As a leader, you long to see your ministry grow and thrive. So when people leave, it can leave you deflated and discouraged, especially if they were contributing members of the congregation. One of the difficulties with people leaving your church is that you rarely get to explain why they left to the church as a whole.
Even if you’re aware of the real reason for their departure, its rarely something you can share. Meanwhile, others notice when familiar faces are no longer attending so people end up with the impression that something is wrong with the church. Otherwise, why would they have left? Their assumptions would appear correct from external appearances, but as often is the case with such matters, so much more is going on.
Here then are the 3 major reasons why people leave a church. They’re more like categories, but every reason I have ever known or heard falls into one of these groups. The 3 reasons people leave a church are:
1. Their relationship with God
As pastors, we all have stories that break our hearts. Some of the most heart-wrenching are of those who walk away from the faith. I’ve been saddened to watch longtime members suddenly claim they no longer believe. I’ve heard every excuse, from an inability to accept the God of the Old Testament to the claim that science has done away with the need for God.
Regardless of what I’ve heard, not once did I ever think the reasons were rationale or even reasonable. Regardless, there is an exit, and a scar. Those who leave for this reason create a sense of grief for those left behind, and in most cases a sense of guilt as well.
Could we have done more?
What were the warning signs?
What could I, as the pastor, have done to answer their doubts?
Though difficult, the ultimate responsibility still lies with the individual, even though these are the most hurtful exits a church experiences. Which brings us to the second.
2. Their relationship with the church
Conflict in any church is inevitable. It consists of people and whenever groups get together, some friction will eventually flare up. The church is not a place where conflict is absent, but a place where reconciliation is present. For most people, the place they worship is ultimately based on two criteria – their pedigree or their preference.
By pedigree I mean the tradition they grew up in. It could be a certain denomination or an historical tradition that has been part of their families heritage. By preference I mean those who choose a church by the style of worship, preaching, or even the size of a congregation.
Regardless of criteria, when people decide to leave, its because of some unresolved conflict they are experiencing in the church. Now this can encompass a whole range of conflicts, from inter-personal to philosophical. The reasons are legion. What I can state from experience is that its rarely doctrinal. As a frame of reference, here are some real life examples of why people left a church.
- The church started a building program
- The church refuses to be a clone of Hillsong’s
- The pastor didn’t attend our ___________ (Fill in whatever your imagination comes up with)
- The church didn’t add an elder
- The church didn’t embrace more hymns
- We left because we were uncomfortable with our ex-son-in-law showing up with his new girlfriend
- The elders wanted me to reconcile with another member
- We didn’t agree with a decision made by the majority of the church, but created such a fuss that we can’t stay in order to save face
I’m sure if you’ve been involved in church for any length of time you can easily add to the list. The point I want to make though is this – often times it is beyond the control of the leadership as to why most people leave. I’ve watched people who spent years as part of a community leave over a trivial matter.
I know it was ultimately something deeper than the present issue that drove the exodus, but in many cases these very people were the ones who voiced openly the value of community. But when decisions didn’t go their way, suddenly community was no longer a value worth keeping. Which brings us to reason number three.
3. A crisis in their life
No one likes to see relationships implode, or a tragedy that unexpectedly befalls a family. I’ve sat through many situations that essentially left me speechless. What is really heartbreaking is when it affects their relationship with God and the community they’ve been a part of. I’m not talking here about those situations where people are experiencing a season of grief and just need some space. Those times of doubt and struggle are understandable.
What I’m talking about here are those personal crises when people should seek out the church most, are often the very situations that prompt them to make an exit. They’re experiencing family difficulty, financial upheaval, or a recurring problem with addiction or prevalent sin. Again, the reasons are as varied as the people in your church.
Regardless, the very place where help should be sought out is the very place they shun. In other words, the crisis in the personal realm is too embarrassing and therefore stops them from continued attendance in your church. Now I know that some of the blame rests upon a fear of being judged, or appearing helpless and weak. Some even have difficulty admitting they need help in the first place. Whatever the reasons, it becomes another loss for the community.
An Important Truth to Remember
The three reasons given above points to one very important truth to remember. No matter how well we believe our church is doing, there will always be people who are either in the process of leaving or considering it. I’ve been in seasons of ministry where we were seeing explosive growth, the budget being exceeded, conversions and baptisms on a regular basis, and we still had people disgruntled and leaving.
One final thought. Not all exits are bad. In fact, some exits actually become the catalyst for innovation, change, and freedom for many churches. Many times the benefits of people leaving aren’t felt until some time passes, but inevitably new people come along, and the void that sometimes gets left allows someone else to step up and fill the gap.