I’ve served at several churches over the years which have been through times of transition. Staff, direction or core ministry areas go through major change, and during that time, a significant number of people leave the church. Even in times of stability, the church gains and loses members regularly—prayerfully, gaining more than they lose over time. People leave the church for a number of reasons, and understanding these helps us make our ministries and congregations healthier and stronger through the ever-present ebb and flow of people coming and going. Primary reasons why people leave your church include:
Relocation or job related. The circumstances of life sometimes cause members to leave the church because they are also leaving the area, to pursue a job, relocation or other move. The reality of relocation, however, is that this accounts for about 30% of all church moves, according to a 2007 LifeWay Research survey. The majority of people—the other 70%—who leave your church do so for other reasons. It’s these other five reasons that we need to focus on as we evaluate to improve our ministries.
Dissatisfaction. According to the LifeWay study, “Most of the switchers who changed their house of worship without making a residential move (58%) say their old church failed to engage their faith, or put their talents to work, or it seemed hypocritical or judgmental.” We have to realize that dissatisfaction is a key motivator for people to leave a church. Sometimes this is self-induced—you can’t please everyone. However, often it is key leadership who fail to recognize the potential and makeup of their congregation, and strive to challenge them spiritually.
Dissatisfaction most often is connected with vision and direction given from the pulpit. According to the study, “42% of the people say they switched because another church offered more appealing doctrines and preaching or the preacher and church members’ faith seemed more ‘authentic.’” When we see a significant exodus in the church, it’s only reasonable to ask, “Is the preaching connecting to the congregation and moving them forward, spiritually?” Also, consider how you connect the ministries of the church to the preaching, so that members have the opportunity to obey and apply what they are learning from God’s Word each week.
Lack of connection. A member’s ability to make friends in a smaller circle within the church is a key motivator for retaining their involvement. Members who come to worship, but fail to engage others in the same life-stage outside of the pew often become isolated within the crowd. This is the reason, the study states that “80% of the people who join, including those who go through new member classes, are gone within the first two years.” Not because the church’s ministries are necessarily irrelevant, but that they just did create an environment where the new member would get plugged in to relationships that had long-term meaning for them. In evaluating your church’s level of connection, ask questions about how well you are connecting a worshipper to other facets of the church like ministry involvement and small groups. What percentage of your adult worshippers take the next step beyond sitting toward serving?
Lack of direction or momentum. The survey also indicated 51% of switchers indicated disenchantment with the pastor of their church—the key vision-caster. The pastor’s leadership, as well as beliefs/doctrine and quality of preaching also contributed strongly to members’ preferences in a new church. 89% listed beliefs or doctrines, 88% the authenticity of the pastor, and 87% the quality of the preaching as reasons they chose a particular new church. Because the voice in the pulpit is the strongest indicator of a church’s particular mission, vision and direction, we must ask if the church’s path forward is being clearly communicated frequently from during the preaching/teaching time.
Lack of direction can also be manifested as division or disagreement in the church. Indeed, Christ prayed in John 17 that the church would be know for its unity of spirit and direction. Often today we see everything from argument over doctrine to outright scandals leading to skepticism, cynicism or simple distrust in the church by her members. It’s not enough to simply have a vision for the church if the members are not all on board with the vision, or leadership is undermining the vision. So we must also ask of those leaving the church, are we doing anything to create division or distrust in our members?
Substandard ministry for families. Family ministry is a key draw for any church, regardless of size. The rise of megachurches as cafeterias offering a broad range of ministry options is not really at issue here. They account for less than 1% of all U.S. churches. Most churches offer some measure of ministry to preschoolers, children and students, and the fact is, many adults will endure dissatisfaction in their own spiritual life and development through the church if they believe their children are having a great experience and connecting. Further, members will often leave a church for the simple reason that they kids would rather go to church elsewhere. It’s a good idea to look closely at preschool, children’s and student ministries when you are experiencing a persistent loss of families at your church. Growing churches almost always are investing significant attention and resources in family ministry.
Poor decision-making by leadership. In 25 years of ministry, I believe I have seen more people-loss at church due to this reason than any other. It’s a reason we would rather avoid acknowledging, but it is simply true. We as church leaders often make poor decisions, and those decisions often have negative consequences. I think we would rather believe that outside influence or one of the other issues I mentioned is at fault most of the time, but we can be our own worst enemies. If the church is experiencing significant loss in membership, the key reasons most often lie with the decisions of her leaders.
I believe poor staff decisions come from several sources. We can fail to pray and seek wise and godly counsel before making a decision. We can take the advice of well-meaning individuals over the clear commands of God. We can do what is expedient, politically motivated or culturally relevant over what is biblically instructed. We can even make prayerful and well-thought decisions, which then do not yield the expected result, and then fail to adjust or intervene in a timely manner.
Perhaps, though, the greatest danger for church leaders is to assume that they are not the reason people are leaving the church. So we must ask questions of leadership such as “Have leaders connected and ministered effectively to those who are leaving?”, and “Have our decisions enhanced trust, communication and commitment to shared vision for leaders with our congregation?”
People leaving your church almost always do something the same way. They simply don’t tell you why they are leaving. If you ask them in a sort of “exit interview” or after the fact, they’ll often give you a less than honest answer about their reason(s) so as not to offend you. When you desire to poll your people as you witness an exodus, begin with those who have expressed dissatisfaction to you or other leaders. Listen intently and know that these voices will likely speak for others in your congregation. Most often, people don’t leave your church because they are forced to. By your own decisions, or by circumstances that you likely have some control over, they leave because they choose to.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.