The One Big Reason Church Attendance Is Declining (and Most Church Leaders Are Unaware)


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. 

    1. 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:
    1. 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.
    1. 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:

Small group/Sunday school study:


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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Jill Huffman says on

    A biblical foundation being taught is essential, and yes, some have been pulled into the world. But more than not, Christians often stop attending church because of strong moral objections and corrupt atmospheres. I’m one of those Christians who has left the institution due to the ongoing systemic issues that never seemed to be addressed.

    One very concerned Christian

  • I see two issues. As a once insider now outsider looking in. I have taken a small project to listen in on my local churches in Texas as I grew up in the midwest. I take a note taking bible and listen to what they have to say. With the exception of the used car lot I mean mega church all have been very respectful. But, I have notice with rare exception and usually it is the pastor its Boomers and a few Silents. Maybe an early wave X or two.

    I know in my case the unacceptable behavior for leadership in church after church, lead me to a reread of the bible. I wasn’t so charitable this time. And that was that. I won’t write a book.

    My shock this time is the SBC and PCA both embroiled in pastors sexually assaulting women and children. There might be more. I know Rome. I haven’t actively looked they came across in other searches. The leadership actively moved these people and told no one at the new congregation. Just like Rome. I can assure you in the private sector you would fired and prosecuted. Why would anyone believe or at least not look skeptically at the claims with such reprehensible behavior? Not your church/denom you sure. I was a member of the PCA and I would never have believed it.

    As I said to my son. The issue isn’t the little old man or lady in the pew that loves Jesus. They are the best kind of people. They have no power. Its the power of leadership that attracts the worst kinds. The secular world gets this mostly, why not the church? If you have the leaders that your are supposed to submit to (Hebrews) that are actively protecting criminals, why should I believe them on anything?

    I am not condemning you for this. I am saying clean your house up and demand heads to rolls and people to go to jail. I am not left wing nor me too. I am a father of girls and boys.

  • The church has failed to answer some questions:
    Can you demonstrate the existence of God?
    What makes your God the true god even though your faith has been around since the first century CE?
    How do you reconcile literal Bible stories with mismatched historical records? (i.e. No record of Exodus, united Israel kingdom, Roman census in synpotic gospels off by ten years)
    Where is the written record of Jesus’ lineage going back to King David (Did he even exist?) and why are there two different lineages with different generational lengths?
    The Roman census registration was conducted on-site, not having people move to their ancestral lands.
    Why was there no Nazareth until after Jesus’ alleged death.

    Christianity displaced many folk religions: What makes those religions false and this relative newcomer truth?

    The article also fails to address the church’s role in maintaining a two-class hierarchy of the powerful and the powerless.

  • James Lloyd Booker says on

    Why are people denying the essentials of the Christian faith? They don’t believe in Christ? Or they don’t believe what Christ stated is truth? Why?

1 2