This one data point might be the most important information on the church and faith I have heard this year.
We at Church Answers have done a pretty good job of explaining the “what” of attendance decline: the frequency of church attendance has declined, and people have simply left the church altogether.
What we have yet to articulate, at least to this point, is the “why” of attendance decline. Why are so many people attending less frequently, and why are they dropping out completely? Our challenge, of course, was getting into the minds of these dropouts and delving into their motivations for leaving. We are fortunate a major research project did just that.
The One Big Reason
PRRI recently released a massive research project that explains the “why” factor.
People are attending less or not at all for one major reason: In the words of the PRRI study, they “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings.”
That reason was the overwhelming motive of the dropouts (56% versus 30% for the second highest motive).
Did you get that? They left church because they said they did not believe what the church taught. But I suspect that they did not believe because they really did not know what the church taught. In other words, we have an assimilation and dropout problem because our churches are not adequately teaching the Bible and the essentials of the Christian faith.
The Evidence Is Clear
We have been conducting church health surveys since 1996. We have millions of data points in this longitudinal study (meaning we ask the same questions over several years).
There are two alarming data points in our studies. First, churches are rapidly abandoning evangelism. Second, church members are steadily denying the essentials of the Christian faith. The PRRI study complements our own findings.
Where Do We Go from Here?
While this problem is not solved with a silver bullet solution, we can begin to emphasize three major actions in our churches. We have worked with enough churches to know that this approach goes a long way toward instilling belief in those who regularly attend your church.
- Restart the process with a congregational-wide study of the essentials of the Christian faith. Here is the small group/Sunday school class solution Church Answers offers: https://www.churchequip.com/courses/a-clear-and-concise-guide-to-christian-beliefs.
- Move your small groups and Sunday school classes more to explicit Bible teaching. While there are many good small group studies available, this new research suggests strongly we need to have more direct Bible teachings in our groups.
- Provide your church members a plan to be in the Bible every day. This plan would be more than offering a through-the-Bible reading plan at the beginning of the calendar year. It would mean encouraging them every week to remain in the Bible. The writer of Hebrews says it best: “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires (Hebrews 4:12).
It’s pretty clear. People are leaving our churches because they are not grounded in the faith.
The solution is clear as well. We have to return to the basics and essentials of the Christian faith, and get our church members more immersed in the Bible.
Yes, the solution is clear. The question is clear as well: Will we do it?
Research cited: https://www.prri.org/research/religion-and-congregations-in-a-time-of-social-and-political-upheaval/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosam&stream=top
Small group/Sunday school study: https://www.churchequip.com/courses/a-clear-and-concise-guide-to-christian-beliefs
Posted on May 22, 2023
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
As a former believer myself, I do find it refreshing to finally see some church leaders begin to accept the reality of why many of us no longer believe and no longer attend church.
It amazes me that the vast majority of articles my Christian friends and ex-pastors share on this topic are usually more or less in complete denial as to why people leave their faith. They often completely ignore what ex-Christians are actually saying about why they no longer believe in order to promote a more comfortable and pretend narrative that demands no curiosity or introspection.
That more and more people no longer believe their religion is true is something “most church leaders are unaware” is truly incredible to me. Atheists and non-believers in America have been saying this clearly for decades; to be so out of touch to not know this strikes me as so insular as to almost be purposefully ignorant. I know that is a harsh thing to say and don’t wish to be insulting, but to be honest that is how it looks to us who are now on the outside.
I also feel compelled to point out where I feel Thom Rainer again falls short in my view. The reason people leave the faith is not because they do not know what is in the Bible or the essentials of “orthodox” Christian faith. Ask any ex-believer who is now an Atheist and I will wager you that that person is more knowledgeable about the Bible, church doctrine and the history of Christianity than 90% of the members of your church.
We didn’t stop believing because we were not knowledgeable about the Bible or what our churches taught. As we matured and engaged with non-believers we became challenged to critically examine our beliefs and asked ourselves how we know if this stuff is really true. For many of us leaving was not our goal but in fact we expected our dive in apologetics, history of the Bible and all sorts of critical examination was going to strengthen our faith because we thought it was the truth. But after all this work and study we arrived at the conclusion that Christianity is no more “true” than any other religion and had so many issues and problems that we could no longer honestly say we still believe the same things we used to.
Thank you for sharing your experience, Tokyo. And thank you for your gracious spirit in your disagreement with me. We Christians are often terrible examples when we disagree with others and even among ourselves.
Thank you Thom for your kind words and respectful attitude.
While we may ultimately disagree on many things, I do want non-believers and Christians to be able to engage with one-another with respect and help build a better society together on areas we can agree on, especially in the US. I also feel that the views of non-believers are often misrepresented in Christian circles, so when we are engaged with and represented fairly it means a lot to us.
Yes; we know the why’s of attendance going down. But nobody ever seems to have the “how to”, step-by-step list of what to do, one step at a time, written out in specific instructions, to apply the solutions you presented. Churches need a blueprint to follow to accomplish the suggestions.
The step-by-step blueprint is Sword of the Spirit Evangelism (SOS). It gets people to “GO” (Matt 28:18-20). It gets pastors and teachers equipping of saints (Eph 4:11-13. It gets members to be Ambassadors, share the gospel, since God is making His appeal through all of us. (2 Cor. 5:17-20). Field tested. It works! It’s free. Johnny Deal. 919-671-5881. johnny.deal @gmail.com. SOSevangelism.com (under construction).
Evangelism is a natural result of transformed believers living by and with the Spirit of God. No evangelism? Fill in the blank for what’s missing…
Churchianism is not transformative, nor attractive and has an ever decreasing ability to impact the world. Filling seats has never been the Spirit’s objective…
This information you are providing is very valuable to the Kingdom of God. As an Evangelist an author on Evangelism, it is very true that Christians are not being spiritually educated with wisdom on Evangelism. Therefore, members remain seated only in the sanctuaries without the power to go witnessing or easy soul-winning techniques. For example, if you can win souls to Christ, then just invite them so church so the Pastor or preacher can win them. Then get them disciples. Another reason why the church is declining is because of the bad news that Christians and Non-Christians are receiving about pimps in the pews, rapists in the pews, whore mongers in the pews, not to mention bad gospel and church splits. It grieves my spirit when Jesus said I will build my church and saints are tearing it down. Organizations like yours and ours must consider this a red alert situation with all hands on deck to make a difference in the body of Christ before Cults, Occults and New age Movement reap the harvest instead of God’s will being done.
I have always wondered how many members still live in the outer court of the LORD’s Presence because they feel they are not good enough to be living in the Holy of Holies within the Ark of the Covenant with Christ. (Col.3:3) . . . Is it because they have never heard the voice of God and only know mentally that God loves them because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? (i.e. never born again but a preacher said, “if you believe that HE died for you, you will be saved.”) They never came to know God experientially. . . . At 9 years old (1955), I wanted to get saved & be baptized; but my Sunday school teacher told me to wait until I hear God’s voice speak to my heart. I was not sure what that meant but I decided to wait awhile. It was about 3 weeks later when the pastor decided to change the invitation hymn to “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”. I did not pay attention to what he preached that day but when we got to the words, “griefs to bear”, I heard Jesus speak to my heart and say, “Molly, I know how you feel and want to be your Friend!” Wish I could tell of all the intimate things God has taught me since. HE even gave me a desire to be a missionary at 12 years old but it didn’t come about until age 63-70 in East Asia. I wrote a book I first called “The Answer To The Great Commission” but later rewrote it and added some of my testimonies I now call, “Disciples of The New Covenant”. It is about knowing God’s Covenant that brings us to the point of letting God crucify self; so we can experience Galatians 2:20.
Some churches preach more partisan politics than religion. This drove a lot of people out.
Thank you, Thom. This article was informative and very helpful. Our Sunday sermons are packed with Scripture but at other times we default to a book study or a DVD study. I often think of Hebrews 6:1-2 in terms of your study results about lack of Bible teaching. Hebrews 6:1-2 talks about “not LAYING AGAIN the foundation of….” Subjects that the “modern” church scarcely talk about.
Thanks for the help!
Anchor of Hope Fellowship
Picking up from an earlier comment…
It seems a lot of the dissatisfaction cause for departure is not because what is taught in Scripture isn’t meaningful, rather that personal experience of God and denominational (or non-denominational) teaching appear to be at odds. The real growth comes from finding the God of scripture in the experience of real life in the 21st century. What can be done?
One way to explore with others, especially those who feel disaffected, is to look at the Great Commandments: (paraphrased) 1. Love God and 2. Love your neighbor (ALL OF THEM – that’s what Leviticus tells us – even our siblings). The truth of those statement is what I counsel people entering into marriage: love is not an emotion, love is a commitment to relationship. Love is commitment to finding God in you and God in me (I think that’s a song).
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has spoken for years and his “bumper sticker” is “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.” His challenge is to critically answer the question, “how does what we do maintain our relationship with [love] God and maintain our fundamental relationship with [love] our neighbor.”
Presiding Bishop Curry also said in an Easter homily one year that he did not want to hear any more reports of churches driving people out over their political leanings. He said he would be reaching out to (admonish) any who he was told did and that there was room for everyone.
What did Jesus say? “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is constricted that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14
May I offer an alternative view that both fits the facts of the study and yet reveals a slightly different issue other than what you propose Thom…
Something that is not often considered is what a church teaches, not from Scripture, but by their actions and practice. For instance, what has often disappointed me is not the truth of scripture but the interpretations how how one is seemingly supposed to act or conduct their lives as a result of a church’s application of scripture.
I’ve not seen much since Covid on the Dones. However, I think a larger percentage of what you’re seeing is exactly this demographic. They do not object to Scripture, per se, they object to the increasingly intolerant (ooops, perhaps a bad choice of words) viewpoint that IF one is a Christian, they will fit into ‘our’ very narrow viewpoint of how they ‘should’ act and be, particularly as it applies to the practices of a local congregation or denomination.
The Dones have not necessarily left Truth, nor God, nor even gathering together. They just see it as manifesting in different expressions, often on a more informal scale than ‘the church on the corner of 1st and Main’. Questions like the definition of Worship and how one expresses it. Questions such as how one should study or proclaim scripture. When issues such as Contemporary vs Traditional worship are THE question of the day, when issues such as topical vs verse-by-verse exposition are held up as the ONLY right way, well, NOW we’re teaching something that is extra-biblical. Whey Jesus prayed for unity, I am pretty certain He wasn’t hoping that His followers would be excoriating one another for ‘how’ they study, preach or worship. THAT kind of ‘teaching’ and ‘truth’ is not Biblical…
Nope, we need to be careful about WHAT we’re teaching, not just the source (or lack thereof) that we’re teaching from. Sure, there are some for whom Inerrancy and Deity of Christ or that He is the only way to the Father, have subsequently left the church or even the whole gender issues of our current society. I will posit that those issues are not the only reasons, anymore, for the decline of the American church.
Folks are leaving the teachings of their ‘religion’ (substitute ‘church’) rather than due to their churches reliance on the truth of scripture. We must look a LOT closer at the ‘other’ things that have been ‘taught’ albeit all too often, unintentionally.
A couple years ago there was a study conducted by Ipsos for the Episcopal Church (results here: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/episcopal-church-jesus-america-public-poll). Some excerpts from the study worth considering,
* The majority of Americans (84%) believe Jesus was an important spiritual figure, even those Americans who identify as not religious or have no religion (50%).
* One unifying belief that all Americans support, regardless of their background, social standing, or religion, is the desire for their children to grow up in a world where everyone is treated equally (86%).
The problem isn’t that Jesus and Christianity aren’t deemed important. Even to the point that the main tenet of Christianity is something most people want in their lives.
However, this observation shows the disconnect in perception between Christians and non-Christians (and by reasonable extension why people leave church),
* Christians describe themselves as being giving (57%), compassionate (56%), loving (55%), respectful (50%) and friendly (49%). While non-Christians associate Christians with characteristics like hypocrisy (50%), being judgmental (49%), self-righteousness (46%), and arrogance (32%).
Right or wrong, until the perception of Christianity changes the Church will fight an uphill battle.
As you say near the end, there is a need for a critical assessment of what is taught by the human institution as viewed through the lens of Scripture.
Jesus said “follow me.” He did not say support one political party, act arrogantly, rebel against Cæsar, drive the children out, or some of other things that have made their way into religion.
I know it might sound elementary, trite, or ridiculous to some… but I preach thru the Bible; chapter by chapter, verse by verse. Soon we will be completing Acts (2years to complete).
I don’t buy into topical preaching, because it’s too easy to manipulate the text to make it say what I want it to say. I tackle 10-15 verses at a clip and draw out 1 or 2 important points. Sometimes I use opposing views as points. Other times I try to see through the eyes of some of the participants in the stories.
I challenge people to look at the what Jesus did or would do, or what the Apostles did- to help them form their biblical theology. Getting them past the “5 points of ____”, or the “10 blah blah blah”.
People are very blessed in that -if nothing else- we are reading and examining the Bible… together. Really it’s a long running Bible study.
It’s invigorating because it’s the Word of God. It’s not a 5 point sermon, where if you’re lucky- they ‘might’ remember one point. They GET IT!
Maybe this is not for everyone, but it works well for my church.
I find it astonishing that Thom Rainer missed the point of the PRRI finding. If people are leaving because they stopped believing the religion’s teaching, the solution cannot be to double down on the religion’s teaching. If people are rejecting the exclusivity of Christianity, or the doctrine of eternal punishment, or the insistence on heterosexuality, or the strict adherence to male-only leadership, or fanatical patriotism, or downplaying sexual sin by leaders, or the church’s indifference to social and environmental problems, then the church must decide how to address these issues. More Bible study by insiders merely sidesteps the objections of those who have left or who are losing interest. The church has a crisis of credibility.
What’s your solution?
(Not Richard but…)
If people leave because they don’t believe the teachings it would be helpful for a Church body to figure out what the disconnect between what is written in Scripture and how the human interpretation of Scripture are at odds. While the phrase was a little overused, “What would Jesus do?” has merit.
I have spent years working with my Parish focusing on the covenant between God and Abraham – (1) let me be your God and (2) walk humbly before me. A sticking point for some is a sense of legalism and control, especially when looking back towards the Catholic tradition: the Church in Rome said “I will tell you what and how to believe.” which leaves little for experience. Church laws, while providing a framework for practice, can be a hinderance to people who aren’t wholly committed to the interpretation presented.
I offer insights above…
I find it astonishing that some people think the best way to reach our culture is to become more like our culture. Years ago, John Shelby Spong wrote a book called “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”. I must also point out that Mr. Spong rejects nearly all major doctrines of the faith (he doesn’t even believe in a personal God). A few years ago, I read an article about churches in Canada who have embraced Mr. Spong’s teachings. You know what’s happening to them? They’re dying! The article also mentioned churches that are growing. Can you guess what they’re doing? They’re preaching the Bible! Is there a lesson in here for American churches? I believe so.
Fascinating and invigorating information, Thom. I work in a secular company and I can verify that there are very few Christians where I work, even though it is a service-oriented company that recognizes the value of spiritual matters (hospice). Bible-believing Christians who actually walk the walk are in a definite minority.
I think your proposed strategies are also good. For the last ten years when I was a senior pastor, I tried to wean our small groups off of the studies and video classes that churches have done for the last 20-some years and teach who to explore the Bible on their own. I had some success. And I didn’t preach to “felt-needs” as we have been told to do for the last thirty years. I preached series through biblical books to teach and model how to be fed from Scripture. Admittedly, I know I have failed in evangelism. I know it may sound like I’m a “Fightin’ Fundy,” but I am certainly not. We just need a much more rigorous gospel.
I also wonder if the statistics you are citing are not also a result of our accommodation to our individualistic and sometimes narcissistic American culture. I have a doctoral thesis that considers that question and Willow Creek’s “Reveal” studies from several years ago pointed in that direction.
Thanks, again. This is important information.
Thanks so much, Bob.
Spot on, Bob! In my opinion, the “felt needs” preaching has backfired on a lot of American churches. I get so sick and tire of hearing church members complain, “My needs aren’t being met.” Jesus said He did not come to be served, but to serve. I fear many American church members want it the other way around.