Why people leave the church and how pastors can respond

This article comes from an article by pastor Greg Surratt of Seacoast Church (a multi-site congregation).  What are your thoughts???

Why do people leave?

  • Sometimes people leave because of a misunderstanding. Some of the people who left in the early years thought that Seacoast was going to be different than it was. Some couldn’t understand the vision or wanted it to be more like the mother church or another church they had been comfortable in.
  • Some people leave because of an offense. A lady told me once that her family was leaving the church because I had not acknowledged her or her husband in several social settings. Truthfully, I couldn’t recall any of them, but they had left an impression on her, so they left. Often they are offended with others in the church and rather than facing the issue, they just leave.
  • Some people leave because the excitement of the new has worn off. Long term relationships are difficult to maintain, whether it be in a marriage, a friendship, or a church relationship. In our bigger, better, faster culture it’s easy to become enamored with the new and shiny rather than put the investment in renewing what seems old and dull.
  • Some people leave because it is the sovereign will of God. He has a new assignment, a specific mission, or a better fit somewhere else for this season of life. Almost everyone who leaves chooses door #4, and for some, it may actually be the true motivation.

So, how do you respond?

  • Some leaders internalize it—they become paralyzed by the rejection. They risk isolation and distancing themselves from future relationships in order to avoid further pain.
  • Some leaders externalize it—they lash out to anyone who will listen. They risk collateral damage as they are processing through their pain.
  • Some leaders learn from it—they realize that sometimes people leave. They learn to process it in a healthy way and move forward stronger from the experience.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Some people leave because they are bullied. Not always by the pastors. 

    Although sometimes the issues are more complex. People get loved loved loved by a new church until there is conflict or disagreement. Suddenly all those people who loved them behave in a very different way towards them.

  • Some people leave the church when the pastor says something “offensive” that doesn’t go with their beliefs…which in this case it depends on the message of the pastor. Citing the example of Pastor Greg Boyd, following his Cross and the Sword series, about 1,000 left because they felt “offended” by his message…and in other cases, people leave because the pastor makes a racist or offensive message towards a group of people or beliefs… 

  • Good thoughts! As a pastor, it’s a reminder that, no matter why people leave, it’s important for me and my fellow pastors to kindly touch base and get a sense for why. Sometimes it will bring an opportunity to restore bonds, but the experience will always offer the chance to learn something.

    • Deb

      I really appreciate your attitude and thought process about this subject. As a lay woman in my local church, I have seen people leave even some close friends and not one staff person contact them to even care why or learn from.  It is hard to watch this happen, I have always been taught to keep the gate open or not to burn the bridge with folks so that if the day comes they wish to return we should greet with open arms, true love.  Thank you for your open heart to learn and seek resolution wheather they go back to your church or somewhere else that connection could be a lifeline. 

  • Vie

     We left our church, which I had been a part of for 20 years and my
    husband for 30 years. We had moved to another community about 30 minutes
    away and after a few years, we felt like we needed to be part of a
    church community within the community in which we now live because we
    believed we would be more effective in reaching our community that way.
    It was one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever made. Our pastor
    felt like we betrayed him and we really struggled with whether we were
    actually committing a horrible sin by leaving. But in hindsight, it is
    the best decision we’ve ever made. We went from a word of faith church
    to a Mennonite brethren church. It’s only been a year, but what a
    journey it has been! We have a better understanding of who Jesus is and
    what it means to seek His Kingdom. (I think it’s fair to say we have now
    become evangelical rejects!) While we are very thankful for our
    previous church and everything that we learned there, and as painful as
    it was to leave and knowing our leaving was hurting people (not all, a
    lot of people were very excited for us as they believed we were truly
    seeking God’s will for our lives), we know we are right where we need to

  • Kal

    what a timely post.  just passed the two year mark at the church i’m currently pastoring and even though we’re drawing people in, and making a stronger presence in the community, we’re seeing some of more familiar faces either leaving or threatening to leave.
    even though it’s ‘easy’ to chock up disgruntled people as part of the process, it’s never easy to accept their departure.  lots of sleepless nights. 
    here is what i’ve discovered so far in answering the “why do people leave?” question.  people leave because of different values than they perceive the staff has. preferences is obviously a huge reason. we are a consumer culture and we shop till we find what we think we like. and as we as a staff have begun to verbalized what we perceive is God’s vision for all churches and we sense people not being on the same page as far as that’s concerned.
    here is my bottom line.  and it will sound harsh.  can adults move past the 6th grade attitude of “i saw you talking to my boyfriend so we’re not best friends anymore” mentality of working thru difficult issues?  so…we do disagree.  can we sit down and have an adult conversation and work thru those?
    just a question.

    • Your comment does bring up the other concern I should have mentioned in my own post, however.  You stated people leave “because of different values than they perceive the staff has.”  This is absolutely true, but also quite troubling to me.  If the “staff” is the only values that matter/are visible/drive the direction of the church, then not enough “lay” participation is going on.  Church should be the whole body…or at least everyone who’s willing to participate…not driven solely by the hired staff.

  • Hi guys,

    There is a movement worldwide of folk pulling out of organized  Christianity. You might like to read my story based in Northern Ireland to find out why I had to leave over 25 years ago. It’s called ‘The Prodigal Prophet’ – see details at http://theprodigalprophet.com/the-prodigal-prophet 

    I’ve also a blog post called ‘Why do I feel weird in church?’ that I think you might find interesting.


    Keep the discussion going my friends.



  • Anonymous

    And some leaders just ignore it and continue to accept the shortcomings of their church as “just the way it is”.  

  • Je

    Some people leave bc the church isn’t ready to walk in the difficulties & problem of relationships & one person can’t do it alone…. I’m considering moving on

  • Carlo

    If you’ve not come across it already, I found Alan Jamieson’s ‘A Churchless Faith’ to be a really helpful resource on why Christians are leaving church….

  • Anonymous

    I believe some people leave because the church fails to preach the gospel. Speaking the truth in grace is difficult and it easy to get distracted with good but not central messages.

    There are several truths that many in the secular wrestle with that are ignored, dismissed, or discounted. Those kind of responses make the Church irrelevant.

    And our struggle to live up to or maybe it’s our lack of struggle to live into the life Christ has called us to has given people the impression that the beleifs we have are irrelevant.

  • Anonymous

    20 years ago my husband and I left the Mennonite church in which i had grown up.  It was the most difficult thing we have ever done-we did not leave because we did not want to be Mennonites(Anabaptist).  We left because it was better for our mental health and over all well-being.  We are now members of a United Methodist Church and although it is not Mennonite we have much in common and I actually have been the Director of Christian Education for the past 10 years.  For the first time in life, I have felt valued as a women by men in our church.  The amazing part was that  I had not even realized this was an issue until I experienced something very different.  There is no perfect church and if you believe there is such a place you surely must be living in a fantasy world!  Sometimes it is appropriate to leave but there are times and places in which we just have to stick it out.  In reality, is the church not the best place for imperfect followers of Jesus?  If not, we’ve missed the goal.

  • I would suggest door #4 is a tad generic.  People can leave the church, not for any of the pettiness of #1-3, but because their vision, or burden, is either not recognized by the church, or because it is, but they and that church are going in different directions…both directions being (potentially) valid expressions of faith.

    But frankly these issues…all of them…can be true *without* the person leaving.  I spent 11 years in a church, 9 of them pretty miserable, for the simple reason that there was nowhere else to go.  I think an important corollary to your question is “who is in our church but really not part of it, and why?”  These are the “leavers” that can still be reached if you try.

    • Anonymous

      Good point, Dan, because there is lifelessness in some of our churches and that can probably be attributed to people in the pews who have resigned themselves to being there, but have for all practical purposes, checked out.  

      • This is certainly true, Pat, but it’s not what I was talking about.  I was referring to the *life* that could be in the church if its more thoughtful, but perhaps not as conforming, members were truly invited to participate, share, and engage.  The ones who love their Lord more than they love the comfortable status quo, but who keep their mouths shut due to fear of rejection, expulsion, or just plain more drama than they’ve got energy to take.

        • Anonymous

          Hi Dan, I agree with that too.  I think people are quiet for one of the two reasons–resignation or fear of what would happen if they did speak up.  In the second instance, some have unfortunately seen what happens to people who do speak up and go out on a limb.  

          I think those who don’t frustrate me because I was one who did think outside of the box and chose to serve and fight for certain things and yet no one intervened when I became just one more casualty.  But while I’m frustrated, I also understand because no one wants to be slapped down (metaphorically speaking).  But nothing’s ever accomplished if we all sit idly by just happy with our little corner of the world.