Why Do People Leave Church?

May 4, 2020
Steve Price

I have often been asked: “Why do people leave a church?” or more specifically our church. The answer could win one the Christian Nobel Peace Prize, if there were such a thing. Yet, the question is quite valid. I would like to make a few suggestions.

First, our sub-culture. Now it is quite fashionable to find fault with our culture as it feels stylish to level an indictment against something so ill-defined. However, in this case the culture has had a persuasive effect. It sets the consumer up as the ultimate determinate of quality, success, and viability. It is the patron who writes the review as to the superiority of service, whether wants were anticipated, or how well needs were met. Businesses have instructional classes for their employees on how to bolster consumer score cards. The buyer has the power and is thus the “god” of all transactions. Unfortunately, business dogma can easily become church dogma— “Just remember, the customer is always right.”

To our decline, this mentality has become the adopted criteria for ranking churches. “What programs do they have for my family or my children?” What policies are in place for the destitute? What are the protocols for child safety? What are you doing for me?” Contrary to the tenor of Scripture, the threesome of “me, myself and I” has become an unholy trinity that demands all others bow to our whims and whistles. The God of heaven says differently for Christ emptied Himself of all claims for homage and took the human station which ranks at the lowest rung of society (Phil. 2:6-7). 

Yet, a church is held to the same philosophical standards as a restaurant, hospital, or hotel. The Christian today either wittingly or unwittingly demands a local church to impress them or they will vote with their feet and leave. As the dominos fall, church leadership acquiesces to compete for each other’s audiences by ever expanding, installing super impressive sound and lights venues, building hipster lobby coffee bars, or giving mesmerizing sermon exhibitions. When the church business plan has run its course, all that is left is an empty shell of a burned-out business model, but few Spirit-filled believers. This is hardly the church as depicted in the New Testament. Christian consumers set themselves up as a moving target that cannot be satisfied. Churches simply cannot keep up with the hype. 

A second suggestion is rooted in the first—one’s expectations. The church-goer is searching for an organization that provides gala events and the latest and greatest Christian gadgetry. They are looking for the best cut of steak every time. Failure means that you really are not a five-star church. You are only a three-star establishment and one will not spend their money on what is not the best. 

However, the wisdom of only eating highly rated cuisine is not only unsustainable, it is simply not reality. These expectations utilize the wrong barometer. Church life is really a family. The Bible often uses familial terms such as father or mother, or brother or sister. Real families come with problems and differing levels of development. Kids do spill milk and babies have diapers that need changing. This is true for a family on Elm Street and equally true for the church family on “Saint Street.” Parents gladly listen to the struggling dissonant sounds of their child at a school recital yet we in the pew have no patience for the Christian kindergartner making discordant tones while playing their gifted instrument of service. 

We have lost the sense of worth and attraction of what it means to be a family, cheering each other on as we watch each other learn to crawl, walk, run, ride a bike, progressing to running the race like an athlete of God. This is a process that takes time, has many twists and turns, and is full of tear laden failures. Yet its advantage is that it links believers together with inseparable bonds of love. Our souls become welded as one. Is this not the end goal of Christ’s prayer, “That they may be one as we are one?” (John 17:22). Is this not the intimacy that the current day Christian is craving? The church family unit was designed to cultivate such loving harmony.

The third contributor to church going departures is a fatal assumption. The Christian today thinks that newer is better. “Tradition,” thus by definition is obsolete and unable to keep pace with the ever-improving lifestyle that the present-day Christian sports. As a result, “what we have always done” becomes a stench to the nostrils of the young and the restless. Such a presumption has all the wrappings of progressive theory but has the stress fractures of short-sidedness and immaturity. I have rarely heard this philosophy ask the next logical question, “Why did this tradition come about anyway?” If causal church goers would force themselves to look beyond the superficial and ask this question, then they might find the greener grass is not so green. The truth is that most long-term practices began as wise reactions to ancient problems which share the same roots as problems of today. The chances are that a tradition identified as archaic may be the kernel that breeds an alternative tradition for the upcoming generation. After all, there is a high probability that what you see as tradition started for very good reasons. Just because one challenges these traditions does not make it wiser.

The consequences of the above leads the average church goer to hold the opinion that it is better to be served than to serve. This philosophy is the precise opposite of Christ who said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). We end up with more spectators than we do participants. The spectators sincerely believe they are doing their part by spectating and the participants are overwhelmed at the scope of family care. We falsely believe that the way to growth is increasing the percentage of spectators. The Word of God brings a lightening jolt to this belief. It is only when each believer does their active share that true growth will come from God (Eph. 4:16). Bonafide God-driven growth is not via a stealth program to increase people or contributions. Instead, who will be the adults that will roll up their sleeves, get their elbows dirty, and become spiritual caregivers as opposed to a fleshly care-observers? If the missing link is discovered by your eye, then why are you not looking to resolve the deficiency rather than telling the leadership to fix it?

May I ask you to begin a careful analysis of yourself through the mirror of God’s Word. Does the sub-culture of making consumer reviews dominate your estimate of a church? Do undo expectations trample the motif of a growing and evolving family? Has the assumption that a tradition is archaic blinded you to its intrinsic worth? Finally, have you slipped from participating to spectating while waiting to be served?

This type of scrutiny will yield far richer results than simply looking for other church lawns that have a prettier shade of green. This is time for conscientious questioning by each one of us about our heart condition in the presence of the Great Physician’s in His private exam room. Have you lately asked Him His opinion about your version of “doing church?” Possibly, you are afraid to ask the question and hear His diagnosis.