by Jesse Johnson, The Cripplegate
In my fifteen years as a pastor, I’ve seen my fair share of people who have left the church. Some have left the churches where I’ve been on staff for other churches—the sort of greener pasture mentality, you could say—and others have left the church all together. Its that second category that fascinates me the most.
Why would someone leave the church? I’ve kept a little journal over the years, and when I’ve followed up with someone who has left the church for no church (as opposed to simply transferring their membership somewhere else), I’ve jotted down why. This exercise has served as one-part prayer journal, one-part sociological survey.
Recently I read through those names. Looking back on it, five main reasons stand out why people leave the church for no church:
1. Internet/multi-site/midweek/home group.
I’ve known quite a few people whose initial stop after leaving church has been some sort of “almost church.” What I mean by that is a group that is like a church, without actually being a church. Think anything from a home-group study to a midweek “young adults” group to an internet church.
I say this is their “initial” stop because they generally don’t last long there. Either the group folds, the young adults grow up, or the patient develops an immunity to the internet church virus. These aren’t long-term alternatives to church, but I’ve known a few people who have tried.
2. Relational Isolation
Sometimes people try church for a while, and they just don’t develop relationships with other there. They attend Sunday after Sunday, but after several months, they just don’t feel like they know people there. Others seem so plugged-in, with their friendships, ministries, and long-term relationships. Over time, the new person starts to think, “this just isn’t working.”
I’m not saying the blame for this is on the church. The truth is, the person probably isn’t availing themselves of the opportunities to grow. Its possible they just don’t know where to start though, and I know several people who have simply given up trying.
3. Negative Association
The more the true church gets known as standing against culturally accepted sins, the more likely it is that some people will simply leave. Over the last three or four years (ever since the Obergefell decision), I’ve had people attend church for a few weeks, then simply ask, “Wait a minute…is this one of those churches that is against same-sex marriage?”
I’m actually thankful for that cultural clarity, because it helps reinforce the narrow gate at the front end of a person’s relationship with Christ.
4. Not being fed
This is the “there are no good churches where I live” crowd, and its always humbling as a pastor to have someone say that after being at your church! These lines vary from the patently untrue (eg., “you never talk about Jesus”) to the truth hurts (eg. “you hardly ever talk about grace”). The common denominator in this that I’ve heard is that the person has in their mind some kind of teaching that they want to get out of church, but they just can’t find a place that scratches that itch.
While in some cases there may be some truth to this (empty pulpits do lead to empty pews), but I think many of these four groups are just reflecting symptoms, when its possible there is a root cause:
The truth is, the underlying heart issues today are essentially the same as in the NT—many people leave the church because they are not regenerate. They simply have never been born again.
For that reason, they don’t love fellowship with other believers, and they don’t feel like they have anything in common with believers who are not their age/ethnicity. So they gravitate toward a group that is more homogeneous, looking for some point of contact with others. Or they simply give up trying to make friendships with people who are friends with Jesus.
In other cases, they are unwilling to stand for truth in a world that is drifting away from it. They have counted the cost, and come up short. They listen to sermons where the law leads to gospel, but they can’t hear the gospel because their ears blocked out the law.
Its not the case in every situation, but many who leave our churches just weren’t saved to begin with. Maybe they grew up in church, or maybe they have been there for days or decades. But at the end of their time there, they didn’t have a relationship with Christ.
I think this basic reality is a reminder of God’s sovereignty in salvation and the pastor’s impotency to save people through is own effort. Often we are prone to thinking, “God, if you just give me a few opportunities to follow up with this person, and answer their questions, become their friend, then they will certainly become a Christian.” Then a dozen conversations later, they walk away. Its not that pastors or churches did something wrong; more likely its that the problem is not one that can be fixed by man.
What about you? What are some reasons you’ve heard people give for leaving church altogether?