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.
12 thoughts on “Leaving the Church? Discover Why Some Are and How We Can Fix This”
Thanks for sharing your journey, Jed. To me, your advice is a call for compassion, something our world desperately needs. <3
A call for increased compassion & empathy was what I was hoping for. I still feel a whirlwind of emotions when I write about this–including anger, sadness, & frustration. Yet, even with all of these feelings, I love the church & see such potential for our congregations to become helpful, compassionate, places of healing. It’s nice to know that this article is coming across as I hoped it would. Thank you for the great feedback 🙂
I think one of the many reasons folks are leaving the church is that the Christian religion is un willing to bring itself into the 21st century. Many of us know how the Bible has been used and interpreted to benefit a few at the detriment of the many. Christians, must admit to the killings, wars, suppression of individual rights in the name of our lord Jesus Christ and God throughout the history of mankind. Christians, must come to grips with the fact that the Bible is in fact a fictional account of the history, Jesus and God. The bible, is in fact, a means of providing a moral foundation for civilized society. Unfortunately, the Good Book continues to be used to provide financial wealth to a few. To justify wars around the world. To suppress the advancement of mankind.
I think if Jesus were to return he would indeed be quite disappointed in the way organized religion and religious leaders has garnered so much financial wealth, while so many of his children still suffer. So many leaders say they are Christian, but there actions are not what Jesus preached. Christianity has always been used to control people. That is not what Jesus wanted, in my opinion.
Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to comment. You bring up a good point. There are many different ways that Scripture can abused. I’ve met many pastors and church leaders who have a servant’s heart. They are truly compassionate about the people in their congregation. But just like other organizations, there are those who are:
– Burned out
– Sincere but miss-guided
– And those who simply should not be in leadership at all
I do think part of the problem is that people do sometimes attend church a little naive, in that they assume the church leadership is correct. I know this was part of my issue as well. I had to learn to hear what was said, then take it and examine it more closely myself to see if it really was wise advice.
That’s actually why I named this site, “Coffee Shop Conversations.” I wanted to create a format where ideas were evaluated and discussed. So a huge thank you for joining in our conversation 🙂
Nicely said, Jed! I appreciate reading your perspective. Though you don’t use these words, it seems that some people leave because the church doesn’t seem relevant to their needs. You write that the church needs to listen to the “felt” needs of attenders. The church also needs to find ways to address these needs in caring ways and not pious platitudes.
That’s exactly what I was trying to say–only much more succinct. Thank you for helping me clarify my own thoughts 🙂
I’ve walked out of a few churches because I didn’t find Jesus there. The churches actually seemed like places that Jesus wouldn’t be welcomed.
Jesus foresaw a time when a He’d not be welcomed in His church. There’s a prophecy in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus described Himself standing outside His church, knocking.
If people find Jesus at church, I think most stay. Those who leave, do so because there is too much love–just like you said.
Jesus mingled with people and had a sincere interest in their wellbeing.
Jesus showed sympathy for people, and even included the poor, sick and social outcasts in His circle of friends.
Jesus cared for people’s physical, mental and spiritual health.
By doing these things, Jesus earned people’s trust–they wanted to be with Him.
I’ve wondered if I should have stayed in the churches where I didn’t see Jesus. But, there wasn’t a core group of people who could positively influence the church, and encourage each other. I don’t think it would have worked out.
But in churches where we find other Jesus-followers, we need to work together to help each other love more like Jesus in our words and actions.
Well said Jon.
I was talking with a friend about how it can be dangerous to be a seasoned Christ-follower, because after some time, it’s easy to forget about our our own brokenness, and fall into that trap of self-righteousness. Churches can become places of rules and pride, if were not careful… and I can become enamored by rules and pride if I’m not careful.
I absolutely love your suggestion of surrounding ourselves with a solid group of friends who support us in staying compassionate. Thank you for being one of these friends in my life. The conversations I have with you, Erik, and others on this site, continually remind me of the value of kindness for others.
The statistic you shared at the beginning of the post is quite alarming. I’ve heard it before, but it’s always shocking.
I think there are a large number of reasons why so many people leave the church. Your reason is one I haven’t heard discussed, so it was useful to get an additional perspective. Thanks for sharing!
Yes, the statistics are shocking. I think your right, there are many different reasons that people slip away from church. Hopefully, we can decrease these statistics and decrease the reasons people are leaving, in the future 🙂 Thanks for the words of encouragement, and for joining in the conversation. Wishing you a very happy New Year!
Romans 12:15 you nailed it! At least for me. I know you know I’m one who has walked away from the church due to my recent post on this. I’m trying to go back. You wrote this so honestly and such truth in it. I wish I could shout it out on the pulpit of many churches today. Grace, they talk about it, but it isn’t lived out. So with that said, this is what I needed to read on this Sunday.
I enjoy the great blog posts here and the open and honest dialogue. I think your comments about what causes some of us to leave churches are pretty accurate. We have left several churches in the course of our marriage and lifetime. We were committed and connected to each church we were a part of for quite a few years. This most recent one was 21 years. Some of the things that caused us to leave and look for a new church included: 1) lack of relationships; 2) lack of consistent biblical teaching; 3) lack of exciting dynamic youth or kids programs; 4) lack of accountability on the part of leadership as well as an attitude that was hierarchal. I could likely add others, but those were key.