Why People Leave and How to Bring Them Back

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One of the biggest mission fields may be in your church every week.

Do your neighbors go to church? If not, do you know why? Their reasons are probably not the ones you’d expect. New research reveals why people leave churches and what you and your church can do to bring them back.

The e-mail subject line simply read “uh-oh.” Hesitant to open the message from his friend Justin, Erik reluctantly clicked to see only a link. Again, he clicked. Up popped an article on a popular news Web site about yet another controversy in the evangelical Church.       

Erik wasn’t angry. In fact, he was well acquainted with his friend’s cynicism about the Church. Quickly, he typed a pithy response: “And what are you going to do about it?!”

But before he hit “send,” a nagging feeling in his gut suggested that his clever reply wasn’t the best response. Instead, he took the high road and once again ignored his friend’s quips.

Justin is like many people. While he once faithfully attended a local church, he no longer goes. He claims he’s a Christian, disillusioned by the problems he’s seen in his local church and other churches. He hasn’t darkened the door of a sanctuary in several years.

Recently, LifeWay Research (lifewayresearch.com) conducted a survey of formerly churched adults in America, hoping to uncover certain trends about the de-churched. While our results gave a great deal of insight into the minds of the formerly churched and why they left, they also revealed some common themes on how to bring them back. Our findings were cause for both worry and encouragement.

Most of us know someone like Justin who no longer attends church. And it’s no surprise that the U.S. Church is in a general state of decline. The magnitude of the decline, however, is staggering. Of the 300 million people in the United States, fewer than 20% regularly attend church. And our research suggests that close to 7.9 million people may be leaving churches annually. Crunch the numbers, and you realize that our churches are probably seeing more than 150,000 people walk away each week!

Why did they leave?
The overwhelming numbers of this exodus motivated us to discover the reasons behind it. Our research revealed several common themes as to why such a sizable segment of the local church body is choosing the exit door.

Change in life situation
The number 1 reason for leaving church is a life change that prompted people to stop attending worship. In fact, almost 60% of de-churched people said that some adjustment to their lives is the primary reason why they no longer attend church.

Specifically, one-third of the formerly churched believe they are simply too busy for church. To them, life changes—often family or home needs—are as important or more important than attending a local church. Several people reported that family responsibilities were causing them to feel too busy to attend church. And women (64%) are more likely than men (51%) to feel this increased pressure from home responsibilities.

One of the more surprising results about the formerly churched was the tendency to blame a physical move away from their home church as a reason for not returning to any church. About 28% of those reporting lifestyle changes said that a move to a new location caused them to stay away from the Church. Such a reason for leaving the Church demonstrates a great need for more outwardly focused churches. When a person or family moves to a new place and feels no motivation to join another church, it’s up to congregations within that community to reach out to them.

Disenchantment with the church
Like Justin, a number of the de-churched claim they’re disenchanted with the current state of their church. And 37% say this disillusionment is one of the primary reasons for leaving. Perhaps even more surprising than this percentage are the reasons for their cynicism. One major factor is their view of the pastor. They perceive the pastor to be judgmental, insincere, and lacking good preaching abilities.

It’s interesting to note that only 15% of those who feel displeasure with the church say it’s due to a moral or ethical failure of the church leadership. While the local and national press often have a field day with moral breakdowns of pastors, that’s not a major contributing factor to people deciding to leave the Church.

The unloving church
Not only is the pastor a contributing factor to discontentment within the church, the way the formerly churched perceived the people within the church also motivated their leaving. Of the formerly churched who expressed dissatisfaction with those in the church, 45% said the other members were judgmental and hypocritical.

In 1 Cor. 1:10, the Apostle Paul urged the church to preserve unity, having “no divisions” within the body. Our research shows that unity is key in the success of a church maintaining a healthy percentage of its members. If church members hold grudges against each other and don’t seek to sustain harmony within the body, people will leave. In fact, of those who said the church is unloving, many left because they didn’t believe God was at work within it. Clearly, for God to use a local body for His glory, it must keep a balance of unity and love.

Not Christians
One of the biggest mission fields may be the people sitting in your church every week. While no one will ever know exactly how many attending worship are believers, many are leaving the Church because they were never Christians in the first place. Our survey found that about a quarter of people leaving the Church expressed a change in beliefs or simply lost interest in religion. Of that group of people, 62% stated that they had stopped believing in organized religion altogether.

Don’t miss the enormity of this issue. Not only are people leaving the Church, but many are coming in and out your doors without meeting Christ. Inevitably, some will simply refuse to accept Christ no matter how evangelistically healthy a church becomes. But a large group of people, possibly tens of thousands who could be reached for Christ, are leaving the Church.

Bringing Them Back
Without a doubt, the American Church has a major problem as millions of people leave each year. But we think there’s a reason to remain optimistic. The second portion of our research focused on how the Church can bring these people back into a local body. What we uncovered were some simple, yet exciting factors that could help people return to the Church.

First and foremost, a considerable number of the de-churched said they’re willing to come back. While many are not actively seeking a church now, a large majority (62%) is open to the idea of returning. Conversely, only a small minority (28%) of the formerly churched is unlikely to consider returning in the foreseeable future. So these findings should be a huge encouragement to you. The question is what specifically can we do to see them return?

The power of the invitation
Perhaps one of the most underestimated reasons people return to the Church is that someone simply invited them back. Overall, 41% of the formerly churched said that they would return to the local church if a friend or acquaintance invited them. Younger adults are even more influenced by the power of the invitation. Approximately 60% of those 18–35 would consider returning to church if someone they knew asked them to come back.

A simple, yet powerful invitation is all it may take to prompt a homecoming for the dechurched. Is your church equipping people to invite others back? When someone strays from the church, friends and family should be there to encourage him or her to return.

Make a difference
Almost a third of the formerly churched mentioned that if they were to return to church, they would want to be part of a local body where they can make a difference. By and large, people within the church are more fulfilled in ministry when they sense that God is using them. And churches with high expectations of their members are more likely to draw people back into the fold. The de-churched may have left due to insincerity, but it’s the high standards and expectations that draw them back. People want to serve and know that they are contributing something significant. Making new members aware that the bar is set high for their contribution does not deter but rather motivates them to be a part of the local church.

The top three motivating factors
While simply inviting a friend back or letting someone know he can personally make a difference are practical ways to bring people back to the Church, two of the top three motivating factors for returning are spiritual in nature. First, almost half of those who are considering returning to the Church said that they would do so because they feel it will bring them closer to God. Second, not only do people return to the Church because God is working in their hearts, but also because they sense a void in their lives. Over a third of the de-churched said that they would return to fill the emotional and spiritual gaps they’ve felt since leaving.

The third motivating factor for those returning to the Church is to be around those who hold similar values. Almost one-third said they’d want to return to a church in which people held the same moral standards as them—something to think about if your church is wrestling with how it will stand on moral issues. A church that compromises in that area only deters anyone who’s looking to the Church for both high standards and people with similar values.

The present reality is that too many people are walking away from our churches. But we’re optimistic about the future. We frequently hear about churches that are actively seeking ways to bring people back into a local body. And we know that while de-churched people like Justin are all too common, they may also be only one small step away from being de-churched to becoming re-churched.

6 Surprises About the De-Churched

The de-churched are not mad at the Church. While many within the Church might view someone’s departure as a sign that they’re angry, that’s not the case. Very few of the formerly churched expressed hostility toward the local body.

• Young adults return out of obedience to God. Almost half of those aged 18 to 35 cited that reason. Today’s younger generation is sometimes viewed as rebellious or shunning God. While rebellion certainly applies to some, a large segment of young adults are returning for spiritual reasons.

• The de-churched don’t feel awkward about coming back. Only 15% mentioned that they would feel awkward. So the Church shouldn’t feel awkward about seeking out those who have left and asking them to return.

• Denominational preferences do not change among those who have left the Church. Fewer than 20% prefer to attend a church of a different denomination. Conversely, 64% of those who have left would prefer to attend a church of the same denomination. Clearly, denominational preference is not the impetus behind those who leave.

• The second visit is crucial among those returning to the church. Almost two-thirds of the de-churched maintained that they would like to remain anonymous until their second visit if they were to return. While our churches should remain amiable and open to all guests, perhaps we should focus on second and third-time guests as much as first-timers.

• Application of biblical teaching is important to those who return to the Church. Many within the de-churched camp affirmed that if they were to return, they’d seek a church that offered engaging and realistic dialogue about God and life. So the de-churched aren’t concerned with ancillary items, but rather sound biblical teaching that applies to their lives.  

by Thom S. Rainer and Sam S. Rainer
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (lifeway.com). Sam S. Rainer III is the president and CEO of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com). LifeWay Research conducted the study among 469 non-churchgoers in September 2006.

Copyright © by Outreach magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at http://www.thomrainer.com

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  • Anna Smith

    I found this article really interesting. Please take the time to read it. x

  • Drolandgs

    You hit the nail on the head! That is why my mother stopped going, and why I don’t go. I cannot endure ear splitting bad bands over a sound system heard 3 blocks away. The so-called music doesn’t have one thing to do with worshiping God. The new crop of pastors are spreading this all over, and chasing people away. Perry Noble (it is on his site) brags about it and says “we don”t need them”. The person who wrote this article needs to say it up front – “we don’t need you boomers anymore” and are going for the ones next in line to pay – the young crowd, which is what those awful rock bands are aimed at.

  • http://twitter.com/JamesLGreen james green

    Why People Leave the Church and How to Bring Them Back – ChurchLeaders.com – Christia.. http://bit.ly/aPGNH1

  • Jimnorris28

    church go to feel like don,t care at all want make fun or tese other not right

  • Drolandgs

    Your church sounds good. The one I left ( I have seizure disorder and that sound system sets them off) loves to say they outreach, but what they mean is they want money so the pastor and his close friends can spend all summer in other countries sight seeing.  Where I live, less than a mile from the church, not once have they ever bothered to look into, come here, care, that the folks living here are elderly, poor, disabled, in NEED of somebody to care. That church likes to pretend “those people” arent here. 

  • DaveEkstrom

    Rainer and son are always helpful.  My favorite church growth guys.

  • DaveEkstrom

    Tim, thanks for putting it out there.  You stepped up and told where you were coming from, knowing it would be controversial.  You find church boring and I wonder if you could elaborate.  One can watch baseball on TV but many enjoy going to the park.  One can watch a program on TV but many enjoy live theater.  They wouldn’t call it boring.  Clearly you are a Christian.  So how has the church failed to engage you in its public worship services?

  • Lovejoyb1983

    propaganda…..propaganda…………propaganda…..it’s amazing what this internet has done and how many people believe everything they read…………75% of everything on the net is either falsified fact or simply made up!

    • Freethinker

      75% of the Internet is false or made up? I would like a citation for your stunning “fact”.

      But then again, I’d like some footnotes and sources for the Bible besides third hand oral “traditions” as well.

      I guess I won’t be getting EITHER so I guess my Internet is as unreliable as your Bible.

  • Mary Contrary

    You are treating us deconverts like this is a temporary condition. I assure you it is NOT. No amount of covered rich suppers and exotic (and hypocritical) “mission trips” will lure us back. Most of us are not angry at God, but merely see that, historically speaking, Jesus is no more realistic than any other Iron Age myth. I went to Christian school, and public University. I read the Bible cover to cover three times in my 40+ years and the last time through, the absurdity of a talking snake and a magic fruit tree finally did me in. I am just sorry I wasted so many years worth of Sundays sitting in an echo chamber trying to convince myself that the Emperor wasn’t buck naked.This was an intellectual choice, not an emotional one, I ASSURE YOU. It was very painful to wake up and realize that FAITH FOR FAITH’S SAKE IS JUST NOT ENOUGH. The Internet and its unending links to people of many different faiths ***who believe in the infallibility of THEIR God just as strongly as you do*** will do American Christianity in.

    WAKE UP. We are all atheists. Its just that I believe in one FEWER Gods than Christians do. ;)

    • Ryan

      I was always amazed at how a bunch of people who could physically see God in a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, who parted a whole sea in front of thier eyes would turn and make a gold inaniment image of a stupid animal to worship in less than 40 days while Moses was up on a mountain with God. I can understand people not believing in His Son. I wonder if I could believe if Jesus were to show up today in front of my eyes. God is not a God afar off like back in Israel or walking around preaching and doing miracles. Now He is a God who lives inside His people. I don’t go to church where the pastor asks, “Isn’t it good to be in the house of the Lord?” What I say is, “It is good to BE the house of the Lord.” I don’t see God or hear God audibly. I read His word and things stick out. That’s how He speaks and guides me along with His Spirit. I sence Him and not emotionaly speaking. Father God isn’t like preachers. He’s much more gentel but strait forward and sometimes blunt. He doesn’t speak every time I read but often, when I need to hear something. I read in anticipation of hearing from Him. I don’t read now to just make it another time through the bible. Like you I’ve been there and done it…. 40+ years too… Christian school through 6th grade, public college. For me its faith for the sake of my relationship with my Father whose Spirit lives within me because of the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. I wish God would reveal Himself to you as He has me.

      • LuMace

        The power of suggestion is strong with this one.

  • Mary Contrary

    The God of the Bible is very judgmental and condescending too. You should read the nasty parts where he kills children for no other reason than they were on the wrong side of a war. But I thought ALL HUMANS WERE GOD’S CHILDREN. Why would he be so arbitrary and nasty as to kill women and children—-his creations— like that?

  • Ron Myre

    So many of these comments are two years old or more, so I’m not even sure if anyone will ever read this. Over the last several years organized religious bodies, most notably Catholics and Evangelicals, have continued to enter into the the political arena. Many have attempted to influence the voting of church members either from the pulpit, on the air waves, in books, or on the web. There have been some extraordinarily divisive statements made by church leaders over the years, and precious few examples of church condemnation of such sentiments. One would infer that such political statements are the sanctioned official message of the church. “Christians” aims vitriol at a President that promotes the rights of gays to marry while praising a President that starts a dubious war resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 people. I ask myself HWJV (how would Jesus vote)?

    How would you suggest that we reconcile the behavior of Christ versus the behavior of the church? How would you feel if millions of Christians were being taught that you were you were a sinner because you belonged to the “wrong” political party? Would you want to sit with them in church on Sunday? Would you be inclined to spend your time with such people? Frankly I’m surprised that you would wonder why people are leaving the church, when the church has so clearly decided to offend 1/2 of the people in America.

    Maybe someday you all will remember that Jesus rejected political powers, rejected money, rejected war, rejected the church hierarchy, embraced the powerless and the poor, and loved disenfranchised. Start preaching that message and someday your flock may begin to return.

    • http://JimDisbrow.com/ Jim Disbrow

      Politics belongs in the Church. The idea that it does not came about when the government create a nonprofit status for churches and effectively silenced political speech in church. I might add that this was illegal under the 1st amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” When moral and political issue collide it is the obligation of the church to speak out.

  • Pianoladypatt

    Sorry, but I don’t believe for a minute that Christ would be out feeding the poor on Sunday INSTEAD OF being in the Temple worshipping God, unless it was a temporary emergency.


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