Are you considering leaving the church? I hope not. Yet, many people are. According to a survey by LifeWay, “Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.”
A few months ago, I participated in an on-line discussion about this topic. If you have read my book, Coffee Shop Conversations, you know I contributed to this static. I was a hurting, Christ-followers who snuck out the back door of the church and checked-out for nearly a year.
Conversations on Leaving the Church
There were some definite reasons for my leaving, so when I stumbled across the on-line conversation, my interest was piqued. Theories about why Christians are leaving church varied greatly and include ideas like:
- People don’t appreciate solid Bible teaching.
- Churchgoers are enamored with sin.
- People just can’t handle the truth.
- Today’s youth only want to be entertained.
What’s interesting is that none of these reasons applied to me. Nor do they apply to friends I know who are leaving the church behind.
A few days ago, my mind wandered to ways to contribute to this conversation.
My goals in writing this post are as follows:
- First, I want to graciously raise awareness about problems that cause passionate Christ-followers to “slip out the back-door of our churches.”
- A second goal is to provide practical solutions for each concern.
- Thirdly I want to open a forum for ongoing conversation.
The central goal of this post is to stir-up conversations that lead to Christ-honoring change. After all, if we don’t talk about why Christ-followers are leaving the church, they will just keep leaving.
Why are Christians leaving the Church?
Sadly, Christians are leaving the church because they don’t feel understood.
There are many reasons why people stop attending church. I won’t pretend to understand them all. However, I can speak from my personal experience. I left due to a lack of empathy among the leadership. The abbreviated version of my story is as follows:
Ten years ago, I got married. The relationship was a slow-motion train-wreck that ended in divorce. Two months into the union, my new wife stated, “We need to get a divorce.” She insisted that I wanted this. Although I desired nothing of the sorts, she was convinced I did and spent the next hour trying to convince me of this.
The woman I had pledged my heart to struggled with bouts of depression. This was followed by a suicide attempt and increasingly common episodes of violent outbursts. The result was a relationship filled with ongoing chaos. Sadly, the most often-received advice from church leaders was, “God hates divorce.” A quote from Malachi 2:16.
Leaving the Church Over Shame
A favorite professor at SCS suggests that leaders would be wise to quote this passage sparingly. “Most people in a marriage crisis don’t want a divorce. They want the pain to stop,” he would say. This quote stuck with me because it is exactly what I was looking for. I was crying out, “Someone, please help me figure out how to make this pain stop!” Yet, the message I received from the church was, “You better find a way to fix things because God doesn’t like the way your relationship is headed.” Nevertheless, deep wounds in a spouse are beyond any husband’s or wife’s ability to fix. It really does take the collaboration of two people to make a relationship work. Thus, the advice I received only added to my frustrations.
One of the greatest human needs is to feel understood. What I needed most was a group of compassionate individuals to take this confusing and painful journey with me. What I received was an extra dose of guilt. I would enter church feeling bad and leave feeling worse. Leaders were great at pointing out what needed fixing–something overwhelmingly obvious–yet, practical solutions, as well as empathy and compassion, were lacking. Today I wonder, What if these men and women had rallied in support of stopping the pain? If this had been the case, I would have attended church at every opportunity. The relationship may not have been healed, but I would have felt cared for on this painful road. I didn’t leave the church because I needed others to resolve my problems. I left because I needed to feel cared for and understood.
Romans 12:15 exhorts Christ-followers to “Mourn with those who mourn.” This is an awesome picture of empathy in action. John 1:14 describes how Jesus came full of grace and truth. When congregations are heavy on truth and light on grace, people exit in droves. Rarely will anyone leave the church due to feeling overwhelmed by grace.
How We Can “Close the Back Door.”
How do we solve the problem of people leaving the church because they don’t feel understood? Here are seven simple strategies:
- Listen first.
- Ask questions that draw-out the other person’s perspective.
- Seek to understand.
- Brainstorm options. Choices are empowering, and there are usually many, God-honoring solutions available.
- Gently provide grace-filled advice.
- Offer high-quality resources and referrals for additional support.
- Finally, patiently walk with them on their journey.
Overwhelming problems don’t build up overnight, and they don’t resolve quickly either. If your church is going to error on the side of too much truth or too much grace, go for the grace. When the world says, “I’m leaving the church because the love is overwhelming,” we are headed in the right direction.
Continue the Conversation on Leaving the Church
Although there is much more that could be said, I would like to hear from you.
- Have you ever considered leaving the church, and if so, why?
- Do you agree that one way churches can “close their back door” is with grace and understanding?
- Finally, do you think I am off-track? Having a variety of viewpoints keeps the conversation interesting, so feel free to share this too.
- Are there other reasons Christians are leaving the church? If so, what are they?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on why Christians are leaving the church.
P.S. My painful journey does indeed end on a happy note. Ten years later, I am aware of how God used my painful past for my good and His glory. Although this is not the direction that I expected my life to take, it is good, and I am grateful for it. You can read more in my post entitled: Why I’m Grateful for my Stormy, Chaotic, Windy Road. Today, I am remarried, and our blended family attends a compassionate, grace-filled church. My hope is that by openly discussing some of the challenges our churches, you and I can team-up to be a part of the solution.