By Aaron Earls
More than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) say they currently attend religious services no more than a few times a year, but they used to attend more frequently.
A new study from Pew Research finds these dechurched individuals previously attended religious services on a regular basis, but now they’re part of the 49 percent of Americans who rarely attend. What happened?
For almost 7 in 10 (67 percent), it had nothing to do with their beliefs. They didn’t walk out the church doors one Sunday morning and pledge to never return because of a theological disagreement. Instead, it was a practical (50 percent) or relational (17 percent) reason.
A quarter of former regular attendees (26 percent) did, however, say their leaving involved a change “with their own personal beliefs or with their church,” according to Pew’s report.
Here are the top five specific reasons people gave Pew for why they stopped attending religious services regularly.
1. Too busy — For 1 in 5 of the dechurched (20 percent), they were too busy to attend.
Churches should recognize the busyness factor of many Americans and seek to work against that cultural tendency. Don’t pile more expectations and events on attendees’ plates, but remind them of the importance of gathering with other believers.
Many churches have found adding creative service times can entice some visitors who have trouble making a traditional Sunday morning service because of a work schedule.
2. Beliefs changed — In some cases, people no longer believe what they once did. For 17 percent of Americans, they stopped attending because their beliefs shifted.
Churches should not change their doctrine in order to attract more attendees, but they should make sure their beliefs are presented clearly. By effectively discipling members, churches can better avoid people changing their beliefs.
3. Personal priorities — One in 10 individuals who no longer attend religious services as often as they used to simply say they’ve found better things to do.
When asked by Pew Research why they’ve stopped attending, 10 percent say they’ve “gotten out of the habit” or even admitted they are “too lazy.”
Before it gets to that point, church leaders should make sure attendees understand the value of being part of a local church body.
4. Practical difficulties — Eight percent of former attendees said some type of practical, everyday problem kept them from showing up.
Part of the solution for churches will be to get to know their members. Reach out to them and find out why they stopped coming. Has that family been missing because they had car trouble? Did the woman have to get a second job to help pay bills?
If church leaders are aware of difficulties in the lives of their members, they can help solve many practical problems that could be keeping someone from church.
5. Family changes — For 7 percent of the dechurched, a change to their family led to their decline in attendance.
Divorce is a likely reason many stopped attending. Among those who have looked for a new congregation at some point in their lives, 11 percent said divorce or marriage was the reason for the search.
If someone is uncomfortable attending your church due to family changes, work to connect that person to another local congregation where they can be actively involved in Christian community.
Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com.