The Main Reason People Leave a Church

January 21, 2013

UPDATE: Listen to the podcast episode about this post.

Numbers of gifted persons and organizations have studied the phenomenon of the church “back door,” the metaphorical way we describe people leaving the church. And there will always be the anticipated themes of relocation or personal crises. We should recognize those issues, though we can respond to the latter more than the former.

But all the research studies of which I am aware, including my own, return to one major theme to explain the exodus of church members: a sense of some need not being filled. In other words, these members have ideas of what a local congregation should provide for them, and they leave because those provisions have not been met.

Certainly we recognize there are many legitimate claims by church members of unfulfilled expectations. It can undoubtedly be the fault of the local congregation and its leaders.

But many times, probably more than we would like to believe, a church member leaves a local body because he or she has a sense of entitlement. I would therefore suggest that the main reason people leave a church is because they have an entitlement mentality rather than a servant mentality.

Look at some of the direct quotes from exit interviews of people who left local congregations:

  • “The worship leader refused to listen to me about the songs and music I wanted.”
  • “The pastor did not feed me.”
  • “No one from my church visited me.”
  • “I was not about to support the building program they wanted.”
  • “I was out two weeks and no one called me.”
  • “They moved the times of the worship services and it messed up my schedule.”
  • “I told my pastor to go visit my cousin and he never did.”

Please hear me clearly. Church members should expect some level of ministry and concern. But, for a myriad of reasons beyond the scope of this one blogpost, we have turned church membership into country club membership. You pay your dues and you are entitled to certain benefits.

The biblical basis of church membership is clear in Scripture. The Apostle Paul even uses the “member” metaphor to describe what every believer should be like in a local congregation. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul describes church members not by what they should receive in a local church, but by the ministry they should give.

The solution to closing the back door, at least a major part of the solution, is therefore to move members from an entitlement mentality to a servant mentality. Of course, it is easy for me to write about it, but it is a greater challenge to effect it.

May I then offer a few steps of a more practical nature to help close the back door by changing the membership mentality? Here are five:

  1. Inform church members. Though I do not have precise numbers, I would conjecture that more than one-half of church members do not have a biblical understanding about church membership. Providing that information in a new members’ class can move an entire congregation toward a servant mentality.
  2. Raise the bar of expectations. We have dumbed down church membership in many congregations to where it has little meaning. Clarify expectations of members. Again, doing so in the context of a new members’ class is a great way to begin.
  3. Mentor members. Take two or three members and begin to mentor them to become biblical church members. After a season, ask them to mentor two or three as well. Let the process grow exponentially.
  4. Train members. Almost 100 percent of pastors agree that their role is to train and equip members. But almost three-fourths of these pastors have no plans on how they will train them (see Ephesians 4:11-13). I will address this issue more fully on my blog next Wednesday.
  5. Encourage people to be in small groups. Those in Sunday school classes and small groups are more likely to be informed and functioning church members. In others words, there is a much greater likelihood of a member with a servant mentality to be in a small group than not.

What are you doing in your church to close the back door? What are you doing to move members from an entitlement mentality to a servant mentality?

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541 Comments

  • Sandra says on

    Blessed day pastor Thom,i need your advice, we’re Christian,my husband are stopping me doing ministry in church,its feel me very stressful,he and our church Leaders had misunderstanding,because of that.
    Please what is your advice to me.

  • Church is a continuation of high school. You have the “ins” and you have the “outs”. The ins hold all the offices and do all the work, conduct the services and have special meetings on how to include more of the congregation by trying to get everybody else to be like they are. When that doesn’t happen, the ins look down on the outs as not being very with it, the outs resent the exclusion, sit near the back and gradually edge toward the door until they’re finally gone for good.

    I’ve been on both sides. Neither place is all that great.

  • Craig Saupe says on

    That’s right! Make it the members fault and cloak it with “they don’t have a servanthood mentality” and in the mean time the clergy rakes in the dough while the members offer their time, talent and dough to the church whilst holding down a forty hour a week job, or two jobs!
    In my opinion Pastors who hold that idea really should volunteer their services to the church and make their incomes from another source independent of the congregation they serve.
    Remember to always lay the blame with the congregants. Show them their sin and rake in the proceeds while Mr/Ms Pastor complain about folks bouncing out the back door.
    Who are the people who really need the lessons on giving?
    Please don’t send me an e mail requesting money!
    Jesus loves me dearly! And Jesus loves you too!

  • SeriousSeeker says on

    I don’t think it’s a sense of entitlement in the way you describe. I’m sure I’m ‘wrong’ in your eyes on this, but at certain point in my life, things were so terrible that I called out to God in a way I never had before. I started reading the Bible in earnest, I watched tv pastors, youtube, and read various websites online. I was still hurting, needing ‘real life’ contact from a group that took God seriously. I found a very nice church. I attended regularly. The first couple of weeks, one person bothered to reach out and talk to me after service beyond the useless and forced ‘handshaking’ in the middle of service. I went seeking help with healing, a place where people had been practicing being Godly regularly and hoping that benefits of their evolving through Christ would be beneficial in my healing and that in turn, I could then become a servant to others in the same way. But, if I couldn’t be healed first, then how could I serve anyone, especially God? What I found was that I was expected to serve immediately in ways that left me feeling like I personally didn’t matter only what I could do for others and those longtime members – some of which I had occasion to know for decades – were one way (re: fake) at church and absolute jerks in real life. Or, in church terms, hypocrites. I had heard the sermons about applying one’s faith and practices. All very nice in theory, but the same people that volunteered for projects would be the same cranky, nasty people any other time you saw them out in the world – the kind that shove shopping carts at you so their precious brood of pre-teens can walk past you in the store aisle, obviously not recognizing you from church where those same children carry the Bible and candles & she can teach Sunday school while her husband can be on the consistory. So, after two years of not feeling the healing, I retreated back to the Bible, maybe occasionally watching service online. But, when it’s obvious the ‘church’ of people are ‘serving’ God by singing in the choir as if they are the lead in an opera or volunteering for the lost youth or even better asking me to pay for their kids trips to Belize, and then being hypocrites to people during the course of the everyday… well, I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind. I think THAT is the epitome of being self-serving so they can feel good about themselves. Perhaps if churches spent a couple of weeks asking why someone new joined and giving them the love that they sought, God’s love as applied in this life, then they would feel ‘fulfilled’ and full of companionship in God and be happy to be God’s servant as intended. People don’t go to church to serve God, they go because of how it looks to whomever they are trying to impress. It’s the people that leave that are more interested in being with God, but are not finding it in church.
    Oh, lest you think it was only one church where this happened. Let me assure you, it was not. This was a few nice churches that had excellent reputations and were around for many decades. God is found in the true kindness of others…every notice those are not the people that are ‘churched’? If you think otherwise, look again.

  • Please read the thesis God compelled me to write on Church Growth Decline. I have read your reasons for this issue. My thesis will point out problems you have missed. I would like a reply on your thoughts after you read it, fair enough?

    Tom Randolph
    Founder/Facilitator of BibleThinkTank.com
    cell: 321-527-9372

    Here is the link: biblethinktank.com/thesis

  • Phillipains 2: 1,2, “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being in one spirit and purpose.” Throughout scripture, believers are instructed to be of like mind. and 1 Corinthians 1:10, we are told there aren’t to be divisions among us. How many churches today are like-minded and without division? None that I know of. I “came out from among them” a long time ago and my relationship with Christ is stronger than ever.

  • Is it right for a pastor to judge you? I was baptized into a rather large church and I really liked the pastor and learned a lot from him.However, due to a group in the church I felt as thought I never fit in. This group either worked for the church the college or the academy a pre k through 12 grade school. I felt like they always judged me because my family didnt measure up to their standards mainly if you didnt fit into to their circle you had no business being there. I had some personal things going on and stopped going. Years later my uncle told me that christians are suppose to be perfect I am not. I recently spoke with the pastor again it had been years since we last spoke. I was so happy to hear from him and he started with judgemental comments again I admitted to him that he was right about saying that I need a biblical foundation, however not loving being verbally judged by him once again. Are pastors suppose to judge people?

  • What if you try to serve, asking multiple people, multiple times, and no one responds to you? Instead it becomes obvious they keep recycling the same people over and over. Much of the fellowship in church comes through serving in the church. Without all of that, beyond learning, why be there?

    • Who have you been reaching out to? is it the pastor, or the team leads? I agree that this is an issue. As a pastor myself I recently found out that there were people on my staff (who are no longer on my staff) who had multiple people asking them to serve, but like you, they were never contacted.

      The problem may be as simple as oversight, but it could also be as complex as insecure leadership. If its insecure leadership, they may be anxious that you will be hard to lead, exponentially talented thus making their role less, or that they arent sure how to handle other people and need help.

      I may recommend coming alongside those leaders and being available to them for a few Sundays just to see where they may need longer term help.

    • That’s sorta the situation I’m in now !
      I wanted the job of cleaning the church when the past people wanted to stop doing it and we had just got a new preacher and he’s well liked , But young, 25, and his wife is 19 .
      Well the 19 year olds biological mother ended up loosing custody of her and some of her other siblings earlier on Before she had even met the preacher !
      But anyway , as soon as her daughter married this preacher and got voted into the church to be the regular pastor, the biological mother started coming to this church !
      Well instead of me getting the job , the preachers mother in law got the job – $400.00 month ,she’s not even a member !
      I really am so hurt over this , considering I wanted the job before she even started coming to the church !

      • I’m trying to reach God And Country, I’m a mother of 5 married 17 yrs before he left me with nothing, promise’s broken about him paying rent and diapers, pullups, food, I lost everything including my kids, the only thing that got me thru was king and country, and even after that, my husband killed my 2 little boys, 5&9 and all I can do is keep hearing their music, it really does help

  • People mainly are not being self serving- when I grow up I’m not going to go to my church-I’m going to change to a church where they actually care- and I like their basis and beliefs.

  • I AM IN THE STUDENT MINISTRY AT MY CHURCH.
    I think that a lot of people leave my church because they only focus on your faults and always try to find them in the context of the text we did and think that everyone has them when most of the time they don’t apply to me because I don’t care what others think of me, I don’t care about having friends, and I always stand out and am unique, because I’ve never been allowed to wear the same clothing as most people-its too tight. I also think that it’s because churches now say that “your not being a good Christian, unless you bring your Bible, notebook, and pen; and write down the things from the sermon.”- I like to just let everything empty into my head- they act like its a sin to not bring your Bible, notebook, and pen- also a lot of the sermons they teach us in the student ministry don’t apply to me anyways.

  • Hi Brother Thom,
    I think many missed the more obvious point of your article…at least it seemed to me. The point is we don’t come to be served but to serve. Now having said that, many will say not everyone is a servant, meaning the staff does the serving. Perhaps that is the mentality that we need to address from our pulpits. (discipleship needed)

    Thanks for your work, my friend.

    • Bethgone says on

      I belong to a church that is more cultural and business oriented than anything else. There’s good programs but the pastor is a bit of a showman who seems skin deep, selective in who he talks to and seems to prefer to do things his way. I tried confronting him in a gentle and humble way about why we should have more service than the usual humdrum relic of “just one service every Sunday morning”. Instead he came up with reasons not to do that and just wanted to have things stay the way they are – one hum drum morning service a week. Yep, a real winner if I ever saw one. NOT. In addition, the man acts like the church is more of a business than a church of the living God. This man is in the wrong line of work.

      Some conflicts between members don’t get resolved and yet those who have been hurt are expected to just accept it, due to specific cultural differences? Screw “culture”. We are not Ukrainian Christians nor Russian Christians nor Japanese Christians that worship flags and nations we’re from or in. That’s garbage. We are CHRISTIANS. Plain and simple. Nothing else. So we are to ACT like Christians. Never mind how your “cultural heritage” brought you up. Only look to how GOD brings you up if you are a child of the Most High. Leave “culture” out of this. If someone offends you and doesn’t want to fix it because of “how they were raised in their culture”, they shouldn’t even be in a church to begin with – especially if they don’t want to improve. To them I say, “Go back out into the world and be a part of “its” rituals – stay out of the house of the Lord because you are a stumbling block.” Church is supposed to be a place of healing – not a place of hurting without resolve and not a place of a superficial culture. Church is supposed to be a hospital – not an edifice that puts people into a hospital.

      And Pastors need to get off of their high horses and stop blaming each and every individual as the ones with the problems as to why they left. That’s a cop out. It just means that the church or Pastors are running from their own issues. And when they’re called out on such, they do away with the one who has opened their eyes and pointed out an infraction. Don’t get me wrong: Some exiters do have issues, but not all.

      There’s Pastors out there who exploit Scriptures for their control which would include pussy footing around the church and not doing anything except enjoying the fringe benefits of being called a “Pastor”, while sitting behind a desk, putting their feet up and filing their nails. Churches need to fess up and recognize that maybe it is they who have the problem – not so much the person who is leaving. You want to talk about entitlement? What about a variety of churches who seem to just go through the motions but make a seemingly consistent point in talking about tithes when they don’t talk about much of anything else except sugar coated sermons so as not to offend anyone? What about churches that water down the Gospel by leaving out parts that offend people and just preach the fluffy elements because they compete with other churches for numbers? Isn’t that a form of entitlement? But hey, they’re entitled because they’re churches and Pastors right? Just because an edifice calls itself a “Church” and someone calls himself or herself a “Pastor” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are.

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