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.
More from Thom
I spent 21 years as a Roman Catholic, the following 20 years as a Southern Baptist, and the next 15 years as an Episcopalian. I became a Baptist because my wife was a lifelong Baptist, and for the benefit of worshiping together, I moved to the Baptist Church. After a move, the family showed no interest in attending the local Baptist church.
I was missing liturgical worship, but could not return to Catholic theology, so I started attending the local Episcopal church. Worship there was wonderful, spiritually strong, and a blessing. The family followed me there.
Then the Episcopal Church decided to become very liberal and to deny Scripture. In one instance, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church said that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” he had to be wrong. “There are certainly many routes to the Father,” she said.
With that, I had to leave the Episcopal Church. I have not found a new church home since then, despite my trying. The Baptist worship services are all new age, drums and skinny jeans. The Catholic Theology is still too contorted for me. Other Liturgical Churches are going to the same slippery slope as the Episcopalians.
I love Jesus. I worship God and pray continuously. But “Church” has become a detractor to my faith.
1. Everyone put their Sunday smile on for two hours. But they belittled, abused, and lied to me the rest of the time.
2. The modern church is nothing like the ancient church. To “preach” was to dialogue with. It was not a monopolistic message. Everyone had something to contribute. The pastor was not the one with all the truth.
3. It’s hard to build community in a crowd. In fact, it’s impossible.
4. Legalism makes people arrogant, not spiritual. It choked the joy I had in the Lord.
5. The church programs are rigid and superficial. They did nothing to draw me closer to God.
6. Pastors have spiritual solutions for every problem. I suffered severe depression for years. I knew it was not a “spiritual problem.” I got cured of it by taking antibiotics, yes antibiotics. No Scripture had that solution ready for me.
The church became a place where it was a requirement to adore Donald Trump. I wasn’t able to do that.
For me it would have to relationships, or lack there of. I try to serve where I can, but if relationships are the entryway into opportunity it can be hard to serve. After a while I started questioning the purpose of me being here. I’m also at point where I’m so over feigning interest in other, sometimes I wish people would just speak they’re mind.
Anyway I still believe in gathering in the name of Jesus… it’s just the whole “having church in a building and compartmentalizing it” just seems for overrated…. this is coming from a millennial haha haha. I have mild to strong friendships with Jesus interwoven into them. The American corporate church seems outdated and has lost it’s use. I’ve seen great movements outside those walls and a world that’s hungry for the truth. Praying for the best….
An important issue is the inability of people to connect ANYWHERE. Clubs, lodges, even bowling leagues are down down down. Half, one fourth, then closed.
If all the people who left the churches I pastored reached out to others who left because they had no friends, our church would be at least double if not four times the size. Folks often want others to take the initiative, to reach out.
Fewer people have the relational and social skills necessary to build relationships. Programs force people to get together and make for forced and contrived (or pragmatic) relationships. Love is not a program.
And it takes reaching out to many people to make one good friend. Most people are not willing to put in the effort (or do not know how).
This, admittedly, is only one of many reasons people give up on church. There are many, many reasons for sure.
Left The Salvation Army after fifteen years. No band anymore. Just contemporary praise “the young people wont come if we dont have this music” was rhe excuse. No mission. Paid people who work for the Army now do everything. Women seem to demand total control over everything…..including what was duscussed in the mens fellowship which was changed to the insulting worldly phrase “man up”. No holiness. No conviction of sin. Just “jesus loves you as you are”. Single motherhood rewarded. Any single man viewed as a potential rapist. Bible studies that are plain awful and the officers (pators) behaving acting and calling themselves CEO’s and behaving as such. Its a dead place no man if God belongs in. Lots of mean church ladies too.
Here is the reason I left: I read the New Testament with no preconceived bias and could not find a church building where such things were practiced.
Whenever there is preached or done something that is in contradiction to what is taught in the Bible, then I feel discomfort or uneasy.
So I point it out in a conversation or email to the church pastor.
Unfortunately, they see it – not as edification, not as “iron sharpens iron”, not prophetic,
not a necessary function of being in the body of Christ, but as complaining and correction.
When this happens more than 4-5 times over the course of an year, then (and this is standard practice) the leaders come to me and say,
“it is time for you to find another church”.
There is no application of Matthew 18 because if they did apply it, then it is they who would be embarrassed and lose the case.
When this situation continues, then they officially tell me to stop attending.
Okay, if I should keep my mouth shut, then is it okay to keep my wallet shut too? I think you know that they will not accept that either.
They want our brainwashed selves – money, time, service.
These are just Businesses masquerading as the Body of Christ.
If you click on my name, you will see a description of My Dream Church.
I didn’t give up on the church. The church gave up on me.
Amen. My church could accept my hereditary bipolar illness. Guess that’s why I was rejected repeatedly for small group.They couldnt understand why I objected to Hillsong music just because I was raped several times as a child. And why couldnt I just accept the sudden loss of my wife in a “family family family” organization? Needless to say, the do what we say and train the camera on the “worship team” at all times policy was not popular with nearly anyone. So I began looking for somewhere else.
Amen. My church could not accept my hereditary bipolar illness. Guess that’s why I was rejected repeatedly for small group.They couldnt understand why I objected to Hillsong music just because I was raped several times as a child. And why couldnt I just accept the sudden loss of my wife in a “family family family” organization? Needless to say, the do what we say and train the camera on the “worship team” at all times policy was not popular with nearly anyone. So I began looking for somewhere else.
I would definitely identify with #4. Hurt by the church is hard to get over especially when you’re also on staff. You forgive work things out you move on but then it happens again and a third and fourth time. You do everything right, ask to have their blessing to move to another church, everybody’s on the same page you leave with the Pastor’s blessing only to find out that some of your brothers and sisters have been on a smear campaign to other churches in the area and now you don’t trust the people at the new church. After speaking with your previous pastor and advising him of what the elders in his church are doing he tells you he can’t do anything about people doing this on their own and wishes you all the best. It’s sad but it happens more often than people think.