Why Do People Leave Church?

After 30 plus years in full time ministry it is difficult for someone like me to not be personally offended at those who come into the fellowship of the body of Christ and then, for whatever reasons, decide to drop out. Amazingly, those often given the most attention and fussed over to a fault are the ones who might drop out faster than others.

Then there are those who come into Christ and the personality of some little congregation and somehow seem to hit the deck running. One young man who had been addicted to drugs came into the church after his conversion and couldn’t wait to share his new found faith with friends. He became one of our most successful soul winners.

There is a plethora (don’t you just love that word?) of reasons for the dropouts of the church and society. Most of these reasons are merely excuses. Having heard most of the illogical and rationale offered for why folk leave the church, I have developed some insights that might be helpful. Jesus asked some people to follow him and they at once began to make excuse. One had to go see a field he had already bought. He should have looked it over before the purchase. Another had to try out a team of oxen he had acquired. And one had to go bury his father. Can you imagine someone saying to the Lord of Lords, “Sorry, Pal, but I have funereal plans that are more important than eternal ones?”

The Excuse of Others
Often people don’t stay with the church because they find offenses in others. They come to the church with the mistaken notion that it is a provider of entitlements. They shop for church as they do for fast food. They want a little McChurch and might even suffer a few McSermons on Sunday. But don’t ask them for any McService or involvement. They came asking a myriad of questions. “Do you have a youth minister who can play with the kids? Do you have an attended nursery so we don’t have to be bothered with the baby? Do you have an aerobics class and free counseling?” McShame! You see; they came not seeking salvation, but membership in a club. They want all the perks of body life but are unwilling to extend themselves in providing the same thing for others. They are takers, not seekers. When they don’t find their felt needs, every one of them, met by the church staff and members, they drop out. Actually, they were never in the body in the first place. Like the little girl who fell out of her grandma’s feather bed, when asked what happened replied, “I guess I stayed to close to where I got in.” Ouch!

The Excuse of Time
Many have said to me after leaving the church that they just didn’t have enough time in their schedules to be active members of the body of Christ. Some houses are run like Grand Central Station where family members drop in to refuel and then are out again to do whatever it is that fills their lives. They have bridge club, and the spa, and tennis lessons, and tap lessons, and track meets, and seminars, and a 300-column newspaper to read, plus three hours on the computer, and four in front of the TV, ad nauseam. So many of us have lives so full we hardly have time to pillow our heads and rest. No wonder families are falling apart. Without time for spiritual and emotional renewal, it’s a wonder folk this busy even had time to think of church and eternity.

The Excuse of Boredom
Now I have to give it to the ones who come up with this reason for dropping out. God has not given us the inalienable right to bore each other in the name of Jesus. Gatherings of disciples should be the highlights of our week. Too many lessons are dry and ineffectual. This is a fact. Classes should be led by teachers who know the book and live it. Sermons should be dynamic and make us feel like walking closer to the Master after we hear them. They should also challenge us to reach down into ourselves and come up with the wherewithal to let our faith be felt wherever we go.

Someone recently told me he had quit attending because the class was boring. I told him the class wasn’t presented for his entertainment and that if it was boring it was his responsibility to help make it interesting. By the way, the high critic had never volunteered to teach a class in his life of 40 years as a Christian. If we approach church as some institution to meet all our felt needs and to serve us instead of us being body members who are active and eager to serve others, it’s a wonder we would hang around at all.

The Excuse of Weakness
Like an automobile that needs some mechanical attention, people will sputter and quit now and then before they stop altogether. Recently a new brother in Christ confided in me that the reason he was starting to miss assemblies was because he was just too weak to walk the walk. I told him that he was a prime candidate to keep on keeping on and to stay with it. He said he was unable to overcome the sin in his life. I asked him if he actually wanted to walk with Jesus and overcome his demons. He said he did. So I reasoned that if he would keep with it and keep praying and trying, the Lord would eventually empower him in the Holy Spirit to overcome the evil one in his life. The very reason for dropping out is one of the greatest for staying in.

The Excuse of Family
Sally was her name. She came to church with her two children who were pre-schoolers. With a vivacious presence she jumped into the programs available, not to be served, but to participate in them. She even volunteered to teach a Sunday School class. This is the kind of new member that ministers just adore. They seem to have that drive that makes them low maintenance. Within six months Sally was starting to miss services. When approached, it all came down to her husband’s inability to encourage her. He even made fun of her eagerness to be a “goodie two shoes.” She was finally beaten down to the point where she just wanted to give up.

Perhaps more than anyone people whose families are not supportive may have the most understandable cause for burnout. With much love and encouragement Sally was able to recommit herself to Jesus and eventually won her husband to Christ.

The Excuse of God
“Where was God when my son died?” the sobbing man asked with tears running down his heavy cheeks. Standing beside the casket of his teen-age boy, the thoughtful preacher answered, “John, he was right where he was when His Son died.” Perhaps it is understandable why people will shake their fists in the face of God and presume to accuse him of malfeasance. “If I were God I would not let babies be born deformed. If I were God I would not allow suffering in the world. If I were God I would not let wars and famine and earthquakes occur.” But we aren’t God, are we? Actually, the problem of pain is only a hurdle for believers. Atheists don’t have one moment to quarrel with the Almighty because they think this is all one big bang of an accident in the first place. And maybe it did begin with a bang, but God was the one who lit that firecracker.

Human suffering is the hardest obstacle to overcome in the minds of many. Much suffering is brought upon ourselves by our own behavior, or those around us. We do suffer the consequences of the evil that surrounds us. But not all pain is self-induced. And this is where those with skeptical minds feed their misgivings. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Famines. Floods. These natural disasters we flippantly refer to as “acts of God.” Though we don’t have all the answers for why people suffer, perhaps the sacred hymn provides some solace: “We’ll understand it better by and by.”

The Hedonistic Excuse
One thing that makes me smile and weep at the same time is the idea that we are here to grab for all the gusto we can get. We want a Michelob weekend and all the trimmings and we want it right now. Some of us are an impatient lot as we feel the constant urge to experience every known sensation a body can have. I’ve had people tell me that life had too much fun to offer and that church restrained them from that. Well, I think church can be fun, but many of us church folk have missed the point of “church” in the first place. Our assemblies were for us and not for sad, pious, pursed lips and frowns on our faces. The writer of Hebrews tells us that our gatherings are to provoke one another to love and good works. We do a lot of provoking, but not the right kind.

As I try to end this rambling rhetoric, maybe I can at least give a solution for one of the excuses bandied about. If we did our assemblies as they perhaps should be done, sort of like they were done when Christians met in houses, maybe we would not have so many sad faces and people enjoying TV more than Christian fellowship. We have borrowed from church tradition and lined up our pews to face some performers, or at least those who can maintain our attention. And there is good reasoning for this, I know. Do we arrange our chairs and sofas at home so that we have to look at the back of each others’ heads? Of course not. If I had my way, our pews would be arranged in a way where we could see each other and interact with each other. Most of us aren’t into the performing arts. We aren’t all high profile disciples. But we might have something valuable to contribute.

An Inward Look
Without going into more detail, let me just say that our assemblies ought to be fun. They ought to be more fun than getting drunk, and committing adultery, and stripping at the beach, and attempting to grab for all the gusto we can get crammed into one lifetime. Church is people. Church is the body of Christ, with active and vibrant members. It’s truly a family affair. When we allow “Ecclesiastical George” to do all the work and have all the fun, we miss out big time. Let’s not buy the devil’s lie that church can’t be fun. Let’s make it fun. For everything we do when we are together that goads us to love and good deeds is just the ticket for why we meet together in Jesus’ name.

Demographic studies have revealed that if new members in a church do not “connect” with at least three others that befriend them and help disciple them, they will drop out within six months. This perhaps explains why so many choose to leave the church. “Discipling” is not always easy. Jesus said to make disciples, baptize them, and then disciple them some more. If a baby is left to fend for himself he will die. Spiritual babies also need tender loving care and guidance. This is the heart of discipling. We don’t like to admit it because it puts the onus on us, the rank and file of the congregation. So, instead of writing people off as merely weak and disinterested, perhaps we had better take another look at how we welcome and assimilate new faces that come in among us.