out…..!

      • Christopher says on

        Being around other believers is not the same thing as intentionally gathering to worship and teach and pool resources for ministry.

        You may not like it, but it is undeniable as cultural christianity fades unbelievers do not want to be around believers. I’ve seen this happen for years in youth groups when you actually focus on discipleship.

      • Friend, worship is a lifestyle per Romans 12:1,2 not simply music in company.

        Jesus explicitly condones gathering with 2 or 3 as He is there with them.

        Pooling of resources ‘can’ happen but should not be the explicit purpose of churches today. The primary purpose is equipping the saints and that is done by the Body, sometimes more effectively in groups of 2 or 3 than in weekly monologues. There are many parachurch organizations that pool resources for the Kingdom which are equally valid. Local churches actually do a worse job of outreach / dollar / hour of time than most 501(c) 3s.

        The problem with conventional local church teaching on gathering, worship, purpose etc is that there is more than one way to accomplish these things and yet those who would take a fresh view of efforts and results are told they are ‘wrong’, selfish, sinful, etc. That is not productive and is, indeed, all too often counterproductive.

        Yes, darkness hates light, no argument there, but it is a massive mistake to attribute the great exodus of the Dones from institutionalized churches to this alone and is often used to continue burying one’s head in the sand as well as smearing genuine believers who see things differently.

      • Christopher says on

        “lifestyle worship” is a modern myth people use as an excuse to just do what they want. Worship in the Bible is always an intentional act. Even Romans 12 speaks to intentionality: “present your bodies,” “be not conformed,” “be transformed.” Furthermore, God has ordained corporate worship throughout the Bible as the primary means of worshiping Him. Notice that in glimpses of heaven, both in OT and NT there is never just one person or being worshiping.

        If you want to be explicit, when Jesus spoke of 2 or 3, He was specifically referring to church discipline. Now I have no problem with small groups, but why take that verse out of context for the purpose of limiting the Body?

        No, para-church organizations are not equally valid. The church is the Body of Christ and therefore has no equal.

        I agree the institutionalized American church bears little if any resemblance to the Body of Christ, but that’s no excuse to just make things up as you go.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      While we should be involved with a local church I don’t think Hebrews 10:25 is an admonition for church attendance, especially when you study it in its context.

  • After serving in a traditional church for 20 years followed by 6 years as a pastor, this one verse settled it all for me.

    “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” 1 Corinthians 3:16

    This means I am the Church and when I’m with other believers, we are the Church. Thanks to Jesus, I’ve been set free!

  • Ivan Solero says on

    My wife and I have been to 4 different churches in the last two years. The common thread are 1. They do not teach scripture, and 2. They do not address social issues such as abortion, homosexual and race relations. They tend to “punt” on these issues or give in claim just “grace” wins all instead of making a stand under biblical truths. It’s really a disgrace!

  • A lot of these points blame the people who stopped going to church…

    But at some point we have to consider the possibility that there are not any churches actually worth going to in an areas.

    I know that sounds incredulous, but you have to admit that it is a possibility.

    Then someone will say, “Just find one with good theology.”

    But good theology doesn’t necessarily mean a good church. I can take you to some churches with good theology that are deader than a doornail and you would have to kill the pastor, the choir director, and all the old people to change anything.

    At some point we need to admit that we have a major problem other than theology in our churches that is keeping people away.

    If you don’t believe me, go back an read the preface to Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship where he says the same thing.

    • Indeed, “theology” being “words about God”, there is much squeaky-clean theology without the ability to do the things of Christ the Lord, where politics and quasichristian dominationalism are the doing going on. Reminds me of what Someone we love said 🙂

  • “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you?” 1 Corinthians 3:16