People leave churches, and they give all kinds of reasons for it. They will say stuff like “I’m not being fed.” or “We’re trying to help another ministry.” You may be tempted to blame it all on the shallow, self-centered, consumer mindset of American Christians—and, sure, there’s a lot of that. Be that as it may, let’s check out some of the reasons why the Jones family might just up and leave your church next week, and what you can do about it.
Top Five Reasons Someone Might Leave Your Church
- People will leave your church if they experience a personality clash. This is a big one. A few people in the church squabble, and before you know it, someone’s hit the door. It happens way too often for it to be funny. What’s really sad, though, is that this bickering often happens with the pastor. Pastors are not immune to having an overbearing personality, a prickly demeanor, and a short fuse. A LifeWay research reported that three of the top ten reasons that people left church had to do with deficiencies in the pastor (1) poor preaching, 2) judgmental, 3) hypocritical). Overseers are required to be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable,…not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome.” Some pastors delight in being fierce, hot-tempered, sharp-tongued, and aggressive, but such things are in direct contradiction to the Bible. It may be that a controlling, domineering, ugly pastor is inspiring the exodus from the church. (Warning: prepare for a church split. Pastor, update your resume.)
- People will leave your church if your church refuses to adapt to change. Some churches are known for their staunch resistance to change of any kind. They would prefer to abide by their non-biblical traditions rather than biblically adapt to a changing world. You’ve probably heard the little rhyme, “Methods are many; principles are few. Principles never change; methods always do.” It’s that way with churches. The foundational truth of God’s Word never changes. The way that God’s Word is applied and lived out does change, which is why very few American Christians greet each other with holy kisses. If your church has determined to “stand unchanged!” don’t be surprised if a few people start doing Google searches for other churches in the area.
- People will leave your church if there is too much unexplained change. Change is good, but when changes are coming fast and furious, people will start getting disillusioned and pack up. If you’re going to make a big change, such as dropping a church activity or replacing the hymnals, do so carefully and intentionally. Explain what you’re doing. People don’t like having their boats rocked, especially when “we’ve always done it this way!” The fact that they’ve “always done it this way” is really another way of saying that they “don’t ever want it to change.” For that reason, any changes you make should be biblical, intentional, and careful.
- People will leave your church if they do not feel accepted. If you’ve ever been snubbed by a clique, you’ll understand this one right away. Is the church really just a country club with due-paying members, a tight-knit in-crowd, and an exclusive attitude toward outsiders? That’s exactly what the church is not supposed to be! Churches, as Christ’s body, are to be accepting of all people. I, for one, am very glad that Christ accepted me as I was—a filthy, dirty, abhorrent sinner. It’s unfortunate when churches cannot bring themselves to accept people like Jesus accepts people. A church would probably never actually come right out and say, “Hi. You’re not like us, so you need to leave.” But all those looks, the awkward avoiding of conversation, and the empty seats next to that odd guy tell the whole story. If a person doesn’t feel accepted, he’s outta there!
- People will leave your church if they are not having their needs met. This whole “needs met” thing gets a bit fuzzy. What are that person’s needs? Does he “need” the church to pay his rent for that month, or does she “need” more free daycare for her kids, or do they “need” a teen program with more pizza, paint-balling, and Six Flags? The term “needs” is so slippery that it’s almost impossible to use it as a valid reason for leaving the church. However, we need to take a look at this. People come to church for a variety of reasons, but every person has the same sinful, needy heart. People need Jesus. That’s the bottom line. If your church is focused on more programs, bigger numbers, more self-help sermons, and that all-consuming Building Program, there may be a good chance that people are being neglected. There may be a good chance that Jesus is being marginalized. And He’s the one that people really need.
There’s an important point to remember in all of this. Just because someone leaves your church doesn’t mean that you’ve failed them or have done something wrong. In fact, that person’s departure could be a good thing for the health of your church (and your peace of mind). Don’t beat yourself up over it. People leave for all kinds of reasons—some good, some bad.
What Can You Do about It?
So, what should you do when people leave your church? Here are a few suggestions:
- Find out why they left. Give them a call. Be polite. Don’t argue with them. People have a right to leave your church, and they have a right to be private about their reasons. Don’t be nosy. Some churches call these conversations “exit interviews” which sounds a shade too businesslike to me. A simple conversation might start like this.
Hey, John, this is Pastor Joe. I’ve noticed that you haven’t been at church for the past six weeks. We’ve missed seeing you around, and I wanted to just find out how you were doing, and see if there is any way we can help.
- Love people, accept people, and disciple them. A lot of churches get all worked up about “membership retention,” and “finding out what the felt needs are,” and “making sure we’re being relevant.” That’s all fine and good, but it kind of misses the point. A church isn’t a business with a customer base and marketing tactics. A church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12), an organic community of believers. The role of the church in people’s life is pretty simple: Accept people (Romans 14:1), love one another (John 13:34-35), and disciple them (Matthew 28:18-20).
- Don’t sweat it. If someone leaves your church, don’t go ballistic. Don’t resign. Don’t go into hiding. There are three things that you can do 1) Learn from it. 2) Get over it. 3) Rejoice over it.