While a great deal of effort is made by churches and denominations to attract new church members, Lifeway Research’s newest study surveys the “formerly churched” to better understand why people leave.
In the summer of 2006, the research arm of Lifeway Christian Resources conducted a survey of 469 “formerly churched adults” – those who regularly attended a Protestant church as an adult in the past but who no longer do so. The objective of the survey was to better understand why people stop attending church – and what it would take to bring them back.
The results indicate that, while some losses may be inevitable, opportunities abound for churches to hold on to members who are headed for the door.
Why are people leaving?
According to the study, 59 percent of formerly churched adults left their church because of “changes in life situation.” While this may suggest that most losses are outside of the church’s control, the research indicates that is not necessarily the case, said Brad Waggoner, executive vice president of Lifeway.
Waggoner noted that the formerly churched provided more detailed reasons behind this more generic “changes in life situation” description. “It is interesting that the most prevalent reasons come down to personal priorities rather than an external change in the person’s life,” said Waggoner.
In looking at the top two specific life-situation reasons adults stop attending – “simply got too busy to attend church” (19 percent)and “family/home responsibilities prevented church attendance” (17 percent) – it is clear to see these areas are more preventable than some of the lower-ranking reasons such as “moved too far from church,” (17 percent) “work situation” (15 percent) or “got divorced/separated” (12 percent).
The second most common category of reasons adults leave the church is “disenchantment with pastor/church,” accounting for withdrawal of 37 percent of the formerly churched. Three specific sources of disenchantment are sandwiched among the life-change reasons. The formerly churched say, church members “seemed hypocritical” (17 percent), “were judgmental of others” (17 percent) or “the church was run by a clique that discouraged involvement” (12 percent). These adults felt like outsiders looking in, revealing that the leadership and relational dynamics of a church can prove to be obstacles that prevent involvement.
“While some may use disenchantment issues as a smokescreen to hide behind, the large percent of the formerly churched who struggle with disenchantment deserve some honest attention” Waggoner said.
Notably, Waggoner pointed out, only two of the top ten reasons are instances in which the formerly churched admit to spiritual causes, citing “church was not helping me to develop spiritually” (14 percent) and “stopped believing in organized religion” (14 percent).
The latter reflects creeping secularism and is underscored by the number of respondents who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious” (24 percent) and “Christian, but not particularly devout” (42 percent). Fewer than 1 in 5 formerly churched adults confess to being “a devout Christian with a strong belief in God”(19 percent) and a somewhat smaller number are wavering on Christianity (10 percent) or belief in God at all (6 percent).
Start thinking prevention
Clearly, many of the reasons people no longer regularly attend church are interrelated. More than 80 percent of the formerly churched do not have a strong belief in God, explaining why work and family are a higher priority than church. But would they be “too busy” to attend if they felt more welcome at church?
Although many formerly churched adults stay away from their former church for the same reasons they initially left, some indicate that the church did not notice or care. Sixteen percent said “nobody contacted me after I left” and another 16 percent said “nobody seemed to care that I left.”
According to Waggoner, “the responsibility and influence of the church varies across the different reasons for withdrawal. One clear influence is the expectations that churches have of attendees as they come into the life of the church,” he said. Quoting the book Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden, Waggoner said some church practices may be contributing to low levels of church commitment and limited biblical knowledge.
“Christian leaders seem to be reluctant to [proclaim] the terms of discipleship that Jesus laid out,” Ogden writes. “What are the reasons for our reluctance? We are afraid that if we ask too much, people will stop coming to our churches. Our operating assumption is that people will flee to the nearby entertainment church if we ask them to give too much of themselves. So we start with a low bar and try to entice people by increments of commitment, hoping that we can raise the bar imperceptibly to the ultimate destination of discipleship.”
Waggoner said it appears that some of the formerly churched left because the “destination” was so slow to emerge. “In the end, it’s important for church leaders to not only assume responsibility for those who seek to join their churches, but also for those who attempt to leave. Be vigilant at both the front door and the back door of the church.”