There is a lot being written these days about why people leave a given church. The prevailing notion of pastors is that it is the parishioners fault; the prevailing notion among parishioners is that is the church’s fault. I think things are more complicated than that. In fact, sometimes I don’t believe it is anyone’s fault at all. I want to weigh in with my observations over the past twenty-five years. It is a bit of a minority report.
Why People Leave Church (A Minority Report)
In the early days of my ministry, not many people left our church. I was in a rural area, there wasn’t much competition and people were loyal to the institutions of their community. They would no more leave our church than they would send their children to another high school, stop doing business at our only bank or stop shopping at our local grocery store. They were loyal to the few institutions they had because they instinctively knew if they didn’t support them, they would lose them.
When people left our church it was normally for one of four reasons:
1. Move This really didn’t come up very often except for our young people. Not many people moved into our community, fewer moved out but there wasn’t much of an economy to keep the students, especially those who went to college. Some young people left but everyone else tended to stay.
2. Mad When people did leave, it was normally because they were mad at someone; it might be me but more often, it was with someone else about something outside of church. It was bleed-over kind of mad. Teacher strikes, competition for farmland coming up for sale and community political squabbles fueled people getting mad but honestly, it didn’t happen very often either. And when people quit, they usually came back.
3. Shut-in Our main back door consisted of older people who simply couldn’t make it to church in bad weather, then not in the winter and then not at all. They would soon move from home to an assisted care facility or move in with family but they still read every word in the newsletter and considered us their church.
4. Die Death was clearly the most acceptable reason to quit church and the whole community showed up to celebrate life and our great faith. Growing up in a church and dying in that same church was empirical evidence of a life lived well.
That was about it. Then the world changed, I moved to the suburbs and after a few years our medium sized church became huge. I had heard about the backdoors in big churches but in recent years, I have found such backdoors to be universally true. Our congregation has grown every year for eighteen straight years but we continue to lose a lot of people through the backdoor. This troubled me greatly for years but upon prayer and thought, I am beginning to see things a bit differently these days.
Here is why people leave our church these days:
1. Consumers Because we live in the age of the consumer, some people have no more institutional loyalty to a church than they do a big box store or a restaurant. They shop widely for goods and services (including the internet), want them as cheap as possible and often utilize the ministries of two or three churches to meet their needs. They send their kids to day care here, worship there; Bible School here and take a Bible Study there. When they get bored or get a better offer, they leave.
2. Called We live in an era of bi-vocational lay ministers and I think this is a great thing. But as a result, many gifted leaders seek a “call” to a congregation and when they can’t conduct the exact ministry they came to offer or feel their ministry is complete they move on. They are not mad; they are “released.” They came to serve…and to leave.
3. Loss of Connection This one gets a lot of press and it should. In a virtual world, people are clearly longing for real relationships. They want to do life with people who know their names and are of the same age and stage. Or at least they think they want to. Though we offer many such opportunities, many still can’t find that desired connection and some particularly find such a connection challenging in a large church. It is naïve to think people will stay if you offer more programs. It often really isn’t you, it is them.
4. Drifters I used to call these church hoppers but drifters sounds cooler and less judgmental. These folks, and there are a lot of them, just drift from church to church (mainly large ones) and don’t take root anywhere. They are looking for a personal faith tips, entertainment, bore easily, don’t volunteer, don’t give and would prefer to live out their faith in anonymous fashion. When the church calls upon its members to step up for something like a building project or a capital campaign, they simply move on. No harm. No foul. Individual churches are like shelters along the Appalachian Trail for these folks; you stay for the night and continue your personal journey.
5. Shift A growing church is always changing. People join a church because they like the size or worship style and in three years, it is a different church entirely. I have noticed that many of the people who leave our church, transfer to a church that is about the size we were when they joined. You either grow with a growing church or it grows without you. Shift happens and can be really hard for everyone involved.
I would like to offer these observations as a minority report. It is not always the church’s fault and sometimes it is not anyone’s fault that people leave a given church. In this new world, many people are going to stop by your church as they travel though life. Many of these folks will stay for a while and move on. Rather than worry about things you can’t change, I suggest you pour all the Jesus you can into them while you have them. That way, whether they leave tomorrow or stay for a lifetime, we have given them something of true worth!
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.