Why do people leave church? This is the question I have heard discussed quite a bit recently (a discussion kicked off by Rachael Held Evans with her article “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church“) and a discussion which continues to flow throughout the blog world. I much appreciated Rachael’s thoughts on why Millennials, specifically, are leaving the church but feel the discussion she sparked is an important one which needs to continue. I’ve been receiving requests from readers to weigh in on this issue, and having given it a great deal of thought, am happy to offer my voice to this worthy discussion.
As I thought about my own opinion as to why people leave the church, it struck me that the actual reasons why people leave aren’t necessarily reasons that apply to one generation or the other. The issues that wound and tear a person down to the point that they walk out the door are typically issues that affect people from all generations and all walks of life. In fact, the reasons I have compiled are issues that led me to walk way from church as twenty-year-old, and still tempt me to walk out again some days– even though I’m not 20 anymore.
Whether you’ve always known what e-mail was, rode your big-wheel in the street without a helmet, can remember seeing ET in the theater, or did time in ‘Nam, here are the 10 reasons why people from all generations leave church:
10. People leave church when they can’t find community.
This is one of those reasons where it can serve as a reason why people come to church in the first place, and also becomes a reason why they leave– people want community. So many of us are tired of doing life on our own, tired of plastic American relationships, and are looking for deep, loyal, and authentic communal relationships. This should be a central goal of churches– building community. Why? Christianity was never meant to be lived out in the context of isolation, but rather in the context of community. When people can’t find community, can’t plug-in or access meaningful relationships, they split in hopes they’ll find it somewhere else. When a church learns to do community well, it is a life-giving experience. When churches fail to build community, church just becomes another item on your list that sucks the life out of you. I have experienced church both ways and can honestly say that I’m finished investing emotional energy into churches that don’t build a culture that values authentic community.
9. People leave church because they need less drama in their lives.
I don’t know about you, but my life always seems to have enough drama in it– I certainly don’t need anything that is going to add to the drama factor. So often, people seek out church because they need a reprieve, a refuge from the emotional drama of day to day living. However, far too often church relationships find a way to add to your drama. Now, I get that we’re all imperfect and that any group will have their own conflict, but some churches seem to do drama more than others. Our jobs, family dynamics and friendships provide us with enough opportunity to be gossiped about, back-stabbed, and pushed to the margins- we don’t need to add to that. Church needs to be a safe place where one can escape the typical relational drama we all face and instead experience loving support and acceptance. When church just becomes another area that is going to add drama to my life, I need to cut the cord and move on for my own sanity. Which leads me too…
8. People leave church because of unresolved conflict.
As mentioned above, any community is going to have conflict. However, a healthy and life-giving community is one that practices healthy conflict resolution in order to keep relationships safe and whole. Some churches do a fantastic job at helping individuals reconcile their differences in loving ways which deescalate and restore, while others have skewed ideas of what reconciliation looks like. Too often, wounded people are told, or are caused to feel, as if their emotional response to being wounded is somehow wrong or sinful. We can be encouraged to “forgive and forget”, “get over it”, or even told we have “no right to feel that way”. We fail to realize that wounded people need to have their feelings validated, and need to have a place to air their hurts in a way that causes them to feel heard. If we want people to stop leaving church, we need to develop radical humility and become the peacemakers that Jesus claimed would be blessed.
7. People leave church because of controlling leaders and unskilled teachers.
Leaders make or break an organization, and church is no different. When the pastor or church leader(s) come across as controlling (whether it is real or perceived) it creates an environment that doesn’t feel safe to people. No one wants to be controlled or dominated in church– not even the people who assimilate and eventually tolerate such environments. Instead, people want to feel heard and included in issues of decision making and long-term vision. Too often, it seems like the kids who are picked on in high school either become cops or pastors so that they can control other people- and they become increasingly intoxicated with their own perceived power. When people like me smell this, we bolt.
Likewise, you can have a church with a great community and a loving pastor– but a pastor who happens to be differently gifted outside the realm of preaching, and lose people. The longest 45 minute blocks in my life have been when I have been forced to sit and listen to a person fly the plane around the pulpit ten times, without ever landing. Bad preaching is miserable. If people feel like the preaching sucks, they’ll leave in search of something else. We need to make sure we place people in positions to serve in accordance with their abilities AND passions, not just their passions.
6. People leave church because they get turned off by social climbing, cliques, and nepotism.
Social climbing is simply how I would describe the phenomena where people have to acquire a certain amount of “social credit” with the people of influence before they can serve and be included. As a result, the popular folks at church amass followers, and power. Such a system requires you to play the “game” with people of influence if you want to be a fully included member of the group (leading to the formation of cliques). Some people, like me, refuse to do this in silent protest… instead believing that all people should be able to come together to experience God, equally. Nepotism goes along the same lines– we don’t want to see people elevated to their positions because they were of the right bloodline, or played the game with the right people– we want to see people elevated to positions simply on the basis of their skills, abilities, and calling.
5. People leave church when they feel like they need to become a carbon copy of an individual or ideal in order to be fully included and appreciated.
During the times when I have found myself church shopping online, one of the first things I look at is the church’s statement of faith. This isn’t so much because I care about what they believe (although, I obviously do) but because I want to know if I’m going to be required to be a detailed copy of everyone else to be accepted. When I see a ten-page statement of faith the spells out everything from “Who is God” to “Why we believe the rapture will happen next Tuesday”, it tells me that there will be no room for me to live, breathe, or be my own person– my acceptance will depend on whether or not I am a carbon copy of everyone else.
People want to be who God made them– they don’t want to be a carbon copy of who God made you. When we feel forced to fit into a predetermined mold as to what a member of this community must look like, we leave (or in my case, I don’t ever go to begin with).
Most people don’t want to be like everyone else, and when a certain culture tells them they must become a clone as a condition of acceptance, many will leave instead of submitting to such a dehumanizing experience.
4. People leave church because they are tired of being told how a “good Christian” will vote.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Evangelical Christianity is that it’s not so much of a faith tradition anymore, as it is a political movement. When I was in seminary I wrote frequently on this issue calling it the “deification of western values”, because Christian culture has picked a few hot-button political issues and married one’s political opinion on these issues to their faith. We are tired of this. All of us.
It is possible to sincerely love Jesus and still not vote for the Republican candidate. PLEASE stop making people feel like voting differently is somehow akin to apostasy. Jesus followers hold a wide array of political beliefs, and that’s okay– they’re just political beliefs… it’s not theology not matter how hard others want to make it theology.
The sooner we can embrace our political diversity, and end this unholy marriage with conservative politics, the sooner we can all start trying to follow Jesus, together.
3. People leave church because they’re looking for something authentic.
The word authentic means: “not false, but real… therefore reliable and trustworthy”. Ironically, I can think of no more authentic message than the loving and very real message of Jesus.
However, the way we often live that out is far from authentic. In scripture we see authenticity being something God loves; my favorite characters in the Bible are the people who were raw and who told God exactly what was on their mind, minus a filter. These are the people, such as David, whom God calls “friend”.
Yet, church often becomes a place where you want to be anything but real. It’s just not safe to do so- especially with people who are busy pretending they have it all together but still seem to have enough time to be your worst critic.
People want to do church with people who are real, people who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable in relationship, and who are willing to sit beside you in the messiness of life. When church feels fake and like it’s not a safe place to be vulnerable, people leave in hopes they’ll find someplace that is.
2. People leave church because they feel lonely.
As you look through items 10-3, imagine how it feels to experience the losing end of one of these issues (sadly, I don’t think many of you will have to imagine that). The feeling of being excluded, by definition, creates an intense loneliness. Being one of the only people living raw and authentically in a quest for community, is a lonely feeling. Being the one person who can’t, in good conscience, sign onto the same statement of faith that the group has, is a lonely feeling. Watching cliques form as an outsider, and watching people who rise to esteemed positions by way of church politics, is a lonely feeling.
People leave church because they start to feel like an outsider, and that makes them lonely. It is an emotion that is painful, powerful, and given enough time, unbearable. If leaving church is what’s needed to stop feeling so lonely and to stop feeling like an outsider– they’ll do it (and it would be the right decision).
1. People leave church when they don’t find Jesus.
This sounds silly on the surface, but it’s not. Church of all places should look like Jesus! Church should be a place where people are busy loving the unlovable, embracing the outcast, serving the widow, immigrant and fatherless. It should be a place where power is rejected, gender and race is irrelevant, and where the most coveted position is the position of servant.
I think we need to just start being honest with ourselves and admit that a lot of people reject our churches because they’re too interested in Jesus to accept a counterfeit version.
When I look at the story of Jesus, I am consistently moved by the way people were attracted to his personality. With the exception of religious conservatives, everyone longed to be around Jesus and went to great lengths and great risk to spend time with him. I am convinced that if we built loving communities of faith that were raw and authentic, that embraced the excluded, and were known by how well they loved others, there wouldn’t be an empty chair in the sanctuary.
Because if a church were really to look like Jesus, people wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.