Most Christians who have been active in church for very long have witnessed fellow church members quietly, or sometimes not so quietly, dropping out of church or leaving to search for another church. In the fall of 2006, Lifeway Research conducted a major study titled “The Formerly Churched” which investigates why many adults drop out of church. This winter the research area conducted another major study among “Church Switchers,” which looks into the reasons many people leave one church and join another.
I am writing this response to the Church Switcher study from the perspective of a minister with more than 20 years of church staff experience. During many of these years it was my responsibility to orient, train and assimilate new members. In this role, I frequently met people who had left another church in the community to join ours. I must admit that I always approached these people with some skepticism and caution. I would wonder why they were leaving and what they were looking for. Would they stick any better at our church? Were they bringing any toxic attitudes with them?
Looking back on these years of service, I recall that most of these church switchers became very solid, healthy and active members. Some became quiet, regular attenders with little involvement. Some continued the pattern of switching, looking for the perfect church. And a few created problems as they had in their previous churches. In other words, it was a mixed bag: mostly positive, but definitely some negative.
The purpose of this article is to provide some opinions of how we should view church switching and what we can learn from those who were open enough to discuss their points of view.
Spiritual maturity of members
Many who read this study will automatically view those who drop out or switch churches as unregenerate or immature. There is some evidence to suggest this concern may be legitimate. Only 19 percent of formerly churched adults describe themselves as devout Christians. However, the vast majority (76 percent) of church switchers indicate they are devout Christians with a strong faith in God. Clearly, one of the contributing factors to those who drop out of church is that many may not be regenerate. In his article entitled “Where Are All the Christians?” from the May/June 2005 issue of Outreach magazine, Lifeway President Thom Rainer found that 31 percent of people who were interviewed as they were exiting a worship service were unable to articulate clear evidence of salvation. Clearly this reality has to be a contributing factor to both church dropouts and switchers.
Consequently, it is relevant to challenge any pastor or lay leader who has influence in the local church to strongly consider the manner in which people join the church. How can we expect members to foster deep biblical commitment to their church without the existence of “Christ within?” In 2 Corinthians 13:5, the Apostle Paul admonished the church at Corinth to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” We must not make dangerous assumptions regarding the salvation of our people.
Who then is responsible for the existence of unregenerate church members? It is clearly part of the role of pastor and overseer to know the condition of his flock. In many churches today, all you have to do in order to become a member is to walk the aisle or sign a card. However, there appears to be an encouraging trend toward churches that require some sort of new members’ class or training process. It is essential for a church to design a substantive process of orienting and discipling new members. This process needs to include a clear and thorough explanation of the gospel and an in-depth dialogue with each new member to determine his or her spiritual condition.
A desire for change
When looking at the results of the Church Switcher study we find that there are both “push” and “pull” factors at work. When asked what had the greatest impact on their decision to switch churches, 58 percent of church switchers indicate that it was their desire or need to leave their existing church as compared to 42 percent who indicate that it was their desire to join the new church. In other words, the push is a stronger factor than the pull.
Of all of the reasons for leaving the church, the top two are, “The church was not helping me to grow spiritually,” and “I did not feel engaged/involved in meaningful work in the church.” These are actually very encouraging findings. The fact that the majority of church switchers express a desire to grow spiritually and become active in service should strike a chord of optimism for leaders.
There may have been many contributing factors as to why those surveyed did not feel that they were growing and meaningfully involved. However, the most helpful response any leader can make to this study is to allow these findings to fuel the desire to disciple and involve every church member. With few exceptions, a pastor who possesses solid leadership skills and a passion to disciple and involve others will see this happen in the church.
As an example, a couple of years ago while attending a meeting related to team ministry, I encountered pastor Bret Robbe, who at the time was the pastor of Clearview Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. His church was known for lay involvement. When I asked him what percentage of his regular attenders were regularly involved in some sort of ministry, I was surprised and encouraged to hear him report, “80 percent.”
Where there is leadership, passion, determination, and an intentional strategy, church members can and will be developed and equipped for ministry. This process begins with the pulpit. There is increasing evidence that the laity expect substance from the pulpit. Tied for fourth among the top reasons people leave their church is “the pastor was not a good preacher.” When looking at the pull factors, 89 percent of church switchers say the “beliefs and doctrines of the church” were important or very important in their choice of a new church. Eighty-seven percent indicate that preaching was a major factor.
While this study does not address the issue of preaching style, nonetheless it indicates that most people are looking for truth, doctrine and engaging preaching and teaching.
The process of developing people begins with the pulpit, but it does not end there. The good news is that biblical preaching has received greater emphasis in many of our seminaries over the past several years. The possible unintended negative is that some espouse the notion, “Just preach the Word” – implying that as long as there is biblical substance in the pulpit, everything else will naturally follow. This perception is at best naïve. While preaching is the most important calling and task of any pastor, the ministry of equipping the saints extends beyond the pulpit.
If a pastor really wants to develop and equip the laity he will follow the idea set forth in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” One of the key ideas in this text is referred to as “multiplication discipleship”: one person who equips others, who in turn equips others, and so on. The often untapped power in the church is the army of believers who have never been properly viewed as ministers. Ephesians 4:11-16 highlights this perspective by indicating that pastors/teachers are called to equip the laity for the works of service.
While the pulpit is clearly part of this task, many leaders have found much success in developing a variety of approaches to teaching, training and discipling believers. These strategies include one-on-one discipling, discipleship classes, Sunday school and small group strategies. Over the past couple of years, Buddy Gray, senior pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., has been taking hundreds of his members through an in-depth study of systematic theology. Furthermore, those he has led through this study are now leading others through the same study. This illustrates the hunger and responsiveness of many church members.
In his talk entitled The Sheep and the Shepherd, Johnny Hunt, senior pastor of Woodstock Baptist Church near Atlanta, indicated that he believes pastoral leadership sets the bar for the laity and that they will follow as far as they are led.
In other words, “speed of the leader, speed of the team.” Pastors and spiritual leaders must set the bar for the laity. This includes the development of an intentional process of moving believers forward incrementally toward maturity and ministry. The increasingly popular book,The Simple Church, written by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger provides research support for this concept as well as practical guidance for implementing this process.
A displeasure with change
Another issue highlighted in the Church Switcher study is that of change. Tied for fourth in terms of influencing push factors for those changing churches is the following: “Too many things in general changed.” I can state from experience that change can, and usually does, lead to conflict. However, more people leave relatively quietly as a result of change rather than getting caught up in the middle of the conflict. A common mistake of pastors, staff or even lay leaders in the church is attempting to initiate change without a clear understanding of the process one should follow.
Let me insert upfront that change is unavoidable and even necessary for continued church effectiveness. However, the manner in which change is approached is crucial. First, there must be a solid basis for the desired change. Biblical principles related to church health and effectiveness should provide the criteria. Then there must be an attempt for “buy-in” or ownership of the anticipated change. Pastors can choose to posit edicts, but many leaders can testify of the wisdom of seeking to bring on board key influencers within the church who eventually influence the majority of the members. Once there is a clear rationale for change and solid buy-in on the part of key leaders, then there must be consistent, convincing and clear education and communication throughout the change process. As the change process unfolds, celebrate the victories, adjust to inevitable obstacles and problems, and patiently and lovingly guide the process forward.
It is important to note the tone of leadership. Some pastors lose good members not because what they were attempting to do is wrong, but because the emotional and attitudinal context is unhealthy. The fruit of the Spirit, so powerfully communicated by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22-23, should be viewed not as poetry for some wall plaque, but as essential and binding standards set forth by God for all believers, and especially for leaders.
Much of the disruption and conflict created in many churches could be significantly diminished if those leading the change process are trusted for their integrity and respected for their heart attitudes. Most people will generally follow godly, wise, humble and genuine leaders. Eighty-six percent of church switchers indicate that the “authenticity of the pastor/members” was a significant pull factor to their new church. The character and attitudes of leaders matter in a big way.
Whether looking at the push or pull factors, any spiritual leader with a shepherd’s heart will be able to benefit from listening to some of the sheep state their reasons for either dropping out or switching churches. Perhaps some of these voices are not credible, but many are. As I often told students regarding the reading of required texts, “Chew the meat and spit out the bones.” The Formerly Churched and Church Switcher studies have much meat to chew.