The Five Stages of a Church Dropout: From Highly Committed to Goners


It’s painful enough to lose any church members, but it is particularly painful when the church member was highly committed. We call these dropouts “Goners,” because they were once one of your best church members. Now they are gone.

It has been both painful and amazing to see the consistency in the patterns the Goners follow. Though Goners have been a sad phenomenon for years, the pervasiveness of Goners is a reality since the pandemic.

1. Lower commitment in key roles. Goners begin their dropout journey by attending small groups less frequently, by attending elder or deacon meetings less frequently, or any number of reductions in key roles.

2. Less frequent worship attendance. At his or her most active state in the church, the Goner was present in worship services at least three or four times a month. At this stage, they attend worship services once or twice a month.

3. Resigning of a key position. In stage 3, the Goner steps down from a key position such as teacher, elder, or a key ministry leader. Their stated reason is typically “family reasons” or “personal.” They will keep the reason vague lest someone suspect they are simply less committed to Christ’s church.

4. Reduces or stops giving. When the Goner gets to this stage, he or she is almost gone. Most pastors don’t have access to financial records, so they don’t see this stage. That is why it is important for the person with access to the records to let the pastor know that the church member might need a visit.

5. Leaves for a “good” (not really) reason. The most common reason is that they are not getting fed. You would think these members would have learned how to feed themselves by this point. Another reason is that the church does not have adequate ministries for their children. Can you imagine a missionary saying that about a church? Someone with a true mission heart would see this void as an opportunity to start a ministry.

Yes, losing any church member is painful. But when that church member was once one of your more committed members (and/or a good friend), it is particularly painful.

By the way, most of the Goners never find another church that meets their perceived needs. They are gone from any commitment to a local church.

They are truly Goners.

Posted on July 4, 2022

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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  • Henry Wentz says on

    Sad pattern. I’ve witnessed it for years. Often it’s caused by an interpersonal conflict with another member. As a member isolates themselves they slowly fall away.

  • John Nixdorf says on

    In the Evangelical Protestant world we seem to focus on getting people to make the crossover from unsaved to saved. Then after they “enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24) we leave them milling around in the vestibule without getting them started on the “Way of Holiness” (Isiah 35:8). There is no challenge beyond coming to Christ for salvation to becoming his disciple. No real challenge to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16) and “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). More like perfecting ways to work our ministry volunteers like rented mules then tipping them into the ditch if there comes along a crisis like unemployment or a messy, protracted illness.

    I’m still trying to get this worked out in my mind, but some thoughts I’ve had on the matter:
    • For every 100 articles on how to select a church, there seem to be zero recommending the criteria “Is this where the Holy Spirit wants me?” All sorts of “sand in the bathing suit” issues like worship style and “maybe the children’s ministry isn’t quite to my liking” diminish in importance when the answer to that question is “Yes.”
    • Discipleship made simple (simple, not easy): Study what Jesus said and did, then do likewise. It doesn’t have to be a years-long ‘mentoring’ process, just give God your unqualified “yes” and get started.
    • Discipleship is CAUGHT, not taught. The church leaders need to be modeling Christ’s behaviors and being exemplars for the people coming up after them.

  • Hannah Olade says on

    I have seen this trend at my church. But what I’ve noticed most often is that the “goners” left because they felt the Pastor wasn’t listening or welcoming of their suggestions or ideas for help. Oftentimes sadly, the Pastor misinterpreted their intentions and took their service for granted. I go to a very small church so the Pastor is probably very disheartened when he sees people leave and often goes to defensive mode.

  • Steve Moran says on

    I would add one more thing because I could easily be one of these people and that is the lack of significant peer relationships. I could be well on this path. I am crushing it teaching 5th and 6th graders every single week and it fills me up to 85%. But many weeks I walk away from church not having a single conversation with an adult except transactional conversations with parents who are not really peer group folks (I am 67).

    Leaders and age and social peers in my church already have enough friends. I am fortune in that I have really significant relationships in my professional world, though mostly not spiritual.

    But if I were not teaching kids I would have zero reason to stay.

  • Pastor T says on

    As middle-aged Gen Xer, led in the faith of Jesus Christ by 3 generations of believers, following Christ at 7 yrs old at a VBS, I was raised as a Timothy. I have been a Worship Pastor, Pastor, and led many ministries in my life. I am sickened by what has happened in the church.
    The book ‘Already Gone’ -2009 outlined this and it seems nothing changed. Eugene Peterson warned of this coming peril. My generation, who left, were the last to see real true revival. Most today, don’t understand or as a young Pastor said recently to me, “ they were not effective”…due to churches not following up.
    God changes lives! Christ brings deliverance! The Spirit of God brings direction!
    Here’s a straight answer…our church leadership has skipped a generation. Many of those filling our pulpits have been expertly indoctrinated by our seminaries but lack a deep spiritual experience to lead others. They are novices and unwilling to listen to a elder of Godly wisdom.
    To bring the church back we need humility from our pastoral leaders bathed in prayer and a heart of sacrifice for the flock God has given them not opining for a flock that they can make in their image.
    I love God’s people and His church. I just wish I could see that from the next generation as a whole.

  • Thank for this. You have been a blessing. My Dmin is in Church Revitalization During A Global Pandemic (Gordon-Conwell). Your scholarship has been very helpful.

  • Bart Denny says on

    These are certainly the stages of dropout. I have seen it many times. I think another blog post that addresses more of the “why’s” is in order. To be sure, Dr. Rainer has addressed the (not really) reasons the dropouts give for moving on.
    Why would a committed member head for the exits? I can think of many reasons, and I’m certain the readers here could think of more.

    In the American church, at least, we tend to use an “evangelize, equip, and exhaust” model. I get it: it’s tough to find people who will cheerfully, willingly serve–especially in high-capacity leadership roles. Several years ago, right before I left a secular job to take on a church staff position, I was already committing 15 hours a week to the church. This was in addition to the job that demanded 45 hours a week, with an hour commute each way. That gets old, and as one realizes something has to give, it’s easy to recognize that the church sure isn’t the one paying the exhausted member’s bills.

    Second, I think that high-capacity members do see their talents wasted. Many of them actually HAVE volunteered to start that particular ministry for which they have a passion. Celebrate Recovery began at Saddleback Church because John Baker was just such a volunteer. Rick Warren knew that, personally, he didn’t have the bandwidth to take on that kind of ministry–but Baker did. How many stories that start out like that quickly end because of a senior pastor’s need to (yet inability to) micromanage everything in the church?

    Dr. Rainer has shown the typical path from committed to gone. I’m sure many of the readers have seen it repeatedly. I hope there is a follow-on post to talk about the kinds of “interventions” that could stop someone from leaving, or, better yet, of creating a culture that sees more people willingly handle the load of serving.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Bart. You have some good thoughts about future articles.

    • Steve Moran says on

      Maybe I am an anomaly but this sentence really struck me:

      “In the American church, at least, we tend to use an “evangelize, equip, and exhaust” model. I get it: it’s tough to find people who will cheerfully, willingly serve–especially in high-capacity leadership roles.”

      I am an unpaid volunteer and I play all out teaching 5th & 6th grade kids. When I am done teaching each week I am exhausted (maybe that is to strong, but tired. And yet I feel satisficed, like I have accomplished something important. My gift is that I can see the big in the little and do this for myself. I see that I am making a kingdom difference every single week. I know my kids can hardly wait to get to my class, I know parents appreciate it and leadership leaves me alone to do my thing… mostly.

      But in churches and businesses most people need help seeing that they are making a difference. When leaders start helping them see the difference they make; when they reinforce it daily, weekly, every chance they get.

      Working hard no long seems like a burden and it because so joyful that people go home exhausted and excited to come back and do it all over again.

  • Nathan Schaffer says on

    Thanks, how can I get a copy of this article? It is just what I’ve been praying about.

  • Lee M. Sanders says on

    Amen to what has been said here. I think that another reason that some leave is because leadership fails to correct improper practices, procedures, and principles. I am hopeful, praying, and know that God will see us through it all.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Leadership will always have some deficiencies, and church members are often quick to point them out. If the deficiency is doctrinal heresy, a clear and urgent response is in order.

  • Michael Rowe says on

    The reason for dropping out can be none of those mentioned. In our case, we left our village Church because my wife is now quite severely disabled and, being a very old building, there is no accessible toilet. There is a desire to provide one (as well as other modernisations) but that is financially far off. We remain on very good terms with everyone, including the Vicar. We now attend a town Church that has recently had extensive improvements and now has a disabled toilet as well as greatly improved access. There, also, it is a very welcoming community.

  • “Another reason is that the church does not have adequate ministries for their children. Can you imagine a missionary saying that about a church? Someone with a true mission heart would see this void as an opportunity to start a ministry.”

    Pardon me for shouting, but — AMEN, BROTHER!!!! That’s been one of my pet peeves for many years.

  • Some leave churches after a sustained period of “hope leakage.” They are not seeing the church making disciples or transforming their neighborhoods over an extended period of time. Their efforts are not resulting in kingdom changes they are desiring to see. So, they eventually give up and go looking for a place where kingdom ministries are taking place.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, James. As an alternative, I have seen one person become the source of hope and Great Commmission activity in an otherwise seemingly hopeless situation.

    • This comment from James got me thinking about my church “ Some leave churches after a sustained period of “hope leakage.” They are not seeing the church making disciples or transforming their neighborhoods over an extended period of time.”
      My pastor for the last few weeks has asked our congregation to “meet our neighbors!” It is not difficult for my wife and I to knock on our neighbors’ door, introduce ourselves just to say “hello, we’re you neighbor.” My wife is working on an invitation to our neighbors to gather at our home for hamburgers, cookies or something similar. My opinion, most people leave their home in the morning, close their garage door, return home in the evening, open their garage door, drive in and close the door just to do it again the next morning. Again, my opinion, I believe most people are scared to death to speak publicly, or make the first move to get out of their comfort zone and reach out to strangers even if those strangers their neighbors. I choose to make the first move and hopefully lead to good, lasting, Christian relationships.

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